ANN-NAKIA GREEN carries forward the inspirational civil rights activism of her grandmother Ann Atwater. Ann Atwater is best known for changing the heart of, Ku Klux Klan Exalted Grand Cyclops, C.P.Ellis in support of the desegregation of schools in Durham, North Carolina. We talked to Ann-Nakia about her journey overcoming pain, her grandmother's activism, the current black lives matter movement and why Taraji P. Henson, who portrayed Ann Atwater in the film "Best of Enemies", is like family to her.
Tell us about growing up under the wing of your grandmother, civil rights activist, Ann Atwater? What was she like and what did she instill into you?
Where do I begin? Growing up under the wing of my grandmother was nothing short of amazing grace. Literally she was and, in many ways, remains my life raft. Grandma/Mama as I called her was strong with me yet soft. She taught me how a woman should speak up for herself, carry herself, as well as how to turn over a few tables, figuratively speaking, to get the job done.
When did you first understand about the incredible activism that your grandmother did and how did it make you feel?
Probably right after my brother and I moved in to live with her around 1990, I was 7 years old. I heard my grandma's name ring out all over Durham, NC. If you needed assistance- Call Ann. If you felt like an injustice had been carried out against you and your family- Call Ann. If you were denied something that was beneficial to your livelihood and just overall survival- Call Ann. If you were running for city council, NC House or Congress- Call Ann. I remember attending my first Durham Committee on The Affairs of Black People meeting with her and watching how the body absorbed everything she said. I knew she was a big thing, but I had no idea she was a giant.
We know you were remarkably close to your grandmother; can you tell us about a particularly special times you shared together?
There are so many special times we shared. I was sexually abused when I was young by my mother’s boyfriend. The earliest encounter I can remember was 5 years old. My grandmother became my brother and I's Foster Parent in 1990. If anyone knows the steps or the experience of going into foster care you must endure a series of examinations, psychological evaluations etc. I will never forget the first pediatric checkup; my pediatrician examined me and said I’ll be right back. He returned with a female colleague, but the look on his face was something strange. He asked my grandmother to step out of the room with him and I was glanced over again by the female physician. She confirmed, a pap smear was performed, and my grandma came back into the room with a heaviness I couldn’t explain. Nothing else was said on our way home but that night she held me so tight and said “I promise you as long as I live everything is going to be alright”. Later in the night I could hear her raging at my mother over the phone still oblivious to what was going on. That next week I had a follow up and met with a therapist and the journey began. My grandmother was no question my biggest advocate.
Another special time shared was when I came out to her 2015. My grandmother knew every intimate part of my life and, as we continued to grow older, the pressure of marriage and a husband and kids became a part of just about every conversation, we had lol. We would get into heated arguments about sexual orientation as there is no question that she was a devout Christian. Now don’t get it wrong, my grandmother loved everyone, EVERYONE. It made no difference what your color, sexual orientation, religious, political affiliations were, she had space for you at her table period! But you know how sometimes things do not quite hit home unless it’s in the home, yeah, we had a situation like that. As she processed my unfiltered truth, she went through every emotion I can think of but never expressed or showed anger towards me and the conclusion to that experience, “ You are my baby girl, nothing can never stop me from loving you and if you are dating someone, I need to meet her.” Our relationship elevated to the dimension of agape.
You have picked up the torch of activism from your grandmother, you are an Ambassador for The United State of Women, can you tell us more about that and any other activism you are involved with?
The United State of Woman is a remarkable platform for unifying the voices of women as we fight for gender equity. I was honored to be chosen and learned a lot. Today is my last day as an Ambassador. One thing that I take away is that there is so much work to be done, and as the Nation shifts into combating the injustices of our Black community it has helped to turn the fire underneath me. The USOW Mission is “The United State of Women is a national organization dedicated to convening, connecting, and amplifying voices in the fight for full gender equity. We are a community for all who identify as women, gender nonconforming, or allies, believe in full gender equity, and want to work collectively to achieve it.” The opportunity presented itself to me during my promo work experience surrounding the release of “The Best of Enemies”.
PusHER™ (trademark pending) was birthed out of journeying through my pain. I have gone through so much in my life leading up to the deaths of my grandmother, with whom I travailed with until her last breathe (2016), my mom just 13 months later (2017) and then my only sibling, who wasn’t just my brother but like my child, 8 months after laying our mom to rest (2018). PusHER™ is a play on the word pusher. Its mission “Inspiring HER to believe SHE can” will speak to the many intersectionality’s women may face from race and social status, religion and politics, trauma and mental health just to name a few. I am creating a legacy standing in the footprints of my grandmother, one that will lift young girls and women higher. Higher than anything or anyone can place on us.
How do you feel about the current Black Lives Matter movement and what do you think your grandmother would’ve thought about it?
My thoughts on the current Black Lives Matter movement run deep. We all have seen 1st hand the disparities set against the black community for centuries now and how history continues to unfold this nation's ugly truths time and time again. This country was not intended for us. My grandmother taught me that when I was young. “ You are big, black and loud just like me and you are always going to have to work twice as hard to make something of yourself- read, study to show yourself approved and when they rise against you rise higher” - Ann Atwater. My grandmother would have been organizing, marching, contacting senators and representatives, calling folks and urging them to speak up.
When they rise against you rise higher” - Ann Atwater.
Within the Black Lives Matter movement do you feel black women’s voices are being heard? And how can other women, of all colors, help them be heard?
