We hope that we can give you something, something, whatever it is that you need tonight.
They are shooting us down one by one. Don’t forget that.
I’m not gonna be suicidal, if I can help it.
–Bernice Johnson Reagon
My favorite Nina Simone moment features her beginning and then refusing to continue a song. The song opens, “ My father always promised me / we would live in France (‘you know you don’t believe that’) / We’d go boating on the Seine / and I would learn to dance.” After a few more bars, she stops singing, and says, “I don’t want to sing this song. It’s not me. My father always promised me that we would be free, but he did not promise me that we would live in France.” She continues, “He promised me that we would live in peace. And that, maybe I can still get.” No matter how many times I encounter this little moment, I am arrested by its by its truthtelling, by the force of its demand. Put crudely, it might be something like “freedom, not fantasy.” But that’s not quite right.
Perhaps I glom onto this moment because my father’s word was mobility, never freedom. His advice: “make yourself as mobile as possible; make it possible to move anywhere in the world, to build a life anywhere.” It was advice rooted in the career-destroying repression of Moi’s Kenya. I wonder, in retrospect, if this was his dream: to live anywhere but here. And if the obligations of marriage and children made a certain trajectory of the world impossible. In memory, he did not like to travel. At least, it seems, not as much as my mother. Though I think he was restless, unsettled. There’s a restlessness about being in place that does not stem from a desire to travel elsewhere. It might be a longing for a different kind of world, a different set of affective possibilities.
Freedom has always been my mother’s word: wiathi. Self rule. It is anchored in Kenya’s political history. It suggests the cessation of death-making horror. The ability to make choices—no matter how circumscribed. And the freedom to fight and keep fighting. “Keguro,” she told me recently, “I am a fighter. I have always been a fighter.” At other times, she describes herself as a “survivor.” These are not rhetorical flourishes. But this is her story to tell, not mine. We do not envision freedom in the same way—but this is the word she gave me. A vernacular. As with my father, it was a word that mattered under Moi’s regime. For her, wiathi was incarnated at the moment of independence. It has always been freedom from colonial rule, a singular moment, frozen in time, a rupture. A particular energy from that moment.
In her lexicon, wiathi is not yet here.
In 1985, she attended the UN Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi. I first heard the words to “We Shall Overcome” then. By heard, I mean this is when the words first stuck—words she sang as she picked me up from primary school. Recently, we have been talking about women’s history. She dug up a diary from the conference. A young, radiantly beautiful, solemn Winnie Mandela adorns the diary’s front, background to a title: Women of Southern African: Struggles and Achievements. The diary runs from July 1985 to July 1986. Individual calendar pages alternate with pictures and profiles of women from Southern Africa: Ida Jimmy from Namibia, Julia Zvobgo from Zimbabwe, Ruth Chinamano from Zimbabwe, Abigail Somanje from Zambia, Victoria Chitepo from Zimbabwe, Sally Mugabe from Zimbabwe, Charlotte Maxeke from South Africa, Naomi Nhiwatiwa from Zimbabwe, Jane Ngwenya from Zimbabwe, Mbuya Nehanda from the Shona resistance to colonialism, Lydia Chikwavaire from Zimbabwe, Sarah Kachingwe from Zimbabwe, Elizabeth Sibeko from South Africa, Freda Williams from Namibia, Lilian Ngoyi from South Africa, Chita Honwana from Mozambique, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele from South Africa, Tendai Bare from Zimbabwe, Ellen Nomsa Musialele from Namibia, Winnie Mandela from South Africa, and, on the final page, the women who conceived of and produced the diary: Joyze Chenzire Mutasa from Zimbabwe, Fran Willard from the U.K., and Stephanie Leland from the U.K.
A particularly poignant entry on Angola reads:
Angolan women cannot work in peace. Continued attacks from the racist South African regime make the mobilization of women in defense of their lives and of national territory an ever-present necessity.
FAPLA (People’s Armed Force for the Liberation of Angola) and ODP (People’s Defence Organization) have both men and women in service. Protection of fields, crops, homes, schools and hospitals is a vital part of the work.
Angola has a rich history of events in which women in arms took part, like Queen Ginga, Deolinda Rodrigues and Helena de Almeida who, through their example, serve as an incentive to the present generation engaged in the struggle to defend Angola’s territorial integrity.
The Square of Heroines inaugurated on March 2, Angola Women’s Day, honours the memory of five founder members of OMA—Deolina Rodrigues, Lucretia Paim, Irene Cohen, Egracia dos Santo and Teresa Alfonso who was killed on March 12 1967 while on an important military mission of the MPLA in the Northern Region of Angola.
Along with profiles of individual women and brief histories of ongoing struggles, the diary also features pictures of women’s cooperatives from across Southern Africa: women pounding maize in Mozambique, women participating in a peace march in Angola, the Asakhani Women’s Co-op in Zimbabwe cooking meals for the elderly, women working in a peanut factory in Zimbabwe, women sewing in Angola, and women making bricks in Swaziland (among many other images).
Wiathi is my mother’s word.
As I look at these images and profiles almost 30 years later, I wonder, abstractly, about the women depicted in them. The many I do not know (that’s most of them). Bernice Johnson Reagon is in my head:
There are some grey haired women I see running around occasionally, and we have to talk to those folks about how come they didn’t commit suicide forty years ago. Don’t take everything they say because some of the stuff they gave up to stay around ain’t worth considering. But be sure to get on your agenda some old people and try to figure out what it will be like if you are a raging radical fifty years from today.
The diary is empty. My mother kept it, but never wrote in it. We might read this as “conference swag,” those peculiar items we collect to say, “I was there,” but never use. I think, here, of the many tote bags from academic conferences that I was glad to leave behind.
I envision the diary as a kind of dream journal: a place for women who attended the conference to write down their freedom dreams. To imagine the world they were making as a possibility. The blank pages disturb me.
Perhaps freedom dreams are always cessation dreams. We celebrate when the worst of the present ends. And we struggle to imagine the after of overcoming—that “someday.” And, perhaps, we dare not write down how we imagine that “someday,” a task we leave to those who dare imagine a “beyond.”
Perhaps we leave blank pages to invite futures—somedays—that we do not yet know how to imagine.