Mary Anne Adams

ZAMI NOBLA found­ing di­rec­tor talks about Mississippi roots, black les­bian se­niors

GA Voice - - Out Spoken -



Mary Anne Adams moved to At­lanta on her birthday nearly 30 years ago and has been gift­ing the city with her work in sev­eral ar­eas ever since. She’s the found­ing di­rec­tor of ZAMI NOBLA (Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Black Les­bians on Ag­ing) and is a so­cial worker and pub­lic health re­searcher at Ge­or­gia State Univer­sity, where she has done ex­ten­sive work in LGBT health, HIV/AIDS, breast can­cer, child­hood men­tal health and more.

Adams, who is en­gaged to marry her part­ner An­gela Davis next year, sat down with Ge­or­gia Voice to talk about grow­ing up around civil rights ac­tivists in Mississippi, the neigh­bor who in­spired her pas­sion for ag­ing is­sues, form­ing ZAMI NOBLA and more.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Mississippi—Ox­ford to be ex­act. North Mississippi where Wil­liam Faulkner was born and bred and where the in­fa­mous Univer­sity of Mississippi, bet­ter known as Ole Miss, is lo­cated.

What was it like grow­ing up there?

You know, it was pretty in­ter­est­ing. Around the age of 12, I was in­tro­duced to a group of civil rights ac­tivists. There was an in­flux of lawyers and so­cial work­ers and ac­tivists who mi­grated to a lot of cities in Mississippi at that time to do some ca­pac­ity build­ing, to do some re­source de­vel­op­ment and par­tic­u­larly to fo­cus on the youth. They rented a house very close to my school— they named it The Black House—and they taught black lit­er­a­ture classes, black his­tory, black play­writ­ing.

It was a very heady time for me. All the kids were al­lowed to in­ter­act with the civil rights ac­tivists that were com­ing in. We were sit­ting at their knee when they were strate­giz­ing. I was privy to all of this and I think it

June 10, 2016

—Mary Anne Adams on grow­ing up around African-Amer­i­can civil rights ac­tivists in Mississippi re­ally started my pas­sion and my in­ter­est for com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ing and ac­tivism.

And jump­ing for­ward, how did you make your way to At­lanta?

Well, I came to At­lanta chas­ing a woman.

A com­mon story.

[Laughs] Very com­mon. My par­ents died when I was in my mid-20s and I be­came the le­gal guardian of my three brothers and sis­ters who were 9, 11 and 13 at the time and I was about 25. When they grad­u­ated from high school and went off to col­lege, I de­cided to leave Mississippi. And I started see­ing this woman so I ended up here in At­lanta. I moved here on my birthday, Septem­ber 25, 1988, and I’ve been here ever since.

And how did ZAMI NOBLA come together?

As you know, ZAMI was an or­ga­ni­za­tion here in At­lanta for a num­ber of years and even though a lot of peo­ple think I founded ZAMI, I did not. I founded the Au­dre Lorde Schol­ar­ship Fund but Iris Rafi founded ZAMI. When I moved here I be­came in­volved with the or­ga­ni­za­tion and she and I kind of took it to a dif­fer­ent level and sus­tained it.

At the time it was very dan­ger­ous for a lot of women to be out, so the or­ga­ni­za­tion was not as vis­i­ble or po­lit­i­cal as we thought it could be. So work­ing with her we took it to an­other level. Then she dropped out and I con­tin­ued on.

One day I re­al­ized that we were ag­ing in place, and I’ve al­ways had a pas­sion for ag­ing is­sues since I was nine years old. My best friend was Miss Savannah who lived across the street from me who told me sto­ries all sum­mer long. I was her shadow and she taught me how to bake. I was a shy, in­tro­verted kid, a book­worm, couldn’t play ball, couldn’t play jacks, couldn’t play jump rope [laughs].

And how old was she at that time?

She was 60-plus. Her chil­dren had gone off to col­lege and had their own fam­i­lies and she was con­sid­ered the crotch­ety old woman across the street but she took a lik­ing to me and I took a lik­ing to her. She was a refuge for me, there’s no doubt about that. And I think be­cause of my re­la­tion­ship with her, be­cause of her kind­ness to me, be­cause of the pa­tience and the time she took to help this shy in­tro­vert de­velop, I’ve al­ways had an in­ter­est in that.

So I looked around and didn’t see any viable en­ti­ties in At­lanta work­ing on ag­ing is­sues in the LGBT com­mu­nity, par­tic­u­larly with black les­bians. So, ag­ing my­self, I had a dog in this fight. So we were done with ZAMI and we said we’re go­ing to morph into ZAMI NOBLA.

We were very in­ten­tional about mak­ing sure this was a na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion based here in the South be­cause there’s so much work be­ing done in the South, so much work­ing be­ing done in [At­lanta] that is never ac­knowl­edged. There’s still this stereo­type that be­cause we live in the South we’re not as smart or we don’t know how to de­velop ca­pac­ity, and none of that is true.

So it sounds like ev­ery­thing’s busy and life is good for you right now?

Life is re­ally good. I think that my pas­sion and what’s driv­ing me right now is to re­ally grow ZAMI NOBLA and try to com­bat the iso­la­tion on top of the op­pres­sion and marginal­iza­tion that so many el­ders are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, and try to de­velop some tools in which to do that. That’s re­ally my pri­mary fo­cus evenings and week­ends, and I hope to morph that into be­ing able to do that work full time.

Mary Anne Adams grew up around African-Amer­i­can civil rights ac­tivists in Mississippi who in­spired her to get into com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ing and ac­tivism. (Photo by Pa­trick Saun­ders)

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