Curtis, Wayne

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Date: June 14, 2019; June 15, 2019

“I mean, where does knowledge, revolutionary knowledge, come from? It comes from everywhere.” Those are the words of Wayne Curtis, a lifelong Detroiter and activist whose life’s work has been committed to liberation through art, political education, and community building. From the Black Panther Party, to the Nsoroma Institute, to Feedom Freedom Growers, to the Emory Douglas Youth and Family Art Program, his organizing work is the embodiment of revolutionary knowledge influenced by the sheer range of his life experiences. 

The year was 1968 and Wayne Curtis found himself at the doorstep of a small storefront on Mack and Baldwin on the east side of Detroit. In front of the building hung several posters and fliers promoting the Black Panther Party. Wayne sought out the swiftly growing party, looking to contribute to the revolutionary effort after returning home from over a year in VietNam. “That was where my consciousness really exploded,” he reflects. Wayne was drafted into the Army in 1967 after flunking out of Ferris State. At the time, activists were beginning to make connections between the US troops in VietNam and the role of the police in Black communities; how resources that could be invested in resolving inequalities at home were instead flowing into the military for an imperialist war. “The brothers who were there, they had a hell of a consciousness, and we stuck together,” he remembers. 

Between the racism experienced by Black troops and the plight of the Viet Cong which mirrored his experience back home, Wayne became aware of the contradictions of his reality. “They used to tell us, ‘Why you fighting us? You should go home and fight. They’re bombing your churches, they’re hanging your people, and they’re doing the same thing to us’…but the full blunt of it didn’t register until I got home.” Through conversations with Black comrades, war resisters, and Vietnamese people, Wayne became a Viet Cong sympathizer. Black troops engaged in rebellions against the racist US military and Wayne “did few things that I’m very proud of that they didn’t like.” At the same time, he was reading copies of the Black Panther Newspaper sent by his then-wife. “After I started reading the paper,” he remembers, “I took my uniform off and put on a blue jean jacket because I had heard that that’s what they were wearing out here.” As soon as he was released from military jail for drug charges, he went straight to the airport, flew home to Detroit, and headed for the Black Panther Party office on Mack and Baldwin. 

A Detroit Native, Wayne was all too familiar with the realities of life in an oppressive and exploitative environment. His first exposure to collective action was through the Northern High School walkout of 1966 where over 2,000 students collectively refused to attend until inequitable conditions in their education were remedied. Black parents had long protested segregated schooling, mistreatment of their children by white teachers, deteriorating school buildings and materials, racist curriculum, and poor funding. By 1966 Black students themselves were leading the movement to improve schools in Detroit. 

“It was right after the riots in Los Angeles, and we would go over our teachers’ houses and look at the riots and listen to Stokely Carmichael, Elijah Muhammad to give us a feel for what else was going on in the world because they felt that the school system wasn’t teaching us that–weren’t allowed. So, right after that we started to understand what was goin’ be done.” As a teenager, Wayne admits he appreciated the walkout for “the free ticket not to be in school, but subconsciously the walkout did it. I was exposed…to a new way of life and a new culture.” This week-long act of protest–which included a freedom school with local activists as teachers–led to the removal of the school principal and police officers from Northern hallways and a Principal committed to keeping them there. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, the walkout exposed Baba Wayne “to a new way of life and a new culture” and laid a foundation for his future work. Like he would later learn from Black Panther leader Huey Newton, realization is something that can’t be learned or taught and the walkout was his moment of realization. 

So when Baba Wayne found himself at the Black Panther’s doorstep he had his lived experience at his disposal to fuel his activism. “They were very happy to see me ‘cause a lot of brothers that came from VietNam, they had consciousness, and they knew how to defend themselves both defensively and aggressively,” he recalls. He found himself working within the party’s many moving parts: the free breakfast/grocery programs, daily political education, the S.A.F.E [Seniors Against a Fearful Environment] program for the elderly, and primarily raising awareness of the party through the distribution of its paper. “The party was creating a community of sustainability for everyone, and the more the establishment tried to combat that, the more advanced the program became to be utilized to transform the whole system,” he explains. It was hard work, often sleeping two hours per night, waking up early to prepare the free breakfast for children, attending political education class, and walking 10 miles a day selling newspapers. “We used to say, ‘We’re high off the people.’ And when you’re high off the people, you can do anything.” 

During our interview, neighbors around the former BPP office at Second and Collingwood came out to share their memories of the Party’s influence and impacts 50 years later. They shared memories with Baba Wayne of the free breakfast program and how the Party empowered them to take control of their neighborhood. “The insight that the party gave them was build community, protect your surroundings, and they got rid of the dope house,” Baba Wayne recounted. “So, they took power into their own hands.”

It was in these efforts that Baba Wayne got to engage with his community through political education, survival programs, and building collective power. Baba Wayne also experienced many challenges in the BPP, including difficulty persuading community members, political repression from the police (including tickets, raids, and even shooting up the Black Panthers’ offices), and misogyny within the organization. Nonetheless, the Party’s consistent presence in the community contributed to a new culture of empowerment within the oppressive environment that was Detroit. “We were practitioners of a brand new lifestyle and that was exciting to me,” Baba Wayne reflects. “We created a new way of existing with dignity, with the support of the people.” Creating a culture of liberation through political education and grassroots organizing to meet the material needs of the people laid a foundation for Baba Wayne’s work as a “cultural transformationist” in the decades since.

