Abbey Lincoln: A Woman Speaking Her Mind

Movies, Paintings, Beauty

ABBEY LINCOLN: The halls for me are the books and the landlord, my landlord in Los Angeles, gave me some precious old books from 1953. Encyclopedias and dictionaries. Larry Weiss. And I would get up in the morning and fix my coffee and have a cigarette and go through the books and I have a dissertation, a thesis on Egypt.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: But this is later. This isn’t the first time that you were in Los Angeles.

ABBEY LINCOLN: This is in 1970.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: This is when you started writing songs.

ABBEY LINCOLN: Yes.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Where were you in your life at that point of time?

ABBEY LINCOLN: Rolling. I left the marriage and left my career, too. I’d just made For Love of Ivy with Sidney Poitier. I played Ivy. I was supposed to kiss somebody’s feet, so I could get another job. I was raised better than that. I wasn’t planning on making any movies in the first damn place. So I really wasn’t living for another movie. I painted. The paintings here, I painted them when I was living in Los Angeles. Living over a garage in three rooms.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: What’s this one?

ABBEY LINCOLN: I did her in Los Angeles. Her name is—that’s The Merry Dancer. I was using that board as a, because I make my clothes, I used to anyway—I still do—and it was a cutting board I was using and I inherited the whole big house so I didn’t need it anymore. I put it outside and I brought it in one day and I thought I’d paint it. Yeah. That for me is God. Yeah, The Merry Dancer. I wrote a song about her. “Mama told me of a beauty that is made of purest gold. One the weather will not tarnish, one that never will grow old. She said beauty comes from understanding, looking at the things we see. Beauty of the human spirit. Beauty that will set us free.”

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: That’s beautiful.

ABBEY LINCOLN: That’s the lyrics. Has nothing to do with vanity. Vanity is a useless thing. You shouldn’t look for excellence in the shape of your nose or the shape of your mouth or the color of your skin or the texture of your hair. This is disgusting! And the size of your breasts… And the width of your behind… I mean, really! [laughs]

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Do you think it’s more difficult to be here as a beautiful woman?

ABBEY LINCOLN: No, it’s a blessing to be called beautiful! I didn’t become beautiful until I was about 17. When I was 14, I was the one that the boys said, I mean, “Hey cookie! Not you, dog biscuit.” Yeah, I really did experience that.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: [laughs] You told me that and I find that still incredibly hard to believe.

ABBEY LINCOLN: Well, it’s true! I wasn’t supposed to be beautiful. Mama said to me one day when I was 14, we hadn’t spoken of it, but she knew. She said to me, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be beautiful like your sister Betty in a few more years. And it really cooled me out. So I’ve been known as a beautiful woman all my life on the stage. Because of that, there were people who said I couldn’t sing. You’re not supposed to be talented if you look a certain way. It’s really stupid. So if I didn’t write about my life, I’d lose my mind here. That’s the thing that keeps me sane and secure is the fact that I can write it down on a piece of paper and have a realization. Yeah. Mama and Dad.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Well, they give you everything you need.

ABBEY LINCOLN: Mama, yes, she did. Yes, they did. We’re failing the children today. They, the women, push them through the street—the men, too—in a battering ram. The baby can’t see the person’s face who’s pushing them. They could be choking to death and they wouldn’t even know it. And push it across the street like it’s a piece of luggage. We’re lost here, whether we know it or not.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Where did your song “Conversation with a Baby” come from?

ABBEY LINCOLN: I met a beautiful little boy, who lives in the building. His name is Ghandi; he’s got a little brother named Walker. And I was just inspired to write it. “We were really very lucky that you got here. Nowadays we slay them at the door.”

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Abortion?

ABBEY LINCOLN: Yes! The Supreme Court has said this. They also said that the Africans were 3/5’s human! We got a lot of work to do here. This is not going to work. If the child has to be sacrificed, you don’t have a life, that’s suicide. The baby, abused. The Priesthood. This is pitiful and I’m full of tears, too. I’m mad as hell. [stamps foot] This is not right!