I Was Born on a Black Commune

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In the commune I once called home, I was too young to understand what it meant to be born into a Black-liberation movement. I knew only that I lived in an apartment building where everyone loved me, a place where everyone who loved me was Black.

Each morning, to combat the Detroit winter, my mother would swathe me in layers of too-big clothing, capping off the baggy outfit with a white T-shirt that read Alkebu-lan Academy in red letters. We’d walk down the hall on scalloped red carpet, saying hello to chatty neighbors lingering in doorways. The elevator was as old and cantankerous as a grandpa who had earned the right to be. We’d ride it down to the lobby, where the guard’s desk sat front and center. Then my mother would take me to the Alkebu-lan Academy nursery, through a set of metal doors heavy enough to sever the tips of a child’s fingers.

That was where, after a hug and a kiss from my mother, I spent my days—in the cinder-block room with its yellow preschool bulletin board. A teacher had pinned up colorful cartoon monsters, like the ones on Sesame Street, and had written each character’s color on its tummy in black marker. In a photo of me there at 14 months, captured by my mother, I am prancing by a windup baby swing, no doubt positioned to give weary nursery workers a scant break.

The nursery was staffed by women like my mother who had committed their time and efforts to the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church in exchange for housing, meals, and other basic needs. For more than three decades, from 1973 into the 2000s, the U-shaped building at 700 Seward Avenue, called the National Training Center and Residence Hall, was a modified kibbutz where hundreds of Black people shared their lives and resources. A dining room on the first floor served meals. The residence hall operated on a communal budget that members could pay into if they worked a traditional job outside the church.

Donations were a major source of funding. Young people we called missionaries went out “reaching,” traveling to cities throughout the South and Midwest year-round, in all weather, to ask for money. The National Training Center, or NTC, was a bustling village back when I lived there in the early ’80s. It must have seemed, to my mother and all the other young people who joined the Black Christian Nationalist movement, that the future shimmered with possibility.

But liberation movements wax and wane. By the late 2000s, the NTC no longer operated as a full-scale commune, though some church members continued living there. In 2019, the building was sold to a developer. The nursery and dining hall and all our old rooms are being turned into luxury apartments; the first hit the market last year. I felt a startling sense of loss when I heard about the sale. It was the symbolic end of a self-sufficient Black nation within a nation.

Knowing that my heritage, and therefore my own children’s, was bound up in those walls, I felt a responsibility to understand what had happened there. I had to go back to the Shrine of the Black Madonna. I had to go home.

The founder of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church was a straight-talking minister named Reverend Albert B. Cleage Jr. “We would rather eat dirt,” Cleage proclaimed in the late ’60s, “than go through the kind of oppression that we’ve gone through in America for 400 years.”

On July 23, 1967, Detroit police officers raided an illegal after-hours club (called a “blind pig”). Instead of dispersing, patrons and onlookers, fed up with systemic police brutality, fought back. Bottles sailed toward the officers. One crashed into a police-car window. The uprising that began with that broken glass on 12th and Clairmount would last five days, leaving 43 people dead and hundreds injured, and causing $132 million ($1 billion today) in property damage. More uprisings around the country followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the next year.

Cleage and King had been two of the organizers of the Walk to Freedom in 1963. Both ministers were deeply influenced by the social-gospel movement; they thought the Church had an ethical and theological imperative to meet parishioners’ material needs and to use its power to pursue justice for the oppressed. But Cleage came to see the social gospel, with its belief that man was good and society perfectible, as naive. His Black nationalism divided him from the other organizers. He wanted the walk to be all Black; they thought it should be interracial. He lost that battle, as well as the Michigan gubernatorial race of 1964, in which he ran as a candidate for the Freedom Now Party and won fewer than 5,000 votes.

In a sermon following King’s death, Cleage insisted that despite King’s emphasis on nonviolence and “redemptive suffering,” the people who’d joined King’s marches had learned something different. Protest taught them nationalism: “that black people could come together as a group, that they could find unity in their struggle against oppression, and in their desire for justice.” More and more, Cleage turned his focus away from mainstream politics and toward the new theology he called Black Christian Nationalism.  

