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.