We gather around the fire.
We gather women of strength.
Always in justice and poetry
Always in vision
When women gather in community there is always power.
Wanda Sabir emigrated from New Orleans in 1962 when she was three-years-old and still went by the name Wanda Oliver. Her story is not so much one of immigration, but of building and rebuilding legacy. It’s a story of seeking freedom in what Wanda recalls as the “country of California.” Leaving the South was more than a move West, it was also an opportunity to have options that were previously denied, not only to her, but to her mother, her family and her race. Young, married, living in the projects in New Orleans and aiming to provide, Wanda’s father had recently been released from Angola prison and things were tough. He left his family to Texas to look for better opportunities. Finding more Jim Crow in Texas he traveled all the way to California before sending tickets home. He sent them to the Welfare department, which had his intended result of cutting off his wife’s benefits. Since they had no longer income and found themselves without a place to live, Wanda’s mother had no choice but to follow her husband. Gathering her newborn son and three year old daughter, they got on Greyhound Bus and headed to California. Her mother was eighteen and to that point had not graduated from high school.
As a child of only three, Wanda recalls nothing of the journey. Bus travel was a means to get from one place to another. Wanda has a strong sense of no noise, only silence. In this moment, the only memory she sees is of a lady who was holding her newborn brother and a can of PET Milk. Wanda and her brother were sitting on the bus when suddenly the bus began to move. Wanda did not make a noise. She could see her mother outside the window running towards them as if in slow motion. She was holding the PET milk she had gone to buy for her baby. Wanda has a vivid image of that can. Suddenly, silence was broken when the lady holding her brother yelled, “You are leaving these babies’ mother behind.” The bus stopped and her mother got on. While the family was reunited after a brief but terrifying moment, one emotion lingers still, “Abandonment,” a motif she still returns to today.
“My mother came here because she had to,” says Wanda. “She was so beautiful, like the praline candy she made. She was kind and sweet. I have a beautiful memory of candy.” They reunited with Wanda’s father and moved to a rooming house in the Fillmore. It had a big bathroom and kitchen and they were never hungry. Wanda credits her mother’s hard work for this. Historically it has been more challenging for Black men to find steady work, and her father continued to struggle. “Dad could not keep steady work, house painter, artist, painted Victorians, made the colors and everything. He was an artist. He also worked as custodian at USF where she later got her MA in Writing. “I imagined my Daddy cleaning Lone Mountain Campus, his spirit on the floorboards.” She recalls with some laughter that he also made friends with the priests, “sharing the blood of Christ (wine) with him. He really liked that job.” But it was her mother who was the breadwinner. She found work cleaning houses for white families and kept food on the table all while getting her GED from John Adams Adult school.
Life as a child was happy for Wanda, her community was found both in her family and the Nation of Islam, after her father converted. It was at this time that they changed their family name to Sabir which means patient, persevering and enduring. “He was more of a philosopher and thinker than a revolutionary,” says Wanda.
After moving from Page to Oak they moved out to Sunnydale near Cow Palace at 19 Brookdale. They moved into Military old WW2 military housing into a house with three bedrooms, “All the houses looked alike and there were lots of dogs. I remember going to games when I was in elementary school and saw Willie McCovey. Life was good.” She enjoyed McLaren Elementary School. Her mother and father encouraged her. Her mother enrolled her in art classes at the deYoung Museum and bought her books on illustration and architecture. “She bought me clay which I fired in the oven and painted. My father would allow me to wake him from sleep late night early morning to listen to my poetry, essays, ideas for projects. We might have had our problems but I felt valued and valuable.” There were alway the lulls between the storms. “Stormy Weather” was the Oliver theme song.
In 1966, The Hunters Point Riot Uprising became a formative moment for Wanda Sabir, one of the Bay Area’s most active grassroots social justice activist and winner of the Unsung Hero Award. On the night of September 27, 1966, a San Francisco police officer, Alvin Johnson, shot and killed Matthew Johnson, a teenager who was fleeing the scene of a stolen car. The National Guard and California Highway Patrol were deployed late that night by then Governor Pat Brown and martial law was imposed until October 1. In an ironic twist of fate, in November, the newly elected Governor Ronald Regan declared that the Hunters Point Shipyard would be opening up to the Black community to provide jobs in order to keep the peace. James Baldwin visited their community. I cannot help but wonder if seven year old Wanda was reborn as a revolutionary on that day. And in this dynamic space and time, Wanda’s mother was able to begin a tech career as a key punch operator. She would encode information on cards about six inches long and about 3 inches wide. There would be rows of numbers with holes punched in them. One side was blank. She would bring cards home for me to draw on the blank side and I also used them to write spelling words on. At this time, the tech industry was mostly controlled by the military and like the movie “Hidden Figures’ ‘ Wanda’s mom learned while working how to build, repair and work computers. She was able to work first at Hunters Point, then Mare Island, Treasure Island and finally she moved to Los Angeles to work in the music industry with recording labels. In her free time, she made sure her children went to school and she taught Wanda how to type and to make cards, skills she still uses today.
