It was like a flash back and forward. Simultaneous and surreal. Like glancing up at a stage and seeing Little Anthony and the Imperials a generation later, still going strong with the same song. Except instead of being in a theater on the chitlin circuit, the stage is outdoors, on the Mall, and the man at the microphone is one of a million marching.

"It's the Kwanzaa man -- live," poet E. Ethelbert Miller gently mocks, recalling the return of Maulana (Ron) Karenga to the national scene a couple of months ago -- when he took the podium at the Million Man March.

The TV crews may have been too young to know who Karenga was. So if you watched the day's events from home on a commercial station rather than the prayer-to-pledge coverage on C-SPAN, you could easily have missed his reentry. The cameras panned quickly past him, for the most part, as if he were a minor player. And when he addressed the crowd, more than one broadcaster voiced-over him.

But many of those who lived through the revolution of the 1960s, when "radical" and "fringe" political groups battled with champions of art and allegory for the allegiance of African Americans, shuddered as they caught a glimpse of Karenga. His political pedigree, they remembered, has been questioned ever since it was revealed that the FBI manipulated some of his followers in an attempt to "neutralize" the Black Panthers. Others were pleased to see him front and center and to think that history may give him a second reading.

Before he can assume the legacy of his culturally healing holiday -- Kwanzaa -- he must overcome the fallout from the cultural warfare he waged in his youth.

"In terms of what Karenga has given us -- Kwanzaa, a modern mythology for African Americans -- you have to respect him. There's a certain genius there," says Miller, who also heads Howard University's African-American Resource Center. "But we have a lot of controversial people now who are coming out of the '60s who are being held up for atonement. We need to ask: Who are these people?' We need to hear more than {a recital of} their greatest hits."

Maulana, meaning "master teacher," is the Swahili appellation Karenga gave himself back in the '60s. Karenga is the surname he chose after moving to Southern California and rejecting the "slave name" -- Ronald Everett -- he was given 53 years ago when he was born the 14th child of a farming family on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Kwanzaa is the holiday Karenga invented 30 years ago -- an outgrowth of Kawaida, the philosophy he created as a "cultural anchor" for African Americans. It became a tradition nearly overnight -- ready-made roots for those who were ripped from their homeland.

"It's widespread, but not mainstream," Karenga says by phone from Los Angeles. "I think the strength of the holiday, the reason it's grown is because it brings life-affirming values to black culture. . . . The enduring things left from the '60s are the institutions and the principles we put forth -- this reaffirmation of African self-determination."

Kwanzaa is a seven-day-long holiday that runs each year from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, spanning a season during which people of African descent in the Americas have traditionally celebrated. Especially during slavery times, people looked forward to the turnover of the new year, hoping it would bring better tidings than the old. In later years, the Emancipation Proclamation -- which went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863 -- was celebrated during this time.

A new holiday fit right in; felt like it had always been just where it is now on the calendar. Black nationalism is now middle-class. And more culturally African, often, than it is American. Why, Jack & Jill magazine even does Kwanzaa, one former activist says in mock dismay.

Karenga is fond of saying that Kwanzaa is the only "non-heroic" holiday that African Americans can claim to have -- that is, it recognizes, celebrates and honors a people and their strengths, rather than the specific deeds of a few good men. It's a communal holiday meant to reinforce bonds between people, rather than elevate individuals to impossible heights above the whole. It's meant to be self-consciously African instead of subconsciously European in style.

Today, the fifth day of Kwanzaa, honors nia, the Swahili word for purpose. Holiday observers are to concentrate their thoughts and efforts on building and developing community. The other principles, one of which is matched to each day of Kwanzaa, are: umoja, or unity; kujichagulia, or self-determination; ujima, or collective work and responsibility; ujamaa, or cooperative economics; kuumba, or creativity; and imani, or faith.

Karenga, who is today a professor and chair of Black Studies at California State University's Long Beach campus, borrowed from many ancient African celebrations in his design of Kwanzaa. He tells us that Egypt and Nubia in the east, as well as Ashantiland and Yorubaland in the west, conducted elaborate celebrations each year at the time of their first harvest. Thus the name Kwanzaa, adopted from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," meaning "first fruit."

Many of the specifics of the holiday's rituals are borrowed from contemporary "first fruit" celebrations conducted in southern Africa by the Zulu, Swazi, Matabele and Thonga peoples.

Karenga says he chose the Swahili language for the terminology and rituals of Kwanzaa because it is a non-ethnic tongue -- not tied to any specific tribe. It is more of a lingua franca, a hybrid that was formed from Arabic and various Bantu tongues, and is spoken today in at least 13 African countries. Some of Karenga's critics have attempted to discredit his use of Swahili because slave traders used the language for their dealings in East Africa. But Karenga replies, in his handbook on Kwanzaa, that "if we are to reject speaking all languages associated with enslavement, by the same logic, we would have to begin by rejecting English and all other European languages." Kwanzaa's Roots

Karenga comes back to national view at a time when Kwanzaa is big business and is observed in the homes of millions of African Americans. Many of their children bear Swahili-inspired names that grew out of the cultural nationalism of the '60s that Karenga did so much to shape. But few of them know the history of those times, says Professor Ronald Walters, who is chairman of Howard's political science department. "It hasn't been written. It exists in the heads of relatively few people."

