Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Harambee by Rita Marley for Kwanzaa—The Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival 2022-‘23

                                            Kwanzaa song Harambee by Rita Marley.

Today is the second day of Kwanzaa which was created in 1966 during the blossoming of a period of Black Nationalism by Maulana Karenga, a Black studies scholar and a leading Los Angeles militant who was born Ron Everett in Parsonsburg, Maryland on July 14,1941

Beginning on December 26 and running through January 1, candles are lit representing African values.  Each of the values is given a Swahili name.  Today is day two— Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): “To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.”

Kwanzaa was meant to be a family centered celebration of African culture and values but father figures in private and men in public celebrations dominated the lessons.  Black women are  now more assertive in claiming a central place in the rituals.

Karenga was a graduate student in 1965 and already a veteran of several civil rights organizations when he became influenced by Malcom X in developing African-American unity, cultural pride, and a separatist militancy.  He was involved in many activities and organizations and was regarded as a rising intellectual leader.

Kwanzaa was designed in instill those values in a community he feared was still too dominated by “alienwhite ideology and religion.  It was to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” The name is derived from the Swahili for first fruit celebration, matunda ya kwanza.

Karenga used Swahili as the ritual language of its operations because it is a pan-African language, the most widely spoken of Sub-Saharan African tongues.  But it is an East African language as are the customs on which the celebration was based.  The vast majority of African-Americans trace their lineage to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and West Africa, very culturally and linguistically distinct from the east.  Critics in the Black community charged that he could have taken inspiration from instead from the West African empires and kingdoms.  But Karenga was a student of Swahili and the east, and not of the slave trade or origins of his own people.

The celebration, centered around lighting candles in the home over seven days, obviously is borrowed from Jewish Chanukah traditions, but Karenga has barely acknowledged that obvious parallel.

Karenga at first frankly hoped that his new celebration would supplant Christmas and New Years, both in his opinion instruments of White oppression.  But the deep connection of the Black community to the Church and to its celebrations stood in the way of the spread of his new observance.  Also, his allies in nationalism among Muslims, both followers of Malcom X’s traditional Islam and the Nation of Islamthe Black Muslims—also objected to Karenga’s non-theism and hostility to religion.

After 1970 Karenga changed his tune and now emphasizes that it is a secular observation that does not conflict with or contradict religious celebrations.  “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday,” he wrote in 1994.

With that adaptation, Kwanzaa began to spread rapidly.  It was easy for families to adopt for private observation.  Most of those families also have a Christmas tree in the corner.  Public observations came to include many at major Black Churches.

Kwanza candles and associated symbols and books.

Candles are lit every night for the seven values.  Materials are available for study and reflection.  Songs and poems have been written.  The values are:

·       Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

·       Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

·       Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.

·       Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

·       Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

·       Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

·       Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

The final night concludes with a feast and gift giving.

The spread of the observance was aided, ironically, in no small part to the attention given it in the mainstream, white dominated media, especially local television news coverage in major urban centers.  The attention always made the celebration seem much more pervasive than it ever was.

                                                Kwanza candles and associated symbols and books.

Karenga himself became a controversial and polarizing figure among Black militants and nationalists.  The group that he founded in 1965 and led—US / Organization became a bitter rival to the Black Panther Party for leadership and influence in the West Coast African-American community.  That rivalry escalated into several episodes of violence including shootings, bombings, attacks on rival meetings and at least four murders.

In 1971 Karenga was convicted of kidnapping and sexually torturing Deborah Jones and Gail Davis.  Karenga’s estranged wife, Brenda Lorraine Karenga, testified that she had participated in the abuse.  Karenga claimed that the women were plotting against him and were part of the FBI COINTELPRO harassment that sought to stoke divisions in the Black community.  He denied claims of abuse.

He was sentenced to ten years in prison and held at the California Mens Colony until he was released with the support of high profile Black state politicians and office holders.  While he was in prison his organization fell apart and the reputation of Kwanzaa was damaged.  Karenga seldom speaks about the conviction, except to note that he was once a political prisoner.  The episode is left out of his autobiography and on the Kwanzaa web page.

                                                    Kwanzaa founder Dr. Maulana Karenga in a recent photo.

Upon being released, Karenga devoted himself to an organization promoting Kwanzaa.  He finished one PhD. at United States International University (now Alliant International University) and a second at UCLA.  He is now the Chair of the Africana Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach, the Director of the Kawaida Institute for Pan African Studies, and the author of several books.

Despite its ups and downs, Kwanzaa remains meaningful and is an inspiration for many in the Black Community.  Several songs have been written for Kwanzaa, many of them for children to teach them the Seven Values represented by the candles. 

Like Hanukkah, the Jewish tradition Kwanzaa was obviously modeled on, the daily rituals were designed to be performed at home but frequently they include public events held in houses of worship, schools, and cultural centers like this one in Chicago..

Today, however, we are sharing a song by Rita Marley, the widow and musical heir of Bob Marley the reggae superstar, Jamaican nationalist, and Rastafari saint.  Cuban-born Alpharita Constantia Anderson was a back-up singer for Marley after two original members of the Wailers left the band under the name I Three.  After Marley’s death she launched her own career and worked tirelessly to preserve his memory.   Four of her children including Ziggy Marley have had significant musical careers of their own.

Rita Marley.

Rita’s 1984 song Harambee (working together for Freedom) has long been associated with Kwanzaa,                   


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