After learning so much about the events that shaped Wanda Sabir, I wanted to know more about the amazing work she does as an activist and an educator. For the majority of my adult life, I have been blessed to be in the visioning circle of Wanda Sabir. She wears so many hats. She has a blog and Radio Show, Wanda’s Picks which Chronicles Black life and arts in the Bay Area for over 20 years. She has interviewed hundreds of activists, writers, musicians and artists such as Alice Walker, Quincy Troupe and more. She wrote for the Oakland Tribune for three years through 9/11 and then the SFBV where she has been a senior writer from 1998. She interviewed Willie Ratcliff who will be ninety-years-old this month for her Oral History class at USF in 1998. She is founder of two cultural legacy events in the Bay Area including the longest running poetry reading in the Oakland Library called “A Celebration of African American Poets and their Poetry” which has been ongoing for thirty-two years, as well as the annual Maafa Commemoration which marked its twenty-seventh year in 2022. Her interests and expertise are trauma and trauma healing—the Maafa, specifically ancestral memories, dream tending and the use of art to stimulate those forgotten conversations, especially among Diaspora descendants. Co-founder of The International Coalition for the Commemoration of African Ancestors of the Middle Passage, she is a Transformative Justice (TJ) or Community Accountability facilitator and believes the true revolution starts at home. Wanda is also on several boards, and is a full time tenured professor of English at College of Alameda.
I wanted to know how her connection to New Orleans shaped her thinking. It took me back to one of the events we worked on, the Poetic Protest series in 2005 when thirty local poets including community members, activists and well known poets such as Kim Shuck, Ishmael Reed and devorah major gathered to protest the lack of response to the mostly Black and indigenous victims of the levies breaking. The funds supported all those who had lost wheelchairs and could not escape because they could not walk. This was personal to Wanda, just as is her fight to provide houseless folks with supplies and her seemingly tireless efforts to give voice to the voiceless. I asked her about this. I wanted to connect some dots.
In her words, Wanda Sabir says:
“New Orleans is its own country, like California. New Orleans is an African nation which has since been colonized. California is young compared to Louisiana. Louisiana has a lot more resistance history. Haiti and Louisiana have a connection, but I am from New Orleans which is the site of the largest slave rebellion in the United States. Dred Scott, artist, invited us to reimagine this event in Nov. 2019. We march from Eastern Louisiana; the historic German Coast where enslaved Africans grew sugar cane. We marched as they marched to NOLA, 26 miles over three days. My feet were so tired. It was for the ancestors who were killed before they reached NOLA. They were marching to end slavery everywhere. Whatever you might see…I am southern. You asked about Katrina… Let’s talk about. They were still trying to kill the Black people. The levees broke.”
Wanda wanted to be an attorney but became a teacher partially because law was not literary enough, she laughs, “Mostly I wanted to teach our people.. not to mention I needed to be able to support a family and to have benefits. But once I was there, I saw that Black women in higher education are not visible. I found it lonely. I began to build community around this loneliness I felt. I found my home in helping my Black students to learn being able to express themselves and to ‘control the narrative’ before we had words like ‘narrative’ and ‘structural racism.’” We both laughed at this. Being women on the cusp of wisdom, we can laugh at things that used to not exist.
Wanda not only teaches in the classroom but in the streets. When I met Wanda we were reading poetry in East Oakland. People were finding ways to do outreach to youth, to help prevent the raise in gun violence in the city of Oakland during and post crack epidemic. In a full circle moment, as a response to the brutal beating of Rodney King and the uprisings that ensued. Wanda conceived of this idea of Poetic Protest. This was a new concept back then, at least to me. I had never heard those two words together before and I still believe the trademark belongs to Wanda. But she is not about “ownership” she is about inclusion. The first Poetic Protest was my first engaged activism as an artist. The event was held at Beth Eden Baptist Church and we were raising money for the Brotherhood Crusade in Los Angeles. Their mission was to bring education and programming to the inner city. Wanda recalls..(Wanda might tell the story here of the music)
Wanda is motivated by Freedom, Literacy, Family and Ancestors. These help us remember who we are as Black people in the diaspora so that we remember to love ourselves instead of trying to be someone else. In her class they study Tupac and theater, they read Michael Eric Dyson, go to readings and museums.
One day the ancestors whispered Maafa. That is when I started Maafa, because our ancestors were our history. I come from the south but I go back farther than that. My origins story is the black holocaust. I can go all the way to the slave ship. By healing our collective trauma from being captured, enslaved, by being shipped across the ocean.. did you know that many of our ancestors were captured at teens and came of age while making the journey on the ships? Imagine leaving the motherland and your mother as a child and arriving as an adult. All that happened on the ships. We need to heal from that and honor those who came before us. This healing will Help young people get off the plantation, help them get free.
“I live in California, but I am from the south. The land has memory walking back into the womb walking us back into the ships four or five hundred years.
When I go back to the south, that is where the blood is and it is the land
land who was offended, the land that needs healing from all this death and pain.
The south specifically the five states: Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi: Republic of New Africa holds it.
My life has been dedicated to doing this healing work, with young people, within myself and my family, with my community and with my students.
I believe in creating safe spaces for Black people, our people. You can’t tell your story to someone you are afraid of. ”
Love is an action
It is a commitment
I love our people
Sometimes I want to retire
then I get a renewal
This year after a defeating cancer
I did a gratitude walk for Sojourner Truth
This honor brought me back to myself