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Karenga Subject of Intellectual Biography by Temple’s Asante

Published: March 1, 2010

Maulana Karenga, founder of the pan-African holiday of Kwanzaa and a longtime faculty member and former chair of Africana Studies at CSULB, is the subject of a new intellectual biography by internationally renowned scholar and cultural theorist Molefi Kete Asante. Asante, a professor of African American Studies at Temple University and a prolific author, is the founding theorist of Afrocentricity and has played a major role in shaping Africana Studies’ discourse for three decades.

Maulana Karenga: An Intellectual Portrait from Polity Press leads the reader on an informative journey through the mind of the activist-scholar. Describing Karenga as “the preeminent African American cultural theorist,” Asante contends that “no single individual thinker has, without media promotion and American mainstream endorsement, molded intellectual discourse and shaped the African American cultural agenda as has Karenga.” Asante examines the sources of Karenga’s intellectual interests and his philosophy, Kawaida, and demonstrates that Karenga’s concerns with the liberation narratives and social realities of African people are rooted in the best interests of a collective humanity. Although Karenga began his career as a student activist, a Black Power leader, a pan-Africanist and a cultural theorist, Asante’s book seeks to demonstrate how Karenga turned his commitment to truth and justice toward dissecting political, social and ethical issues. Asante also analyzes Karenga’s works on Africana Studies, his earlier works on culture and his later works on ethics, such as The Husia and Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings.

Karenga is pleased with An Intellectual Portrait. “This is the definitive work on my intellectual history and contributions,” he said. “It is accurate, deep and comprehensive. I not only appreciate the book itself, I appreciate the work that went into it.” The book is a product of years of formal and informal interviews and exchanges between the two scholars who have collaborated on pan-African projects around world as well as The Handbook of Black Studies from Sage Publications in 2005. “I’m pleased by the book’s insight into my work,” said Karenga. “As the subject of the book, I might have added certain things, but I like the way he wrote it. He grounds what he says and gives ample documentation for his conclusions.”

The book traces Karenga’s development of Kawaida philosophy, out of which he conceived and established the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles) and Kwanzaa, and it discusses how Kwanzaa has become an international holiday celebrated by more than 40 million people throughout the world African community. Also, it details Karenga’s career as chair of the organization Us, the National Association of Kawaida Organizations and as executive director of the Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies. Karenga’s other books include Introduction to Black Studies, Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, Kawaida: A Communitarian African Philosophy, Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics and his latest, Kawaida and Questions of Life and Struggle. Karenga holds two Ph.D.s; his first in political science with focus on the theory and practice of nationalism from the United States International University and his second in social ethics with a focus on the classical African ethics of ancient Egypt from the University of Southern California.

The new intellectual biography gives Karenga hope that his contribution to African intellectual history will continue to be engaged and last.

“Authors and intellectuals want what we say to endure in dealing with the critical questions that confront us both as a people and as human beings,” he said. “I’m very glad that Dr. Asante has seen worth in what I’ve tried to do and offered this intellectual genealogy of my work.”

Reading the biography has helped Karenga to think about what other people see in his work. “It makes me think more deeply about my work,” he said, “and how I try to critically and usefully engage the questions Professor Asante raises in the book. He has created a dialogue with my work and I think that is important for any scholar. One of the best ways to do that is to have a conversation with a colleague who knows your work and can offer challenges others cannot.”


Karenga’s future research will examine the social-ethical thoughts of Malcolm X. “Malcolm X was one of the most important critical thinkers of our time,” he said. “He was a severe and insightful social critic, but few people see him as an ethical thinker. For that, they usually think of Martin Luther King. I want to bring out Malcolm X’s ethical conception of the world and of our obligations in it.”

One reason Karenga still enjoys his teaching and scholarly work at CSULB is his students. “My first students were more interested in a service-learning approach to their education and how what they were taught could be used in becoming socially active and help transform their communities,” he said. “What I see less of today is hope. Thus, I feel one of my greatest challenges as a scholar-activist and as a teacher is to restore that hope and aspiration for change, progressive change. One of the best things about being young is the ability to hope and aspire. I want my students to break through the catechism of impossibilities that they imagine exist. I want to cultivate in them a sense of possibility that they can help to open a whole new history of humankind.”

He hopes those interested in his work will read Maulana Karenga: An Intellectual Portrait. “It contributes to our knowledge about a critical period in our national history and my role in that period,” he said. “As Malcolm X said, ‘Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.’ When we read history like this, it helps us to understand how this country has come to the point where it is now. Many of the dialogues about race and social justice we have today have their roots in the 1960s. This book shows how those struggles developed and continue.”