It’s Scary Loving an Old Person: The Loss of a Queen
Have you ever met someone that you loved immediately almost before a word was spoken? That’s how it was with me and Queen Mother Nana. It was as if our spirits recognized each other and filled the room between us with their dance. But she was old and disabled-could I risk loving her only to lose her?
There we were in 2002, a still-feisty community activist and beloved elder from North Philly, known to the community as Josephine “Mom” Johnson, and a white, middle-aged, middle-class human rights activist, author and filmmaker. We’d heard about each other from some of the students in my former creative writing class at Graterford Prison where she and two other remarkable women had volunteered for over thirty-five years, bringing African studies to many behind bars yearning for an identity, community and culture. In these women they found mothers. As did I. Nana told me that they prayed for me by phone every night.
In the sixties, Nana worked with then DA Ed Rendell to end gang violence, to close nuisance bars in declining city neighborhoods and advocated for stronger liquor control laws. She took Yellow Cab to court for their discriminatory practices in services in black communities.
In 1979, she’d begun outreach work at Graterford where they adopted her Pan African Studies Community Education Program (PASCEP) from Temple University. She earned a Bachelor of Historical Education degree from the Pan-African Federation Organization.
In the late eighties, she visited several African countries, delivering educational supplies and over 2,000 books, helping to establish a school in Ghana. On every trip she took school children (and adults) from N. Philly to Africa, instilling in them pride of their heritage. She was “enstooled” in 1992 as Queen Mother Nana Ama Akoffo 2nd.
Philadelphia City Council and the State Senate recognized her several times through the years for her work giving voice to many social issues like housing, voter registration, family unity, teen pregnancy and police abuse.
Nana introduced me to the Incarcerated Community, families of the men in my classes. It was through her strong support of my work that I was able to earn the trust of those with loved ones in prison with whom I was writing a book about them and the criminal justice system. The book, Celling America’s Soul: Torture & Transformation in our Prisons and Why We Should Care has been called by people in prison “the best book in print that describes prisons from most every perspective,” was immediately banned. Families were selling the book out of the trunks of their cars at Broad and Erie. Fresh hope blossomed as we were all sure once the public read about the human suffering funded by unaware taxpayers, conditions would change for the better. Twelve years later, people are just beginning to awaken to the horrors and costs of mass incarceration. I also made a documentary, which includes an interview with Nana, Healing Justice: a journey into Shadow America, which is available at www.Trustonekindness.com
By the time I met her in 2002, she was confined to a walker and a wheel chair, her lungs impaired by breathing chemicals during the years she ran a successful hair salon. Yet even from her wheelchair she was still helping the community. Whatever the need was, she’d put out word that a refrigerator was needed and one would become available. Each week, at the senior high rise where she lived in an impeccably neat apartment, she delegated distribution of loaves of bread donated by the Vermont Bread Company. Whenever someone needed a sympathetic ear, she was there and did enjoy a bit of gossip now and then. She also grumbled a lot as she became less independent.
This was a woman who glowed with love, who radiated strength and compassion, and who gave us and the community the kind of mothering we didn’t know we needed. She was 94 when she passed into Spirit.
I am glad I took the risk of loving her. Of course I’ll always miss her, her spirit, her love, her sense of humor and her outrage at injustice. I’ll do my best to try to walk in her shoes.
Judith Trustone is an award-winning author, filmmaker and human rights advocate. The Global Kindness Revolution: How Together We Can Heal Violence, Racism and Meanness to be released in early 2016. Her documentaries include Soothing and Nurturing the Human Spirit; Healing Justice: A Journey into Shadow America; How to Create a Kindness Circle (on YouTube)