June 16, 1966: The Solution
Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is released from jail this afternoon. Continuing a voter registration march begun by James Meredith, who was recently shot along a Mississippi highway, Carmichael had joined with other black leaders in the Walk Against Fear when he was arrested in Greenwood, Mississippi. After posting bond, Carmichael makes his way to Greenwood Park, where a crowd of 1000 is assembled to hear him speak.
Carmichael, 25, is lean and dark-skinned, with an intellectual’s head, tight and compact. He climbs onto the platform and begins to speak, opening his mouth wide so his white overlarge teeth show far back in his mouth. His voice, strung taut, carries well. He has spent a lot of time behind bars, including 49 days in Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Penitentiary, where he was routinely beaten. He says that today marks the 27th time he has been jailed. Suddenly he is yelling. “And I ain’t going to jail no more! We been saying freedom for six years, and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start saying now,” he roars, “is Black Power!”
The crowd is electrified. “Amen!” they shout. They clap their hands and stamp their feet. Willie Ricks, a committee organizer, leaps onto the platform and begins chanting, “Black Power! What do we want?” The crowd screams back, “Black Power!”
Stokely Carmichael explodes onto national consciousness as the Saturday Evening Post cautions, “We are all Mississippians.” Martin Luther King calls Carmichael’s remarks “an unfortunate choice of words.” Roy Wilkins worries that this is “the raging of race against race.”
At a confluence of historical moment and technology, there appears at about this time, first in Harlem and Watts, then in smaller inner-city communities, a comb whose use dates back to 3500 B.C., with the first examples found in the tombs of ancient Egypt. With its wide-grip handle and single strip of strong, widely spaced teeth, it gets the name the “Afro comb,” or, more simply, “the pick.” With it, blacks have the means to do with their hair what they have never much done before — to tease it. The phrase, a suggestive mix of the playful and the aggressive, captures the new attitude blacks are taking on, not just about their hair, which is to say their looks, which is to say their perceived presence in the United States, but also about the larger society. It is America, they say, that has treated them unfairly, denigrated them as less than human, as monkeys, as baboons. If they are jungle bunnies, then their new hair, kinky and huge, is a drumbeat signal that the bunnies in the jungle are on the move.
Supported by a sudden plethora of hair products, from shampoos and conditioners that soften the hair to an oil-based spray, the final touch, that gives the hair its appearance of dark, glacial distinction, blacks, fretting their hair, are able to make it stand straight up. The worrisome kink — once a stigmatic symbol of a multilayered inferiority — proves itself necessary to the new, brazen display. Stokely Carmichael helped write the Black Power agenda of the Black Panther Party, but it is the poster of Huey Newton, enthroned on rattan, an M16 rifle and a spear in clear view, his Afro shown escaping the confines of a black beret, who gives it its face. And it is Angela Davis who endows this historical moment with a heavy inevitability all the more unyielding when she, clear and articulate, facing jail time and surrounded by her lawyers, takes her place in front of a battalion of television cameras. She does not say much, and need not, for her immense thundercloud of black hair says it all. Her hair is a breathtaking vision of the storm already breaking over the country.
It is, as they say, a new day. And huge hair, both a symbol as well as an expression of a new consciousness, is like a raised flag: huge hair becomes a call, not to battle, but more dangerously, to revolution — an event, warned songwriter Gil Scott-Heron, that will not be televised.
- You will not be able to stay home, brother.
- You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out.
- You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and
- Skip out for beer during commercials,
- Because the revolution will not be televised.
December 23, 2000: A Gumbo Feast
Vernon Sukumu once bore a bomb. Thirty-five years ago, his thick hair, more wavy than kinky, was an incendiary device as black as night; today, at 61, he still sports a full head of hair, but it is a steel gray color, and it is worn short. (Two days ago, he was in a barber’s chair in the Skyline area getting a trim in anticipation of tonight’s get-together.) This evening, then, he is clean-cut; and he is busy. He tastes, he stirs, and he adds seasonings to the contents of a ten-gallon cast-iron pot and stirs some more, using a giant wooden spoon, the size of a shovel, its handle three feet long.
Vernon Sukumu is a modest height — five foot four — and the single-burner stove, heated by propane gas, sitting close to the floor like a Japanese hibachi grill, allows him to easily attend to the contents of that massive pot. The gumbo stock, made from garlic, celery, parsley, bell peppers, and onions, has simmered while Sukumu cooked the okra separately to keep it from going “ropy.” Gumbo aficionados know that the dish is nothing without okra — like fried chicken without the crusty skin — and that okra cooked in the pot has a natural, slimy texture that spreads throughout the dish. But a large crowd is expected here to eat — more than 50 people over the next several hours — and some may be new to the dish. Okra sliding slimily down the throat is an acquired taste sensation; because he wants no one gagging in distressed surprise, Sukumu has gone to the effort of cooking the okra in a separate pot and draining off the liquid. In this gesture, Vernon Sukumu evidences what is essential to him: His thoughts are always on those who might be coming new to the table.