To a certain degree. We have been floored with anger and wanting justice for our black kings that we’ve lost to police violence. When it comes to our black queens killed in the same manner it’s as if we must scream louder. Natasha McKenna, Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux, Aura Rosser, Maya Hall, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor and more were all killed by police or in the custody of the police office and yet many have never heard their names and justice is still pending! I will even go a step further to our trans community particularly our Black Trans Women who are disproportionately affected by violence ending in death. This year alone 14 transgender have been killed according to the HRC. If we continue to seek justice, hold our neighbors, lawmakers accountable and truly invest in laws for protection, education and mental health I think progress can be made.
How can other women, of all colors, help them be heard? By showing up, being present, open to hear, educating themselves and spreading that knowledge and acknowledging their own privilege biases and using it to help us all win.
If you could pick only one thing you could change right now, that would help black women, what would that be?
Racial Equity and Equality! Black women suffer economically, medically, socially, mentally! I think if we had the same opportunities extended to us as our non-Black counterparts, we would have a fair chance at surviving! A true opportunity of life. A life for our partners, businesses, children, families, a life, safe space and place in this world.
Can you tell us about the making of “Best of Enemies”? Were you involved much?
My grandmother was involved with the movie up until her passing. I remember when she received the call that “the cookie lady” the incomparable Taraji P. Henson would be portraying her. I was geeked! We would watch Empire and I can’t remember which particular episode it was, but Cookie was giving Lucious the business, like she wasn’t having that and my grandmother chuckled and said “uh huh”. Cookie’s character, her fierceness, no BS attitude like I’m going to get it done with or without you, I believe resonated with her. So, when I received the call to attend the Durham, NC premier of the film and was surprised to meet Taraji I don’t think I ever expressed what that did to me. It brought full circle my grandmother's life; it was as if she were saying “I’m right here it’s going to be ok” like I had been revived. I was blessed with the opportunity to work and do promo's for the film working with Taraji and I am so grateful for the opportunity, hoping I made positive impression on Taraji in a way she could feel my grandmother’s essence through me, Robin Bissell the gracious and creative writer and director of the film, my guardian angels Lydia my mom, Brandon my brother, Osha Gray Davidson the author of the book my Aunt Marylinn, friends and family I just hope I made them proud.
Civil rights activist Ann Atwater faces off against C.P. Ellis, Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, in 1971 Durham, North Carolina over the issue of school integration.
How was it watching the film for the first time and seeing Taraji P. Henson portraying your grandmother?
Listen, I was a mess! I haven’t watched the film since April 5, 2019. It was like she brought her back to me— and when the end credits play, I have to say goodbye all over again! Taraji gave me a gift!
Your grandmother didn’t get to see the film, what do you think she would’ve thought about it?
I think she would have loved the film! She would have laughed, cried and shouted out a Hallelujah or “Alright” here or there! I’m sure she would have been radiating from the inside out and immediately adopted Taraji into the family. She is family as far as I am concerned. She’s an “Ann” how could she not be right?
How important do you think it is that more people watch the film now? Do you think it would help people understand the importance of advocating for change?
The film “The Best of Enemies” is important! It broke my heart that the film didn’t get its due when it was released having to fight against The Green Book and be compared. Like this was sensitive to me because these were true accounts, and this was my mama you know. Taraji delivered my grandmother’s truth, she was powerful, black and did not need to bow down to a white savior as Hollywood tends to favor and that wasn’t the Ann you saw in the film and not my grandmother in real life. The entire cast, directors, creative talents, production etc. they did an amazing job at bringing to the screen just a piece of her life, a very important piece that could very well be used as a tool to show that a heart can change! Literally save a life! It is needed if ever for a time such as this!
This film is the perfect example of how love can overcome ear and encourage compassion for ALL mankind!
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Do you think there are more stories of black women activists that deserve to be known better? If so, whose?
Absolutely! Black activist, black artist, creatives using their platform to unify and create change. Ade Toyesi Ibijoke (Nia Wilson) of “SpiritHouse Inc.”, Durham, NC., Dr. Ronda Taylor Bullock of “Working To Extend Anti-Racist Education” Durham, NC, Tiera Craig of “What The L?, All things Lesbian” Washington, DC, Dr. Brandynicole Brooks-Harris of “Eban Consulting” Northern Virginia, Dr. Mellony Conyers owner “Due Homage, LLC. and “The Well Inc.”, Washington, DC, Chassidy Young of “Chasing Chassidy”, Arlington, Texas, just to name a few.
Who keeps you inspired these days, especially during these difficult times with the COVID lockdown?
Wonderful question! My amazing sorority, Kappa Xi Omega, Sorority Inc. an organization for professional lesbian women regardless of gender expression/label. These amazing leaders and innovators help to keep me grounded and support me in all my endeavors. My best friends, Tanasha & Mellony who continue to amaze me, encourage me and support me. My God Family consisting of so many sisters and brothers stand in parents and aunts and uncles. My good-good girlfriends at work. My family. My guardian angels, God my creator and the will to live this life gifted to me inspires me these days.
What is your favorite inspirational quote?
"We must look within at the "inner me" before we can begin to change the "enemy"." ~ Ann-Nakia M. Green, Granddaughter of Civil Rights Activist Ann Atwater
What gives you the greatest hope for the future?
What gives me the greatest hope for the future, is hope. Hope in that nothing lost was in vain, that my people will recognize their worth within and allow that to infectiously change the world in which we live. My greatest hope for the future is that my life, my experiences, my truths will aid and inspire the next Queen to believe that she defines her purpose. That love will save us, inspire us and propel us the greater heights. My greatest hope for the future is one where each person no matter gender, race, religious affiliation, economic status will have a place at the table and if not the tools in which to create their own.
You can follow Ann-Nakia Green on Instagram @annnakiagreen & @pusher_2greatness and on Twitter @AnnNakia
All photographs courtesy of Ann-Nakia Green
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