Honoring the ongoing contributions of women to world history and to our daily lives. (AP photo of Congressional Gold Medal recipient Betty Hall Stohfus by Lauren Victoria Burke)
The current celebration of what is known as Women’s History Month got its start in Europe on March 8, 1911, as a single day devoted to highlighting the political struggles of women, and then grew to a week-long event celebrated in the United States in 1978, finally expanding by way of a U.S. Congressional resolution into a month-long observance in 1987.
Since then, Women’s History Month has served to highlight the too-often overlooked contributions of women to American and world history. One simple example is that of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (or WASPS) of World War II. Their work, sacrifices, and triumphs were largely overlooked until March 10, 2010, when some 200 survivors, now in their eighties and nineties, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
In honor of Women’s History Month, this special series will spotlight the lives and achievements of five notable women, beginning right now with legendary performing artist Abbey Lincoln.
Baptized in the Fires of Creative Brilliance
Born in Chicago, Illinois, on August 6, 1930, Abbey Lincoln entered the world as Anna Marie Wooldridge. She was the tenth of twelve children born to her parents. Lincoln’s birth coincided with the second phase of the Harlem Renaissance the famed international cultural movement that gave the world such icons as blues empress Bessie Smith, celebrated bard Langston Hughes, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, author Richard Wright, sculptress Augusta Savage, and political advocate and writer James Weldon Johnson. As the first wave of the Harlem Renaissance slowly receded in New York City in 1930, the second steadily rose in Chicago. Thus the soul of Abbey Lincoln was baptized upon her birth by the energies of a cultural blossoming of a magnitude and potency such as the United States had never seen before.
The fact that Lincoln’s family chose to move out of Chicago and raised her in Calvin Center, Michigan, did not diminish the benefits she received from being a daughter of her times. Kept within her household was a piano, upon which Lincoln instinctively learned to employ music as an extension of her voice and musical notes as another kind of vocabulary, one expressing the impulse of an individual spiritual being seeking to define the meaning and purpose of her own existence.
Music became a stable enough element in her life that in 1949, the same year she graduated from high school, Lincoln won an amateur singing competition. With the help of an older brother, she moved to Los Angeles and took on the challenge of becoming a nightclub singer under the name Anna Marie. Dropping her family’s surname and presenting herself to the world as Anna Marie signaled more than a professional strategy of show business for Lincoln. In the years to come, she would experience a succession of names adopted to reflect professional status and/or states of a powerfully unique evolving consciousness.
The Glorious Metamorphosis of Abbey Lincoln
As Anna Marie in the early 1950s, she proved a competent singer working in clubs in California and Hawaii. As Gaby Lee in 1954, she joined the line-up at the Moulin Rouge in California and treated audiences to a glamorized version of her bona fide beautiful self in a Josephine Baker-like entertainment extravaganza. Pursued equally for her sensual beauty and musical appeal, she won in 1956 both fame and infamy for a small acting role in the movie, The Girl Can’t Help It, a spoof of Marilyn Monroe films that starred blond bombshell Jayne Mansfield. In the movie, Lincoln wore a form-displaying dress identical to one previously worn by Marilyn Monroe and it helped land her on the cover of Ebony Magazine.
Lyricist and manager Bob Russell crowned the former Gaby Lee with the name Abbey Lincoln. It was then as Abbey Lincoln that she recorded her first album, A Story of a Girl in Love, in 1955, and went on to perform as soloist for a group led by the gifted jazz drummer Max Roach. Lincoln’s affiliation with Roach brought her into a circle of philosophically- and politically-inclined jazz aesthetes that included such acknowledged masters of the art as John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Sonny Rollins.
During this period, she also began to compose lyrics that eventually would find their way onto her own recordings and those of others. She further began to interact with artists whose fields of creative discipline were sometimes different but whose hunger for change in the racially and sexually oppressive United States of 1950s made them very much alike. With her priorities redefined and her sensibilities reshaped to include the social and political urgencies of the day, Lincoln teamed up with Roach in the 1960s to record the classic, We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite, providing the Civil Rights Movement with its jazz counterpart to the folk hymn, We Shall Overcome. She and Roach married in 1962 and for the next eight years, until separating in 1970, formed one of the most dynamic creative partnerships in the world of jazz.
As with other politically outspoken creative artists of the 1960s––Nina Simone comes quickly to mind––Lincoln drew political heat for her revolutionary candor. She nevertheless starred in two major films of the era, in 1964’s Nothing But A Man with Ivan Dixon, and in 1968’s For Love of Ivy with Sidney Poitier. Both films were considered groundbreaking for their portrayal of the complexities and intimacies of a black man and woman in love. Her dramatic talents eventually (in 1975) won Lincoln a place in the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. She also continued to record throughout the ‘60s, often outside of the United States in locations such as Paris, Rome, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.