He dips a spoon into the pot, blows to cool it, then takes a sip. Its flavor has achieved appropriate subtlety. Gumbo can have just about anything in it —hot dogs and sausages or pieces of chicken. But Sukumu is from Louisiana, widely regarded as the birthplace of the dish, and he is a purist. Gumbo began as a fish dish, and he likes to keep it that way. His daughter, Ramisi, 27, has already unwrapped the shrimp and Dungeness crabs. She stands beside him, her rose-colored blouse painting her neck and arms with a pretty blush. “All right!” he says, putting out his hand like a surgeon demanding a scalpel. Ramisi hands him the first crustaceans to get dumped into the pot.
“It won’t be long now,” he says, smiling over his shoulder.
Good looks, which register as some degree of self-regard, a private “mirror-mirror-on-the-wall” discourse, are seldom found in immediate combination with kindness or virtuous selflessness, so it is easy to miss that Sukumu is a handsome man. His eyes, seen behind glasses, are kind. He seems taller than he actually is because he has none of the nervousness, the competitive edge that a small man is likely to use to extend his shadow. Rather, Sukumu seems touched by an overlarge vision, a vague melancholy that, in his case, leaves him to appear fully at ease while at the same time he also seems not altogether present. It is not an unappealing trait, for women — and Sukumu has many admirers — are able to read in him the offer: “Nail me down. Draw me out.” The two women in the kitchen — attractive, middle-aged, and smiling — watch him putting the finishing touch to the gumbo.
Every flat space in the kitchen-dining area, except for one of the burners on the stove where the rice is cooking, has been given over to tubs of food. In addition to the gumbo, dozens of stuffed green bell peppers have been arranged in a pan, the deep, disposable aluminum kind used at Thanksgiving to bake a turkey. Another disposable container holds vegetable lasagna. Troughs of banana pudding and peach cobbler sit on the sideboard. The round kitchen table is stacked with paper plates and cups, and plastic forks, spoons, and knives. On the balcony, cooling in an ice chest the size of a steamer trunk, are cans of 7UP, Pepsi, ice tea, beer, and bottled water.
Sukumu’s gumbo feasts are legendary. He has incorporated them into fund-raisers for the political campaigns of Representatives Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee and brought thousands of dollars to their respective campaign coffers. For a marathon runner, then, tonight’s shindig is a walk around the park.
Ten minutes after dropping in the shrimps and crabs, guests are at the door of his second-floor condominium. The earliest arrivals, two women, set down their coats and enter the kitchen, wading into the delectable odors. In their Christmas finery, dark green velvet and purple silk, they are too well dressed to help the kitchen staff, and neither offers. Tonight, they understand, they are expected to kick back and get indulged — this is Sukumu’s party, his way of expressing affection for family and friends, and they are his guests.
- The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
- In four parts without commercial interruption.
- The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
- Blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
- Mitchell, General Abrams, and Spiro Agnew to eat
- Hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.
- The revolution will not be televised.
More guests arrive and enter the kitchen. They pick up paper plates and fill them, then make a circuit to gather flatware and a drink. The living room furniture has been distributed to other parts of the three-bedroom San Carlos apartment and replaced with eight collapsible tables and dozens of chairs set against walls on which hang photographs of Jesse Jackson and Imamu Baraka. There are commercially reproduced images of Malcolm X and Paul Robeson. In one color snapshot, Sukumu sits beside Rosa Parks. It was her refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus that brought that city to a standstill and is traditionally said to be the event that inaugurated the Civil Rights movement. There is an enlarged snapshot of Sukumu’s son Teule, bulky in his varsity football uniform, caught as he streaks across a high school field.
Soon the room is full. It is a notably mixed group — black and white, Latin and Asian, old folks and sleeping babies. There is an easy decorum. A couple of the women, including Ramisi, wear naturals. But the era of the huge hair is long past, and their hair is close-cropped. Only a white man shows up in jeans; everyone else might have come here from church. Guests approach and their host turns in greeting, drawing each new person into the warm whirlpool. Sukumu introduces me to the cardiac specialist who treated him a year and a half ago. He introduces me to Walter Kudumu. I explain that I’m writing about activists of the ’60s. I describe it as a kind of “where are they now” story.
“Well, I’m right here,” laughs Kudumu. Like Sukumu, he seems larger than he actually is (though of average height, he gives the impression of being an exceedingly big man), but unlike our host, restlessness lifts off him like static off nylon. The crowd presses us close; Kudumu appears to be a man who likes his elbowroom. I ask to interview him. “Sure, but if you talk to me, you have to include my wife, Maisha.” At the sound of her name, a pleasant-appearing woman who has been talking at his side turns and smiles. “This is my wife,” he says proudly and with the familiarity of a napkin folded so often that it instantly takes the same crease. He tells her I’m interested in writing about ’60s activists. The woman listens and smiles but has seemed also to draw into herself so that she looks to be watching me from somewhere across the living room.
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.)
Sukumu has never remarried. He has met many wonderful women, he says, but none seemed to have the right mix of political and social consciousness he was looking for. He has never looked beyond the African-American community, explaining that such a liaison would have been an encumbrance and “too distracting” for the kind of socially progressive work he has given his life over to do.
“I’ve only dated black women,” he says. For him, this is a political statement.
In 1990, Sukumu worked for the Urban League and two years later was employed by the Episcopal Community Services, headquartered at Tenth and G. In 1996, he traveled with Rosa Parks in a yearlong 40th anniversary celebration of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Returning to San Diego, he organized a payee service for the mentally ill, called the Welfare Rights Organization. He works for the organization today, administering funds to those incapable of seeing to their own needs, paying weekly residence bills, distributing Social Security checks, etc. He is often called to engage personally in clearing up the many self-disabling conditions that haunt his care-community.
