The year was 1983. Fannie Haughton—a name unfamiliar to most—was living in Oakland, California, under a poisonous Reagan regime, in the middle of a drug war. Much of her life as a student activist had involved working with her mentor, Angela Davis. Haughton taught and organized locally, a communal duty that included helping take over the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast program for school kids in 1970, after Davis was detained (and later acquitted) for conspiracy charges. Oakland was home to Haughton then. But it was in Grenada, during the People’s Revolution, that she and other black Americans saw a free society and opportunity beyond what they felt America could provide. Haughton believed in the idea of Grenada as a social utopia. So in 1983, she packed up and moved there with her two kids.
The House On Coco Road serves as Haughton’s personal migration story, as witnessed by her son, filmmaker Damani Baker. The documentary doubles as a family heirloom and historical artifact of his mother’s unrecognized acts of resistance. In Grenada, Haughton found solace in paradise, and then found herself amid warfare when Reagan’s administration, viewing Grenada as a communist accomplice to Cuba and the Soviet Union, ordered a U.S. military invasion of the island. Coco Road—which hits Netflix on June 30 via Ava DuVernay’s distribution company, Array—brings familial and emotional context to the complicated story of Grenada, through interviews with Haughton and the other black women who fought with her.
Previously, Haughton’s activism and life in Grenada was known mostly to her family. Baker’s purpose is to present a stark opposition to American history and certify his mother’s place in it. “The history books don’t acknowledge a long list of frontline change-makers that were doing very simple things that have had profound impact on all of us,” he tells me. “That kind of genius is so important and so fascinating.” Here’s my lightly edited conversation with Baker about his mother the activist and what his film means.
JEZEBEL: The House On Coco Road is mainly a story about your mother and the impact one woman can have on a country in a way that’s not widely recognized. But to me, it’s also meant to show the ways black people matter to this country. What was the bigger picture in your mind through the process of making it?
DAMANI BAKER: It is exactly that. There are stories that we don’t know, and there are activists and leadership that doesn’t fall under what we understand as traditional leadership—people and voices that have collectively shaped the planet. They’ve literally given their lives to imagining a more equitable and sustainable existence for themselves and their families. So I thought it would be interesting to explore that from my family’s experience, and my mom’s. No one knows my mom’s name. She’s not as famous as Fannie Lou Hamer or Angela Davis or Cicely Tyson or other brilliant storytellers. But her actions—as simple as they were—were life-changing and not only moved things along for us and our immediate family, but for people around us, which then moved it along for people around them.
This idea that there is an alternative version of not only history, but an alternative version to how we can live—that was fascinating to me. The Grenada experience was the perfect model to explore that. I’m originally from Oakland, California, born and raised, and my mom decides to move us to join the Grenada Revolution. I was nine years old living in the Caribbean. I saw nothing wrong with healthcare and education being accessible. I saw nothing particularly strange about women being in positions of power. I really wanted to make something that offered all those things so people could watch it and go, oh man, there are other ways.
The film is very much a history lesson, but a different side than what’s told to us. When you speak to your grandmother Victoria, she talks about the system of sharecropping as an extension of slavery. Can you give a sense of the historical context of Coco Road itself?
Coco Road was named after my great-grandmother, so that area in Louisiana was family land, and most of my family lived there. Some migrated West and some are still there. I think this idea of home and what that looks like and what stories are born out of your family’s story and life experience is just as relevant then as it is now. You see in the film that Coco Road now takes on a different meaning.
It’s known as Cancer Alley.
Cancer Alley. It’s still a relevant piece of my family’s story in that a lot of people have suffered and are no longer with us because of the cancer rate in the area. So this idea of home continued to come up in the film. That’s why it’s kinda full circle. You start off in understanding Coco Road as an anchor in our migration. And as [Angela Davis’s sister] Fania Davis says in the film, migration is not just a physical thing. You can have a migration of the mind and the heart.
Yeah, I love the idea of migration being metaphysical. I think the idea of looking for a better life or a better home has been more associated with immigrants to America. My family immigrated here from Guyana in the ’80s. I was born in Guyana and came here when I was around one. Obviously, black Americans have the Great Migration. Your family moved from Louisiana to Oakland and then from Oakland to Grenada. Did you think about the connection between those different types of migration?
Right, because you think of how we are constantly reinventing ourselves based on whatever may be oppressing us or suppressing us. You look at this debate right now on immigration, which is ridiculous—I think the Southern migration was also a refugee situation. We’re talking about conditions that were destructive, that were violent, that tried to destroy people. It’s not that the systemic racism and oppression changed once my family got to California. They just had to change the tools they needed to process the next level—my family being the only black family on their block in Los Angeles. It’s like this constant migration and figuring out what you need to survive in a way that’s moving the needs of your family and people forward.
