As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, New York, feminist and activist Monifa Akinwole-Bandele always dreamt of being a revolutionary fighting on behalf of oppressed people all over the world. She never, however, pictured herself married with children. “I grew up thinking family has to be your priority, so I never thought I could have a family and be an activist,” explains Monifa, who sits on the committee for Communities United for Police Reform, and is the campaign director for the pro-mom group, Moms Rising.
It wasn’t until she fell in love with her husband Lumumba and they had their two daughters—Naima (15) and Adasa (12)—that Monifa came to the realization that nurturing a loving family and the quest for justice aren’t mutually exclusive.
Like Monifa, who watched her social worker mom organize a historical, successful rent strike against a notorious New York slumlord, Lumumba always knew he would be socially active as an adult thanks to his own father’s heavy involvement in political activism. “My interaction with my father was spent over political work, not basketball games. His commitment to organizing had a big effect on me,” says Lumumba.
Raised in Brooklyn, his home was constantly abuzz with people and activity. “I don’t remember a time when it was just our immediate family in our home,” he says. “Everyone from exiled freedom fighters from South Africa during apartheid, a West African dance troupe, even Nina Simone lived with us,” recalls Lumumba, who works as the senior organizer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and teaches community organizing at Lehman College. Both Lumumba and Monifa are members of the Malcom X Grassroots Movement. “We are aware that we have a responsibility to our community that is bigger than us,” declares Monifa.
Their dedication to social activism is the glue that brought them together.
A 19-year-old Monifa met 18-year-old Lumumba when she took part in a youth organizer’s training conference at the Caribbean Culture Center, where Lumumba was working. Both were immersed in hip-hop activism as teenagers and quickly became close friends. “The more we worked together, the more I realized her commitment was something to be in awe of. I found Monifa to be somebody who would go above and beyond what the typical teen was interested in doing,” says Lumumba.
Back then, hip-hop activism was the cause célèbre, and it was easy to filter out the posers. “Monifa’s passion was genuine. Just to hear her speak and articulate a vision to our folks was always so impressive. I found it very attractive, and she was pretty,” adds Lumumba. “His intellect and affinity to plan and execute highly complex strategies were very attractive to me,” says Monifa. “He has a beautiful mind, and his values were consistent with mine. Even as a teen I understood that was important.”
Their mutual respect for one another’s intellect, and countless late nights working together, morphed their friendship into a love affair when Monifa was 24 and Lumumba 23. “The more I got to know him as a person and not as an activist, I knew I wanted to be closer to him. It wasn’t just about being at demonstrations, but how he acted there. He treated everyone with kindness and respect on a personal level,” says Monifa.
“She made me feel great, and I loved being around her. I had girlfriends in the past that I had great times with, but I always needed a break during the day from them. With Monifa, I wanted to spend more and more time with her. I saw myself growing old with her,” says Lumumba.
After a year and a half of dating, Lumumba proposed.
Popping the question “one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.” A vulnerable Lumumba feared the love of his life might turn him down. He sat on the engagement ring for five months before working up the nerve to propose. But executing a romantic proposal proved to be more challenging than organizing a demonstration.
“I had plans to do it on her birthday,” he recalls. “I had a friend who was going to lend me his car. The ring was supposed to be sitting on a bench at Battery Park City Pier, and my brother was going to be sitting nearby to watch the ring. Monifa and I were supposed to walk up on the ring,” remembers Lumumba.
Nothing unfolded according to his plans.
First, he couldn’t borrow the car because it broke down, and then his brother could no longer make it. None of these obstacles were going to stop him. “I had to do it on that day,” says Lumumba. The one part of his elaborate plan that stuck was a walk on the pier.
“My birthday is in January in the dead of winter, and he insisted we take a walk on the pier right next to the Hudson River. I thought, ‘this is crazy,’ ” says Monifa, who was gasping and crying when Lumumba pulled out the ring. “It was a lovely surprise. Even before we dated I remember thinking that I could see myself with him. It made sense to me.”
“She was crying and I realized she hasn’t answered it. Are those tears of joy or tears of ‘this poor fool’? That was a very scary moment for those few seconds,” says Lumumba. They got married in a traditional West African/African-American ceremony in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in 1998.
Lumumba and Monifa set out to construct their own rules for their union instead of adopting mainstream patriarchal guidelines. For instance, Lumumba decided he would take Monifa’s last name. “I recognized that she isn’t my property, and at no time did I want to be involved in anything that insinuated that, so we joined our last names,” clarifies Lumumba, adding that his choice was hard for many to follow—especially New York City when it came time for him to change his name. “It was infuriating, but I’m glad I did it. I’m proud of it.”
Despite having been married for 15 years, the Akinwole-Bandeles do not advise couples to get married as young as they did (Monifa was 27, Lumumba 26.) “I think you are still discovering yourself at that age. I would advise my daughters to date and stay engaged for a while to really get to know someone. We were lucky it worked out for us,” says Monifa.
So how did they avoid the pitfalls of jumping the broom in your 20s? “We have always been very honest with each other and very committed to our relationship,” Lumumba says. “Being great friends before we dated made a big difference. One of the things that helped too was recognizing people change. If you are able to accept this metamorphosis that happens, you’ll know how to handle it.”
Juggling parenthood and their activism after they got married took some reprioritizing. While Lumumba credits his father with instilling his commitment to activism, it wasn’t until later in life that his father revealed to him that he regretted devoting all his time to the movement and not to being a father. Those words stuck with Lumumba. “I wanted to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake. I learned a valuable lesson from Monifa’s family on how important it is to make time for each other,” says Lumumba.
Monifa and Lumumba decided early on into being parents that they wouldn’t let their work monopolize their time. Striking a balance is imperative to any healthy family dynamic. “We have no problem with putting restrictions on our organizing work. Weekends are off-limits, and we have set times during the week we can work,” says Lumumba. “Organizing is not really family friendly. At first you feel like you’re cutting back, but really you are giving more to the movement by raising good, healthy future leaders,” says Monifa.
But if their daughters decide not to follow in their footsteps and become activists, that’s fine with Monifa. “They have their own dreams. I’m excited to see what they do. As long as they are happy, that is what counts,” Monifa emphasizes. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want them to be active. But more importantly, I want them to represent the values we consider important. We know activists that are true to the struggle but are miserably unhappy people. I want my children to have satisfying lives that bring them joy,” says Lumumba.
As it turns out, their children only fuel their social consciousness.
There have been some victories in their fight for justice—such as helping to pass groundbreaking anti-stop-and-frisk legislation in New York City, which Monifa (as part of the Communities United for Police Reform) organized to bring to an end. Lumumba worked to pass a bill to end the death penalty in Maryland. Monifa looks to her children for strength when she and Lumumba aren’t triumphant in their ongoing fight for justice. “We may never realize some the things we fight for in our lifetime. Our children inspire us to keep going and to fight for a just world we can leave for them.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn’t always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at digitalpi[email protected] (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she’s writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.