In May 1999, Sukumu was returning home from work one evening, climbing the steps to his apartment, when suddenly things felt all wrong. By the time he reached the front door, he was out of breath and sweating. Ramisi bundled him over to Kaiser hospital in Grantville. His heart attack, he was told, was stress-related.
“I’d always exercised and ate well, and I thought that I didn’t let things get to me. Still, something must have been going on.”
He says this taste of his own mortality has helped him to place his job in perspective. Today, he works out regularly at the Grossmont 24 Hour Fitness and has regular checkups. He continues to receive a clean bill of health from his doctors.
When he looks back on his life, Sukumu describes it as a full one. Imamu Baraka, the poet-playwright and cultural leader, performed his wedding. He knows Barbara Lee, considers Maxine Waters a friend, and is something of a political insider. (He put me in touch with all the ’60s activists interviewed for this article and those, given the sensitive nature of their ongoing work, who asked not to be included.) He has been acquainted with Stokely Carmichael, Harry Belafonte, Maulana Karenga (organizer of the fast-spreading Kwanzaa holiday celebration), and Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Thirty years ago, he organized the West Coast portion of the National Black Political Convention, held in Gary, Indiana, the largest gathering of black political folks in America.
In 1976, Sukumu helped open the first homeless shelter in San Diego and the next year, the first shelter for battered women. As a progressive (rather than a Black Nationalist, say), his concern is for all oppressed people. But he confides that his most marked achievement is his children.
“The chance to have raised them,” he says.
Teule is at a table, emanating the pride-of-possession glow a young man feels when his girlfriend happens to be among the best-looking women in a room. In the kitchen, Ramisi is talking with a girlfriend. Sukumu has said that he wants his children to feel that they have the freedom to attempt whatever they might wish to, to keep their options open. To that end, he has agreed to support Ramisi, who is considering applying to law school.
“That’s what it’s about,” he says, smiling, “being available.” And he opens his arms wide to yet another guest honing in for a hug.
- The revolution will not be brought to you by the
- Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
- Wood and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
- The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
- The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
- The revolution will not make you look five pounds
- Thinner, because
- The revolution will not be televised, brother.
February 6, 2001: A Local Hero
Walter Kudumu and his wife Maisha stand before 150 people assembled in Studio A at the KPBS building at the San Diego State University campus. Kudumu, a tall, brown-skinned man, wears a black suit and pullover whose unrelieved tone makes him look not just taller and darker but dangerous. Then he smiles and the suggestion of danger vanishes. He is smiling down at his wife beside him. Walter Kudumu’s smile throws his features into a generous relief. Unlike Vernon Sukumu, who stood in this same room a year ago to receive a Local Hero Award for his work with the Welfare Rights Organization, Kudumu has traded his youthful looks for what, at 62, is the quiet authority of an elder. Beside him, Maisha Kudumu, 59, wears a full-length traditional Ghanaian dress patterned in bright swatches of orange and red and yellow fabric.
“What I have done could not have been achieved without my wife,” says Kudumu, upon receipt of the Local Hero Award for his work as founder and current executive director of the Center for Parent Involvement in Education. Beside him, Maisha, famously closed-mouthed, stands stock still, engulfed in her flame-colored dress. “We have done it together,” he says.
I am reminded that he reported much the same thing a little more than a month ago at Sukumu’s gumbo feast. This, then, is not a case of the generous gesture endemic to award ceremonies. The facts speak for themselves: husband and wife are a team. This moment is especially remarkable, not for where we have come to, but from the place where it can be said we started.
Thirty-five years ago, as the Civil Rights movement moved north and its urban centers gained a Black Power following, there was plenty of in-your-face street action. It had become a tough, internecine game played on a young man’s turf. As Black Power politics evolved, the players were no longer college-based Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee students with long-term career trajectories, young legislators from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s staff who were willing to walk proposals through committees, or intellectuals and writers, like James Baldwin, participating in history in the making. These were, for the most part, young bloods on a short leash. If some were gifted leaders, inspiring speakers, and brilliant tacticians, and a few were plain thugs, they were all also proto-Americans intent on holding the nation to her claim that this was indeed the land of the free. They were idealists for whom life was like a game of schoolyard pick-up ball with the winner being the one to score the most baskets because of individual talent and skill, not because of who his parents were, how he voted, or where he lived. They believed, like 19th-century immigrants, that in neighborhoods (other than their own) the streets surely were paved with gold. But having viewed up close the reality of American racism, their optimistic assessment was in a death struggle with a dour cynicism. It was a Manichean world-view with little room for gray, little room for compromise. Unsmiling when they told America on herself, they were dangerous (“Revolution!” they said), they were rude (“Now!” they cried), and the media saw a good thing and went into a feeding frenzy.
