When I think of Black History Month and women, I don’t just think of historical figures; I think of women who impacted my own life, and whose history also deserves celebration.
I met Ann Jackson in the Fall of 1985, at the annual fundraising dinner for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She was at a table with four other black women, all in their 60s, all formidable in the way that older, well-groomed, articulate and relatively affluent women can seem to younger women. I was in my early 20s, having just completed a masters of law degree at Columbia Law School. As a recent transplant from South Africa, I was also deeply immersed in the anti-apartheid movement, which seemed so ubiquitous in the U.S. at the time. I’d grown up in a “colored” township in South Africa, where my mother had died when I was just 13. She was 33, had spent only six months in high school and had her first child at age 18, so I was unaccustomed to the existence of–least of all engaging with–black women who were highly educated and independent.
Ann became my friend, and our friendship evolved over a series of meals, at restaurants or at her most elegant apartment in Morningside Gardens. She had been born in 1916 and grew up in Columbus, Ohio, at a time when black people and women were treated as second-class citizens. She had graduated from Ohio State University in 1938–one of 200 black students out of a student population of around 16,000. I was inspired by hearing of her childhood in a middle-class minority community in Columbus–a life of achievement, quiet dignity and resistance. Her graduation from a university at a time when few blacks and women were attending college was in itself remarkable.
Ann came to New York in 1947 and spent the next few decades working as a social worker. For me, her commitment to service and social justice was one of her most attractive features. And she combined it with motherhood and marriage–to Jesse Jackson (no, not the civil rights leader), an author of children’s books. He had started writing during the 1940s when black writers–particularly of children’s books–found it hard to publish. He even specifically addressed racism in his stories Call Me Charley (1945) and Anchor Man (1947).
Jesse died in 1982. Ann, when she retired, began to volunteer for the Studio Museum in Harlem and was suitably honored for her service–earning herself a picture in The New York Times. Retirement hardly slowed her down; she loves to travel. How many women would take themselves to Ottawa or Las Vegas, at the ages of 88 and 92 respectively, just because they had not been to those places before and wanted to experience them?
A year-and-a-half after I first met Ann, I moved to Australia for 7 years, but we stayed in touch by mail (in the days before e-mail). When I returned to New York in 1993 we continued our friendship, and since then I have spent nearly every Thanksgiving or Christmas Day with her.
She turns 95 next week. I am 40 years younger, yet she remains one of my closest friends. I would often share stories with her about my romantic encounters, some of them rather hapless. She taught me that being passionate is not just about sustained or transitory romantic or sexual encounters, but an engagement with others–a real engagement involving books, magazine articles, the PBS Newshour, The Charlie Rose Show and The New York Times.
A favorite memory is celebrating her 89th birthday at a Cuban restaurant, drinking far too many margaritas and then waiting for a bus at 11 p.m. to take her home. She set the bar very high when she confessed to a slight hangover the next morning: what an ambition, to wake up with a hangover at 89!
Ann has taught me that elegance is wanting to buy that skirt at Bergdorf Goodman for your 90th birthday because it matches a sweater that you recently purchased.She has taught me lots–mostly that the business of living and real engagement with life has nothing to do with age, and everything to do with curiosity, with caring, with laughing.
So there we are–two black women from different sides of the world and with a gap of two generations between us–celebrating decades of friendship and yet another significant birthday together. Happy Birthday, and Happy Black History Month, Ann!
Photo courtesy of the author.