Friday, October 28, 2011

"'I lift My Eyes to the Hill': The Life of Mabel Hampton" (1902-October 26, 1989) Part 6--the 1940s, Continued

Arisa Reed and Mabel Hampton, Ms. Hampton's Bronx home, 1970s

On March 29, 1944 Ms. Hampton attends the National Negro Opera Company's performance of La Traviata. This group believed in opera for the masses and included in its program a congratulatory message from the Upper West Side Communist Party. On its board sat Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McCloud Bethune, both part of another moment in lesbian history. In 1952, this same company will present Ouanga, an opera based on the life of of the first king of Haiti, Dessaline, who the program says "successfully conquered Napoleon's armies in 1802 and won the black Republic's fight for freedom." Ms. Hampton will be in the audience.

Continuing her dedication to finding the roses amid the struggle, on November 12, 1944, Ms. Hampton will hear Marion Anderson sing at Carnegie Hall and add the program of this event to her collection of newspaper articles about the career of this valiant and supremely talented performer.

Ms. Hampton's never-ending pursuit of work often caused long absences from home, and Ms. Foster was often left waiting for her partner to return to their Bronx apartment on 169th Street, the apartment they had moved into in 1945, at the war's end, and which would remain their shared home until Ms. Foster's death in 1978.

Dear Mabel,
Received your letter and was very glad to hear from you and to know that you are well and happy. This leaves me feeling better than I have since you left. Everything is OK at home. Only I miss you so much, I will be glad when this time is up. There is nobody like you to me. I am writing this on my lunch hour. It is 11PM, I am quitting tomorrow. I don't see anyone as I haven't been feeling too well. Well, the 1/2 hour is up. Nite nite be good and will see you soon.
                                                                    Little Bear

Ms. Foster telling Ms Hampton of her fall, needing her home

In 1948, Ms. Hampton falls ill and cannot work. She applies for home relief and is awarded a grant of $54.95 a month, which the agency stipulates should be spent the following way: $27 for food; $21 for rent; 55cents for cooking fuel; 80cents for electricity; $6 for clothing and for personal incidentals, she is allotted $1. From these meager funds she still manages to give comfort to friends.

Postcard, August 9, 1948:
Dear Miss Lillian and Mabel:
The flowers you sent were beautiful and I liked them very much. I wear the heart you sent all the time. It was very nice to hear from you. I am feeling fine now. I hope you are both in the best of health.
                                                                   Love, Doris

In 1949, Ms. Hampton writes to the Home Relief Agency telling the caseworker to stop all payments because she has the promise of a job.

The decade that began in a war between nations and peoples ends in Ms. Hampton's version of history with a carefully preserved article about the international figure, Josephine Baker.

Cut out of the March 12, 1949 issue of the The Pittsburgh Courier are the following words:
Well friends, fellow Negros and countrymen, you can stop all that guesswork and surmising about Josephine Baker. This writer knew Edith Spencer, Lottie Gee, Florence Mills, knew them well. He has also known most of the other colored women artists of the last thirty years. His word to you is that this Josephine Baker eminently belongs. She is not a common music hall entertainer. She has been over here for a long time, maybe 25 years. The little old colored gal from back home is a French lady now.

Josephine Baker performing in Nigeria, c.1950s
That means something. It means for a colored person that you have been accepted into a new and glamorous and free world where color does not count. It means that in the joy of the new living you just might forget that 'old oaken bucket' so full of bitter quaffs for you. It means that once you have found some solid footing in the new land of freedom, you might tax  your mind to blot out all the sorry past, all the old associations, to become an alien in spirit as well as in fact. It please me folks to be able to report to you that none of this has possessed Josephine. I tested her and she rang true. What she does is for you and me. She said so out of her own mouth. Her eyes glistened as she expostulated and described in vivid, charged phrases the aim and purpose of her work. She was proud when I told her of Lena and and of Hilda [Simms]. 'You girls are blazing trails for the races,' I commented. 'Indeed so,' she quickly retorted. After she had talked at length of what it means to be a Negro and of her hope that whatever she did might reflect credit on Negros, particularly the Negros of her land of birth, I chanced a leading question. 'So you're a race woman,' I queried. I was not sure she would understand. But she did. 'Of course I am,' she replied. Yes, all the world's a stage and Josephine comes out upon it for you and me."

In my own work, I have tried to focus on the complex interaction between oppression and resistance, aware of the dangers of romanticizing losses while at the same time aggrandizing small victories, but I am still awed by how a single human spirit refuses the messages of self-hatred and out of bits and pieces weaves a garment grand enough for the soul's and the body's passions. Ms. Hampton prized her memories of Josephine Baker, Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, creating for herself a nurturing family of defiant African American women and men. Her lesbian self was part of what was fed by their soaring voices. When The New York Times closed its obituary on Ms. Hampton with the words, "There are no know survivors," it showed its ignorance of how an oppressed people make legacies out of memory and out of those collected moments, bring a collective history into being.

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