In some long-ago interview, someone was asked what position was the black woman to take in the revolution. The answer that came still holds the power to scandalize: “In the revolution, the black woman has two positions to take — behind her man, or on her back.” The remark continues to surface in discussions of that time as a measure of the misogyny that ran rampant; yet, in retrospect, it is reasonable that a bunch of young men, in that pre-feminist age, facing down the U.S. government in an undeclared guerrilla war, would need to pose themselves as cocksure tough guys. I can name only two women associated with the black nationalist movement, Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver, who rose to prominence; and Cleaver first came to notice as the wife of Eldridge Cleaver, author of Soul on Ice. The best-selling memoir put forth self-serving, controversial arguments (rape is a political act, for example, and homosexuality is a perversity endemic to a decadent culture) that won wide currency. Having been put on notice, black women stood by their men and lay down for them. Their white sisters, like the gays, meanwhile, went off to start their own revolutions.
Under conditions not just chauvinistic but misogynistic — a pulling of the short hairs of political discourse — Walter and Maisha Kudumu began the work that would bring them, more than three decades later, to the floor of Studio A.
- There will be no pictures of you and Willie Mays
- Pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run
- Or trying to slide that color TV into a stolen ambulance.
- NBC will not be able to predict the winner at 8:32
- or report from 29 districts.
- The revolution will not be televised.
Walter Kimball arrived in San Diego from Zimmerman, Louisiana, with his family on May 8, 1948. He was eight years old. Enrolled in Stockton Elementary School (now Martin L. King Elementary), at 31st Street and Island, it was here, in 1949, that his career in community activism began.
“In traffic patrol, the white boys were being promoted over the blacks, and that seemed unfair to us.”
In protest, young Walter and some of the other black patrol boys refused to attend the pleasurable weeklong patrol camp.
Young Walter met Martha Roberts that first year, but it was four years later, when she was in the sixth grade, that she made any impression on him. He remembers knocking on the door of the Robertses’ house at L and 31st Street. He’d dressed up because he and his friend, James Roberts, were going to hang out in the streets. Martha came to the door and eyed him through the screen. After a sour moment, she yelled to her brother, “James! One of your hoodlum friends is here!”
- There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
- Brothers on the instant replay.
- There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
- Brothers on the instant replay.
- There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being
- Run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand-new process.
- There will be no slow motion or still lifes of Roy
- Wilkins strolling through Watts in a red, black, and
- Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
- For just the proper occasion.
- The revolution will not be televised.
At the Center for Parent Involvement in Education offices on Federal Boulevard, on the wall in a framed photograph, Martin Luther King shakes hands with Malcolm X. The early and marked differences between the two civil rights leaders created a crisis of affiliation for African-Americans eager to work for social change. In April 1965, Walter and Martha, now engaged, were in Los Angeles for a John Coltrane concert when they decided to stop in at a mosque. They’d heard of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, and that evening, “Big Red” — Malcolm X — was speaking.
This was the period in which Malcolm X, in his famous eponymous speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” declared that there were only those two options. Walter Kimball, like many young people, was drawn to this violent either/or vision. But Martin Luther King had just won the Nobel Peace Prize four months earlier, in December 1964, and the young man had been taken with the civil rights leader’s analysis of class and community. He tried to synthesize Malcolm X’s fire with King’s cool analysis as he began, not long after, his community work. He was given the name Kudumu (“He who goes forth”).
In high school, Kudumu had seen, firsthand, how race supported class and was used to undercut achievement. He speaks of how his favorite subjects were math and chemistry. “Especially chemistry. I wasn’t an A student, but I just loved it.” In 1956, Kudumu was that era’s version of a homeboy, a smooth operator. However, behind the clothes and the pose, he had dreams, and at San Diego High School, he shared one of them with his 11th-grade counselor. He wanted, he said, to become a scientist.
“Negroes are no good at that kind of thing!” responded the counselor.
Kudumu compares his white counselor to his English teacher, William Paine. One afternoon, Paine, an African-American, was moving through the class, returning essays. Walter got his back with a grade of D. He vividly recalls how the teacher bent low and whispered sternly in his ear. “You can do better than that!”
Kudumu has gone on to spend his life translating that statement into an educational protocol, but two weeks after his counseling session, he dropped out of high school.
“It was an example of the self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says today.
Not quite 16, he tried but failed to enlist in the Air Force. Returning to high school, but required to stay out for a semester, Kudumu, in order to graduate with his class, enrolled at Snyder Continuation School while taking a full academic load at San Diego High. In the last semester of his senior year, he was in school from seven in the morning until five in the evening. But he graduated.
In Studio A, Kudumu is being honored for his work with the Center for Parent Involvement in Education, but his activism profile goes way back: He was a founding member of the Afro-American Association of San Diego and a member of the Congress of Racial Equality’s Self-Help Through Neighborhood Leadership program. At San Diego State, he was active in the Black Students’ Council, vice-chair of the National Involvement Association, a member of the Congress of African People. He helped develop the Institute of Afro-American Studies as part of the Kuumba Foundation.
In 1968, Walter and Martha married, and Kudumu, in a name-giving ceremony, gave to his wife the name Maisha (“life”). She, in turn, as good as her name, bore them four girls and a boy. Mwenda lives in Ghana, Mashariki spends time in Cuba, and Milele is in medical school in North Carolina. His son is named Malik, and the youngest daughter, named after the mother, is called, affectionately Little Maisha. His children have attended Stanford, Berkeley, and Duke, as well as the University of Rochester and Tugaloo College in Mississippi.
