Name: Dequi Kioni-Sadiki Odinga
Hometown: The People’s Republic of Brooklyn, New York
Age You First Fell in Love: I don’t how old I was [when I first fell in love] because I loved my grandmother.
Love Is: Love has many faces and dimensions of it.
It was the last day of Atlanta’s annual A3C Hip Hop Festival and I was walking around Old 4th Ward interviewing people. I was standing on a sidewalk, tall boy of Heineken in hand, when a slender, blonde girl with dreads walked up to me and said in a thick New Orleanian accent, “You look like a conscious queen.” It caught me by surprise, but I went with it anyway. She begin to explain that she was here with the wife of Sekou Odinga, a political prisoner convicted in the freeing of Assata Shakur. My eyes lit up instantly, this was history. I explained to her the premise of what I was doing there and she told me to go speak to Dequi. I turned towards the tent and Dequi looked at me, gave a huge smile and waved me over. Below is the transcript of our conversation. I am forever grateful to Dequi for sitting with me, while I sweated profusely under the Atlanta sun and learned my history.
Monique: A part of my conversation is to really look at how black people love one another. To really understand how a white supremacist system has affected how we love ourselves and one another. We see all these stories from World War Two about love stories, but they never talk about the Tuskegee Airman [or other black fighters] who had wives and girlfriends back home. So I always start off by asking people to tell me how old they were the first time they fell in love and what is love to them.
Dequi: I don’t how old I was [when I first fell in love] because I loved my grandmother. You know love has many faces and dimensions of it. I love a man dearly today and that is my husband, who is a political prisoner of war and a former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Movement. And as a middle aged woman, I’m a grandmother, grown children, my grandson is fourteen, my granddaughter is eight, I love them. And I fell in love, I grew into love, I should say. I always say grow into love, because when we say “fall in love” it makes it seem that I’m going to get up and I’ll be over it.
M: And you’re never over it (laughs).
D: (laughs) Right? When I think about love, as an African woman, an indigenous woman, the ability to love in this colonial state that we live in, in this nation of white supremacist ideology, where the destruction of the black family and black relationship and black love took place from the first kidnapping. The first African kidnapped and brought to the Americas to be sold and forced into labor that was an act of war on our love, on our families, on our person-hood and upon our identity. So our ability to love and grow into love and find love and a partner, to love with healing and purpose and vision is an act of resistance in a country that is not meant for that to survive. Sekou is in prison. Our love is not meant to survive. I’m out here at this beautiful hip hop festival today and he’s in a prison. He’s in a prison where there are more people imprisoned in that town than there are residents.
M: Wow. Where is he?
D: He’s in Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, which is about six hours from New York City where I live. So our love and being able to love beyond those walls is an act of resistance. And I always say to people, even with slavery, even [during] Reconstruction, we were still holding on to family, apartheid America, Jim Crow America, we were still holding on to family. In the apartheid we had to love and be with each other because the black lawyer, the black doctor, lived in the same community with the black plumber and the black sanitation worker. And their children went to the same school, so you supported each other and you supported each other’s businesses because that’s what you did. Historically, if we look at the destruction of the black community, the black family and black love, it started with integration, then came COINTELPRO and the FBI, all on Black Liberation and the mass imprisonment of radicals and revolutionaries of that era, followed by a so-called War on Drugs. What the fall of Black Liberation did was take the radicals away from the community. The so-called War on Drugs took black fathers, black mothers, now we got black children. So all of this historically, if you look at the history of black people’s existence here in this United States, integration, COINTELPRO, the war on Black Liberation it’s been a steady climb of the number of people in prison.
M: When did you and Sekou meet?
D: He was charged and convicted in the liberation of Assata Shakur, who is living in Cuba right now. He was captured in October of 1981, so he was charged and he went to federal prison. He maxed out of his federal sentence in 2009 and they transferred him to New York State to begin serving a twenty five year to life sentence for the crimes that they committed and they convicted him of in New York State. I’ve done work around U.S. held political prisoners for the past twenty years, so I knew of him, we communicated, but I did not actually meet Sekou until shortly after he came to New York. Meeting him and talking to him, we developed a comradeship because we both believe in freedom and the struggle and loving black people and fighting for our right to be. Those things drew me to him and him to me. And before I knew it, our relationship had transformed into something else. So I have not been with Sekou in that intimate, husband-wife way, throughout this whole thing. I’ve known him since he came to New York as I was fighting on his behalf; as I fight on behalf of all of our captured freedom fighters.
We begin to talk about cultural appropriation and how black people have been left out of the equation when it comes to the culture we have created. We speak of how unimpressed we both are with the theft and corporate rape of black culture –
M: I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this area, but right up the street there is an area called Sweet Auburn. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up there, his family home is there and they called it “sweet” because black people were able to prosper. There were well to do black families and thriving businesses. And then the 80s came, the War on Drugs came and it ravaged the neighborhood, ravaged the people. And now gentrification is coming here. And the people who have lived here are the unwanted. The grit looks cool, the poverty looks cool to people who are not having to live it. People think this grit is cool, but not the people. You speak of integration, do you believe that the movement of Black Liberation needs outside help? Or is it something we need to do on our own?
D: I believe in self-determination and I believe in nationhood. Before integration, we had thriving, self-sustaining black communities. Black Wall Street in Oklahoma, Wilmington, North Carolina, Savannah, I mean all of these places where black people thrived. Thank you for that history, that herstory, because that just shows that the appropriation of African people wherever we are is always going on. So you’re right, it then becomes cool to live in the black neighborhood when you don’t have the black experience. You see them walking around with shirts that say “Police murder people” but police murder brown people. And a lot of this music at this festival has been culturally appropriated or misappropriated. When hip hop music first started in the South Bronx they were talking to the people. They weren’t even touching it on the radio, the radio stations wouldn’t play it. People were pushing it in the parks and selling their own tapes, eight-tracks at the time. Until they saw how popular it was, that “We can make money off this.” Now the people who are doing it, I don’t even call them artists, they are high priced slaves; they are working for the white supremacist ideology, to imprison and enslave our people. Instead of culture being used as a weapon for our liberation, it is used as a weapon against us for our further enslavement, the enslavement of our minds. And that’s the first enslavement, like Bob Marley said, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery.” So that’s what we have, our children think that that’s who we are, instead of being African, instead of recognizing community, instead of supporting black artists and businesses. Yeah, I think we need to be separate and why? Because the history that we’ve created here is that we thrive. Right now a black person gets a dollar, as soon as they get that dollar, it goes outside of their community. Jewish people, it turns over eighteen times before it leaves their community. That’s why Jewish people have community, that’s why they have institutions, it’s because they keep their money in that institution. That doesn’t make me a racist, it makes me a realist.
M: And you know that’s so true. When we talk about spending in black businesses it turns into “Well, you’re a racist.”, but no one says that to the Jews. No one tells the Jewish people to love Hitler, no one tells them to get over the Holocaust. And I think until we have a dialog, where as black people, we are able to say, “This is the system that has created my people’s condition.” and for the system to say , “Yes, we acknowledge that.”, we can’t get past that wound, because it’s a psychological wound. To teach your children; you were born a slave. . .because how they teach it in our school system, and I don’t know how it was when you were in school, but it was: slavery, Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr., now I don’t know what you’re complaining about, you know? The ramification of Jim Crow, the ramification of these things, you have to acknowledge that. How was the educational system when you were a kid, what did they teach you about black people?
D: Stereotypes. There is no black history as far as they’re concerned. I really believe that if they taught history, we wouldn’t need Black History Month, we wouldn’t need Women’s Herstory Month, we wouldn’t need so-called Latino History Month, Asian History Month. We wouldn’t need any of that because you would talk about the Chinese who built the railroads, you would talk about the African labor that built this country, you would talk about everything. But you don’t, so the people have to set aside [their designated months]. As a result, our children don’t know, unless they have parents who know, unless there’s a community and because there’s been a war on black people since 1619, black children don’t learn. Most times we don’t because those issues that I just raised, have been totally destroyed and crushed. I could never be racist, because racism is about institutions and power. I can say I don’t like a certain group, but does that make them unsafe on the street?
M: I had to tell someone that, a privileged white person who was complaining about a black person being racist towards them, that me not liking you will never stop you from getting a job, from climbing up the corporate ladder. . .
D: From getting a bank loan.
M: Property value will never go down when you move in. It never will.
D: And as you said, as white folks move into these areas, the Sweet Auburns, all it does is push us out. Because I live in an area in Brooklyn and I’ve lived there for more than twenty years and nobody wanted to live there, now they all want to live there. So even that is not integrated. Malcolm said, “The neighborhood’s are only integrated long enough until they move your black butt out.” So that’s what’s happening wherever we go. Wherever we go- and that’s not even me just talking, that’s history. People have a problem with what I say and I say, “Check the history books.” Where has a European gone in the world and not stolen, killed, raped , maimed and murdered? Where have they gone and not done this?
M: (laughs) Nowhere.
D: We buy bottled water today, why? We have record levels of asthma, why is that? So no, people have to study. We have to turn off the t.v., we have to turn off the radio. It’s so good that you’re doing this because that’s what we need. We are the experts of our lives, the only ones who can tell our story.
M: My whole aim is to get the black story from the black storyteller, because in my book, everything else is null and void. I’ve been looking at going back to school and there are some programs I don’t want to apply to because the teaching staff is all white. I don’t want to learn about people of color from an all white staff.
D: And that goes back to the misappropriation. It kills me when people say there’s no more racism, how would you know?
M: How would you know? You don’t live it. I made up a term, it’s called racieism, something like atheism, where because you have not seen or experienced it you do not believe it exists. But how would you know if it’s not affecting you? Even the idea of a post-racial society. I want you to see my color, I want you to know that I’m African, I want you to see these kinks in my hair. And if that offends you, then that’s more power to me. And I love it.
