Since the 1960s, the organization Us has played a significant role in black political and intellectual culture. Founded in Los Angeles in 1965 by Maulana Karenga and a group of fellow activists, Us defined itself as a cultural and social change organization. Its name— Us, which simply means us African people—was chosen to stress its communitarian character and collective focus on African people. The organization emerged out of the flurry of community activities that followed the Watts revolt and participated in the general thrust of the times to mobilize, organize, and politically educate the black community.
The Nature of the Organization
From the start, Us has seen itself as a revolutionary vanguard party striving to be not a mass organization but a highly disciplined, tightly organized, and philosophically grounded organization able to programmatically influence the black masses and the black liberation movement. Thus, it defined the three pillars of the group as the leadership, doctrine, and organization. The leadership is above all its founder and chair, Maulana Karenga, who at that time had left UCLA, where he had been a doctoral student, to participate in the movement, returning to school later to earn two doctorates. Its doctrine or philosophy, developed by Karenga, is Kawaida. Its organization is expressed in the tight-knit, disciplined, and philosophically grounded relations and practice of its advocates or members. Kawaida is the ongoing synthesis of the best of African thought and practice, and thus has drawn on concepts and ideas from several major diasporic and continental African thinkers—Sekou Toure, Julius Nyerere, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, and others. These intensely studied and reshaped ideas include concepts of re-Africanization, self-defense, Ujamaa (cooperative economics and African socialism), cultural revolution, political education and organization of the masses, a vanguard revolutionary party, cultural nationalism, and pan-Africanism.
An Organic Relationship to Community
Focusing first on the Los Angeles community, Us soon established a national agenda and practice that stressed cultural revolution, institution building, organization, service, and struggles. Thus, Us held political education classes, initiated several organizing projects, and worked with various educational, welfare, economic and political groups in black united-front efforts to improve education, end police abuse, build cooperative economic projects, increase political participation, build affordable housing, and provide quality health care.
The group's first national initiative was coplanning and cohosting the three National Black Power Conferences in 1966, 1967, and 1968. Karenga became the Black Power Conference movement's chief theorist, introducing his philosophy Kawaida in the process. Us, at its inception, had seen itself as heir to the legacy of Malcolm X and had early on incorporated his thinking in Kawaida. This is reflected in the Kawaida definition of the black power movement as a collective struggle of black people to achieve and affirm three things: self-determination, self-respect, and self-defense. Moreover, Karenga introduced at the first conference the concept of operational unity—that is, unity in diversity, unity without conformity—which he understood as an essential idea and call in Malcolm's classic speech “Message to the Grassroots.”
Based on this principle of operational unity, Us established black united fronts in several cities—Los Angeles, San Diego, Newark, and Dayton. Embracing Malcolm X's Bandung model, with its stress on the unity and common struggles of people of color, Us began to build “third world” (i.e., people of color) alliances and to work with groups such as the Brown Berets, the Crusade for Justice, and Alianza Federal de Pueblos Libres, as well as to support the organizing efforts and strikes of the United Farm Workers. In 1967 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Us—along with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party of Northern California— signed a peace treaty titled Treaty of Peace, Harmony and Mutual Assistance with the Alianza Federal de Pueblos Libres led by Reies Tijerina, the Crusade for Justice led by Rudolfo Corky Gonzales, and the Hopi Nation represented by the spiritual leader Thomas Banyaca. Us also trained black and brown organizers at the Social Action Training Center in Los Angeles, taught Spanish classes, and established an Olmec Club dedicated to researching and building on African and Mexican links using Olmec civilization as a point of departure.
