Saturday, October 29, 2011

"'I Lift My Eyes to the Hill: The Life of Mabel Hampton," 1902-October 26, 1989: An Introduction

Ms Hampton, and her beloved dog, Liberation, doing archives work at #13A, c.1977

What precedes this introduction in 7 installments is a recreated version of the talk I gave in 1992 on the life of my friend and icon to the New York lesbian community, Mabel Hampton, who died in October 26, 1989. When I was told that I would be the recipient of the first David Kessler Award for Life-Time Achievement early in 1992, I was overwhelmed by the honor and the responsibility of the public talk I was expected to give under the auspices of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. I could speak about anything, but I knew that what I wanted to do was another kind of lesbian history, one that highlighted the  material realities, the cultural  richness and the social struggles of a working class lesbian woman. Discovering and preserving these histories so often overlooked in our infatuation with the Paris circles and the ruling elites was always at the heart of my dedication to the work of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. This intellectual focus came second to my inability to accept the loss of Ms. Mabel Hampton, a woman whom I had known almost my whole life up to her death, a woman who along with her partner or wife as Ms. Hampton called her, Ms. Lillian Foster, had passed their judgement on my first lesbian passion, Carol, as we sat around tables at one of the fabled gay balls held in the Bronx in the early 1960s. The talk was a presumptuous one in some ways. Using Ms Hampton's papers that had been left to the archives, the oral history tapes I had made with Ms Hampton over the years and the photographs we had taken of our shared activities, I set out to, in a little over an hour, recreate the main themes of Ms. Hampton's life as an African-American lesbian woman born at the beginning of the twentieth century in the deep South. The evening became with a singing of the African-American national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is what Ms Hampton would have expected and then I delivered the talk, "'I Lift My Eyes to the Hill': The Life of Mabel Hampton as Told by a White Woman" with a large framed image of Ms Hampton on the stage with me. When the words were over, a screen was lowered and the slides I had made of the material documents of Ms Hampton's life, along with her bequeathed photographs and those I and others had taken of Ms Hampton in the last years of her life when she was very active in the lesbian and gay community poured into the packed room, all set to a tape of appropriate music created by Paula Grant, a friend of Ms Hampton's and of the archives. Thus into the room came the voices of Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, Marion Anderson, Paul Robeson, Nina Simone and Ms Hampton herself. I do not know how to share that music with you, but I have tried to share all the rest, now almost 20 years later. This is a work in progress so I will be adding more images as the weeks go by. In typing in the old text and ordering the images, I realized that many histories were being touched on--the history of the archives in its first home, apartment #13A at 215 West 92 Street, the site of our dinners, our adventures, our mutual care- taking; the history of Arisa Reed, a young woman, a "daughter" of the archives as we called the young women who spent long days in 13A, whom we could not save from her own despair; the history of the archive family with Ms Hampton often at its center, and primarily, the history of this indomitable woman whose voice still rings in my ears--"I would rather go for drive then eat when I'm hungry," "It was terrible, Joan, just terrible," "Oh, she was a good lookin' girl!" "What do you mean, when did I come out, I was never in!" and in the deepest of ways, "If I give you my word I will be there, I will." And she always was.

I offer you this portrait of Ms Hampton and Ms Lillian Foster in honor of all who shared their journey--all who visited with Ms Hampton on the work days at the archives, all who marched with her down Fifth Avenue on Gay Pride Days, all who helped in her care, who arranged speaking moments for her, who became her good friend, all who knew she was their history. Here you will see images of  Deborah Edel, the supreme papa in Mabel's eyes, Morgan Gwenwald, Paula Grant, Georgia Brooks, Linda Levine, Ms. Hampton's new family in her later years and always to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, where you can visit with all the originals of the materials you will see in the preceding sections and so much more.

I know there are errors here and I will work to correct them. I know those words written 20 years ago are not always the best, and please remember, I had an hour to tell a life, but I offer it all to you, to do better, to do more, to keep lesbian history growing more complex and rich with the wonders of these lives.

James Weldon Johnson--author of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"; also known at the Black National Anthem

Lift ev'ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring.
Ring with harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast'ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till not we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, forget Thee,
Shadowed beneath thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Ms Mabel Hampton, c. 1920s

1 comment:

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