Baba Wayne eventually left the Black Panther Party when a decision was made to concentrate its forces in Oakland, California to politically and economically liberate the city. But Wayne made the decision to stay in Detroit to support his family. He knew that many revolutionaries had lost their families by sacrificing everything to the movement and he felt that his involvement in the Party was making it hard for him to fulfill his responsibilities to his family.  

In his return to the “normal” world, it became clear again the contradictions the outside world held to his consciousness. Disinvestment and neoliberal privatization was ramping up in Detroit in the 1970s, which Baba Wayne read as a response to the revolutionary work of the BPP and other Black Power organizations. After leaving the BPP, though, Baba Wayne was on his own in dealing with the realities of an oppressive system and PTSD from VietNam without the support of the Party. “It was like a cultural shock” that he treated with self-medication “to deal with the inconsistencies that this culture brought…without any tools to fight back with.” He worked various “odds-and-ends jobs” to get by but ultimately was not “very successful in the capitalist system” and ended up homeless for a number of years. 

While he learned a lot about himself in these years, two things happened that changed Baba Wayne’s life. First, he got a job as a teacher’s aid for an art class at Nsoroma Institute, an African-centered school led by Principal Malik Yakini. “It saved my life,” he reflects. “Because of the honesty of Baba Malik and the Nsoroma staff and students, I was able to understand what autonomy actually is in its existence and the different ideas of the approach of what autonomy is.” At this time, Baba Malik was also developing an urban farming program at Nsoroma that would grow into D-Town Farms and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. 

The second thing that changed his life was re-connecting with Myrtle Thompson (now Myrtle Thompson-Curtis), who he credits with getting him back into community organizing. “We were courting and I was always thinking, ‘how can I get back into cultural transformation, since I’m feeling good?’ and somehow, the farming came up.” After over a year of courting, Baba Wayne and Mama Myrtle decided to start an urban farm on Manistique Street on Detroit’s East Side. “I felt good enough with enough confidence to say, ‘Well, let’s create this. Let’s take control of our environment.” They named the organization Feedom Freedom Growers with a tag line of “grow a garden, grow a community.”

With visions of the BPP’s free food program, Baba Wayne, Mama Myrtle, their families, and friends got to work clearing land that nature had reclaimed over the years. By the 2000s, the devastating impacts of disinvestment, industry flight, cuts to social services, and state violence in the city “created a catastrophe in our neighborhood because the tax base was gone, the schools shut down, people lost their homes.” Mass foreclosures and demolitions left large tracts of vacant land around the city, both gutting communities and prompting residents to use the land for urban farming. “We chopped down trees, pulled up vines. It was hard work,” Baba Wayne remembers, “it was really hard work.” 

While learning to farm, they also built a community around Feedom Freedom influenced in many ways by Baba Wayne’s experiences with the BPP. “We try to reflect the building of a new way of life, the building of a new culture of sustainability,” he explained. “We want to sustain ourselves to resist the capitalist system and end its presence in our lives,” Baba Wayne says. “That’s what it’s all about–creating a culture of sustainability to feed a culture of resistance.” Inspired by the Panther’s cultural work, Baba Wayne also created the Emory Douglas Youth and Family Art Program, named after the BPP’s Ministry of Culture. In addition to farming, FFG has a number of programs “almost like the survival programs of Black Panther Party.” Through FFG’s youth mentorship program, teenagers “engage in conversations. They do work in the garden. They’ve learned how food grows…they find out what good food is and how to eat good food through the Cook Fresh Eat Fresh program. Then, we have political discussions.” 

Baba Wayne has learned many lessons from his decades of experience as a “cultural transformationist” that he shares with younger organizers. His time with the BPP taught him the importance of family and collectivism, which have been foundational for his work with FFG. As his family, community, and neighborhood grows, he hopes they learn “I am we, collectivism, realizing that this is our extended family as well as Palestine as well as the Congo as well as the Zapatistas as well as any neighborhood that’s under the political wretchedness of the glocal corporate world and that we can’t survive just as one family.” Baba Wayne also hopes that younger organizers “see me listening to them” and encourages them to be “patient with yourself that you will get it if you dedicate yourself as a cultural transformationist as part of one glocal family.”

Asked about his vision for Detroit that guides his work, Baba Wayne explained: “we know we want freedom. We know we want land, bread, housing. We know we want to control our own destiny…After we achieve just that, perhaps the little ones now, if they can grow up in the environment that we have created, then they can carry on and maintain it or transform it into something else.” 

In his parting remarks, Baba Wayne usually concludes with his political mantra: “All power to the people! I am we. Peace after victory, and continue.”

Wayne Curtis, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Curtis Renee, June 14, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.

Wayne Curtis Oral History, Part 1 (2019)

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Wayne Curtis Oral History, Part 2 (2019)
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