Us also organized one of the most important youth organizations in the 1960s, the Simba Wachanga (Swahili for the “young lions”), which became a model for youth groups and rites of passage programs across the country. Active on campuses and in the community, the Simba organized black student unions in high schools and colleges, provided community service, and served as a defense organization for the community. Following Malcolm X, and also influenced by Robert Williams and Frantz Fanon, Us affirmed the right to self-defense and trained in self-defense measures. Us also helped form the Community Alert Patrol, which monitored police activity as early as 1965. Although Us asserted the right to self-defense, like other radical and progressive organizations of the time, it resisted the Vietnam War and the draft. Like Malcolm X, Us argued that blacks should not participate in colonial and imperialist wars, especially against other people of color who had done no injury to black people, and that it was irrational and unethical to fight in the interest of one's oppressor.
The Singularity of Culture
Building on the stress on culture, cultural struggle, and cultural revolution—advocated by Toure in Toward Full Reafricanization, Fanon in Wretched of the Earth, and later Cabral in Return to the Source—and the indispensability of the education of the masses, Us defined itself as a cultural nationalist organization and began a series of educational projects. Thus, in addition to its own educational projects, Us played an important role in the founding and building of the Black Studies movement, the black student movement, and the black independent school movement. Also in 1965, Us established its own model of an independent school, the School of Afro-American Culture, which is still operative as the Kawaida School of African American Culture. Us also established the African American Cultural Center in 1965, to hold political and cultural education classes, seminars, institutes, and other forums and training sessions, as well as to provide creative performances. Furthermore, Us significantly influenced the black arts movement by providing it with a philosophical grounding in Kawaida, participating in the defining of the black aesthetic of the 1960s and influencing major figures in the black arts movement such as Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, Haki Madhubuti, Val Gray Ward, and others.
Like many other organizations of the time, including the Nation of Islam, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Black Panther Party, the Republic of New Africa, and the Revolutionary Action Movement, Us experienced government harassment and suppression from the FBI's Covert Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in collaboration with local police. The COINTELPRO was designed to disrupt, discredit, destroy, and otherwise neutralize all real and potential black nationalist and activist leadership and leadership groups. This led to many of Us's members being imprisoned on trumped up charges and driven underground and into exile in other countries. These activities also fostered group rivalry and antagonism among the groups, especially between Us and the Black Panther Party. As part of the COINTELPRO, agents penetrated both groups and provoked deadly confrontation between the two groups, as reported in the Church Senate Report and major articles on the subject in the Los Angeles Times.
As the men of Us were imprisoned and forced underground and into exile, an increased number of women of Us emerged in leadership roles and, like other organizations, Us engaged in a sustained dialogue and transformation concerning male-female relations. Women created a self-defense unit (the Matamba) as a counterpart and ally of the Simba, and increased their roles as administrators and organizational representatives. This dialogue and transformation were first chronicled in Us's newspaper, Harambee, in an article by the women of Us titled “View from the Woman's Side of the Circle.” It established the concept and practice of equal partnership in love, work, and struggle, using the principles of Ujima (collective work and responsibility) and complementarity (a necessary interrelationship of mutual completion and fulfillment) as grounds for this. This internal dialogue is further developed and appears in the writings of Maulana Karenga in the Black Scholar in the early 1970s, especially in his article “Towards a Greater Togetherness in Love and Struggle.” In these articles, Karenga sums up the conclusions and lessons of this exchange between men and women of Us and reaffirms the indispensability of equality, mutual respect, and shared responsibility in love and struggle. In the early 1970s, Us went underground, and in the mid-1970s, it emerged publicly first as the New African American Movement (NAAM) and then as the Kawaida Groundwork Committee. It reinstituted its forum series, worked with other groups in political projects, and published literature reflecting its reassessment and development. It also made international trips to Nigeria to the pan-African gathering the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) and to Peoples Republic of China, building relationships and further defining and developing its positions in critical issues. Karenga served as chair of the African American delegation to FESTAC and as spokesman for the Independent Black Schools Education Tour to China. His book Essays on Struggle: Position and analysis and his articles in the nationalist periodicals Black News, Nkombo, Black Books Bulletin, and the Black Scholar and the left periodical In These Times presented and developed new positions, as well as reaffirming the fundamental principles and positions of Kawaida philosophy.