Then the ’80s come up and Ronald Reagan is president, and Oakland at the time did not feel like a safe place to raise children. So [my mother] was like, We gotta get out of here because this is not sustainable, either. I don’t think she was necessarily running away from something. I think she was just looking for the next place that she felt safe and valued as a human being. In that way, it is a really important observation to think of the migration that happens from a place that’s internal and personal. Then we get to Grenada and have a forced migration because the U.S. invaded it with thousands of marines, and that kind of broke the path. I was nine years old coming back to Oakland and had to process my own migration as a child, out of a war situation and back into fifth grade and hearing children, my peers, talk about war and violence in this glorified, celebratory tone. It was so troubling and crazy to me that I had to say, “This is not the truth.” We’re being fed lies that are so destructive and painful because people died over there. Celebrating Rambo and G.I. Joe and a culture of violence seemed nonsensical.
Your mother and the people with her believed in Grenada as a utopia, which is a perspective that’s not really seen, compared to the Grenada as Communist story. The film seems like a way to reclaim our place in history, black women especially. Like, when she visits Cuba and says, “We were never taught that there were black people in Cuba.” Or when she’s like, “The Grenada I knew didn’t exist anywhere.”
If you think about this period in history, from 1965 or so to 1973, when I was born, if you could actually just fathom all of what they were taking on—we’re talking about the Vietnam War, Cointelpro, the birth of the Black Panther party, Angela Davis being on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, the Free Angela Davis Committee and her eventual release, going to Cuba, the Soviet Union and Cold War. I mean, this is unreal. When I put myself in that position, to think from being 17, 18 years old to 24, all of those things happening for her in a very real, personal, intimate way is totally unimaginable. Part of my real passion for telling the story was that I feel like the women from that period, we haven’t heard their version of history. Because there was this hyper-masculinity around a lot of movements. There was the media that was constantly distorting things and not acknowledging the women who were on the forefront, or how people were sensationalized and you were only allowed to have one hero.
Part of my drive to tell the story was taking my mother as an example of a very specific moment in history that I feel like she was an equal partner in. ’Cause the history books don’t acknowledge a long list of frontline change-makers that were doing very simple things that have had profound impact on all of us. You take the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast program. My mother stepped in to feed children because that was an immediate need. It wasn’t like an ideology and “I gotta be a Panther now.” That was about young people in the 1960s, early ’70s, that are half my age now, stepping in and saying, if we don’t feel children they’re gonna go to school hungry, and if they don’t have the capacity to learn, we are not moving ourselves and our people forward and we fall victim to a system that does not value them. That kind of genius is so important and so fascinating. I’m still trying to imagine those simple actions and opportunities in my own day-to-day. It’s a profound cast of people who you just don’t know that are brilliant.
Right, the film goes into depth about your mother’s work in the ’60s and her relationship with Angela Davis as part of the Black Student Union. It seems like you made a point to show the human, emotional side of activism.
Yes, exactly. The two-dimensional storytelling when someone throws their fist in the air is relevant, but they’re also people. There are human beings behind these actions so I really did want to put a face and my mother’s face to issues that were much larger than our family’s. Because as Angela says in the film, the personal is political and they’re all intertwined. The simple actions that she did were political actions, but they were from a personal space. I didn’t understand what was happening in Grenada. I didn’t understand the politics of how things worked and who did what and the trauma that’s still around, the assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. Those things didn’t necessarily make sense to me then, but what I did see was people who looked like me who were doing incredible things, and that stuck.
I’m interested in how you started the conversation with your mom. For children, there’s a point when we realize our parents have a “story,” but sometimes it’s hard to start that conversation. So there was this really compelling figure in your life, but you didn’t know the full story. How did you approach her about telling it? And why did she ultimately decide to share it?
That’s such a real question because I’m reminded that this is my mom. [Laughs] It’s not like she wanted me to necessarily go down this path, because it was hard for her. When I started this film, in 1999, I was fresh out of grad school. I knew I wanted to tell this Grenada story. I honestly did not know what shape it would take. But I did have this story of a family moving to Oakland to be part of the Grenada Revolution and then are evacuated by U.S. military invasion. But what I hadn’t really processed was my mother’s own response to that story and her own trauma as a single mom with her kids, to be part of this thing and leave after a coup and invasion. I wasn’t even prepared for what that would produce in her. So our first trip back was very difficult for all of us.
We were all ready to shoot and, as you see in the first scene of the film, she wasn’t pleased. She was in pain and she was really processing what her son was getting into and did not hold back in articulating that. So I was nervous. I was like, oh my God, I brought my mom back to this place and how am I gonna start this long journey with someone who I hadn’t really taken a lot of time to have casual family conversations about what had happened. And now all of a sudden, we’re here with a crew and a camera. That early 1999 shoot, was the beginning of a very long both creative process and also family healing process. It was [about] opening my journal with her whenever she was willing. It’s a mother and son in conversation over 15 years. It’s priceless and valuable and a document and testament to her willingness to participate.
I love the part of the narration where you say, “Why would you want to tell your children stories that hurt? But not learning why things are the way they are makes for another kind of hurt.” It’s important to get through it.
