I had two jobs. I was raising my son. We had a tiny little place to live. My mother had a 14-room house and someone to look after things. She owned a hotel, lots of diamonds. I wouldn’t accept anything from her. But once a month she’d cook for me. And I would go to her house and she’d be dressed beautifully.
One day after we’d had lunch, she had to go somewhere. She put on silver-fox furs—this was when the head of one fox would seem to bite into the head of the other—and she would wear them with the tails in front; she would turn it around with the furs arching back. We were halfway down the hill and she said, “Baby”—and she was small; she was 5- feet-4 1/2 and I’m 6 foot—“You know something? I think you’re the greatest woman I’ve ever met.” We stopped. I looked down at this pretty little woman made up so perfectly, diamonds in her ears. She said, “Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, my mother and you—you are the greatest.” It still brings me to te—. [Her eyes tear up.]
We walked down to the bottom of the hill. She crossed the street to the right to get into her car. I continued across the street and waited for the streetcar. And I got onto the streetcar and I walked to the back. I shall never forget it. I remember the wooden planks of the streetcar. The way the light came through the window. And I thought, suppose she’s right? She’s very intelligent, and she’s too mean to lie. Suppose I really am somebody?
Those two incidents liberated me to think large thoughts, whether I could comprehend them or not [she laughs], but to think. . . .
One of your large thoughts must have been about planning to have a diverse life and career. How do you move so easily from one thing to another?
I have a theory that nobody understands talent any more than we understand electricity. So I think we’ve done a real disservice to young people by telling them, “Oh, you be careful. You’ll be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.” It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I think you can be a jack-of-all-trades and a mistress-of-all-trades. If you study it, and you put reasonable intelligence and reasonable energy, reasonable electricity to it, you can do that. You may not become Max Roach on the drums. But you can learn the drums. I’ve long felt that way about things. If I’m asked, “Can you do this?” I think, if I don’t do it, it’ll be ten years before another black woman is asked to do it. And I say, yes, yes, when do you want it?
My mom, you know, was a seaman. At one point, I was in Los Angeles. I called her in San Francisco and said, I want to see you, I’m going to New York and I don’t know when I’ll be back, so let’s meet mid-state. She said, “Oh, baby, I wanted to see you, too, because I’m going to sea.” I said, going to see what? She said, “I’m going to become a seaman.” I said, Mother, really, come on. She said, “No, they told me they wouldn’t let women in their union. I told them, ‘You wanna bet?’ I put my foot in that door up to my hip so women of every color will get in that union, get aboard a ship and go to sea.” She retired in 1980, and Asian, white and black women gave a party for her. They called her the mother of the sea.
So, yes, we cripple our children, we cripple each other with those designations that if you’re a brick mason you shouldn’t love the ballet. Who made that rule? You ever see a person lay bricks? [She moves her hands in a precise bricklaying manner.] Because of the eye and the hands, of course he or she would like to see ballet. It is that precise, that established, that organized, that sort of development from the bottom to the top.
Do you resent the fact that your mother wasn’t there for much of your childhood?
Oh, yes. Yes. I was an abandoned child as far as I was concerned, and Bailey also. We didn’t hear from her— we heard maybe twice in seven years or something. And then I realized that she was funny and loving and that there are certainly two different kinds of parents. There is the person who can be a great parent of small children. They dress the children in these sweet little things with bows in their hair and beads on their shoestrings and nice, lovely little socks. But when those same children get to be 14 or 15, the parents don’t know what to say to them as they grow breasts and testosterone hits the boy.