"I created Kwanzaa," laughed M. Ron Karenga like a teen-ager who's just divulged a deeply held, precisions secret.

"People think it's African. But it's not. I wanted to give black people a holiday of their own. So I came up with Kwanzaa. I said it was African because you know black people in this country wouldn't celebrate it if they knew it was American. Also, I put it around Christmas because I knew that's when a lot of bloods (blacks) would be partying!"

The overwhelmingly black audience at Howard University's recent National Conference of Afro-American writers broke into laughter. The joke was on them - and millions of other black Americans who taught Kwanzaa, the seven-day festival of harvest, was African.

Since he created the holiday in 1966, numerous Afro-Americans have come to celebrate the occasion between Dec. 22 and Jan. 1 as an alternative to Christmas.

Nevertheless, the ploy was not malicious. Karenga, political activist in the late '60s, currently a college professor and frequent lecturer asked: "Can you imagine 30 to 40 million people not having one national, non-heroic holiday? We couldn't wait around for someone to do this for us."

In the late '60s and early '70s, he had a profound effect on the thinking of Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) and other Afro-american cultural figures who spread his philosophy.

From his base in Los Angeles, Karenga came to national prominence following the Watts civil disturbance. He was seen frequently on television and made numerous speeches. A civil rights observer called him "one of the leading theoreticians in the national black power movement."

His role was described as a study in contrasts. He urged militant self-defense by blacks, but he also conferred with white politicians on civil rights issues. His bald head and Genghis Khan-styled beard and moustache gave him a fearsome look, but in face-to-face meetings he was calm and soft-spoken.

Using the tough rhetorical style of the '60s, he wrote in "The Quotable Karenga," a thin handbook given to his followers: "When it's burn, let's see how much you burn. When it's kill,' let's see how much you kill. When it's blow up," let's see how much you blow up."

But times have changed. Between 1971 and 1975 he dropped out of sight while serving a prison term for ordering the beating of a woman. He is appealing. Now he was resurfaced and said he is rebuilding his movement.

Although the popularity of Kwanzaa mushroomed dramatically, Karenga also established Kuzaliwa, a tribute honoring Malcolm X's birthday on May 19, and Uhuru Day, a commemoration on Aug. 11 of the 1965 Watts civil disturbance.

The 1960s were a time of fervent cultural activity among blacks. Theater groups and writers workshops sprang up in most large cities. And Karenga took advantage of this.

He spoke to large and small, middle-class and working-class black organizations from CORE to Baptist church groups, carrying the message of Kwanzaa. At the same time, Baraka spoke for the Karenga philosophy to thousands of people at Congress of African Peoples meetings. He also wrote tracts that were published by black publishing houses.

The Kwanzaa idea began to pop up in black mass publications such as Ebony and Jet. From there it was picked up by white publications - daily newspapers and magazines - and radio and television.

Who is this short, squat man with the high-pitched voice and the flery rhetoric, and what is the current measure of his influence?

A. B. Spellman, writer and National Endowment for the Arts official, said: "There was no theory of nationalism in the '60s. What Karenga did was to rationalize the nationalist impulse and try to codify it."

Larry Neal, writer and executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, said: "Vocabulary and Kwanzaa are the major influences he's had. People started studying Swahili. Kwanzaa was like Topsy. It just grew.

"People wanted form, structure. He spoke to a need."

But Baraka, a former black nationalist who's become a Marxist, is not so charitable in his current assessment of the man whose ideas he once proselytized.

Said Baraka: "There was a vacuum created after Malcolm X died . . . Karenga was very well organized. He moved into the vacuum.

"He did a positive thing as far as Kwanzaa was concerned. But in a way it was another form of bourgeois nationalism. And he taught male chauvinsim."

"People have slandered me," complained Karenga. "I's slow building an organization in this atmosphere. There's a lull in the (black liberation) movement and I've got to dismantlef the bogus image that has gone up around me."

In his rapid-fire black preacher's oratory style, marked by staccato rhythms and syncopated long and short phrases, Karenga said, "What I said in the '60s I stand by. I'm still black. I still put black first. I'm still for the cultural revolution. Until somebody develops an alternative, more comprehensive view of reality, I've got to ride with mine."

Karenga was not always so outspokenly black. In the early '60s, he was Ronald Everett, the 14th child in the family of a farmer and part-time Baptist minister in Parsonburg, Md., on the Eastern Shore.

After receiving his master's degree in political science, he dropped his "slave name" and took on Karenga. In 1965 he organized US (as opposed to "them"), and gave himself the title Maulana (Master teacher). In 1976, he received a doctorate in urban development.

He would not say how large his following was before his 1971 imprisonment or how many followers he has currently.

"Our movement has been discredited," he said, "and I'm trying to rebuild it. The day I got out of captivity I went to a meeting."

His goal is to construct a national cultural network among Afro-Americans.

"We don't have a national culture," he explained. "We have a popular culture. We confuse influence with power. Influence is the ability to effect. Power is the ability to change."