Black Classic Press Blog
Sometimes Farmgirls Become Revolutionaries by Florence Tate and Jake-ann Jones
There is a time when you think of your mother’s existence and your own as indivisible. You are constant objects of attention and affection in each other’s lives. She wakes you in the morning for school, sometimes by ambush, ripping away your warm blankets, exposing you to the arctic elements—or so they seemed on certain Ohio winter days. She made you breakfast, sent you off to the schoolhouse, prepared all those nightly family dinners.
And even though she had two other kids, Big Sis Geri, Baby Bro Brian, you never felt like it was a shared relationship in which whatever mother-child thing they had going on with her overlapped with your own. And you dug that because kids are mad-selfish with their mothers.
I recall wanting her devout and undivided attention so much so that whenever she was on the kitchen phone, which had a long cable, I would wrap it around her legs while she was talking until she realized she was being cocooned in one spot by her ball-and-chain of an elder boy-child, who’d have to unwrap her before she could freely move again.
In any event, as years went by and you grew from child to tween, you realized you did have one rival for your mother’s affections, and it wasn’t your dad but this thing called “The Movement,” which had both an abstract and a human dimension. It actually existed in at least five dimensions simultaneously, and it was protean. It took on many forms and appeared in many places throughout the house.
There also were “Movement people” to contend with. They visited regularly. Some spent the night after long hours holding court on the living-room couch and chairs. Some stayed even longer—for days, weeks, even months at a time. Some you came to realize were Movement celebrities, people whose names loomed above others:
Stokely Carmichael (nee Kwame Ture), H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri Baraka. These were people who also became lifelong friends alongside lesser-known members of SNCC and CORE and The Black Panthers.
The Movement had a life outside the home too, and sometimes it meant one or both of your parents had to leave town to attend a March on Washington, a marriage between Carmichael and Miriam Makeba, a Black Political Convention in Gary, a Pan-African Cultural Festival in Nigeria. The Movement was also multidisciplinary. It defined your mother’s bookshelf, the Sunday morning heavy rotation of her vinyl selections: recordings of Malcolm X’s speeches; the music of Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Pete Seeger, and Otis Redding; the soundtrack from The Harder They Come; twelve-inch singles by Fela Kuti.
And as the years went by, there were her travels with Dad throughout the Caribbean and Africa. There was wall art from Ethiopia, Haiti, Nigeria, Egypt. The Movement produced t-shirts, buttons, and posters that also turned up over the house.
And because you were a prodigious reader, you read everything that came in the house under her Movement-supporting aegis: Baldwin, Baraka, Giovanni, Sanchez, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. You learned she had favorite writers outside of the Movement camp too, her Great White Men of Literature: Updike, Cheever, Le Carre,
Roth. Mom also loved Hollywood—the old movies and the new—and loved to watch The Oscars. As a family, we regularly went to the drivein in Dayton and, before the movie-ratings system advised parents, she exposed us to some really adult fare: Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Frank Sinatra in The Detective, Lee Marvin in Prime Cut. In later years, I can recall the two of us going to see Three Days of The Condor, Devil in a Blue Dress, and, at my insistence, Blade Runner (though she always let me know she didn’t like or understand sci-fi flicks, and Blade Runner didn’t alter that opinion one whit).
And while Mom would sometimes tell us she thought Elijah Muhammad got it wrong when he declared the white man to be the devil when it was really that white woman, she loved many a screen siren of Old Hollywood. Faye Dunaway’s performances in Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, Network, and Mommy Dearest mightily impressed her. She once described her favorite kind of film as “something modern, in an urban setting, with a bit of violence and sex,” but since Paul Newman was also on her list of favorites, I’m sure Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was still modernist enough for her cinematic palate.
