When ibn Kenyatta introduced me to his "woman friend" Safiya Bandele in the visiting room that summer of 1977, it was like most everything I have come to know about the pair--utterly unpredictable. When the tall, beautiful woman rose from her chair and embraced me, I was stunned. I'd never witnessed a black woman embracing a white woman behind Green Haven's thirty-foot walls. They called me "Sister," and over the years their letters to me have always been addressed to "Sister Marguerite."
Here are the facts on Safiya Bandele: She and Kenyatta met in 1969. She coordinated his defense committee for his two trials. Today, she is director of the Women's Center at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. She is well-respected in New York City as a community activist, an advocate for women's issues, and frequent commentator on the criminal justice system. She and Kenyatta are now planning to marry.
Through visits and letters, I learned even more about this extraordinary couple. Kenyatta was born in rural Alabama in the countryside outside Mobile, one of eleven children born to Emma Lee. He never knew his father, and never heard him referenced. He was named "Class Artist" when he graduated from high school. Shortly after, his mother died, and Kenyatta joined his older sister and her family in Harlem. He began to write and seriously study African American history. He was living with his high school sweetheart when he met Bandele.
Over the years I also told Safiya and Kenyatta about myself. I was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and earned my badge of honor--an arrest record--at demonstrations. An eleventh-generation American from Philadelphia, I have Quaker ancestors on both sides of my family who served as conductors on the Underground Railroad. For a good part of my life, I lived under the assumption that my hands were clean of any stain of slavery.
Then, when I was researching my genealogy in the 1980s, I came across an inventory from the early 1700s, which listed the possessions of one of my ancestors after death. Listed along with farm livestock, tools, and other possessions was "one negro man." It seems that even among the Quakers--a group that would later play a vital role in the abolitionist movement--there were some who held slaves.
I told ibn Kenyatta about this in a letter. He was surprisingly lighthearted about my discovery, suggesting that he might be the living spirit of this "one negro man," who in my life would personally represent the issues of the African American experience in these United States.
By then, I was used to unexpected twists and turns in the story of ibn Kenyatta and Safiya Bandele. So I shouldn't have been surprised when Kenyatta first told me that he had decided to refuse parole.
NEXT MONTH: The right of refusal.
(Click here to go to Kenyatta's letter to Marguerite Kearns.)
PART ONE: Ibn Kenyatta is a writer and artist--and a perpetual prisoner. FEBRUARY 7, 2002.
PART TWO: The right of refusal. MARCH 7, 2002.