BCN envisioned salvation as a transformative group experience that involved unlearning the “declaration of Black inferiority.” Slavery, the slave codes, Jim Crow, and centuries of racial terrorism in the United States had reified the belief that Black people were subhuman. The insidious premise that white people were superior had so utterly permeated every aspect of American society, Cleage argued, that even Black people had accepted it. Before his people could throw off their shackles, Cleage believed, they needed to unlearn the inferiority complex that told them they deserved oppression. Black people could not build a Black nation until they believed in their own innate possibility.

To commemorate the new theology, on Easter Sunday 1967, Cleage unveiled before parishioners a stunning 18-foot chancel mural of a Black Madonna and child by the artist Glanton Dowdell. Instead of preaching that a white Jesus had come to save individual souls for the hereafter, he would preach, at his church on Linwood and Hogarth, about a revolutionary Black Messiah whose teachings could save Black people collectively in the here and now. Nothing was more sacred than the liberation of Black people, and Black liberation was in Black hands. Jesus, the revolutionary Black Messiah, was more than a metaphor for Cleage—he was a political necessity. Cleage renamed his church the Shrine of the Black Madonna, and a few years later rechristened it again as the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church. He took a new name himself, as well: Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, meaning “liberator,” “blessed man,” and “savior of the nation.”

After the tumult of the ’60s, the organization offered young people an outlet for their anger and passion. Soon his 450-seat sanctuary overflowed every Sunday. The movement, he told newcomers, demanded total commitment: “We aren’t organizing to die, but we may have to.”

While the church was expanding, so were its young followers’ families; Agyeman had to think creatively about ways to help both thrive. In 1972, the church made its first purchase, for $3 million, of a communal living space: the seven-story brick  Abington Hotel on Seward Avenue, constructed in 1926 by the renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn. My future home.

The next year, Cleage founded the Black Slate, a political-action committee that helped elect the first Black mayor of Detroit. His church expanded across the country, eventually building 10 outposts by 1977, which housed a bookstore, food pantries, a printing press, and culture centers offering political and theological education. At its peak, in the late ’70s, the church claimed 20,000 active members—an impassioned throng of young people ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Many lived in the training centers in Detroit (Shrine No. 1, or the Mother Shrine), Atlanta (Shrine No. 9), and Houston (Shrine No. 10), places that bore witness to the communal lives of hundreds of Black families.

Two years after the sale of the NTC, I called each of my parents and asked them to share with me everything they remembered about the early years, and what those years meant. We had never discussed that history before, and I was surprised by how eager they were to pass it down. Over months of conversations, my parents colored in the shape of our lives together. Only as an adult did I come to understand what it meant to be a child of the Shrine.  

My parents joined the Black Christian Nationalist movement separately in the mid-’70s. They had both been raised in Detroit. My dad was the only child of a doting, widowed schoolteacher who had migrated from Alabama to eke out a living beyond the reach of Jim Crow. My mom was a free-range kid who used to hop trains in railyards; she grew up with a violent father whose shadow brought terror into the room whenever he was inebriated. She was 15 when she heard about BCN from her older sister and brother, who had already joined.

When my mom followed her siblings, her extended family was baffled. We’re integrationists, they told her. They thought Agyeman was a charlatan and a crook. But my mother didn’t care. “It’s not a church,” she would say. “It’s a movement.” BCN broadened her adolescent perspective on Black history and politics beyond the east side of Detroit while it provided her with a protective, loving environment. “The connectivity, the brotherhood, the family … was something I had never experienced before. It was wonderful,” she told me.

Meanwhile, my father was studying electrical engineering at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo. He was always the kind of person who wanted to fix things. By that point, BCN had college cadres all over the state, and my dad felt drawn to the church’s goals. “If you’d like to be involved in a church with the religious mission to be able to change Black people’s lives, this is the place that you could do that,” he told me. After he graduated, he eventually went to work for the church full-time.

