This article appeared in The
Textbook Letter for September-October 2000.
It accompanied a review of The American Nation, a high-school textbook,
issued by Prentice Hall, that purportedly deals with American history.
That looks like a line from an Amos 'N Andy show. One can easily imagine that it served as the motto of the Mystic Knights of the Sea, and that it was recited by such characters as The Kingfish, Andy Brown and Algonquin J. Calhoun.
In fact, however, the line that I have quoted is the motto of a real organization -- a real organization that was originally named United Slaves but now calls itself The Organization Us (or simply Us or US). It was created some 40 years ago, in Southern California, by a black racist who had begun life as Ron N. Everett but later had assumed the name Maulana Karenga.
Karenga -- known chiefly as the inventor of Kwanzaa, a fake "African" holiday that he contrived in 1966 -- has enjoyed a truly colorful career. He was a prominent black nationalist during the 1960s, when his organization was involved in various violent operations. He was sent to prison in 1971, after he and some of his pals tortured two women with a soldering iron and a vise, among other things. He emerged from prison in 1974, and a few years later -- in a maneuver that even The Kingfish might have found difficult -- he got himself installed as the chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach. CSULB wasn't the only American university that got the racial willies during the 1970s and set up a tin-pot black-studies department, but CSULB (as far as I know) was the only one that hired a chairman who was a violent felon.
Karenga is still working at CSULB and is still running The Organization Us, and he and Us are still promoting his proprietary holiday, Kwanzaa. Prentice Hall is promoting it too, so The American Nation displays a picture of "an American family's celebration of Kwanzaa" -- but The American Nation doesn't tell anything about Karenga, about his rules for carrying out a "celebration of Kwanzaa," or about his make-believe Africanism. Let me supply some of the information that Prentice Hall has hidden:
Kwanzaa is supposed to be celebrated from 26 December through 1 January: It competes with Christmas and Chanukah while incorporating some echoes of both, e.g., gift-giving and a ceremony built around a seven-holed candle-holder that recalls Judaism's seven-branched menorah.
Karenga has concocted some bits of lore, lingo, and mumbo-jumbo that are intended to make Kwanzaa look like something out of Africa instead of something from Los Angeles County, but his efforts have been feeble. If you scan The Official Kwanzaa Web Site [see note 1, below], you'll read that the origins of Kwanzaa lie in "the first harvest celebrations of Africa," which allegedly "are recorded in African history as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia" -- but there is no explanation of why any ancient Egyptians or Nubians might have held harvest festivals around the time of the winter solstice, and there is no identification of the crops that they harvested. Karenga's formula for celebrating Kwanzaa requires the use of two ears of maize -- but maize is a New World plant, and it wasn't known at all in ancient Africa.
True believers can purchase ears of maize and other Kwanzaa equipment (e.g., candles and seven-holed candle-holders and straw mats) from the University of Sankore Press, a company in Los Angeles. This outfit evidently is controlled by Us and serves as Us's marketing unit. It isn't a university press, and its name is a mockery. The so-called University of Sankore was an aggregation of Islamic schools that flourished at Timbuktu in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. No University of Sankore exists today.
In Karenga's Kwanzaa-lingo, ears of maize are called by the Swahili name "muhindi." In fact, all the objects that Karenga has worked into Kwanzaa have names taken from Swahili, which The Official Kwanzaa Web site describes as "a Pan-African language" and "the most widely spoken African language." The labeling of Swahili as a "Pan-African" language is rubbish. Swahili -- a Bantu tongue that includes many words absorbed from Arabic, from Persian and from certain Indian languages -- is spoken by some 50 million people (i.e., about 7% of Africa's population). Most of those Swahili-speakers are concentrated in eastern Africa, in a region that includes Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and a strip of Zaire. The language which is used most widely in Africa is Arabic; and indeed, Swahili was originally written in Arabic script [note 2].
Kwanzaa is a hoax -- a hoax built around fake history and pseudohistorical delusions. By attempting to dignify and promote Kwanzaa in The American Nation, Prentice Hall has joined in a flim-flam.
William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.
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