At a certain point, as I entered into adolescence and discovered jazz and the concepts of hip and cool, I realized Mom and Dad were the epitome of those terms, as were many of their friends in post-revolutionary Washington, DC. Actually, I came to realize this by getting to know some of my other friends’ parents and those friends’ reaction to my parents’ stances and cosmopolitanism–also by realizing that many of my parents’ best friends were folk half their age and only a few years older than myself.
As with many an angst-ridden teenager, this realization of my parents’ sophistication occurred when I was trying to cut the umbilical cord and rip my alienated, oat-sowing self from the happy family circle. Or maybe it was not always so happy since by then I was well aware of Mom’s ongoing war with cyclical depression, which would strike her down in winter with a force that would leave her slumped in a darkened living room and given to crying jags that sometimes lasted all day.
Over the years, we pieced together her possible “triggers”: child of divorce, abandoned to relatives for long or short periods, loss of my sister’s companionship to Africa, being the only woman in a household full of men whose rampant hetero-masculinism could no longer be disciplined or restrained… Who knows? All the same, even if we were little pains in the ass and miniature male-chauvinist piglets, she still came to every performance by my spoken-word band, The Six-Legged Griot Trio, and Brian’s punk-rock unit, Brickhouse Burning—even in sketchy 1970s downtown-DC venues at two in the morning.
What I did come to understand as I got older was that Mom’s depression was as much a defining member of our family engagements as the Movement and my parents’ cool factor. Because Mom’s depression was cyclical, she would always rise from the lower depths and perform gargantuan tasks like serving as the press secretary of her old Movement friend Marion Barry before and after his first election to office. It was Marion who would recommend her to his buddy Jesse Jackson for his epic presidential campaign.
The political field of battle energized Mom because it was her natural environment as a “people-person.” And she was drawn to it not as someone who simply enjoyed the company of folks but as someone who was able to read a roomful of high muckety-mucks instantly and immediately discern all the ways folk high up on the totem pole signified status, character, style, phobias, anxieties, affinities, and ambition. Her fluidity in that realm and her ability to create professional intimacy with the various players on a campaign trail—traits that would magically and momentously lead the Jackson campaign to Syria on a diplomatic mission and a presidential plane lent by Ronald Reagan to free a U.S. airman—are well on display in Jake-ann Jones’s fantastic telling of Mom’s extraordinary story.
Even when Mom took to describing herself as “a retired revolutionary and grandmother,” she maintained a phenomenal presence on social media as an organizer and counselor of lost and found souls on Facebook, where she became The Mother of The Matrix to her many online constituents, some of whom have even introduced themselves to me on the street. On the site, folk still address her spirit as a personal and political confidante.
We are all blessed that Mom’s voice, still overflowing with much-needed warmth and wisdom in print and in our heads, will be reactivated by the publication of this memoir/biography: a book of Florence Louise Tate’s life equal to her fierceness in elegance, intellect, integrity, and SOUL!
Acrid fumes and the sound of gunfire.
It is 1976 in southern Angola, and I’m pressed against the doorframe of a shanty on the edge of a field. Twenty or so yards away, soldiers slide along the ground on their bellies as bullets fly above their heads. It’s a deadly training exercise, and it’s terrifying to watch.
My interpreter speaks over the barrage of gunfire in broken English, translating for the young Portuguese-speaking woman beside her who, in turn, interprets for the Lingala- and Umbundu-speaking women with us: “This is how they must train. They must be prepared. If they cannot dodge the bullets…they die.”
Soon the girls, members of LIMA (the League of Angolan Women), lead me away. We pass wire-and-wood pens holding chickens and a few goats; then travel through planted rows of maize, beans, and sweet potatoes. As we settle down in a field just beyond the farm, the musical voices of the women momentarily transport me to my own childhood in rural Tennessee…
As we trade halting scraps of conversation above the now-distant shellfire, gesturing in our patched-together language, I’m entranced by the rich, easy laughter of my young guides and taken by their easy, unadorned beauty. I wonder if they are as jarred by the complexity of their lives as I am. The grim reality of their country’s civil war clashes with the pastoral beauty around us.
