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.”
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.”
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