In Search of Queen Mother Moore (and Others): Why I Wrote “Reparations On Fire”
by Nkechi Taifa, Esq.
Won’t you blow wind, blow…between the pages of my life
Can’t you see?
Traveling on the wings of time
That only you can look ahead
And see what’s happenin’ is clearly as you see
Won’t you blow wind, blow
— Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, “Song of the Wind”
I’ve learned to get used to the shocked look on the faces of today’s young activists when they find out I’ve worked with Queen Mother (QM) Audley Moore. She seems to be becoming a saint in today’s Black/African Freedom Struggle, particularly when it comes to the issue of reparations. Her Queen Mother title is not a sham; based on her works, the Louisiana native was officially “crowned” the honorary title of Queen Mother in Ghana in 1972.
When I was younger, I mirrored her ever-present African headwrap at meetings and events we attended. She was the Mama-Elder who held my baby girl in her arms at an N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) conference almost three decades ago. I have a friend who compares that moment to when abolitionist Harriet Tubman, our Moses, ceremoniously thrust anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells’ newborn baby towards the sky in 1896 at the first conference of the National Association of Colored Women in Washington, D.C. Although at times I scoff at such posturings, as the author of Reparations on Fire: How and Why its Spreading Across America, I see the continuum and feel the historical rhyme.
As a teen, I had no clue as to Queen Mother’s wide-ranging bio: a stalwart member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, she publicly held both the Pan Africanist and Communist lines against those then-called Negroes who were frightened away from both Movements. However, I just knew she was one of the first to actualize the call for reparations as her life’s work, influencing many others, myself included, along the way.
Moreover, she is heralded as the “John Hancock” of Nation Time! Legend has it that she pushed her way through a gaggle of Black men to become the first signatory to the 1968 Declaration of Independence of the newly-created Republic of New Afrika (RNA), an entity that would define my early days in “The Struggle.” Instead of re-establishing ourselves in Africa, the RNA demanded, as part of a reparations settlement, land right here, in this country’s Black Belt South, and Queen Mother Audley Moore was designated as the Black Government’s first Minister of Health and Welfare.
Professor Ashley Farmer has heard that story. She is a brilliant sister who has taken her Harvard historical training and pointed it toward the documentation of the work and lives of Black radical women. During a recent conversation with her about QM Moore, the subject of her upcoming book, I was thrilled when she revealed that a whole chapter of the biography focuses on Queen Mother’s RNA days. This excited me, because, as vented in both my newest work Reparations on Fire, as well as in my memoir, Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice, so very often the chronicles of late 20th-century Black Power nation-builders whose feet I sat under are dismissed, ignored or otherwise summarily swept under rugs. The fact that a serious academic effort is finally being made to extol the work and deeds of this prolific warrior woman is heartening, and hopefully a signal to others to dig deep into the lives of other cobwebbed radical Black Nationalist trailblazers as well.
I told Dr. Farmer that in Reparations on Fire I expressed how surprised I was when I noticed that QM Moore’s name was absent amongst the nearly 100 signees of another important document — the 1951 United Nations petition “We Charge Genocide.” How, I queried, could she not have been part of that work, as she was one of the most prolific contemporaries of the day on the issue of human rights and reparations? Was it, I opined, that she was considered too radical for the times? Had she demanded the issue of reparations be included and was denied? Was she considered too outspoken as a woman? In response, the University of Texas at Austin history professor outlined the possibilities of a very familiar story, one that most Black women activists have to go through at some point: perhaps, she said, Moore was not on the signature list because the Boys’ Club of Black radical activism, led by W.E.B. Du Bois and William Patterson, thought she was too bossy, grassroots, uneducated — some of the historic criticisms of sisters often used by insecure brothers when their female contemporaries show serious leadership.
So it’s 2023 and my infant that QM Moore swaddled in her arms is now a 28-year-old Black woman. There have been 28 Black History Months since then, and with Black resistance being the theme this February, Black folk are resisting in the Memphis streets for Tyre Nichols while recoiling in shock over Florida’s near-outlawing of all Black radical and even mainstream Black history.
