Growing Up With Geographies of Black Feminism: Proximity to Greatness & Greatness in her own right

Did I ever tell you my mum shared an office with Angela Davis at SF State in the 1980’s and was called to teach one of her classes when Angela got into a small accident? Did I tell you my mother and my father married in Barbara Christian’s backyard and Barbara was one of the first supporters of my mother’s PhD project? Did I tell you one morning at church my mother introduced me to a woman as “her friend Alice (Walker)?” Did I tell you she knew Danny Glover when he was driving taxis in Oakland? Did I tell you one day in a store a woman we didn’t know came up to my mother and said: “Are you Opal Adisa?” Did I tell you she got her PhD from UC Berkeley the year after I was born?

Did I tell you. And there are so many more things I could tell you, this is only the surface.

As I am completing my Masters thesis, “Microgeographies of Blackness Through the Eyes of Black Artists and Activists,” there are times when I am paused to remember why I am who I am. These moments happen more frequently and in a multitude of ways. One of my poems was featured in Kids of the Diaspora’s Paris edition “Out of Home,” the first stanza in this poem is:

Where are you from?

A question I have been asked since I was young, from

Oakland

from

Jamaica

from Africa

from my mother

From Diaspora.

As an urban geographer who researches, documents, and uplifts Black geographies it follows that my own Black geography is integral to why I do the work that I do. I grew up in multiple geographies, but the main one being the geography of my home life both with my mother and my father. Both geographies, in one way or another, were Black feminist geographies. To this day, whether I knew it at the time or not, the first Black feminist geographer I came into contact with was my mother—because it is she who has and continues to traverse the globe socially, culturally, and artistically creating and transforming space wherever she goes. She always had my siblings and I in a community Black women, but also people – in general – who believe Black liberation is human liberation. 

When I was growing up my mother lived in four different countries doing writers’ residencies and other projects/performances: South Africa, Brazil, Egypt, and Czech Republic. My siblings and I got to spend time with her in Brazil and Egypt and stayed with our father in Oakland otherwise. Before we were born she had a life that we didn’t know directly, but is inevitably a part of our history; including founding and being apart of women of color activists groups in the San Francisco Bay Area, starting a children’s theatre group in Kingston, and changing her major from Mathematics to Communications (with a focus on Writing & Literature) at Hunter College after seeing Sonia Sanchez perform.

My mother has never let “no” dictate her life or her mobility. She has never believed she cannot or should not go somewhere. I think I was about nine years old when my mother was doing a residency in North Carolina and we went to visit her for two weeks. During that time we took a road trip to South Carolina to see some plantations and other Black historical landmarks. One of the plantations had a fee to enter. My mother explained to the receptionist that as Black people it is our right to be able to enter for free, that we should not have to pay to enter a site of our history and oppression. After an intense exchange during which the young White woman at the reception desk said she’d call security, my mother instructed us to get out of the car in front of the plantation. At some point, not sure now whether she was serious or joking, we considered climbing the fence. Instead we settled for a photo in front of the plantation with our fists up.

My mother has always been embedded in Black historicity whether in the U.S., Caribbean, or West Africa. In her twenties she crossed borders illegally in West Africa wearing a scarf covering her head, moonlighting as an indigenous West African, claiming to be mute. Her PhD thesis, entitled “Three landscapes: Jamaican women writers at home and in the Diaspora,” was a testament to not only how seamlessly she transposes and negotiates multiple geographies of Blackness, postcoloniality, and diaspora, it is also an example of how her feminism is interwoven into all that she does. To my mother feminism was not about being equal to men, it was about conversations between women and having the freedom to move through the world as we choose. The pinnacle of humanness is not man, so to her feminism was not about being closer to their level—it was about creating her own level. Which she did and still does.

I can’t think of a space my mother steps into that she does not impact. Whether it was teaching poetry in my classes once a year, reading her work in the Canary Islands, or meeting an Australian couple on a plane who took her in during the duration of her trip (since she went there without a place to stay or a real plan). Her presence is a ripple. My mother becomes the space that she is in and transforms it into a Black Jamaican womanist stage for the exploration of identity, limitlessness, and imagination. It becomes a space where past and present are not linear, and the revolution is embodied.

I’ve told my mother she should write about her life, and I’m sure at some point she will. Her life is remarkable and she continues to amaze me with her future-forward optimism and steadfastness. There were many times where I thought she was a magician, a witch, a healer, most certainly a griot. In fact, she is all of those things. I am me because she is she. Even though the way I journey through the world is a bit different from her, I use the paths she has paved as stepping stones to carve my own. As a writer/poet and artist, she is my first example. As a scholar and cultural activist, she is my first example. As outspoken and  bold, she is my first example. As a feminist Black geographer, now I realize, she is my first example. It is her greatness in its own right and the proximity to greatness that has carried me thus far. And I hope, through this thesis and the work I continue to do, I too can carry others.