Watch Oprah's latest interview with Jane Fonda and her adopted daughter, Mary Williams, on Oprah's Next Chapter, airing Sunday, April 7, at 9/8c.
I am about to attempt time travel.
Once I pass through airport security and board US Airways flight 2748 to Oakland, California, I will be transported to a place I fled nearly 30 years ago. Although I have taken on physical challenges, like a cross-country bicycle ride and a five-month stint on a research base in Antarctica, I have generally shied away from emotional ones.
Six years ago I quit my well-paying job, left my fiancé, and sold my three-bedroom home in Atlanta, abandoning a life of materialism and attachment to pursue one that included solitude, travel, and adventure. Now 43, I spend half the year working all over the country for federal parks and nonprofits, doing odd jobs like manning a visitor center, clearing trails, or assisting researchers. So I often live in constrained quarters with an assorted lot of scientists, dreamers, and vagabonds. The rest of the time I enjoy self-imposed exile in my tiny Arizona condo, happiest when left alone to hike, read, or watch YouTube: I'm especially drawn to makeup application and hairstyling videos, even though I seldom wear cosmetics and my hair is two inches long; I like the girl talk without the hassle of actual girlfriends. Although the Internet connects me to the outside world, I was hesitant to try Facebook. But after a colleague at an Alaskan wildlife refuge introduced me to the site, insisting that with my reclusive lifestyle it would be the ideal way to stay in touch, I decided to give it a shot.
That's how I found Neome Banks, someone I haven't seen since childhood. And that's why I'm headed back to Oakland. I want to see the place that formed me, find the people I left behind.
Neome and I grew up in the heart of the violent and frenzied Black Power movement. As members of the Black Panther Party-an organization founded in Oakland during the mid-1960s to stop police brutality toward African-Americans-our parents tried to help those who lacked employment, education, and healthcare. Revolution was a day-to-day reality resulting in bloody shoot-outs between the police and, well, us.
Neome and I shared this reality, but at the same time we were just kids. Like me, Neome was the baby girl of her family, raised by a single mother. We became friends. At 5 years old, we spent most of our time at the Panther-run community school, starting each day with a hot breakfast followed by calisthenics, classes, and after-school activities like art and music lessons (I played clarinet), sports, and readings from Chairman Mao Zedong's manifesto The
Little Red Book.
Although not formally members of the Communist Party, Panthers were socialists, and we were taught to sympathize with revolutionaries like Mao and Che Guevara. At night I often drifted to the homes of other Panther members, whom I thought of as family.
My mother was a cook. She also sold our official newspaper, The Black Panther.
My father was a captain in the Panthers' militaristic hierarchy. He participated in one of the most controversial programs, the armed citizens' patrol, wherein he and other men with guns followed police cars, ready to defend any blacks threatened by police.
I was a toddler when my father was sent to San Quentin prison after he led the cops on a high-speed chase while hurling Molotov cocktails. At first, my mother took me and my five siblings on long bus rides to visit him. But after a few months the trips ended, as did our relationship with our father.
My mother quit the Panthers when I was 6. I learned about this at the community school when one of the administrators called me out of class and informed me I wouldn't be coming back. Ever. She handed me a sack lunch and sent me on my way.
Stunned and confused, I walked through the gate to the sidewalk. Then I turned back toward my school, opened the brown paper sack, and threw the peanut butter and jelly sandwich over the gate, followed by a boiled egg, an apple, and carrot sticks. Then I ran home.