Today, QM Moore’s most persistent enemy is the fragmentation of her work. Dr. Farmer told me that she got interested in Moore when her name kept coming up in conversation about the Black Radical Tradition. She had to do a lot of digging on her own because there are no archives; no library-ed collection of papers on Queen Mother. Both Farmer and I agreed that traditional scholars have ignored her now, the way Du Bois and Patterson did then.
Listening to Farmer talk about her lifetime’s search for Black women like Moore — whom she called “a shrewd thinker and tireless organizer” — makes me think how fortunate I am to have actually witnessed so much, particularly when I now know that so much of that Black revolutionary activity gets erased or softened. I didn’t know, for example, that a photograph I happened to snap of QM Moore at an N’COBRA convening in D.C. decades ago, would now be so significant to me. Sitting behind Moore in that audience was Dr. Mutulu Shakur, who one day into the future would be convicted of masterminding the liberation of Assata Shakur from prison. Dr. Shakur — a political prisoner for more than 35 years until his recent release — and Queen Mother Moore, the Garveyite, frozen together in that Kodak moment by ideology and the optimism of a people ready to build a new nation.
Here’s another example of something that not only exists in the hearts and minds of those who were present, but also in an old VHS tape I recently salvaged during my home renovation. During a N’COBRA conference in South Carolina during the early ’90s, following an historical presentation at a beach of slave rebellions in the area, we incorporated a relay race — literally passing the baton from one runner to the next — to emphasize the inter-generational emphasis of the reparations struggle.
Brother Imari Obadele, RNA President and my friend and political mentor, was the last to run around the make-shift track on the sandy terrain. Without letting us know what he was going to do, he suddenly grabbed QM Moore’s wheelchair, gave her the baton, and circled with her! Others quickly joined in to symbolically push Queen Mother forward into our independent, self-determined New Afrikan future.
The prospect of that future, envisioned in Reparations on Fire, exists because of both the promise and danger of this very moment, and because of the rapidly spreading momentum across the country on the issue. The book documents and dissects the myriad of local actions that are popping up across America as the Reparations Movement morphs from fringe rhetoric to cautious acceptance in the form of concrete commissions and initiatives. Indeed, the quest for reparations is equal parts edgy, exciting, transformational, confrontational, messy and confusing. Fire illuminates, purifies and brings warmth, but can also cause pain, damage and destruction. It can symbolize the eternal flame of hope or signify ruin and demise. The spirit of reparations is sweeping the country like fire. Whether it heals or consumes depends on how America responds to its long overdue debt.
Reparations on Fire describes history-in-the-making. It is part historical analysis, part revolutionary manifesto and part political red-alert. In it, I resurrect the work of recent and unsung ancestors from my lifetime, such as QM Moore, Dr. Obadele, Attorney Chokwe Lumumba, Dorothy Benton Lewis and others. I’ve never had to search for them; they’ve always been with me. Reparations on Fire outlines how these marginalized Black Nationalists set the foundations for reparations to be championed by John Conyers and later Sheila Jackson Lee in the Congress of the United States — a fight that is still being waged, currently calling on President Biden to sign an executive order immediately bringing a federal reparations commission to study and develop reparations proposals into existence.
Serious scholars such as Farmer are committed to doing the hard-work, the historical beach-combing of the purposely forgotten, such as Queen Mother Moore. That excavation work is so important I made sure to include in the appendix to Reparations on Fire the original text of Reparations Yes! the 1987 book (banned 35 years later!) I co-authored with N’COBRA leaders Lumumba and Obadele during the dawning of the modern-era Reparations Movement. I did so for both its historic value and as a current tribute to both unrecognized and (now ancestral) leaders in the original BLM — the Black Liberation Movement.
One of the reasons I wrote Fire is because the struggle for reparations has reached new heights. As such, we must never forget those whose contributions have been washed away by America’s mainstream shores, reduced in many instances to cursory bios and grainy pictures. Although many of their footprints in the sand have been washed over, their words and actions still reverberate in the waters, winds and fires that connect Mother Africa, the MAAFA (the Trans-Atlantic slave trade), diasporic Africans and the struggles and victories to come where Black freedom and joy can flourish.
Nkechi Taifa is president of The Taifa Group LLC, Director of the Reparation Education Project Inc, and author of Reparations on Fire: How and Why It’s Spreading Across America, and Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice.