Archive for November, 2013

“If We Had Known You in a Time of Peace…” Miles Davis and The Cry of Winnie Mandela

Posted in Uncategorized on November 9, 2013 by Josslyn Luckett


“If we had known you in a time of peace, we would have loved your peacefulness…we missed our chance”

This line is from Alice Walker’s poem, “Winnie Mandela: We Love You.” I think it was one Christmas in college that my mom bought me the Walker poetry volume, Her Blue Body, Everything We Know that contains this poem…and it was right around the time the recently released, Nelson Mandela came to the Oakland Coliseum…oh did we dance that day! I recently googled the “ain’t gonna play Sun City” video and realized I’d forgotten so many of the artist who joined Little Stevie Van Zandt, including that insistent opening trumpet line from Miles Davis. These are blurry thoughts running together, but I’ve been in such a wave of late 80’s early 90’s nostalgia as I am taking an amazing graduate course on Nelson Mandela this fall taught by Rita Barnard, as well as T.A.-ing a History of Jazz course taught by Guthrie Ramsey who just got through 2 weeks on the Miles Davis Autobiography. With his permission I also loaded up Pearl Cleage’s “Mad at Miles” essay on the course website, along with my sister Imani Tolliver’s poem “Kind of Blue” (visit her site and read that glory right now! One of the most amazing poems about forgiveness I’ve ever read.) . tutu_backAnd it hit me, Miles Davis helps me with Winnie Mandela. The photo at the top of the post is one I took of a poster-sized print of Winnie in the house she shared with Nelson on Vilakazi Street in Soweto (now a museum, though she still lives in Soweto not far from there they say…), and captures the Winnie we all loved, well many of us African Americans circa 1980’s loved unconditionally…

Reading through the TRC hearings, and other recent writing about Winnie, at the same time we are exposing 50 UPenn undergrads to the life, brutality and brilliance of Miles Davis, I’m invited to grapple with Winnie’s story/stories in new ways. In my mind and heart I have to consider what I really believe about “the truth”, whole truth, half truth, hard, hidden, horrifying, every kind of truth and figure out how I can get to the grace of Imani’s forgiveness…. I do know my life is more full if I hold Miles and Winnie in all their humanness rather than reject them as monsters….
Really enjoyed Njabulo Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela (just got re-released in South AFrica, hopefully the new kindle edition is coming soon our way), which imagines four South African township women in conversations, letters, ultimately a roadtrip with Winnie. The imaginary Winnie in the text seems so relieved to have four women to talk with, to share her story without an obligation to confess…made me wonder if/how lonely she was, is…. Did Winnie ever listen to Miles…I kept hearing “Someday my Prince Will Come” while reading the Ndebele novel which is essentially a meditation on women and waiting…hmmm

Forgive my long absence on this blog…so much going on with UPenn life…so many Philly joys and demands…I so appreciate folk for continuing to pop in to the site…hang in if you can!

Also have had a couple nice pieces published the last few months that I’ll link here. One was a review of Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion:The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora…a joy to read and to write! And just last month I had a piece published in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin on Martin Luther King’s trip to Ghana in 1957.