D: That’s bullcrap. You cannot say, anymore than I could say, that when I’m talking to you, I don’t see a woman. You can’t say I don’t see gender. When I look at that sweatshirt, I see that it’s orange. So you can’t tell me you don’t care if someone is pink, purple or green. First of all, we ain’t got no pink, purple or green people, not that I’ve ever seen. Unless it’s in some other universe, but on this one that I live in, I ain’t never seen it. So you can’t say that. And it’s denial, but we know that denial is what this country is all about. Because if they really owned up to their history, then it wouldn’t be about white supremacy.
M: And they’re embarrassed. It’s funny, my mom and I were just talking about how there seems to be an innate fear or fascination of black people.
D: It’s both.
M: It’s almost like watching King Kong in his cage and you’re nervous about when he’s finally going to break out after you’ve been prodding at him. And I think that’s what the tension is in this country, I feel like a lot more black people are becoming self-aware; especially with all of these issues going on. Like the boy who was just lynched in North Carolina, our brothers are still being lynched, our men are still being lynched.
D: Every twenty six hours, The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, did a study about two years ago, every twenty six hours, someplace on the streets of this America, a black man, woman or child is killed by a racist, a white person in or out of uniform. With impunity; they don’t go to prison, they don’t lose their job, they don’t lose their pension, there’s no conviction, there’s no anything. And that sends a message. So the lynchings have been replaced by police bullets. In this case it’s gone back to lynchings, Jasper, Texas a few years ago and in Jena, Louisiana.
M: And we have your husband who is in prison for freeing someone who just wanted to free her people.
D: Exactly. And that’s what he wanted. People don’t know about Sekou but they eat breakfast in school, they can go to a food pantry, they can go to a free health clinic. If you’re black in this country, you can be tested for sickle cell anemia. Those are things that the Black Panther Party did, because this country was not addressing hunger, they were not addressing any of those issues that had a disparate impact on the lives of poor and working class black people.
M: Right, only in the Appalachian Mountains, where there were poor whites.
D: That’s right. People don’t understand that Sekou, Abdullah Majid, Mutulu Shakur, Sundiata Acoli, and Robert Seth Hayes, Kemau Sadiki, there are so many. There are seventeen members of the Black Panther Party who are in prison and between the 1960s to today have done collectively eight hundred years in prison. We have Jalil Muntaqim who was captured when he was nineteen years old and he is now in his sixties. Because they criminalize black resistance. Harriet Tubman had a reward on her head in the 1840s for $40,00, so today in 2014, there’s a $2,000,000 reward on Assata Shakur’s head and they call her a terrorist. Harriet was a criminal and a thief, Assata is a terrorist. So do we have to wait another hundred and fifty years before people say, “Oh Assata Shakur was a freedom fighter.”?
M: That’s so true.
D: Because she’s a hero. That’s what they did to Harriet, she’s a hero now.
M: Because she’s dead.
D: Only because she’s dead. No, let’s do what you say, let’s tell our stories now. Let’s counter the narrative about violence. You cannot say the Black Panther Party was violent, when violence is as American as apple pie.
M: It’s self defense.
D: That’s right, it’s self defense. Violence is the bombing of churches, violence is the fact that black people can’t walk the street. Violence is poverty. Violence is homelessness. Violence is going to school and not being educated so by the time you graduate, if you graduate, you can’t write a college thesis.
M: You know, I’m twenty six years old, I’m college educated and I get that college isn’t for everyone, I understand that. Outside of that education, I’ve found it very hard to date in this city, to find a man who knows his sense of worth as a black man.
D: It is hard. I forget if it’s Marcus Garvey or W.E.B. DuBois, one of them said knowledge of self is so important. If you don’t know who you are, they can tell you who you are. So most of us see ourselves through the lens of white supremacy. So that’s why that kind of music is playing, because we think that that’s the black experience, because that’s what they tell us. You’re an actor, or if you’re an entertainer they say, “Can you make it sound more black, can you make it sound more ghetto?” So we believe we are who they say we are.
M: Niggas and bitches.
D: I saw somebody walking around here, there was like five of them, with a t-shirt that said “My favorite word is bitch.”
M: Your mother’s a bitch then. Your sister is a bitch.
D: Right, that’s what I’m saying. So when you said knowledge of self- when you don’t know who you are you are defeated. Because as Steven Biko said, one of our most potent, “The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” If I tell you you’re a nigger and you believe it, cause you don’t know anything else. If I tell you you’re a bitch, if I tell you you’re stupid, if I tell you that you have created nothing and you are what I say you are; if I tell you that black is not beautiful and the only thing that’s beautiful is blue eyes, so when we see a black person with blue eyes we think they’re gorgeous. You mean my black eyes or brown eyes aren’t beautiful? My hair isn’t beautiful because it’s not straight and long? That’s misappropriation. Who is defining these standards of beauty? We have to tell our stories.
M: And that’s why I’m collecting them. I appreciate you so much, thank you very much.
D: I appreciate you.