My parents met at Shrine No. 10, in Houston, in 1980. My dad was working as a Maccabee guard at the residence hall. He cut a fine figure in his black uniform, with a silver ankh necklace lying on his sternum and an embroidered red BCN patch resting over his heart. His immaculate afro stood just a bit lower than my mother’s. My mother had a bright, easy smile and an impossibly tiny waist in her BCN shirt and jeans. She worked on a rotation of “missionary outreach”—traveling to solicit donations—kitchen service, and new-member recruitment, and later would care for the community’s children.

She was living in the residence hall, so she saw my dad every time she came in. She thought he was handsome, and learned he didn’t smoke or drink. He thought she was soft-spoken and sweet. I was born shortly before their wedding two years later. The children in the church were given African names. They called me Tafakari Tumaini Olubunmi.

One of the most radical aspects of the training centers was their model of child care. Children of full-time missionaries lived separately from their parents in an institution called Mtoto House (“Child’s House” in Swahili). Teams of “house parents” cared for the kids 24 hours a day, five days a week. Houston’s and Atlanta’s residence halls piloted the communal-child-rearing programs in the late ’70s; Detroit opened its Mtoto House in the ’80s.

Agyeman made all of his new followers a promise: If you bring your skills, talent, and energy to the nation full-time, then you will have security from the cradle to the grave. The house mothers would take care of the cradles, and in return, they trusted the nation to care for them as they aged toward the grave.

I was an underweight baby, at three pounds, 11 ounces. My mother stayed home with me when I was an infant, but at some point she knew she might need to return to full-time missionary work, and if she did, I would have to go to the communal nursery. She had recently worked as a house mother, and she told me that she “really, really loved the girls” she cared for there. But when it was time for her own child to enter the Mtoto House system, she realized, “I wasn’t for that.”  

She was also growing frustrated with fundraising. Walking around strange cities with large quantities of cash was dangerous. Once, before I was born, she had nearly been robbed before she ran away with a canister of coins. She had heard about car accidents on outreach trips that resulted in the deaths of church members, stories that left the young activists shaken.

It was clear to my mother that the church would always need more and more money; she did not want to be rattling a can for the next five years. She began to wonder what the future held for me. So she told my father that she wanted to move back to Detroit, where she hoped she might have more agency over raising her daughter. My father was determined to stay in Houston. When I was 13 months old, they separated.

That was how I came to share a one-bedroom apartment at the National Training Center in Detroit with my mother in the early months of 1984. During the day, I went to the nursery while she rotated shifts doing kitchen service, new-member outreach, and office work. At night, we ate with everyone in the communal dining hall before heading upstairs for bed. My mother loved the NTC, she told me. “It spoke of the possibility of something big for Black people. Black people in my era were taught, ‘You can’t do nothing.’” The NTC, she said, “was like a monument to Black achievement.”  

But the child-care situation turned out to be difficult there too. One day, my mother came to retrieve me from the nursery after work, and I cried when she stood me up to walk. When she asked the nursery workers what had happened, my mom recalls, she got a lot of shrugs. At the hospital, an X-ray showed that I had a fractured leg. And yet no one could tell my mother why. “I was seriously protective and in love with that little baby,” she told me. Her trust was broken.

The incident compounded her growing dissatisfaction with the trajectory of her life; six months after we got to the NTC, we left the church altogether and moved into a house with my aunt and three cousins. “It was very, very painful to come to that decision,” she said, “but you were my family. You were my baby.”

For our new life, my mother gave me a new name. Instead of Tafakari Tumaini, I became Dara Tafakari. My mother thought that Dara would be an easier name for a child growing up outside the Pan African community. But although she had left the Shrine, its teachings did not leave her. “Even after I left, I considered myself a Black nationalist,” she told me. “I still had a Black-nationalist orientation and view of the world.” It would manifest in the way she educated me about Black history and culture, giving me books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry to read. She cut out newspaper articles about issues Black people face, and we dissected them, much like her training group had at the Shrine.

I spent summers with my father at Shrine No. 10 in Houston, coming of age with the realization that many people did not know about Agyeman or our communal way of living. As a kid, I didn’t understand why members of the church lived together or why I stayed separate from my father when I went to visit him. Still, during those weeks at the residence hall, where I learned African history, meditated, and lived with my group in Mtoto House, I felt the camaraderie and closeness of communal life. I was loved.

Photo illustration showing a handshake and an image of Reverend Albert Cleage
Alanna Fields for The Atlantic

We didn’t know it then, but by the late ’80s the church had already begun the long decline that culminated in the sale of the NTC.  

Black Christian Nationalism wasn’t the only liberation movement based in communal living that arose in the past century, and it wasn’t the only one that fizzled. In 1969, the architects Harry Quintana and Charles Jones published a manifesto, “Black Commune in Focus,” declaring that “a people with cultural integrity must be able to control their environment.” That year in North Carolina, a former organizer named Floyd McKissick founded Soul City, which was supposed to be a multiracial utopia that offered a haven especially to Black people. The town developed infrastructure and an industrial plant, but funding dried up in 1979 and the 100 or so residents who remained clung to what would become a ghost town.

Building a nation within a nation required a confluence of vision, capital, and committed workers. Mainstream culture always lurked at the borders to lure members toward a more attractive lifestyle that required less sacrifice. A pan-African community had more cachet when Black-freedom movements worldwide were in the news, but by the late ’80s many of these felt like historical footnotes. It was harder to recruit people to the struggle for liberation if they believed that the civil-rights movement had already accomplished its aims.

Partly as a result of these changes and partly as a result of cultural and religious shifts that affected thousands of other Christian churches, the pews of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church began emptying out. The youth who powered the Shrine’s halcyon years of expansion advanced into middle age. Their children left the Mtoto Houses, went to college, and didn’t see room for their ideas back home. The church could no longer draw in hundreds of young people willing to travel the country to stand on the streets in all weather raising money.

But the Shrine still had work to do for global Black liberation, and Agyeman had an idea for a new self-sustaining income stream. His vision was the creation of a network of community-owned farms and distribution centers that could eradicate food insecurity across Black America. Shortly before Agyeman died in 2000, the church acquired Beulah Land Farm, in Calhoun Falls, South Carolina, for $10 million. The farm would eventually grow to more than 4,000 acres.

The church, however, wasn’t bringing in as much money as it had in its heyday, and the residence halls in Detroit, Atlanta, and Houston were aging. The NTC building in Detroit “needed lots of attention,” Bishop D. Kimathi Nelson—who has led the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church since Agyeman’s death—told me. Perhaps more important, fewer and fewer people wanted to live communally. Within the next decade, the Mtoto Houses shut down. The church began the process of selling off its residence halls.

The farm struggled too. Church volunteers found they lacked the expertise to profitably cultivate crops on the land. Donations that had amounted to about $25,000 a month plunged to just $5,000 during the Great Recession. Today the farm grows hay to sell for livestock, leases out hunting grounds, harvests trees for lumber, and is looking into solar panels. It makes, Nelson said, a “sustainable profit,” but rarely “the kind of money that is allowing revenue back into the cities to fund operations.” Nonetheless, Beulah Land, which the church calls the largest Black-owned farm in the United States, remains the organization’s spiritual center: a beacon of Black self-determination.

The church still has outposts in Detroit, Atlanta, and Houston, and about 3,450 active members. It focuses on education, political empowerment, cultural centers, and food pantries. Communal living no longer features in the program for Black liberation.

In Houston my father served, and still serves, as the building and maintenance manager for the properties at Shrine No. 10. As a child, I would scamper to keep up as he walked along the sidewalks, his ever-present ring of keys jangling against his hip. He lived there for three decades, until, in 2008, the Houston training center was sold and razed to the ground. He had “a fondness” for the time he lived there, he told me, but he agreed with church leaders that the commune had outgrown its usefulness. Still, he stays busy, keeping the sanctuary, office building, and culture-and-events center running. “I have the longest history of anybody who’s here right now,” he told me. He’s seen buildings demolished, but he’s also “seen things change, rebuilt, built up.” He found a way to fix things after all.