Kudumu has worked on a dozen programs directed toward youth. He founded the local Urban Corps Program and served on the Mayor’s Council on Youth Opportunity. He has coordinated and assisted with several voter registration and political campaigns, served on economic development committees and boards of directors. But it is the Center for Parent Involvement in Education, established in 1989, that today takes up most of his time. Founded to address the “educational crisis facing African-American families,” the center’s purpose is “to inform, inspire, and empower parents for effective participation in the education of their children and to promote excellence in education.”
According to the center, children achieve when the significant people in their lives expect them to achieve. To this end, and designed around the African-American experience, the center offers parents workshops with topics that include “Rights and Responsibilities of Parents,” “How to Support Your Child’s Literacy Development at Home,” “Building Your Child’s Self-Esteem,” “Parents, Students and Teachers as Learning Partners,” and “Understanding Child Development and Peer Pressure.” An outreach recruitment activity, “Operation Doorstep,” brings parents into the program. A follow-up component, “Parent Leadership Training,” identifies and trains for educational leadership.
Kudumu acknowledges that the work is an uphill battle and not always easy.
“But what’s the choice?” he asks.
He views his work as an unspoken dialogue with Ward Connerly, whose successful campaign to overturn California’s affirmative action statutes has undermined years of effort by people like Walter and Maisha Kudumu and the work of organizations like the Center for Parent Involvement in Education.
“I saw Connerly once — I was this close…” Kudumu recounts, extending his arms, “and I had to hold myself back from smacking him in the mouth!”
His position, developed over the course of nearly 50 years, is simple: “Those who don’t know about the very real failures to equality in American society have a legitimate excuse not to do anything. But for those who know those inequities, and I count Ward Connerly among this number, there is no excuse.”
Maisha’s office adjoins her husband’s at the Center for Parent Involvement in Education headquarters on Federal Boulevard. The office suite has a comfortable, lived-in feeling. Here she maintains records, schedules appointments, and serves as the administrative assistant. She helps to organize all programs. Like at the awards ceremony, she remains a quiet but powerful presence. The center’s staff and colleagues, students and parents, recognize that the organization would grind to a halt without her.
Encouraged to speak at the awards ceremony, she looks at the audience. “Thank you for the honor you have shown my husband,” she says.
Maisha Kudumu is not concerned that her personal effacement may run counter, say, to a feminist position on gender advancement. She has known her husband since she was seven, loved him for nearly four decades, and knows that honoring him thus honors her, for they have helped to make each other who they are. The couple accepts the applause, and then she leads the way back to their seats. Eyes easily trace their path, for her flame-colored gown is like a beacon.
- Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
- Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
- Women will not care if Dick finally got down with
- Jane on Search for Tomorrow because black people
- Will be in the street looking for a brighter day
- The revolution will not be televised.
June 7, 2001: In the Street
It is after one in the afternoon, and the crowd of 500, assembled at the Civic Center downtown, now begins its march west to rally at the steps of the County Administration Center. Many of the marchers, most of whom are women, wear emerald green T-shirts printed with the name of the protest organizer, United Domestic Workers, and the initials of that organization’s affiliate, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees). Their logo, printed in gold against the bright green background, shows an in-flight dove inside a house centered in the middle of an Aztec-style sun. The logo is the size of a dinner plate and sits on the chest like a medallion. Marchers carry red and green signs that read, “Better pay, better care, justice for home-care workers and consumers.” They chant, “¡Sí, se puede!” and “What time is it? Union time!” Overhead the sky is bright blue.
The march culminates a long campaign in which home-care workers have packed the room at supervisors’ board meetings and thousands of workers, consumers, and community supporters have sent postcards and letters urging the board to act on the proposed ordinances. One hundred thirty-three religious and business leaders, elected officials, and community organizations have signed a public statement supporting the ordinances. Five days from now, the Board of Supervisors will vote on two ordinances to create a public authority to negotiate as the employer of record with the union.
Thirty home-care consumers in wheelchairs lead the march. One of these, Jessica Reifenrath, 8, can have little idea of what is happening. She lies supine and helpless in her bright pink wheelchair. Her mother, Cheiko Tanaka, 49, angles a visor with a “Padres” inscription to keep the sun out of her eyes. Tanaka, who has tied her own long, dark brown hair back out of her face, carries a suction unit in case the child needs her throat cleared.
A year and a half ago, Jessica, who was born with Down’s syndrome, went into crisis while recovering from surgery. Because the case is under review, Tanaka does not name the hospital, the surgery, nor the exact nature of the medical crisis.
“Sure, Jessica had Down’s syndrome,” she says, “but the child we took to the hospital was happy. She played and laughed, and she was assuming responsibility and enjoying more and more independence. The child we brought home has a new diagnosis, cerebral palsy, and is utterly incapable of ever doing anything for herself. She cannot even turn herself over in bed.”
Lani Reifenrath, Jessica’s ten-year-old sister, walks on the other side of the wheelchair. Their father, David Reifenrath, a tall man with brown hair and sunglasses, walks on the outside. Lani carries a sign with a quote from Mother Teresa. “Love begins with the closest ones, the ones at home.”
When her daughter became ill, Tanaka, a 1970 graduate of Samuel C. Morse High School, dropped her plans to go into dolphin therapy. Now, for the past 18 months, she has been caring for Jessica full time. Afraid to leave her in the care of strangers, Tanaka remains on duty in the house. Only on special days do she and Jessica get out. Last May, the pair were guests at the Tubman-Chávez Center on Euclid Avenue, where, with four other recipients, Tanaka was honored by 18 state and local officials with a Mother’s Day award. Today is another special day.