In the warm haze of Huambo’s afternoon heat, various memories of moments I’d experienced along the way to becoming an ardent Pan-Africanist and well-known activist shift in and out of my mind. At this moment, however, I am mostly still awestruck by my present surroundings.
How had I ended up here…surrounded by these gentle and brave young sisters fighting for their country? Some of them were as young as I had been when I’d left the South as a young, single mother, barely more than eighteen at the time.
How and why on earth had Florence Louise Grinner Tate traveled all the way from Eads to Angola?
In the echoes of those sisters’ voices, something whispers:
Because sometimes, farmgirls become revolutionaries.
This is how it happened.
It’s a Sunday morning in Dayton, 1965. Outside my bedroom window, there are signs that my neighborhood is on the move. Black church-going families dressed in their most respectable attire (hats, gloves, jackets, and ties) are on their way to ask God for another week of fortitude, self-restraint, and a roof overhead.
This morning, my family is headed to church as well. It’s not going to be just another day of listening to the sermon and smiling politely at the other—mostly white—members of the Unitarian church we joined more for its politics than anything else.
“Florence…you coming?” Charles calls from downstairs. I can hear him trying to hustle our sons Brian and Greg out of the house and into the car.
“Hold on!” Quickly patting my short natural into a soft halo, adding a dab of lipstick, and clipping on my favorite pair of earrings, I can’t deny my excitement. After hurrying to the car to help settle the boys in the back and sliding in next to Charles, one look tells me that beneath his calm exterior, his anticipation matches my own.
Only a night or so before, Reverend Harold J. LeVesconte—the progressive, pro-integration pastor at First Unitarian Church—had called to ask “a favor” of our family. “Mrs. Tate, perhaps you know that Stokely Carmichael is currently on a speaking tour, and we’ve invited him to come here to Dayton. He’ll be here at the church this Sunday, along with one of his colleagues, and they need overnight accommodations.” Reverend LeVesconte might have paused momentarily, but I’m sure he already knew my answer. “Mr. Carmichael has specifically requested to stay with a Negro family,” he continued. “I was wondering, could you all accommodate him during his visit?”
Charles and I were two of a handful of Blacks attending the church, and LeVesconte and many of the white members who had supported his efforts at integration were aware that we were heavily involved in Civil Rights Movement activities in Dayton and beyond. In fact, the organization we helped form, the Dayton Alliance for Racial Equality (DARE), greatly admired the work that Stokely and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were doing in the South. Stokely, as SNCC’s chairman, was encouraging a new philosophy: Black Power.
It also made sense that Stokely would want to spend as much time as possible with the Black folks who lived in the communities he was visiting, and it couldn’t be any more divinely designed as far as I was concerned.
LeVesconte didn’t need to ask twice. “Well, of course, we’d be glad to have him, and he can stay as long as he likes,” I replied, delighted at the prospect of getting to know this new leader of the Black youth movement that was shaking up the country.
Stokely’s name was already well known to many Blacks and whites across the nation, and I expected the church to be full that Sunday morning. Unitarians were known for being open-minded and more socially conscious than many other denominations, but how would they react to this radical young firebrand? My curiosity was also piqued because it was apparent that the Movement was branching off into two very different paths, and SNCC’s less “polite” strategy continued to make more and more sense to me.
“I can’t wait to hear more about this Black Power stuff,” I assert as the car pulls closer to the church.
Charles nods. “Sure seems we’ve gotten as far as we’re going to, doing it the way we have been,” he sighs, speaking of integration and the current nonviolent, direct-action movements. We both feared that we had come to the end of what could be accomplished by pushing for integration and were fully ready to hear a more self-reliant and self-assertive message.
As we enter the church, I’m convinced that Stokely will be sharing his cry for Black Power. Chuckling to myself, I anticipate that his vigorous proclamation of SNCC’s new direction will fill much of the congregation with dread.