It is. It’s not like our grandparents and elders are sitting around waiting to tell you how hard it was all the time. It’s not like they’re at the dinner table —I mean, we express that culturally. There are certain things in the diaspora that are so beautiful and genius, and the wisdom of how it’s passed on, but there are people that are just like, I don’t want to talk about it. What we’re going through in our generation is asking questions, particularly now. With the conditions and what we’re facing in 2017 collectively, we’re looking for answers, for the way forward.
What advice would you give a younger person who wants to have that conversation with their parent about their history? What questions do you start with?
After this most recent election, I think the country went into a state of trauma because we’re all trying to figure out what does this mean to us for communities of color. For women, for a lot of people who have a very clear understanding of what it means to feel marginalized and oppressed, we said, okay so now we’re just gearing up for this next wave. For me, in having conversations with elders, I like to put it out there like that, like: let’s be in conversation about what did you do back then about what worked and what tools we need to be equipped with to process what’s happening around us. That’s why I really loved Fania and Angela and my mom toward the end of the film. I think hopefully it ends on something that feels positive. Because we are equipped with more than we know.
Your mom was close with historical figures who are also under-recognized. Charlene Mitchell...
People who you don’t realize—that she was the first woman to run for President. Charlene Mitchell, I love that you mention her because people have no idea. She actually came to one of the screenings in New York and I had to give her a standing ovation, because her contribution to who I am right now is not to be taken lightly. I love that you’re asking about so much of the future and the way forward and hopefully people can watch the film and not feel discouraged. Even though that history is painful and there’s suffering the loss that Grenada did—the people connected to my mother’s story—does not mean that the future is not hopeful and positive. We do harness something in our DNA that is so powerful and can change the world, for everybody.
There’s a big focus on the black woman’s roles in activism and liberation and their idea of a social utopia—working toward that. Which is important to telling the story of America. I love that your mother had a lot of receipts to show for those days. Like, the old tapes of radio broadcasts in Grenada that serve as artifacts.
Right, well, the fact that we don’t even know that there are other approaches to joy and taking care of your family and being respected as a human being than the model that we are exhausting right now. I think we’re seeing the effects of that in this country. Clearly, something’s not working with this by design. I think if you continue to only value a model that was built on slavery and the annihilation of native peoples, the consequences of that, we clearly are still suffering from and playing out. So if you for a second can imagine an alternative to this very individualistic and greedy and capitalist form to living your life, I feel like the possibilities are endless.
Reagan played a huge role in your mom’s life. We get to see how his policies had an actual emotional effect on people, how he imposed his idea of democracy and the false narrative of him liberating Grenada. How did you want to fit in the Reagan part of the story?
Right, Reagan is this recurring character in the film. The big question to me is a larger question about leadership and what it looks like. And that this traditional form of what we call a democracy continues to fail people, and especially when it’s a single person that can wield so much havoc on the world. It really makes you wonder what of this is real. This idea of power that is given to this single individual, when I look at that period of time and the most powerful people are the ones in the margins. The people that came out to get Angela out of prison. The people that mobilized to get my mother into school. It’s really an incredible force and we don’t value that power culturally in the same way we view this kind of traditional hierarchy power that is given to white men. Reagan, for me, represents all of those things. What is the presidency? What is power? Is he the smartest person in the room? Not at all.
The real leaders are the people who were working desperately to combat his policies and the things he was doing that we’re still feeling the effects of. That’s leadership. But yeah, Reagan is deep, and it’s funny because he’s this character that we look back now and it’s this romanticized actor, Hollywood president and it’s quite tragic. We give that kind of superficial two-dimensional power to people and it’s very dangerous. I look at Reagan often and he’s talked about glossy-eyed revisionist history of the Reagan years and I’m watching George Bush, we’re in dire conditions right and now and all of a sudden he’s some kind of hero.
People watching will make the connection to Trump, but you don’t outright mention him in your documentary. Was that on purpose? You didn’t want any Trump reference in there?
Yeah, I think I wanted people to just feel that. I didn’t feel like I needed to be particularly didactic about exactly where we are. It really is a feeling film that’s rooted in family. It would’ve been easy for me to go down a hundred different paths with this. Cointelpro alone, U.S. imperialism and militarization alone, the expansion of the prison industrial complex. That’s why I wanted every social, political narrative outside of our family to still be through the lens of my personal experience or my mother’s personal experience. I think people respond to seeing themselves.
How did learning your mother’s story change your perspective of her?
Oh wow. I think it just confirmed a lot of things that I realize now, at 43, she was doing. I recognized why she didn’t tell us everything. I recognize how much sacrifice my mother and other mentors around her gave. The stuff that they did and were willing to do to imagine a better world is a gift that is beyond. Just beyond. And so I think with my mother and I, I really just learned more about her and I’ve learned more about myself through this. Like many in her generation and the generations before, they gave selflessly because they knew it was the right thing. They knew that social justice had to be part of what it meant to live. So I think I’ve embraced that fully and appreciate that even more so now.