I Grew Up in a Black Liberationist CommuneBreaking News
tags: African American history, Detroit, communes, black power, Black nationalism
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.