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Fighting for Us
Maulana Karenga, the US Organization, and 
Black Cultural Nationalism 

SCOTT BROWN / Book Review by Marcus Reeves / SF Chronicle 3aug03

Fighting for Us
Maulana Karenga, the US Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism

Scot Brown, foreword by Clayborne Carson
ISBN 0814798772
224 pages, Cloth
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS; 228 PAGES; $26.95

Of all the vanguard organizations of the late '60s black power movement, the cultural nationalist group US has received the short end of history. That's because for 34 years, history has mostly played up an infamous chapter: a 1969 shoot-out on the campus of UCLA between US members and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. In the end, Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, two Black Panthers, were shot dead. And fate, along with a Panther-sympathetic public and a plethora of books on the Panthers, would cast US in suspicion and infamy, canceling out any serious recognition of its contributions to black power politics. Since UCLA is where US's image is frozen in ill repute, it is ironic that the school would also yield a groundbreaking and redemptive look at the organization with Scot Brown's "Fighting for Us." Brown, an assistant professor of history at UCLA, has written the first book exploring the turbulent history of US and the unique impact it had on an era.

Ron Karenga founded US in 1965

Ron Karenga founded US in 1965

Founded in 1965 by Ron Karenga, US emerged in Southern California shortly after Watts exploded into a riot and Malcolm X was assassinated. As nationalist sentiment grew among African American organizations because of the impact of Malcolm X, US established itself as a cultural nationalist group. It called for racial unity and for black people to free themselves from white oppression by embracing a "recovered" African culture.

For US, that meant Kawaida, a quasi-religious system of beliefs and rituals advocating black pride, unity, culture and self-defense. Upon becoming a member or "advocate" of US, a person was given a Swahili name, urged to wear African clothing and immersed in the group's complex doctrine, practices and organizational hierarchy.

Karenga, a budding scholar of African studies who was fluent in Swahili, constructed Kawaida, says Brown, by adapting rituals and beliefs -- primarily from the Zulus of South Africa -- to the organization's own rituals, beliefs and holidays. Kwanzaa, a holiday created by US in 1966, is now observed by millions of African Americans.

Brown's portrait is historically sharp and honest. He includes a discussion of the damaging effects of sexism and of Karenga's cult of personality.

Brown's research is also sensitive to misconceptions that have plagued US' past, such as the name standing for "United Slaves." The name, Brown says, simply "stands for Black People: the pronoun 'US' as opposed to 'them,' the white oppressors."

Brown's study of US emerges as a keen observation of how a relatively small group became a central force in a mass movement through its ideological influence. "The group's approach to organizing," Brown writes, "which resisted mass recruitment into its ranks . . . saw no need for a large membership. Their goal was to ideologically influence other organizations with its united- front approach, and thus direct the course of the coming 'cultural revolution. ' " Brown illustrates this best in the section "The New Ark Laboratory," in which he cites US' alliance with writer-activist Amiri Baraka and several organizations in Newark, N.J., which not only helped elect the city's first black mayor but also turned Newark into a stronghold for the Kawaida doctrine when US fell into decline in the early '70s.

Brown is equally attentive to the stumbling blocks faced by US. For instance, the section "Operational Unity and the US-Panther Conflict" gives a dynamic history of the escalating tensions between US and the Black Panther Party, as well as Karenga's political missteps that jeopardized US' anti- establishment credibility. Although philosophical differences were the primary source of the US-Panther discord, Brown refers to a 1968 article that stated that Karenga secretly met with police as well as California Gov. Ronald Reagan after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination and that those meetings increased the tension.

Brown's most revelatory work is on the effect the UCLA murders of Carter and Huggins had on US. Afterward, Brown says, "a taxing combination of the threat of retaliation from the Black Panther Party alongside police and FBI surveillance, disruption and attacks" marked the group's decline as it descended into paranoia and militarization. But the murders, Brown says, would also place US at a historical disadvantage as US never gained mass popularity through "social service efforts, activism or effective use of American mass media" as did the Panthers.

"US did not pursue the kinds of activities that helped the Panthers become a popular icon of black resistance," writes Brown. Without broad support, the story of the black power movement would overwhelmingly be told from a Panther perspective with books such as Huey Newton's "Revolutionary Suicide" and Bobby Seale's "Seize the Time." As a result, Brown writes, this would generate a "barrage of anti-US allegations and mischaracterizations" in the years following the movement.

Ultimately, Brown's exploration of US does a tremendous job of challenging those misconceptions. But more important, it gives the organization its rightful place in the expanding story of black people's quest for power in America.

