“I remember how being young and Black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.” – Audre Lorde, “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name”
“Zami” – the Caribbean English word that refers to a lesbian or homosexual woman – was first documented in Western libraries in Donald Hill’s 1977 study on the small island of Carriacou, located in the Caribbean Sea. Later, Audre Lorde’s 1982 bio-mythography “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name,” which chronicles an involute journey of Black women-loving-women through the 1950s to ‘70s, defined “Zami” as “a Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers.”
ZAMI NOBLA (The National Organization of Black Lesbians on Aging) is an Atlanta-based organization, and the only one of its kind in the country, that centers service, advocacy, and community action research by and for Black lesbians over 40 years old. Since 2011, ZAMI NOBLA has provided programs to build community and advance feminist and LGBTQ rights across the country, with state chapters in Georgia and North Carolina.
One such program, The Chris Ducusin Advocacy Collective, was created in honor of Atlanta-based Black lesbian activist and elder Christine Ducusin. The collective works to build power, fight ageism, and organizes to create equitable systems and policy outcomes for LGBTQ elders.
“Black lesbians have been at the vanguard of these movements, all of them. Every civil rights movement, every queer movement, every feminist movement, in terms of leadership, activism, and rounding out the intersectionality framework,” Mary Anne Adams, founder and executive director of ZAMI NOBLA, told Georgia Voice. “There are two things that are indisputable: one is that we’re older today than we were yesterday, and two, we’re all going to die. So, what are we going to do in between the beginning and the end?”
Adams began what would become lifelong activism at just twelve years old. She joined the “Black House” in her hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, where she learned from civil rights workers, social workers, legal aid lawyers, and organizers. She also learned Black history, literature, and how to write Black plays.
The Black House began publishing The Soul Force, a newspaper that Adams helped distribute around her hometown, using a mimeograph machine to make copies and delivering them on her bicycle.
“The NAACP would be [at the Black House],” she said. “We were allowed to stay in the room. We couldn’t speak but we could listen and absorb all the information. So, it was a very heady time for me actually. I absolutely would mark that as the beginning of my civil rights activism,.”
When she was 16, Adams was encouraged by her community at the Black House to attend the University of Mississippi, which had been desegregated just eight years prior. Though she’d wanted to study journalism at an HBCU, Adams and her community knew it was important to support future Black students at Ole Miss.
“That’s my cross to bear,” she said. “The more Black students there were, the better off it would be for those coming after us. You do what your community tells you to do, because that’s what you’re taught to do, because it’s bigger than you.”
As part of its commitment to community and grassroots activism, ZAMI NOBLA used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to study the quality of life disparities older Black lesbians face in society and how providers are failing to engage in intersectional care, and proved that ZAMI NOBLA was the only known organization in the U.S. dedicated to reforming such inequities.
“Throughout the pandemic, the organization leveraged technological innovation and community solidarity to combat ageist ideology and elevate the spaces in which Black lesbians and their networks were able to learn, heal, thrive, and live,” wrote Adams and Dr. Porsha Hall in their findings.
In addition to organizing community spaces for Black lesbian elders, ZAMI NOBLA also offers a multi-racial, multi-generational space for weekly ukulele lessons for anyone over 18 “with a desire to strum and hum.” The proceeds from the lessons go toward humanitarian benefits and aging facilities.
On Sunday, February 18, ZAMI NOBLA and The Counter Narrative Project will celebrate Audre Lorde’s 90th birthday with a hybrid read-A(udre)-thon event from 1-5pm. at Charis Books & More at 184 S. Candler St, Decatur, GA. Stay up-to-date on the organization’s upcoming events at zaminobla.org/events or follow them on Instagram @zaminobla.