On a sunny Friday in Detroit late in 2021, I walked into the lobby of the Mother Shrine at Linwood and Hogarth. A sense of homecoming gathered me into the bosom of the church where my parents, aunt, and uncles had joined the Black Christian Nationalist movement. A woman working in a room marked Black Theology stacked crates of fruit in preparation for the Saturday food pantry. A calendar on the wall showed February 2020—unchanged since the coronavirus pandemic began.

When Bishop Mbiyu Chui entered the double doors, I recognized him immediately as the lanky music minister who had energetically directed the choir in Houston when I was a child. He has worn many different hats throughout his five decades in the Shrine, serving as a house parent, reading teacher, drama coordinator, and, since 2000, lead pastor in Detroit. He led me into the sanctuary, where we sat down on red-velvet pews facing the Black Madonna and child. I wanted to talk with him about how he saw the church’s legacy, despite the ups and downs of the past two decades.

A bulletin board in the lobby had been decorated with the words Beulah Land and photos of the bucolic landscape. I asked him how the farm was going. “It’s not really a farm, per se,” Bishop Chui told me. “It’s more of a ranch … It was never farmland, even though we called it that.”

We talked about fundraising, and he chuckled. He said that missionary work had taken a huge toll on church members, but he understood the value in it. Then the tool outgrew its usefulness. “That wasn’t something we could pass down to another generation,” he told me. Parents in the Shrine wanted to bequeath institutions to their children, rather than the drudgery it took to establish them.   

“How hard was it, emotionally, to sell the National Training Center?” I asked.

“Oh my God, it was painstaking,” he said. “Children were born and raised here. It was traumatic. People are still suffering PTSD from that.”

Pain and anger rippled through the community of current and former Shrine members when they heard about the sale. As young people, they had been promised cradle-to-grave security; now that they were old, many felt that the church had reneged. And there was so much to grieve. The walls of the NTC had held their collective hopes for liberation, the midnight cries of their infants, and the chatter of their noonday meals with comrades. They had worked hard. They had taken pleasure in one another’s company and dealt with conflict when it inevitably arose. They had foregone traditionally raising their children for a sacrifice they saw as their life’s work.

Had it been worth it?

Chui believes that the greatest legacy of my parent’s generation is the Shrine’s model for self-determination. It demonstrated the power that unified and organized Black people could wield in their communities. But he does regret the slow leak of institutional knowledge as members of the church have left or died without documenting what they had done.

“The whole thing is supposed to be replicable,” Chui told me. “We haven’t in any way captured what we did so that we can hand it over and say, ‘Here’s the blueprint.’ We should have a blueprint from all the work we’ve done over the last 50 years,” he said, work that had barely scratched “the surface in terms of what’s possible.”

The next day, I went to pay my respects to the former National Training Center on Seward. I hadn’t seen the NTC since I’d toddled around the nursery. The building that remains—once again, it’s called the Abington—offered only a glimpse of its former glory and purpose.

I had called the leasing agent and asked if I could take a tour, explaining that I was writing about the Abington’s history. I wasn’t sure what the response would be, but the agent was cheerfully receptive. While I waited for him in the rainy parking lot, an older gentleman wheeling a bike slipped out of an exit door. “Do you need someone to let you in?” he asked me. “I know everyone in the building. Been living here since the ’70s.” I politely declined and waited for the agent, who arrived shortly afterward—a young white guy in a black puffer coat and slip-ons. He asked me to pardon the mess, and took me upstairs.

The seventh floor, once filled with laughing children in white-and-red Alkebu-lan Academy uniforms, now had more plaster on the floor than on the ceiling after years of roof leaks. About 20 people had still been living there when the building was sold and continue to live in the new complex. Seven are ministers for the church who have resided there for more than 40 years—the contract ensures they can stay as long as they want to.

As I walked through the dust, I thought about how the history of the people who had once lived here was being ripped up like the flooring, overlaid with something new. Another site of remembrance lost—not only for those who built this community but for young Black people everywhere.

