Today’s post is part of a week-long series featuring excerpts from a special issue on activist Queen Mother Audley Moore. The issue is now available in Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International
I didn’t know it then, but Queen Mother Moore was to be a major influence on my political life until this day. As a young woman activist coming of age during the late 1960s and early 1970s, she turned out to be the foundation of my ideological development. She gave me a political platform that has lasted me to this day: Black people have the right to decide our own destiny (self-determination), self respect for one’s self as a woman and for Black people, opposition to all forms of oppression, international solidarity, especially with people of the Global South, and the right to reparations for Black people’s free labor during slavery and sharecropping.
I was raised in a middle class family in the 1950s and ’60’s in South Jamaica, New York and then in the small, Black Long Island communities of Amityville and Roosevelt. I had both mother and father at home where the mantra was “get your education, stay in school, go to college.” This was logical since my father was a teacher and my mother was a clerk at the unemployment office. At the same time, the unspoken lesson was “serve the community.” They belonged to a Black fraternity or sorority and other clubs that partied and raised money for a senior center and youth scholarships. They organized food and clothing drives. They also joined the picket lines to get the Amityville school district to desegregate the new junior high school.
We watched TV about anything that had to do with Black people. The defining moments of my life were when I saw the Birmingham, Alabama police sic dogs on Black protestors and when the four little girls were murdered when their Birmingham church was bombed. From then on, Daddy and I would debate what direction Black folks should go. Early, he maintained a pro-integrationist, staunch Democratic Party stance. But over the years, in trying to help young people with their self-image and confidence, he began studying Black history. Then he got into African and Egyptian history. In later years, his politics became more militant.
Looking back, it was probably perfectly logical that I, who had picketed with my parents at age 11, would, at 15, immerse myself in the Black Liberation Movement. It was also logical that I would gravitate towards Audley “Queen Mother” Moore’s strong sense of Black nationalist consciousness and resistance, international solidarity, class consciousness, woman consciousness, and her central cause: reparations for Black people.
Mother, as I and others eventually called her, was born in New Iberia, Louisiana in 1898, she recalled, to a “half-white man who was the product of the rape of her grandmother.” She stopped school at the fourth grade by which time both of her parents had died. She trained as a hairdresser and by age 15 supported her two younger sisters. During World War I, Mother and her sisters, according to interviews, organized support services for Black soldiers when the Red Cross denied them assistance. In the 1920s, she joined the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Marcus Garvey’s organization and movement that promoted the development of institutions by and for the Black community under the mantra: One God, One Aim, One Destiny. He organized the first, short-lived, Black-owned shipping company, the Black Star Line. Queen Mother recalled that she was one of the first to invest in it.
Mother, her husband, and her sisters moved around looking for work, eventually settling in Harlem, NY. She became an organizer of Black domestic workers and a leader of the Harriet Tubman Association, a group that fought against white landlords who evicted Black tenants. In the 1930s, she joined the International Labor Defense and then the Communist Party (CP). As a member of the CP, Mother became a street orator. She spoke against Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia and in favor of the Scottsboro Boys. She became campaign manager for Black communist Ben Davis and helped him win two successive terms on New York’s City Council.
When I first saw her, in 1970, she was speaking at what would become the National Black Theatre (NBT). Founded in 1968, the NBT was committed to community service and the power of Black Theatre to uplift, strengthen, and heal Black communities. I was one of a group of Roosevelt, Long Island, high school students leading anti-Vietnam War and Black community control demonstrations. I was eager to get further connections to the rest of the Black community and tried to go everywhere and anywhere there was a protest or a cultural event taking place. When I came up the long stairs and around the corner of the building, I was struck by this elderly lady, sitting alone in the front of the room, commanding everyone’s attention. Finger pointed in the air, she held everyone’s interest as she talked about reparations and Malcolm X. She was dressed in a floor-length beaded dress with an organza shawl draped over one shoulder and a matching turban.
After her presentation, she opened the floor for questions, and as the small crowd was leaning towards the back of the room, she urged people to come closer. My crew, along with everyone else hesitated a bit and then, in our youthful boldness, stepped out ahead of everybody else. I tentatively raised my hand to ask a question. Her piercing eyes sized me up and she said something like, “Speak, child, speak!” We must have impressed her because some months later, our teacher, former SNCC member Emily Moore, and our little crew was able to convince her to come to Roosevelt and speak to a gathering at a home next door to me.
Mother always regaled us with stories of Black people standing up against oppression and intimidation. She told us stories to teach us lessons, perspectives, and approaches. In one story, the State of Louisiana was going to execute a Black man. The churches only wanted to pray for the brother’s life. So she organized church delegations to pray at the courthouse steps. When that didn’t work, she organized the churches to send their choirs to sing against his murder. When that didn’t work, they became more open to marching in the streets. With this story she taught us about approaching people where they see themselves most able to respond to issues and building from there.
She taught other lessons about building institutions to meet the needs of the community. Queen Mother and her sister, Mother Langley, had a piece of land in upstate New York called Mount Addis Ababa. They would recruit people, especially young people, to come “up on the mountain, on the land” so that we could get a taste of nature. Various Black organizations would organize trips “up on the mountain” to spend the night or the weekend. It was there that Mother and Mother Langley set up a tiny building, the size of an old fashioned outhouse. They called it something like “the smallest university with the most knowledge,” and used it as a grassroots institution to serve the Black community.
Some years later, as a member of the African People’s Party, I learned more about Mother’s life as an early organizer. Moore, who was a leader in the organization, would come to Philadelphia, meet with leadership, and then later hold a session with rank-and-file cadre. She would speak on various topics; sometimes on methods of organizing, sometimes on international subjects, but always grounded in the right to self-determination and reparations.
We didn’t always agree. Sometimes, after a community program or other type of gathering she would meet with the women’s cadre. We usually gathered informally around her in someone’s living room. She would encourage us to develop our leadership and organizing skills, telling us to keep focused on the struggle. She also took the position that with so many Black men in jail, Black women needed to seriously consider polygamy. She approached the subject in a matter of fact way, explaining that we needed to do whatever must be done to win. She viewed polygamy as a social remedy to social problems within the Black community and the antithesis of the individualism taught in this society. She thought male chauvinism would be countered by women’s increased involvement in leadership. The women’s eyes couldn’t roll hard enough in opposition, but she kept that position as long as she lived.
Be that as it may, she was the link to organizations and movements spanning from the Garvey movement of the 1920’s, the labor, communist, anti-imperialist organizing in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Black liberation and human rights movement developing out of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. She was an orator, a tactician, and an organizer, working to strengthen many organizations along the way. She was anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, pro-Black self-determination/liberation, and pro-woman leadership. She taught us lessons that we have yet to compile in history books. Regardless of whether we agreed with all of her positions, she was an invaluable asset and set an example that the current generations in struggle can and should use.