There was so much romanticism in the '60s, he says, that our memories tend to be blurred, as was the shifting of power and prominence among groups promoting civil rights, black power, revolutionary nationalism, cultural nationalism, Pan-Africanism and local elective power.

The revolutionary Black Panther Party derided Karenga and his organization, US (as opposed to "them"), calling its members "pork chop nationalists." Karenga fired back, labeling the Panthers "kamikazes." But the people, the masses, the lumpenproletariat, as it were, tended to reward the most militant and stylish with their ardor. The cats in the black leather and berets, the women with the M-1's. Karenga's guys, by comparison, were nerds. Their boxy clothes and shaved heads blend right into black America today, but they looked odd back then. And scary, after a couple of Karenga's guys were convicted of conspiring to assassinate a couple of key Panthers who were murdered in L.A. -- ostensibly over control of a black studies program at U.C.L.A.

Karenga's African orientation influenced the cultural evolution of many political activists. For example, the writer who was once Leroy Jones, before becoming LeRoi Jones, and then Ameer Barakat (Blessed Prince), was convinced by Karenga to make his name sound more Bantu, or Swahili, by changing it to Amiri Baraka.

Baraka, who has since become a Marxist, says that "Kwanzaa lays out some positives that are really socialism -- collective work, cooperative economics." But it has commercialized those values in a way that's "made to order for the black bourgeoisie . . . as an alternative for the mysticism of Christmas. Kwanzaa has survived {out of all the political and cultural inventions of the '60s} because it's the most easily transformed into commerce."

Baraka has cooled on Karenga's early emphasis on blackness: "God only knows what black' means when you've got {Inkatha leader Mangosuthu} Buthelezi and Clarence Thomas and some of the Negroes we've got running for president. . . . You can't make believe you ain't in America by talking blackblackblackblackblackblackblack."

Karenga seems to realize that. He stands now as the doorman for the big tent -- seamlessly rehabilitated. He would have you forget the old tales of him initiating vicious street fights with other militants for top-dog status. Karenga served on the national executive committee for the Oct. 16 Million Man March, and even wrote its mission statement.

"The police provoked the shootouts," Karenga says of the war his people waged with the Los Angeles chapter of the Panthers in the late '60s and early '70s. "The state imposed the violence. And you've got to stop calling them murders, because both groups were shooting at each other. They were shootouts. The liberal media always wants to make out that the Panthers were totally innocent victims. . . . It was a question of police infiltration."

California culture seems to be in the lead again when it comes to the vanguard of violence -- home to the heaviest of rappers now, rather than revolutionaries. The political militants are either dead, locked up, burned out or gone underground permanently.

Except for Karenga, who may be on his way to assuming prophetic status as he is reassociated with his greatest hit.

"It's confusing to me, it really is," says Paul Coates, founder and publisher of Baltimore's Black Classic Press and a former member of the Black Panther Party. "But it's a fact that he has given the black community Kwanzaa -- something they find of value. . . . And they deal with him unquestionably, which again speaks to the forgiving quality of black people. If you show us a good side, we really are forgiving."

It could be that all peoples reach points where they must reconstruct parts of their past, and come up with customs that bridge historical breaks. It happens in plain view, to be sure. But usually it's so gradual a process that it's imperceptible. It's not something that often happens in the jolt of a generation.

So some folks shake their heads in wonder, as they wander past supermarket displays of Kwanzaa greeting cards featuring mahogany-colored families and candles packaged for seven days' worth of ritual. Those are the folks who remember how the holiday began. With Karenga.

"I think that's one of those huge ironies," says Francille Wilson, a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Maryland who observes some portion of the holiday each year with her husband and their two sons -- even if it's only to spend an evening discussing the need to adhere to its seven underlying principles.

Considering the cyclone of personalities, passions and politics that was the '60s, however, and all of its candidates for posterity, it's somewhat bizarre for people like Wilson to see Kwanzaa ending up as one of the most institutionalized and lasting byproducts of the period.

"It's become bigger than Karenga, who I have some very mixed feelings about, especially because of him allegedly torturing women and all that and his whole role in the movement, which even then was controversial." (Karenga did prison time during the early '70s for ordering and directing the torture of a young woman.)

"Most people don't connect Kwanzaa in any way to Karenga," says Tom Battle, director of Howard's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. "I think it's misunderstood in terms of its origin. My recollection is that Kwanzaa was first being promoted among people as strictly an African celebration."

Battle compares the way African Americans embrace Kwanzaa today, without giving much weight to its creator, to their enthusiastic participation in the Million Man March, without necessarily signing on to be stalwart supporters of Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan.

"So many people have written their own books and guides to Kwanzaa that Karenga's role somehow gets lost," Battle says.

"It bothers me as a historian that people don't know who he is," says Wilson. "I think we {African Americans} are averse to having serious internal critiques. I think no one has taken a good hard look at us, and they are worth examining. . . . I think people need to look and see who Karenga is. But the celebration of Kwanzaa is beyond him now. It's sort of like a balloon he put afloat and is being kept afloat by forces other than him." CAPTION: Out of the '60s: Kwanzaa has been widely embraced, but not so its controversial founder, Maulana (Ron) Karenga. CAPTION: Maulana (Ron) Karenga, right, with Nathan Wright Jr., chairman of the National Conference on Black Power, at a news conference in Newark in 1967.