The leasing agent showed me some renovated units painted concrete gray. Crown molding and wainscoting framed a big bow window; sunlight poured in. Gleaming marbled tile covered the bathroom floor. A two-bedroom apartment, billed as “modern luxury in a historic setting,” now costs upwards of $1,642 a month. But the construction was only partially completed. Behind a door on the third floor, the future met the past: That same red carpet with the scalloped pattern stretched down the hallway.

The lobby of the first floor still bore remnants of the ornamental ceiling originally installed by Albert Kahn Associates. In the middle of the ceiling, above an antique chandelier, a medallion encircled with flowers was painted the audacious blue of a cloudless sky. My guide led me past draped sheets of construction tarp and asked me to imagine a future café, pet-grooming center, and retail space. Instead, my mind envisioned the past NTC full of women wearing all-white jumpsuits, their afros round as moons. I imagined my aunt teaching African dance, the sweat rolling from her arms to the floor. Through the hanging plastic, I saw a ghost of myself playing next to a baby swing.

I struggled for a long time to explain to my children our complicated history with the Shrine of the Black Madonna. The childhood tensions that pulled me between mother and father, between traditional and communal life, remain with me. Until I became a mother, I don’t think I could’ve understood the magnitude of the sacrifice the commune demanded: that members relinquish the daily intimacies of parenthood to build a better life for their children and grandchildren. My mother considered this too great a price to bear. My father never stopped believing. The truth is that if my mother had stayed, if Mtoto House had endured long enough for me to entrust my own children to it, I would never have been able to let them go either.

But in going home, I have learned that there are many paths to Black liberation. Each morning, when it’s time for my three children to get up for school, I wake them slowly, rubbing circles on their backs. My own eyes may be burning from fatigue, but I keep my tone sweet. It wasn’t until I went back to Detroit and sat down at a metro library to talk with Shelley McIntosh that I connected these mornings with the example my house mother had set in Houston. McIntosh, who also uses the name Monifa Imarogbe, was the director of the Mtoto House in Houston. She trained my house mother, who every day would gently break our slumber with the greeting “Rise and shine!” No harsh lights or discordant sounds. No yelling. McIntosh told me that she had, in fact, written this kindness into the institution’s manual as official procedure, because she believed that it would help each child face the day armed with love.

That love was in me still. McIntosh knew me as a child: She taught me meditation in incense-filled rooms. She’s no longer with the church but still works as an educator. When we first laid eyes on each other again, we hugged and rocked back and forth. She reassured me, “You were born to the nation.”

For my mother, the generation of children who came out of the Shrine is its true legacy. “They have a different mentality about themselves,” she told me. “They have a belief in themselves.” Reverend Cleage’s nation gave us this. It also gave us a model for activism, activism that America still needs. Now in their 60s, my parents recount the events of the ’60s with the same clarity as they do the George Floyd protests. They understand that this is still a country where the police can kneel the breath out of a Black man’s neck.

In 2020, 19 Black families pooled resources to purchase 97 acres in Wilkinson County, Georgia, for a town they call Freedom. They have raised about $115,000 out of a goal of $588,000 on GoFundMe to develop the land—which has expanded to more than 500 acres—into “a thriving safe haven for black families in the midst of racial trauma, a global pandemic, and economic instabilities.” I called Ashley Scott, a co-founder of the initiative, curious whether she’d looked to Beulah Land Farm as a model. It turned out she didn’t know about the farm, though she had visited Atlanta’s Shrine of the Black Madonna and was intrigued to learn more. “I’ll tell anyone that will listen,” she said. “We have a tradition as Black folk here in America of having our own communities.”

Reverend Heber Brown III, the founder of the Black Church Food Security Network, cites Cleage explicitly as an inspiration for his network, which uses Black churches across the country to distribute fresh food grown by Black farmers. In an interview with Bishop Nelson, Brown said he had been “hungry for a blueprint” when he first learned of the Shrine.  

Bishop Nelson believes that, in future flashpoints of Black resistance, “people will be looking for something to hold on to.” The Shrine will be there waiting. Liberation cannot be dismantled by wrecking balls or sales contracts. “The promised land is not a place,” Agyeman once wrote, and that is what I’ll tell my children: We can rebuild it anywhere, because we carry it within us.  

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