There are 15,000 San Diego County seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities who depend on personal-care services to remain in their homes. Home-care workers cook, clean, give baths, change catheters, and feed people. While the workers make minimum wage, the service they provide keeps their charges out of costly and impersonal institutions and saves the county an immense sum. Workers do not receive health-care insurance, sick leave, paid holidays, or other benefits. The work is hard, the conditions are often difficult, and with low pay and no benefits, the turnover rate is high.
Tanaka says that she felt isolated and alone in her house, caring for Jessica. “But she is my daughter, and I would be there if I were paid nothing. But what about care workers who are raising a family on a minimum-wage salary, who have to worry about whether to pay next month’s gas bill or buy their kids shoes or feed them?”
Four days from now, Tanaka will elaborate on this message when she speaks to the Board of Supervisors before they vote. Two or three times she will have to leave the proceedings to suction Jessica, but she returns in time to speak. “I am here, not just for my daughter or my family,” she will say, “but for those workers who cannot be here, who are at this moment doing their jobs, and doing them well.”
Now, on the march, she looks over at her husband and daughter Lani and remarks that sometimes, with a sick child, you just get swept along.
“It’s easy to forget that life goes on, that a family is made up of many people, and that they each have lives and a right to live them.”
The march reaches its destination in less than 45 minutes. On the approach to the County Administration Center, Lani holds up her sign with its quote from Mother Teresa.
“I wanted both of my children here,” says her mother. “Because Jessica has a right to be heard, and because, for Lani, I wanted her to learn that things don’t just happen, that they are made to happen.”
- There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock
- News and no pictures of hairy-armed women’s
- Liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
- The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb or
- Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
- Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.
- The revolution will not be televised.
The TV cameras aim at Fahari Jeffers. Cofounder, secretary-treasurer, and general counsel of the United Domestic Workers, Jeffers, 47, smiles at the crowd. Small, almost petite, the hint of red in her hair and the green of her T-shirt help her to stand out among those standing on the steps of the county building. Amid the cheers, Fahari says, “We are here, but we still have a way to go.”
A native San Diegan, Fahari Jeffers commends members of the crowd for their dedication and hard work and urges them to continue in their efforts to insure a fair wage and benefits for home-care domestic workers. It is with the recent resolution of differences with Service Employees International Union that organizational efforts were stepped up, and today the demonstrators find themselves standing in the sunshine in front of the County Administration Center.
No one knows better than Jeffers what an achievement this gathering represents and how much work remains to be done.
“Remember, we’ve had to fight every inch of the way!” she tells the crowd, reminding them of the challenges posed by larger unions and an unreceptive local government and the fact that no one had yet been able to successfully organize the highly dispersed domestic workers, many of whom have little education and low skills. “But we knew we could do it!” Her delivery invokes the memory of Malcolm X and, more recently, the appearances of Representative Maxine Waters. Her remarks burn like hot ice.
The United Domestic Workers of America/AFSCME numbers about 10,000 members statewide, with nearly 4000 in San Diego County. It is the first union for domestic workers in the United States and one of the few unions headquartered in San Diego, a city with a reputation for being less than friendly to labor. Jeffers has said that this reputation derives from the town’s overall conservative character and its historical status as military-dominated and because it’s home to many retirees.
“This is not a combination typically associated with a lot of labor activity.” But her experiences in labor law and union organizing have shown her that sometimes it is in places where activism is not strong on either side that new things can take place. “It is because there is no critical mass on either side to prevent it.”
Early on, her husband, Ken Seaton-Msemaji, president of United Domestic Workers, recognized that if the infant union were to survive, bipartisan political support was essential, and he went out to win that support. (The union’s informational packet attests to the success of his efforts. It includes letters of praise, for example, from San Francisco’s mayor, Willie Brown, then the Assembly Speaker, and Representative John Doolittle, then a state senator.) As he steps forward to the microphone, Seaton-Msemaji, a lean-faced, light-skinned man who wears glasses and a dark jacket with the organization’s rectangular green pin on his lapel, completes a move that began nearly 40 years ago with a bit of schoolboy high jinks.
In 1962, Seaton, then a tenth grader at Fremont High School in Watts, found out that he was going to fail his driver’s education course because he’d missed so many classes. With attendance weighted into the final grade, the 15-year-old’s solution was to steal the teacher’s roll book. (He figured that if there were no record of anyone’s attendance, the instructor would have to discount that element in the grading formula.) However, he was caught, expelled, and transferred to Washington High School, a predominately white school in southwest Los Angeles.
“I arrived there at the tail end of some terrorist activity,” he says. The deep resonance of his voice owes much to the Kools he cannot break himself from smoking, despite the serious bronchitis that plagues him. “A gang of whites, calling themselves the Spook Hunters, organized out of Torrance, had been renting moving vans that they used to pick up blacks, transport them to isolated spots, then tar and feather them.”
He, like the other black students, felt himself an easy target at Washington. “We learned to keep our eyes open, to always know what was going on around us.”
