Who am I ?
Chude Mondlane, Janet’s mother, left Tanzania not long after her father’s assassination. She received a scholarship to study at the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow, and then in Almaty, Kazakhstan. But when she was 17, she returned to the newly independent Mozambique. After more than a decade of conflict, the young nation was hungry for culture. “It was a country,” she says, “with a place for ballet.”
Chude left again, though, this time for Switzerland. At the Palace Hotel in Gstaad, with Elizabeth Taylor in the audience, Chude got up onstage and sang a jazz standard—Sinatra’s “My Way.” She didn’t stop singing for more than two decades. She performed with Roberta Flack, the Average White Band, and as a session singer on countless albums. In between gigs, she finished her high school requirements and began at Hunter College. And then: a daughter. Janet’s father, Carlos Rodrigues, is Portuguese—“My mother married the colonizer,” Janet observed, laughing—and they returned to Maputo. For the first eight years of Janet’s life, her mother continued to play world music shows and organize massive, pan-African concerts. But when Janet was nine, her mother decided to go back to school, specifically to Eduardo’s alma mater, Oberlin.
Chude was 40. “Maputo was claustrophobic after a while,” Janet says. But the decision to leave music for academia wasn’t easy. For three years, mother and daughter lived together in a small, spare, dormitory room. Chude’s scholarship covered tuition and board, but not living expenses. The pair depended on Chude’s part-time job at the library to scrape by, and Janet was forever happy to tag along to her mother’s night classes, contributing to the discussion when called upon.
Oberlin is a mostly white town, and Janet was quickly emerging into the awareness of late adolescence. “When we first arrived,” Chude says, “the elementary school heard there was this girl coming from Africa. So they brought out all the black kids at the school to greet her.” She gives a sad laugh as she recounts the story. “That question of ‘What are you?’ followed her. She began to notice segregation on television, on all the sitcoms. Black characters were always acting the fool. And she really couldn’t figure it out. It marked her.”
The difficult questions that Janet continues to ask today are refined versions of the ones she grappled with then: What does it mean to be an American with African heritage? And what does it mean to have multiple racial identities in a country that talks about race in terms of blacks and whites?