Sukumu, meanwhile, is in the middle of things. His is a gracious performance, heartfelt and smooth, and as pleasing, it turns out, as the gumbo.
- The revolution will not be televised.
His name was Vernon Fontenette, and he was born in New Iberia, Louisiana, the oldest of 13 children. He describes his six-foot, 200-pound father as a big man, aggressive and assertive. (“He’d say, ‘I’ll knock you out!’ and then do it!”) Vernon’s mother was small and soft-spoken. He took after her. At 15, he moved to New Orleans, where he lived with his uncle, graduated from high school, and enlisted in the Navy. Blacks, he recalls, were confined to serving mostly as cooks and members of the deck force.
After his discharge, the 21-year-old spent the next two years doing sandblasting work for the Navy and serving as a grocery man in the North Island commissary. Then he fell in love. It was to be, perhaps, the single most defining relationship of his adult life.
When Sukumu speaks of that time and of Anita, the woman, he loses a portion of his characteristic ease. The relationship he describes as a roller-coaster ride with dizzying highs, spine-jolting hairpin turns, and devastating lows. It turns out that Anita, beautiful and dangerous, suffered from undiagnosed manic-depression, known today as bipolar disease.
“She’d be fine,” he says, in tones of dreadful wonder, “then she’d suddenly disappear and I had to take care of her two children. Nobody knew where she was or what she was doing. Then maybe a week later, maybe longer, she’d come back. Things would be fine, then the fights would start and then it would go from bad to worse and she’d disappear again.”
As he speaks, it seems possible to locate the source of that glimmer of compassion shining from his eyes in the pain, and the wisdom won, in this relationship. Sukumu maintains that he did everything to make things work. “But she was not capable of handling a relationship with me, or with anyone else.” He left her several times. Within three months in the course of one separation, two women with whom he was intimate both became pregnant. Then Anita and he were reconciled, and within six months, she too was pregnant.
“A couple of months later, I am a father, three times over, of children all nearly the same age!”
Barely able to maintain child support, he then lost his job at the Navy commissary. He was picked up for failure to maintain child support and spent the next nine months in the county jail.
“Bitter and hurting,” upon release he became a self-described “player.” He hustled. He gambled. And inevitably, he returned to jail for failure to maintain child-support payments. This time he was behind bars for 23 months.
“Rage-filled” is how Sukumu describes that time.
He’d always had some political awareness (he chose, after discharge from the service, to remain in San Diego rather than return to the segregated South), and in jail he came across The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Reading it, he says, helped turn him around. In 1965, upon his release from jail, he went to his first Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Congress of Racial Equality meetings. He found work as an Urban League community aide.
At the party, amid the crush of people, he introduces me to Bobbie Gillian. “Here is my first boss,” he says. Of an age to warrant the description “gracious” and “grandmotherly,” she is so well turned out and her natural, trimmed close, is so tight, that you know she is a very “with-it mama.”
“Oh yes, Sukumu was something,” she says, when he steps away. She smiles in recollection of that 27-year-old as he was beginning the political work that would carry him through the rest of his life.
“Did you know he was going to be a long-term activist?”
She raises her voice over the hubbub. “You could tell there was something going on with him, that he was special.”
After a year with Gillian and the Urban League, in 1967, Sukumu went on to a Housing and Urban Development project for Neighborhood House on 41st Street and Ocean View. Though he’d spent time in jail, because he was never convicted of a felony, he was able to find employment the next year in vocational rehabilitation for the State of California. In 1969, he enrolled in San Diego State under the GI bill and in his junior year, went to Africa, joining a group invited to visit Tanzania by its president.
At about this time, Vernon took the name Sukumu (in Swahili it means “one of great power and fortitude”). Returning from Africa, he served as chairman of the Black Student Union at San Diego State. Later, he participated in the development of the college’s African-American studies department.
In 1972, Sukumu helped organize the Coalition of Black Agencies in San Diego (from 1983 to 1990, he served as the director). By now he had married and, in 1973, his wife gave birth to Ramisi. His son Teule, who was born the next year, arrives at the party with a pretty Filipino girl on his arm. Taller than his father, he appears to have inherited some of the old man’s charm. In 1982, Sukumu and his wife separated amicably, and he became, in effect, a single parent.
“I asked for it,” Sukumu says. “I had not participated in the raising of my other children and I deeply regretted it. There was no way that I was not going to be emotionally and financially responsible for Ramisi and Teule.”
(Of his other children, his first, Kimble, died young, in a traffic accident. He and his second son, Gregory, did not develop a close relationship, and they have not spoken in years. Sukumu, however, remains close with Charles, his third child, a computer whiz currently living in Spokane, Washington. He did not know of his fourth child, Aisha, until the 17-year-old appeared for the first time at his front door. She lived with him while he was raising Ramisi and Teule, and they remain close.)