Marcus Reeves is the publisher of TellSpin, a Brooklyn literary magazine. He is working on a book of essays about hip-hop music.


Fighting for Us:
Maulana Karenga, the US Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism

Scot Brown, foreword by Clayborne Carson
ISBN 0814798772
224 pages Cloth Publication date:

In spite of the ever-growing popularity of Kwanzaa, the story of the influential Black nationalist organization behind the holiday has never been told. Fighting for Us explores the fascinating history of the Us Organization, a Black nationalist group based in California that played a leading role in Black Power politics and culture during the late 1960s and early '70s whose influence is still felt today. Advocates of Afrocentric renewal, Us unleashed creative and intellectual passions that continue to fuel debate and controversy among scholars and students of the Black Power movement.

Founded in 1965 by Maulana Karenga, Us established an extensive network of alliances with a diverse body of activists, artists and organizations throughout the United States for the purpose of bringing about an African American cultural revolution. Fighting for Us presents the first historical examination of Us' philosophy, internal dynamics, political activism and influence on African American art, making an elaborate use of oral history interviews, organizational archives, Federal Bureau of Investigation files, newspaper accounts, and other primary sources of the period.

This book also sheds light on factors contributing to the organization's decline in the early '70s—government repression, authoritarianism, sexism, and elitist vanguard politics. Previous scholarship about Us has been shaped by a war of words associated with a feud between Us and the Black Panther Party that gave way to a series of violent and deadly clashes in Los Angeles. Venturing beyond the lingering rhetoric of rivalry, this book illuminates the ideological similarities and differences between Us's "cultural" nationalism and the Black Panther Party's "revolutionary" nationalism. Today, Us's emphasis on culture has endured as evidenced by the popularity of Kwanzaa and the Afrocentrism in Black art and popular media. Engaging and original, Fighting for Us will be the definitive work on Maulana Karenga, the Us organization, and Black cultural nationalism in America.

Scot Brown is Assistant Professor of History at UCLA. His writings on African American resistance, social movements, and cultural nationalism have appeared in the Black Scholar, American National Biography, Journal of Black Studies, Journal of Negro History and Contributions in Black Studies.

source: http://www.nyupress.org/product_info.php?products_id=3256 3aug03

INTRODUCTION

The history of the cultural nationalist organization called “US,” founded by Maulana Karenga and a handful of others in 1965, is, for most students of Black nationalism, an untold story. The Southern California–based organization experienced a high point in its activism during a great resurgence in African American nationalism, popularly known as the Black Power movement, roughly from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. During these years, US, a relatively small group, established an impressive network of alliances in the Midwest, in the South, and on the East Coast. As a result, US’s brand of cultural nationalism influenced a diverse body of activists, artists, and organizations throughout the United States. As the 1960s unfolded, many California-based radical organizations asserted themselves, in an unprecedented manner, in national politics and American cultural life in the form of the Black Panther Party, Students for a Democratic Society, the Peace and Freedom Party, and a host of others. US, in keeping with this trend, rapidly developed a national audience and constituency.

US’s story, mirroring the wider Black Power movement, traveled a course shaped by an array of historical factors, including the anticolonial struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the Vietnam War, and state repression via Federal Bureau of Investigation counterintelligence operations. Internal organizational matters, such as the cult of personality, authoritarianism, alternative lifestyles, gender stratification, and vanguard self-perceptions were also driving forces in the organization’s plight. Other contextual factors contributing to the makeup of US appear in Karenga’s own cultural nationalist theories, inspired by Negritude, African nationalism, the Third World neutralism (or what would become the “non-aligned” movement), and African Studies as an academic discipline in the United States.

The rhetorical stress on racial solidarity, popularized during the era of Black Power, masked underlying tensions and intergroup rivalries that persisted throughout the late 1960s. An intense and bitter feud between US and the Black Panther Party degenerated into violent warfare in Southern California from the beginning of 1969 through 1970. Indeed, this sectarian struggle made lasting impressions on historical commentary and autobiographies written by veteran Black Panther activists. The repeated usage of the term “united slaves,” as a reference for the US Organization, is perhaps the best example of the lasting consequences of the US/Panther conflict.1 The name “US” actually stands for Black people: the pronoun “US” as opposed to “them,” the White oppressors. As an article in the journal Black Dialogue in 1966 stated, “US means exactly that—all of US (black folks).”2 During the late 1960s, some of US’s rivals and opponents used the term “united slaves” to ridicule the group. This slur has been given, unwittingly, scholarly credence in several works on the Black Power movement, in spite of the fact that there are no documents or recorded speeches in which Karenga or any US members refer to their organization as such.

