Monthly Archives: April 2017

Makani Themba

The Personal Is Political

Makani Themba is good evidence of the heritability of activism. Both her mother and grandmother were activists. Her parents were among the first black people to move into Hollis,  then an all-white neighborhood on the Queens side of Long Island. They saw firsthand white flight at maximum speed. As Makani described it, “We moved in, we blinked, and the whole block was black except for one family who was clearly stuck.”

A decade after Brown vs. Board of Education, New York City schools remained segregated. In 1964, 460,000 students participated in this School Boycott to demand integrated schools.

Little Rock was desegregated in 1957, In 1966, Little Neck, New York, remained segregated until six students, one from each grade, all carefully chosen to succeed, groomed to impress, and trained not to react with violence and anger no matter the provocation. Makani was one of those six, chosen by the NAACP, perhaps because her mother was an activist demanding school equality. Desegregation in New York was a long, hard struggle that continues into the present.

Despite the social and political reverberations of integrating schools, Makani did not experience this as a racial justice activist, but as a child wondering “Why is this happening to me?” In fact, she gave herself a serious case of pneumonia standing out in the rain in her underwear trying to get sick so she could miss school. Recalling that time, she said, “That experience was so harrowing and so crazy and mirrored what I was watching on television…as though the whole world was on fire. There was no middle ground, There was the right side or the wrong side. Not even for a six year old.”

Makani Themba school photo.
Photo from Makani Themba

Her parents divorced and her mom moved to Washington Heights to be closer to Themba’s grandmother, one of the first black telephone operators at Ma Bell. She was deeply involved in her union, the Communication Workers of America. Her mother became involved in the antiwar and feminist movements and took her children to marches and rallies. That is when it became fun for Makani. She felt like she was part of this larger social revolution. What other people saw on television, she saw in person. She was at the Riverside Church when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his inspiring speech against the Vietnam War, Beyond Vietnam that offered a radical vision of justice, challenging us to a revolution of values–a challenge that speaks to her to this day.

Makani’s first political act of her own initiative was a walkout to protest overcrowding at her school in Washington Heights. The students also refused to salute the flag. “It was the late Sixties and it was just part of the mainstream, our mainstream culture. We were not Americans in that way, we were African Americans with a different set of values and our country was engaged in a war against us.”

While her mother was not into black liberation politics, Makani was more attuned to it. “I was in the capital of blackness–Harlem…You had Malcolm X just hanging out. People others saw on television, we would see in person…Other people were trying to figure out blackness and we were in a place where it was beautiful and okay and there was no ambivalence about it.” Continue reading

Stephanie D. Stephens

Kayse Jama

The Personal Is Political

Kayse Jama was born in Somalia into a nomadic family. He lived the nomad life until his older brother, who worked in the Education Ministry, brought him and one of his brothers to Mogadishu to live with him so they could get a formal education. Jama was eight, with the confidence engendered by his tribal culture, but still an outsider in the urban school environment. Even at eight, he knew the organizing strategy of turning the negative into a positive and turned his difference into a leadership role in school, chosen to lead the class while they waited for a teacher to come and, later, to lead the class poetry lessons, a skill enhanced by the oral tradition of tribal life.

His first deliberate political act was when he was in eleventh grade, leading a delegation of students to the Minister of Education’s office to demand more resources for the schools, schools who were losing teachers and resources to the civil war that was consuming the country–a tribal conflict over resources that was repeated throughout the developing world as colonial empires receded leaving behind artificial borders and governments. This was a bold act in a dictatorship. Before long, the civil war consumed the country and Jama, like many of his compatriots, fled seeking refuge abroad, eventually coming to the United States.

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Kayse Jama testifying to Portland City Council, February 2008

It was here where Jama came to understand the systemic nature of oppression in the US context. While he understood well the systemic oppression of hierarchical tribal conflicts that divided his country, in the US these oppressions were linked to historical injustices different than his own experience. Certainly, he was aware of gender oppression, but when he arrived in the United States as a poor, black refugee, the full weight of these interwoven oppressions landed on him. He was soon was back to his natural mode–organizing.

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Tanya Domi

The Personal Is Political

At thirteen, Tanya Domi was volunteering for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign. The assassinations of Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers shocked and horrified her sense of justice. She attended Cardinal Ritter High School in Indianapolis, a school named after the prelate who, in 1938, integrated all the Catholic schools in his diocese. While the public schools were de facto segregated, Cardinal Ritter’s student body was one-third students of color. This was also a time when the Catholic church was active in supporting the Civil Rights and AntiWar movements, both formative influences on Domi’s worldview.

Cardinal Ritter High School Crest

Cardinal Ritter High School was less progressive on issues of gender. Only boys were allowed to run for student body president and only girls could run for secretary. Domi successfully lobbied to change that during her junior year and in her senior year was elected the first female student body president. One of her first actions addressed the lack of representation of students of color in student government. Domi invited the Black Student Union to nominate a representative and an alternate from each class to student government. All these years later, she still takes great pride in her work to foster a more inclusive and representative student government.

Domi describes her father as a racist and violent man who brutalized both her mother and her, if she dared to challenge him. Nonetheless, when her parents divorced in a bitter dispute while she was in college, she felt overwhelmed and flunked out of school. Her confusion and depression were likely exacerbated by her realization that she might be a lesbian, though she did not know that with certainty until  after she was being Mirandized for it.

Captain Tanya Domi

She enlisted in the Army, a utilitarian decision based on the G.I. Bill education benefits. There, she felt she found a home. She excelled and was promoted, moving into increasingly more responsible positions in Army Intelligence and was transferred to Ft. Deven, Massachusetts just in time to get swept up in a widespread investigation of lesbians in the army.

In March, 1974, she went  with five other women to The Other Side, her first gay bar. All of them were reported as lesbians. When she came back to base, she was Mirandized and told she was under investigation. Domi, unlike the usual target, had been a member of the A.C.L.U. since high school, so she knew she had rights. She called a lawyer for herself and the five other women. She survived an 18-month investigation and was found “not guilty” of being gay, mostly because they charged her before she had the chance to do more than think about it. “Did I know I was gay? I was thinking I was gay, but the messages I was getting was really it’s not okay to be gay at all.”

“The thing is, I was really good at it. I was good at being a soldier. The Army gave me a home.” Randy Shilts’ Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military covers the Fort Deven investigation and multiple additional investigations as Domi continued to advance and excel in the military. She was investigated several times but provided no fodder for successful prosecution. Women who were promoted were often accused of lesbianism by less capable men and so was Domi. She was also accused of being a lesbian after she made a complaint of sexual harassment, a common retaliatory tactic. When she was nominated to be an instructor at West Point, she was targeted with yet another investigation and decided she had enough and resigned her commission. Continue reading