Brown is a bass guitarist and, since 2001, an assistant professor of history and African-American studies. His recent book, “Fighting for US,” brings the story of the US Organization, a California-based black nationalist group, and black cultural nationalism, alive to younger generations. Still active, US runs the African American Cultural Center in South Los Angeles.
In his own youth, Brown was more into music than academics. He played in a funk band in high school and set his sights on a musical career. Although late-night gigs hurt his grades, he went to the University of Rochester and steadily improved his GPA.
After graduation, Brown received a one-year fellowship to teach English at the Université D’Haute Bretagne in Rennes, France. Returning to Rochester, he was teaching high school when his life took another unexpected turn.
While he was browsing through the Kitabu Kingdom bookstore, Brown met owner Gerald Chaka, an ex-member of the US Organization, which played a leading role in Black Power politics and culture during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Led by Maulana Karenga, the group started Kwanzaa, an Afrocentric holiday, along with many other alternative ritual and cultural practices. Today, Kwanzaa is celebrated by millions around the world.
When Chaka encouraged Brown to attend graduate school, Brown knew just what he would study. “Chaka was living history, and yet many people had not heard of US,” Brown said. “That encouraged me to learn more about the organization.”
His research led him to look into a feud that erupted in 1969 between a few US members and the Black Panthers over who would become director of UCLA’s Black Studies program. The conflict led to a shooting that left two Black Panthers dead and one US member wounded.
“A rivalry between the two groups was fueled by personality clashes, ideological differences and provocations by FBI counterintelligence measures,” Brown said.
Yet despite the organization’s problems, the professor said, “US continues to have a profound impact on African-American culture, especially given the popularity of Kwanzaa and various uses of the group’s Afrocentric philosophy by a range of black organizations and institutions.”