BWS 06.05.15: Zainab Amadahy


Zainab Amadahy is an author, screenwriter, researcher and educator. Her publications include Wielding the Force: The Science of Social Justice,which explores how emerging science has relevance for spiritual development, social justice and community organizing, and Resistance, her second science fiction novel. She also has a background in medical and photovoltaic (solar energy) technologies and has worked for a variety of community organizations in the areas of aboriginal services, indigenous knowledge reclamation, non-profit housing, women’s services, migrant settlement and community arts.

Meet Zainab in her guest post below!

An Unfinished Story of Zainab Amadahy

The context of sharing myself in this post is one in which I receive news about another police shooting of an unarmed Black man and reflect upon endless articles concerning disappearances, murders and assaults on Indigenous women. I sometimes feel like there are so many ways in which progressive social change eludes us. Yet, hope never does, and that is why so many of us continue in our writing and other work to co-create a better future for coming generations.

My mother likes to say I’ve been an activist since before I was born, because she recounts tales of going to civil rights demonstrations when she was pregnant with me.

I was born in New York City, to a White mother and a “Black Indian” father. Measuring Indigenous blood quantum on my father’s side of the family has always been an inexact science. Measuring African blood quantum was never an issue since we have always grudgingly accepted the One-Drop Rule, (one drop of African blood makes you African-American), imposed by the U.S. context in which we lived.

Suffice to say, both my father’s parents were mixed-race, with African, Indigenous and European ancestry, and it is unlikely that anyone from my great-grandparents on down knew the exact percentages of any of it. Being enslaved can do that to a family.

My father’s parents died when he was young. His paternal grandmother was Seminole and married a “Negro” who taught at Alabama’s Tuskegee University. His maternal grandmother, who raised him and his siblings in a small Black community outside of Staunton, Virginia, was a mix of Black and Cherokee and had been enslaved since birth on the Reynolds tobacco plantation. She was a child when the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, freeing the enslaved.  She married an African American who had been enslaved on the same plantation. My great grandmother was aware of her Cherokee heritage but not connected to any Indigenous community, so my dad was raised as a Baptist in a Black community outside of Staunton.

I, however, grew up in an urban environment at the height of both the Civil Rights and American Indian Movements. I spent several summers at my great grandmother’s Staunton home soaking up family stories that have served me well as an author.

My mother survived a viciously abusive family. Her childhood was fraught with violence and dysfunctionality. Over the years, authorities arrived a few times at the door of her family home investigating my mom’s broken collarbone, concussion and various other injuries.

My mother’s mother was Portuguese, possibly born in that country; her background is a bit mysterious. After her parents died she was sent to work at a neighbouring farm in New Jersey. Though I lack specific information, I have no doubt she was not only exploited for her labour but otherwise abused while there.  How else could she have learned to be so cruel to my mother? Grandmother was only seven at the time she was sent away and she worked on that farm for an unknown number of years until her newly-married, just-turned-18 older sister obtained legal custody of her.

By my mom’s accounts, my grandmother’s life was idyllic before that farm, and not much was shared about the years she spent there. My grandmother, despite her own cinnamon skin and curly black hair, not only identified as White but was also a serious racist; my mother bitterly recalls being force-fed all manner of hateful notions about Jews, Native Americans and the African-descended. I suspect Grandma had a self-hatred thing going on and more than a few brown skeletons in her closet, but I can’t prove anything.

My mother’s father was of Amish stock and had fled abusive parents at the tender age of 12. He was shunned shortly thereafter and the community never took him back, although his two children, one of them my mother, were welcomed many years later. As a child, my grandfather worked on the same farm as my grandmother. Somehow he managed to do well financially and ended up the owner of a string of gas stations in New Jersey. This business kept the family afloat during the Great Depression. At some point in his adulthood my grandfather became a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. Hence, when my mother, fresh out of a Tennessee college, hooked up with my “Black Indian” father in the Jim Crow south, she was promptly disinherited and shunned by her family.

I am one of three surviving children my parents had. Two other siblings died in their infancy.  We were poor and lived in various Puerto Rican and African-American neighbourhoods in NYC. I was eight when my parents split and my mom scored a new med tech job in a research lab. She moved us away to Pennsylvania in the turbulent 1960’s.

For a year we lived in the White suburban community of Glenside. Our rented house was located on Pleasant Avenue and the only kid in the neighborhood allowed to play with us was Happy Holiday (no kidding), a preteen geek everyone considered a weirdo. We moved to a mixed neighbourhood in Philly as soon as possible.

Today I respect and appreciate what my mom did for us, working two jobs, sometimes making herself sick, to ensure we had food on the table. I find myself grateful for the strength she role-modeled as a single mom of three mixed race kids in violent times.

To respect my word limit, and in the spirit of hope, I’m going to end my story here with the assurance that everything in my life got much better over the years. I managed to settle in Canada where I now enjoy writing, educating and running a small business. May everyone from rough beginnings enjoy the contentment I now feel. And with my sense of being blessed may I continue to work to make the world more hopeful, optimistic and peaceful. Axe/Wadoh/Thank you.

Zainab Amadahy visits the Brockton Writers Series Wednesday, May 6, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Ghadeer Malek, Mark Silverberg and Jane Woods. The event begins with a special guest talk, “Getting Started in Book Reviewing,” by Emily M. Keeler of the National Post.


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