In the 1980s, Us began to use its name again and returned fully to its mobilizing, organizing, and political education projects. Especially important is its crucial role on the national level in the founding of the National Black United Front, the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, and the Black Leadership Retreat group. Internationally, Karenga has led an Us delegation to Cuba in an educational exchange on race relations, African American life and struggle, and Us's role in the black liberation movement; to the International Festival of Pan-African Arts in Dakar, Senegal; and to London to given an inaugural lecture to initiate Black History Month in England. In the 1990s, Us played a key role on the Million Man March/Day of Absence Organizing Committee, and Maulana Karenga wrote the Million Man March/Day of Absence Mission Statement, which reflected the collective thinking of the committee as well as Kawaida philosophy.
Also important was Us's founding of its Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies (KIPAS) in the late 1970s. KIPAS does research, publishes literature, and holds forums and conferences. Moreover, it holds a summer institute in leadership, social theory, and practice that draws a wide range of participants such as teachers, college students, community activists, and various kinds of professionals from around the country who come to learn Kawaida philosophy and Afrocentric ways of engaging their studies and practice. In addition to teaching Kawaida philosophy, the institute also provides African-centered analysis of selected current and past literature on black people, current event analysis, issue analysis, and leadership training.
Maulana Karenga and Us are most well known for their work in cultural revolution and cultural recovery, as expressed in the development of Kawaida philosophy, the pan-African holiday Kwanzaa, and the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles). Created by Karenga in 1966, Kwanzaa is a pan-African celebration of family, community, and culture and seeks to introduce and reinforce communitarian African views and values that represent the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense. At the heart of the celebration of this 7-day holiday (December 26–January 1) are the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles). These principles in Swahili are Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). Put forth by Us as a communitarian African value system necessary to build and strengthen community and aid in the black freedom struggle, the Nguzo Saba have become a central pillar in numerous organizations and families throughout the world African community. Since their introduction in 1965, the Nguzo Saba have been used as essential cultural grounding and value orientation in many independent schools, rites of passage programs, economic cooperatives, black student unions, school retention programs, and other community and professional organizations and projects. And as the core values of Kwanzaa, they are celebrated with Kwanzaa throughout the world African community.
Us currently continues its organizing efforts in building the National Association of Kawaida Organizations (NAKO) and the Nguzo Saba Association out of numerous organizations, institutions, and groups that use Kawaida and the Nguzo Saba in their value orientation, philosophy, and practice. Us is also working in alliances and coalitions with other progressive groups within the community and larger society, such as the International Black Coalition for Peace and Justice (IBCPJ), of which Us is a founding organization. Moreover, Us continues its pan-African activities by developing a support committee for Haiti and the Committee for Equitable and Sustainable Development in Africa, holding an annual African Liberation Day rally, and participating in other joint activities with continental and diasporic groups. Us also works in the reparations movement as a member of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), provides literature and assistance to prisoners, and maintains the African American Cultural Center and the Kawaida School of African American Culture, Majando (rites of passage programs for boys and girls), the Timbuktu Book Circle, the Taifa Dance Troupe, the Senut Sisterhood of African Women, and the Senu Brotherhood of African Men.
- nguzo saba
- rites of passage programs
- Malcolm X
- independent schools
- Bankole, Katherine. (2001). You Left Your Mind in Africa. Dellslow, WV: Nation House Foundation. This penetrating examination of the cultural thesis alluded to in the title is made in light of African American development and advancement.
- Karenga, Maulana. (1983). Introduction to Black Studies. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. This is the most significant academic work to emerge from the philosophy behind Us, as Karenga's work is based on his extensive understanding of culture, organization, and economics.
- Terrell, Francis, Terrell, Sandra, Taylor, Jerome.The Development of an Inventory to Measure Aspects of Black Nationalist Ideology. Psychology (4) 31–33 (1988). This is a useful article about the fundamental principles that undergird nationalist cultural movements.