Mariamne Samad named herself after a woman who was stoned to death. As a child, she’d read a book of Bible stories which told the tale of Mariamne, the second wife of King Herod. As she remembers it, Herod’s son by his first wife, Doris, accused his stepmother of adultery. Confronted by Herod, Mariamne fearlessly stood her ground, proclaiming her innocence. She was put to death all the same.
Wikipedia gives a much more elaborate version of the story in which men fighting for power used women as pawns. Herod married Mariamne, the niece of his rival Antigonus, “in an attempt to secure a claim to the throne”. He banished his first wife and their three-year-old son. No wonder the boy was ‘carrying feelings’ against his stepmother.
To cut a very long story short, Herod was so obsessed with Mariamne’s beauty he gave instructions that if his wife outlived him, she was to be killed. He did not want her to remarry. Naturally, Mariamne was not amused. Once she discovered Herod’s madness, which she certainly did not see as love, she refused to have sex with him. Herod’s mother and sister saw the falling out as opportunity to get rid of Mariamne. They accused her of plotting to poison her husband. She was convicted and executed.
MARCUS GARVEY IN HARLEM
Like her formidable namesake, Queen Mother Mariamne Samad is a fearless woman who has long stood her ground. On the 1st of September, she celebrated her 90th birthday. Earlier that week, we had a very long chat as she related some of the high points of her life. I was amazed at the ease with which she can recall events from more than half a century ago. Her short-term memory is just as intact.
Mariamne Samad, formerly Muriel Allman, was born in Harlem Hospital in 1922 to Alice Allman, née Brooks, and George Allman, a gold miner from Guyana. Her parents met while listening to Marcus Garvey speaking on a street corner in Harlem. Muriel’s parents became ardent Garveyites and raised their daughter in keeping with Garvey’s philosophy and practice of self-reliance.
Muriel met her husband-to-be, Clarence Thomas, when she was only 14 years of age. She was a member of the Garvey Legion and he was a stern leader of the children. Three years later, they were married. As she put it, “Most of my peers went into factory work, but I went into marriage.” Some cynics may not see the difference as clearly as Muriel did.
‘ALL THAT FOREIGN STUFF’
Three months after their marriage, Muriel discovered that Clarence was a Muslim. She was an agnostic, like her father. Clarence wanted them to change their names, but Muriel refused. She didn’t want “all that foreign stuff”. Clarence, to his credit, didn’t insist. By then, he must have realised that Muriel was no walkover. In fact, she was quite feisty. She once teasingly accused him of being a ‘predator’ for snatching her from the proverbial cradle.
It was a near-death experience that forced Muriel to agree that the whole family should adopt Muslim names. In a case of mistaken identity, their son Teddy was almost murdered by a gang of youth who came looking for another Teddy Thomas. It was a five-year-old boy who persuaded them that they had the wrong Teddy Thomas. Teddy soon became Sayeed.
The imam who was presiding over the renaming ceremony had recommended Maryam for Muriel. But she didn’t like the Mary bit and chose Mariamne instead. And Clarence Thomas became Abdul Samad. Reborn in America, Clarence had been born in Jamaica. In 1965, Mariamne Samad came to see what her husband’s country was all about.
The Samads had been part of the Federation movement in New York. Mariamne remembers meeting Norman Manley at a grand reception at the Commodore hotel on 42nd Street. He touched her Garvey button, which she always wore, and said, “He was a great man.” Surprised, she responded, “What? From you?” To which Manley replied, “I was just doing my job.”
‘NEW BLACK NATION IN THE WEST’
When Independence followed the collapse of the West Indies Federation, Mariamne welcomed the birth of ‘a new black nation in the West’. But Jamaicans weren’t ready to be black. Mariamne’s daughter, Sayeeda, came to Jamaica to take part in the Independence celebrations. She had a Miriam Makeba hairstyle and people just laughed at her. It was Sonny Bradshaw and his Big Band who embraced her, giving her an opportunity to perform with them.
SEs Mariamne Samad’s own mother-in-law, Imogene, was quite upset by her son’s choice of wife. She is alleged to have said, “I don’t mind Clarence marrying an American. But why he has to marry this black one and she don’t have tall hair?”
When she found out what ‘tall’ hair meant, Mariamne was quite unfazed. At the time, she had an Afro, dyed a beautiful rust colour. And she always wore African clothes. In fact, she’s credited for introducing the dashiki as an African-American fashion statement.
Sister Samad has spent most of her life as a Black Power activist. In New York, she established the Sankore Nubian Study School on Garveyism and was frequently invited to teach African history and Garveyism in the New York public-school system.
Now resident in Jamaica for more than three decades, Sister Samad still continues to teach and live Garveyism. During Heritage Week in October 1999, she was installed as Queen Mother in a grand ceremony that acknowledged her role as an exemplary female elder. Much earlier, in the 1970s, she was similarly honoured in Ghana.
Regretfully, Sister Mariamne Samad has long outlived her husband. Unlike Herod, Brother Abdul was not foolish enough to have plotted his wife’s death. He knew better than that. His Mariamne had to stay alive to sustain their life work: honouring the legacy of Marcus Garvey.