Seaton-Msemaji marks this high school experience as his introduction to political awareness the same way Kudumu recalls his elementary school boycott of patrol camp as his. Seaton-Msemaji went into mainstream civil rights work, but in 1965, disillusioned by what he’d seen of “phony liberal sentiments hiding a racist ideology,” he moved into what he described as “extreme” black and Chicano power movements.
Seaton-Msemaji takes the microphone after his wife. As his voice carries over the crowd, there is something gentle, oddly profound, and almost sad in his presence. Watching him, one catches a glimpse of the toll that long-term political action takes.
His passion for justice, his dream of multiculturalism, and his rage — his early “take no prisoners” attitude — Seaton-Msemaji credits to his West Indian background. His mother’s parents came from Jamaica, and his father was a native Trinidadian who had little patience for American segregation policies. As a child, Seaton-Msemaji remembers how his father, Kenold Joseph Seaton Sr., on a cross-country trip, ignored the Whites Only sign at a roadside diner in Nevada. His wife urged caution, but the elder Seaton told her, “My children are hungry, and I’m going to see that they’re fed.” He disappeared inside the diner and minutes later returned with bags of food. (It is worth noting that political firebrands Marcus Garvey and Stokely Carmichael also came from the West Indies.)
Seaton-Msemaji arrived in San Diego in 1970 to work with Ron Karenga’s national cultural movement. Two years before, at 23, he’d met a 14-year-old girl and, with an awareness that he shares in tones of amazement, knew from the first that he was going to marry her.
Lonnie Jeffers, who’d left home the year before, had dropped out of high school and was living on her own. “She was smart, articulate, and strong. But she was too young to date, so I waited two years.”
“Believe it or not,” says Jeffers, speaking of her early independence, “at the time I was ready to be exposed to an organizational ideology that challenged us to act in new and enlightened ways. In my case, age had nothing to do with readiness.”
At the black nationalist gatherings they attended, Seaton-Msemaji would take the teenager aside and urge her to return to high school. “She’d dropped out in the middle of the 11th grade, but she was obviously brilliant, way ahead of the game, and who knew what she might do? It was an exciting time, and we needed all the intellectual power we could muster to help guide us through.”
The air in those meetings crackled with the prospects for change. It was the promise of a new age, and new identities seemed called for. Across the country, civil rights activists were dropping the names, they said, that were thrust upon them by their former slave-owning masters. Poet-activist LeRoi Jones became Imamu Baraka; spirited spokesperson Stokely Carmichael took the name of two African leaders and went by Kwame Ture; and Cassius Clay, in the most celebrated of name-change cases, joined the Nation of Islam as Muhammad Ali. It happened that Vernon Sukumu and Walter Kudumu and his wife Maishi were in the hall in Los Angeles in 1968 at the ceremony where Lonnie was given the name “Fahari” (“magnificent and rare”). Three years before, Kenold Joseph Seaton Jr. had been invested with the Swahili name Msemaji (“the speaker”), which he attached to “Seaton” with the help of a hyphen.
In their first weeks in San Diego, Jeffers enrolled in continuation school, and from September through February, she finished the second half of the 11th grade and the entire 12th grade. In March, she began to take courses at City College. She was just 16, and — like Seaton-Msemaji — she never went anywhere without packing a weapon.
Many of the political activists at the time had grown up in the streets and were not afraid of playing tough. (With the Freedom of Information Act, it has since become known that U.S. government agents secretly infiltrated these groups and instigated in-group dissension and the power struggles.) For a while, Seaton-Msemaji was protected by a couple of bodyguards. Nobody slept in the same place two nights in a row; but he says he felt safest with Fahari.
“I would, and did, trust her with my life.”
Theirs is as much a marriage as a professional team, each of them dedicated to aiding the working poor. Seaton-Msemaji has four children from a previous marriage and, having formally and informally adopted a covey of kids, they together are the proud parents of a multicultural mix that numbers 21 children. If that were not enough, Jeffers finds even more opportunities to interact with young people through her work organizing St. Rita’s annual bazaar. For the past eight years, she has given the same attention to detail to that fund-raiser as she has to other work: with the union, on the board of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and as a delegate in the last election to the Democratic National Convention.
It is, however, Jeffers’s internal state, what her husband describes as her “fortitude,” that he reserves for greatest praise. “Her courage and resolution,” he says, “is unlike anyone I’d ever met with the exception of one man.”
That man was César Chávez. The three met him in 1972, when Chávez came to San Diego on a “‘No on Proposition 22” campaign. Seaton-Msemaji cannot speak of that man or their time together without a catch in his voice.
“Following him around, we soon came under his spell.” He uses the word “holy” to describe Chávez, whose nonviolence helped define Seaton-Msemaji’s own later attitude.
“I came from Watts, where the concept was foreign, so it took a while to sink in.”
The concept took for him in 1979, when Rufino Contreras, a United Farm Worker member, was murdered and the town of Calexico was on the verge of blowing up. But day and night, César Chávez went around to farmworkers, supporters, and others, urging them to remain peaceful and nonviolent. This was particularly significant to those close to Chávez because it was clear that he was struggling with his own rage.
“César, like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, believed that every human being was valuable and that somehow, by doing the right thing and respecting the humanity of our adversaries, they would one day join on the side of justice. All of these lessons had a profound effect on those who knew him.”