A series of other writings that mention US have restated, uncritically, the Black Panther Party’s allegations, made during the heat of battle, that the US Organization was a collaborator with the United States government for the purpose of bringing about the Black Panther Party’s demise.3 US leaders also accused the Black Panther Party of working with the Los Angeles Police Department in a strategy to neutralize their organization. US’s perspective, in any case, did not have a comparable impact on scholarly or anecdotal interpretations of the Black Panther Party’s historical legacy. Chapter 5 of this study, examining the nuances of the ideological and “turf” struggle between US and the Panthers, attempts to move the discussion past the limitations of simple accusation and vilification by focusing on the dynamic and complex relationship between these groups.

This book is part of a growing historical literature on the Black Power movement and its activist organizations.4 The coming dialogue and debate about US’s story, and other Black radical formations of the 1960s and 1970s, should inform a wider synthesis and understanding of the Black Power movement’s place in African American history. Komozi Woodard’s A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) & Black Power Politics maintains that independent politics and the goal of nationality formation were key developments in Black Power–era cultural nationalism.

A centerpiece in this process was the launching, in Woodard’s term, of the Modern Black Convention Movement—the 1966, 1967, and 1968 Black Power conferences, the 1970 and 1972 Congress of African People conventions, the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, and a series of other major Black political gatherings. Woodard sheds important light on the period from 1969 through 1974 in which Amiri Baraka, the Committee for a Unified Newark (CFUN), and the Congress of African People (CAP) peaked in the leadership of Black cultural nationalist politics. CAP and CFUN applied US’s blueprint for political power and succeeded in bringing about bold new levels of mass participation in electoral politics and grassroots community organizing. From 1966 through 1968, US led the initiating phase of the Modern Convention Movement, playing a leadership role, along with Newark’s Rev. Nathan Wright Jr. and others, in the planning of the 1967 and 1968 Black Power conferences.

Baraka, a close ally of Karenga in the late 1960s and early 1970s, found the tools for building a mass movement in US’s organizational structure and ideology. Baraka and affiliated cultural nationalists peaked during a time when US’s activism was thwarted, from 1969 to the mid-1970s, by conflict with the Black Panther Party and internal divisions.

How US, a relatively small, disciplined, self-declared vanguard group based on the West Coast, became the central force behind an expansive cultural nationalist movement is the story of a single organization’s dynamic relationship to wider networks of groups that comprised a social movement. The relationship between group size and overall influence is especially important for the era of Black Power, given its occurrence at a time when radical organizations had gained increased access to American mass media. These developments in the 1960s made it possible for small locally based, largely unknown groups like US and the Black Panther Party to acquire a swift entrée to national audiences and constituency. In the case of US, the group’s extensive impact was dramatically disproportionate to its size—at its height US probably did not exceed five hundred to six hundred members.

US sought to induce other formations to accept its ideology —a technique Karenga called “programmatic influence”—while maintaining a small membership. Awareness of these organizing techniques empowers us with a clearer understanding of how small organizations in this period were often at the core of highly visible mass movements.

This history of US is told as a topical and linear narrative. Specific areas of focus, such as US’s political legacy and influence on the arts, are explored independently, yet other events herein are contained as part of the story of US’s rise and decline in the era of Black Power. Chapter 2 opens with a brief discussion of cultural nationalism as one among many types of Black nationalist trends in American history. An overview that introduces the US Organization follows, focusing on its genesis and ideology. The rest of the chapter sheds light on the historical context and intellectual currents that shaped Maulana Karenga’s conception of the US Organization, its philosophy, and its program. Chapter 3 presents a broad sketch of the alternative lifestyle that membership in US required. The organization’s own division of labor and gender and its internal hierarchy are explored for the purpose of describing the varied and complex responsibilities, roles, and experiences of rank-and-file members and leaders.

Chapter 4 begins with a discussion of US’s organizational and political strategies, highlighting the group’s activism in electoral politics, anti-Vietnam protest, and underground violent resistance. Chapter 5 analyzes the discourse of the US/Panther conflict and the impact of the sectarian feud and government repression, and their combined impact on the day-to-day functioning of US. Chapter 6 looks at US’s outreach to larger Black audiences through African dance, jazz, and literature. Finally, the concluding chapter on Afrocentricity and Kwanzaa briefly reviews the organization’s activities since 1975.

source: http://www.nyupress.org/webchapters/0814798772intro.pdf 3aug03

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