love letters III:March 2021
(south) africa lady and abbey lincoln and a homecoming
by Gabriel Jermaine Vanlandingham-Dunn
They left the house after breakfast with the plans of spending the day together. She’d had to work for the first half of his visit, so they were both excited to catch the city in the daytime. While he stared at the window at the sites still new to him, she explained landmarks of the city. Schools, special neighborhoods, and landmarks that had significance to the city’s history and her life. The late morning sun was full and the sky was clear. Mandisa had one appointment she needed to keep before noon. The hour belong to her doctor and Brown decided to tag along and wait in the car for convenience sake.
The week since returning home for the first time had been intense for the both of them. It wasn’t often that a Black American man got the opportunity to travel to Africa for a homecoming and the potential for love. The surrounding area was post-industrial. Large warehouse looking buildings everyplace. Old factories maybe? He’d noticed that many parts of the city had seemed almost midwestern in his eyes. The unemployment rate of the area was very high, and Brown had seen firsthand how many folk wandered the streets at all times of night and day. Longing for hope, or maybe just an opportunity.
Brown had loaded up his device with his favorite albums for the long trip. He’d known that the South African government still had strong censorship laws in place to prevent certain information from being transmittable throughout the country. Many of his favorite albums hadn’t been available to stream there, so he wanted to share them with his lovely host. Some deep and modern Soul. Lots of Jean Grae and other classic Hip-Hop. And a heavy dose of Black Liberation Music.
He scrolled through his phone and settled on Straight Ahead (Candid, 1961). It was a very different experience listening to Mama Aminata Moseka sing while seated in a compact sedan parked in the middle of downtown Jonzi. The same year she’d also been a part of Max Roach’s Percussion Bittersweet (Impulse!, 1961), which birthed the classic tune “Man From South Africa”. A year before these records she’d been a fundamental part of his and Oscar Brown, Jr.’s We Insist! (Candid, 1960) featuring “Tears for Johannesburg”. But it was “African Lady” which really held his attention at the moment.
Sunrise at dawn,
Night is gone –
I hear your song.
The dark fades away,
Now it's day,
A new morning breaks.
The birds in the sky all sing
For Africa awakes.
Bright light floods the land
And tomorrow's in your hand,
In the short time since their reconnection the previous year, Mandisa had explained to Brown the difficulties in finding decent employment in such barren lands of work. Though she was fortunate enough to hold a Master’s degree from a US university, her pay was not balanced to her skill level, nor her bills. She’d mentioned her mother’s generation and their struggles as well. How’d she hope for a better world for her daughter.
African women were excluded from factory work for many years. Factory jobs were for African men, and white and coloured women. By 1946 only one out of every hundred women factory workers was an African woman. It was only in the 1960s that large numbers of African women were able to get jobs in the factories. During the 1960s there was a great economic boom in South Africa. More and more factories were built and the cities were growing. White women began to find better jobs as secretaries, commercial workers and as supervisors in factories. Factory owners started to look around for a new source of cheap labour. African women were drawn into factory jobs in bigger numbers. By 1963 twenty-one out of every hundred women factory workers were African women. By 1980 this figure had increased to forty-three. (Lawson, 1985)
It appears that Mama Aminata pissed off a lot of folk by quitting her “factory job” and keeping it real in the late 1950s/ early 1960s.
As a performer with overlapping commitments to jazz, dignified Black womanhood, and racial equality, she simply did not meet the criteria for being a “professional Negro,” as she defined it. In making this argument, Lincoln simultaneously affirmed her identity as a Black woman and as a politicized singer. When (music critic Ira) Gitler compared her to Billie Holiday, she observed in the panel discussion, he implicitly suggested that he preferred suffering black women performers to those who had agency and developed political beliefs. (Feldstein, 2013)
Mandisa and Brown both had mothers about the same age, yet his was in much worse shape, financially and health-wise. She’d gone to school to become a nurse, graduating in 1972. Baltimore had a lot of hospitals at the time and while his mother might’ve not had a difficult time finding work, she definitely struggled with being treated with respect by white, Black, and South Asian doctors while at John Hopkins. She’d told him many fucked up stories of being mistreated and how those below her were promoted while she struggled to maintain face and raise a family at the same time.
Goddess of sun
And of sea,
My lovely one,
Your eyes softly bright
Like the light
Of stars above.
Smile and the whole world sings
A happy song of love.
Dark Queen! In my dreams
You're my Queen!
My Queen of Dreams,
Those meditations on these women and his own troubles melted together. Though he was able to stave off for his worry for the 2.5 week duration while home, the reality of hardship for his folk planted itself on all lands where their enemies had reigned. It was just a bitch to feel that weight all at once. The Black Gods that Mama Aminata spoke of in her later years seemed far off in the distance, but maybe you can never lose a thing if it belongs to you.
At that moment Mandisa returned to the car. She’d had her own deep thoughts and unpackings for the last hour and he knew that it wasn’t a proper time to get into all of the things in his head. But then she held his hand, looked at him, sighed a bit, with all of it in her eyes.
No street that’s paved with gold
Don’t need no hand to hold
Hand me nothing
Don’t want no sad song sung
Just let the retribution
Match the contribution, baby
After a few seconds he asked if she wanted to talk. She did, but not there. It was around noon-thirty and they still had the entire day ahead of them to explore and love.
Her: Would you like to go to Soweto today?
Him: Yeah, I think I’m ready.
Works Citied Abbey Lincoln. “African Lady.” Straight Ahead, Nat Hentoff, Nola Penthouse Studios, New York, 22 Feb. 1961.
Abbey Lincoln. “Retribution .” Straight Ahead, Nat Hentoff, Nola Penthouse Studios, New York, 1961.
“Chapter 1: Women in the Workplace.” Working Women, by Lesley Lawson and Helene Perold, Ravan Press, 1985, pp. 16–17.
“‘No One Asks Me What I Want’: Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, and the Promise of Integration in Popular Culture.” How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and Civil Rights Activism in the 1960s, by Ruth Feldstein, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 119–120.