Chávez and his family were farm laborers, and he felt that farm laborers and domestic workers were the two most severely exploited groups of working people in America. Chávez founded a union for the first group; Seaton-Msemaji and Jeffers were in the human rights leader’s back yard on August 14, 1977, when he asked if they were willing to build a union for the second. With Seaton-Msemaji, Jeffers, and a friend, Greg Akili, on board, the Domestic Workers Organizing Committee was founded.
But Seaton-Msemaji was not convinced and went to Chávez at one point early in their work. “A large number of domestic workers are Mexican, and I’m black,” he told the former farm laborer. “I wonder if they will allow a black person to be their leader.”
Chávez’s answer was simple. “They will follow anyone who is truly committed to them.”
Although Seaton-Msemaji is an accomplished speaker at the microphone, words fail him and tears form behind his glasses when he reflects upon the fact that Chávez did not live to enjoy the fruits of their work. Seaton-Msemaji acknowledges that he has never fully come to grips with Chávez’s death.
“Some months before, he’d fasted for 36 days — his last fast — and he never fully recovered. One night he went to sleep and his lungs filled with water, and that was it. That was on April 23, 1993.”
Fifty thousand people attended the funeral. Forty thousand marched through Delano, where the funeral was held. And now 500 men, women, and children have appeared at the steps of the County Administration Center. They are all colors and all ages. It is a true rainbow gathering.
- Seaton-Msemaji calls out, “Remember June 12!”
- The revolution will not be right back after a message
- About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
- You will not have to worry about a germ in your
- Bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
- The revolution will not go better with Coke.
- The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath.
- The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
June 12, 2001: The Problem
Word comes at 11:15, while Vernon Sukumu is at his desk at the Welfare Rights Organization. His headset in place, he has been on the phone with a client for the last half-hour, unraveling an account of misplaced funds and dire need.
Maisha Kudumu is at her filing cabinet, on the trail of a misplaced memo, when word comes.
Walter Kudumu is scribbling thoughts on paper, preparing remarks for a series of upcoming meetings with elementary school principals from council districts 3,4,7, and 8 when, at 11:15, word comes.
At the county building, members of the United Domestic Workers have packed the main chamber and spilled into rooms across the hall and upstairs. When the vote is taken, Fahari Jeffers and Ken Seaton-Msemaji are seated in the paneled main chambers.
They were once young and lean, their hair was huge, their speech was loud, and their message was simple: Revolution Now! Black men in leather jackets pointed guns; women wearing traditional African garb raised fists. And no one was smiling!
In this media dream, sound bites like “The ballot or the bullet!” “No Vietcong ever called me nigger!” and “Whoever is not part of the solution is part of the problem!” hit like napalm, destroying forever the Norman Rockwell version of midcentury America.
Today, the young are middle-aged, and many (like Huey Newton on an Oakland street and Kwame Ture in Guinea) have died before their time. As for huge hair, just as President Nixon drained the call of all relevancy when he raised his fist at a news conference and declared “Power to the People!” so huge hair lost its revolutionary aspect, became a fashion statement, and then the stuff of Saturday Night Live skits. But symbols are only a particularized vision and can be jettisoned. Meanwhile, gains have been made and legacies left. A real revolution took place, even if setbacks have come.
Sukumu has reclaimed his health after his heart attack. He views progressive politics as a chance to do God’s work.
The Kudumus — husband and wife — champion education as one key to unlocking a future more generous to all Americans.
Fahari Jeffers, who says it is a sense of dignity that defines life, hopes to “always have the capacity to be personally disruptive.” The ability to incite embarrassment, she says, is a badge of honor.
“My biggest concern is not about this vote,” says Ken Seaton-Msemaji, speaking before the Board of Supervisors. “This is the politics of the day, and I believe we will carry the day. I am concerned about what will happen to us later, when we are huge.”
Earlier, speaking to members of the fledgling union, in asking for their votes, he had often reminded them that a “no” vote was as important as a “yes” vote because it meant that each of them was expressing his or her choice.
And choice is the great gift, the revolutionary prize.
“The problem our union faces,” he told me, “is that we must build an organizational culture that works against the concept of leadership. We must work to create a culture that challenges the membership to maintain the same spirit of integrity and hard work that sends them into people’s homes to care for the sick and aged.”
Power corrupts. He has seen it happen and struggles to insure that it will not happen here, in this new-breathing organization to which he has devoted so much of his adult life. Perhaps this is a clue to the air of sadness that seems to cling to him. It may offer an answer to the stress that downed Vernon Sukumu, to the static energy that seems to lift off Walter Kudumu’s shoulders, to Maisha Kudumu’s reluctance to stand in the spotlight. Fahari Jeffers is a whirlwind of extraordinary responsibility and unceasing activity; and Ken Seaton-Msemaji still weeps for a man he loved who died nearly a decade ago. There is no single way to account for those who have gone to the edge and looked over. And no way, perhaps, for them to adequately describe what it is that they have seen.
“My work is a privilege,” says Seaton-Msemaji.
In Room 310 of the County Administrative Center, San Diego’s Board of Supervisors vote unanimously to approve the two ordinances establishing a public authority for home-care workers. Notice of this is sent to the governor’s desk in Sacramento.
- The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
- Will not be televised, will not be televised.
- The revolution will be no rerun, brothers;
- The revolution will be live.