It was hard to sit through the opening rituals. I try not to be conspicuous as I search for Stokely among the pews filled with liberal, highly educated, and largely integrationist-minded whites.
Reverend LeVesconte finally finishes his opening notes. When he introduces Stokely, the whole atmosphere of the church seems to change as the tall, caramel-complexioned young man strides to the pulpit, extremely collegiate and attractive in a suit and tie.
I’m immediately struck by Stokely’s appearance; his head is clean-shaven and not in a style that many men sport, unless they lose their hair from old age or sickness. Later, I learn that Stokely had earlier been jailed in Alabama, where his head was shaved, supposedly as a precaution against head lice.
Before he begins, Stokely looks over his audience, his eyes piercing. It might have been my imagination, but many of the white folks in the pews around me look apprehensive. The silence in the church is heavy, but as Stokely’s clear, strong voice reaches us, his first words are a surprise:
There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.
Stokely pauses deliberately, allowing the impact of his words to resonate. “That,” he continues, “is taken from Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience,’…written over a century ago, after his arrest and jailing for his refusal to support the system of slavery and warmongering being carried out by the leaders of the United States government.
I find myself completely mesmerized as Stokely proceeds to eloquently compare Thoreau’s treatise on civil disobedience with the nonviolent protests of King and Gandhi—even managing to tie in a quote or two from Ralph Waldo Emerson. This was a potent touch, as Emerson has always been considered by the Unitarians as the most “revered figure in the Unitarian movement.” Throughout Stokely’s speech, I can hear the white folks around us murmuring to one another under their breath, clearly stunned by this erudite young man.
Surprised by his choice of topic, I find it amusing to surreptitiously take in the apparent confusion on the faces of the white folks. Am I imagining their collective sigh of relief? After all, liberal or not, they most likely expected him to appear breathing flames—and he most certainly was not.
As Stokely ends his remarks by encouraging each of us to do our part in striving for the lofty goals set forth by Thoreau, he is met by rousing applause. It appears he has gained far more support with this less-fiery approach than he would have with an incendiary speech. My thoughts about his success are confirmed when the offering plate is passed. The white folks seem to be more generous than usual, though fully aware that their contributions will support the work of SNCC and its new focus on Black Power, a focus Stokely had cleverly held as the ultimate focus of his sermon. This was classic Stokely, as I was to learn later. With tactical brilliance, he always carefully considered how best to connect with his audience, never underestimating the power of his words nor his ability to impact his listeners deeply.
Years after that first meeting, I received the voluminous FBI file filled with references to, and accusations about, my dealings with Stokely, SNCC, and DARE and my associations with the many other community and political organizations I worked for. I felt it to be a testament to my decades of work in the Civil Rights Movement throughout the Midwest, and alongside proponents of the Black Power Movement. The file was also a reminder of my experiences with Pan-African and African liberation activities both abroad and in the U.S.
These very same activities ultimately resulted in my coming under the scrutiny of the U.S. government and caused me to be branded as a “rabble-rouser” and “agitator.” I’d been linked to organizations and people labeled as “seditious” and deemed a “threat to internal security”—all terms used in the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). These terms were used repeatedly in the FBI file compiled over a number of years to describe me and my activities.
To me, the file also symbolized the many years I spent in partisan politics, including my time as press secretary in the early part of Jesse Jackson’s historic 1984 presidential campaign as well as the excitement and coalition-building I experienced working alongside DC’s mayor Marion Barry during both his initial run and his first year in office. Although one friend joked while perusing its pages, noting, “We need to call you the FBI’s Most-Wanted Press Secretary!” the FBI file only told part of the story. And not even the truth of the story, most of the time
Above Florence, Mama Annie, Henry Grinner (Florence's father)
Above: Florence and Geri, Greg and Florence, Brian and Florence
Above: Florence and Charles
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