Such an overwhelming pattern of lethal violence against African Americans at the hands of police unskilled in nonviolent conflict resolution has emerged over the past decade that I was less stunned by news of what happened to 23-year-old Elijah Jovan McClain in Denver, Colorado, last August 24, than I was by the words attributed to him as he was being detained and slowly robbed of his life. I have not been able to access a single video or recording on which everything Mr. McClain said can be heard clearly but according to the fact-checking website Snopes.com this is an accurate transcription:
“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people, I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You are all very strong. Teamwork makes the dream work. Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”
These are not words to cry over and then forget. They were uttered as McClain (wearing earbuds and carrying a shopping bag) was stopped, forced to the ground with a carotid (choke) hold, injected with a chemical called Ketamine to make him more docile, and then transported to a hospital where he died a few days later.
“Try to Forgive Me”
There is a mixture of awe, admiration, and fear in the demeanor of people sharing McClain’s last utterances across the internet. They are amazed by the clarity of his spiritual intention to put the officers at ease although he is the one, at some 140 pounds, who is clearly outnumbered and overpowered. In short, he demonstrates compassion towards them while his freedom and life are being taken from him. He tells them, “You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me.”
Imagine if even half the compassion which Mr. McClain exercised towards the law enforcement officials in Denver had been shown by different police or citizens anxiously out to make arrests in the cases of: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, my adolescent brother Robert Lee, and the numerous others who did not become subjects of intensified media scrutiny or campaigns calling for justice.
Compassion might have led officer Timothy Loehmann to see Tamir Rice as a 12-year-old child instead of as a deadly threat and coaxed him to drop the toy gun he was holding before unloading actual gunfire on him. It might have decreased the toxic rush of “fear” Trooper Brian Encinia claimed he feared for his life when forcing an unarmed Sandra Bland out of her car reportedly for failing to signal a lane change. Whereas compassion might possibly have won him a new friend or admirer, his brutally aggressive treatment and arrest of Bland ended in what was ruled as a suicide by hanging in her jail cell.
Considering the Golden Rule: Who among us know of anyone who would wish to have done to them the gun violence so many, and the loved ones left behind, have experienced just this year alone?
Recent reforms in police training and procedures combined with legislation to support them provide reason to believe the kind of unjustified killings we have seen can and will end. Chances of that happening increase greatly with a mindful cultivation of compassion as an essential tool for addressing volatile situations within communities as a whole before life-threatening conflicts occur.
The Violinist and the Kittens
Only those closest to him can speak with any kind of authority about who or what Elijah McClain was but there are videos and public documentation which support claims he was an exceptionally sensitive and empathetic human being. Some might find the description of him as “an angel walking among people” a bit much. Speaking for himself he declared: “I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all.” That wasn’t exactly all because being a massage therapist did make him a kind of healer in the mode of an angel. In fact, his fateful encounter with police occurred after reportedly purchasing tea for a cousin.
And then there is this: he was so concerned about the loneliness from which he believed kittens in shelters might suffer that on his lunchbreaks he played the violin for them. That practice of musical compassion prompted world-class musicians to gather in Aurora on June 27, 2020 and play their hearts out as crowds peacefully chanted and called out #Justice4ElijahMcClain.
Read McClain’s final words again and note the degree to which he is holding himself accountable, not his uniformed assailants, for the transgression against him: “Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.” And this amazing plea: “Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better.” There are certain phrases or words we use––like beautiful soul, altruistic, sublime spirit, courageous, and saintly––to characterize someone who places above their own well-being that of people causing them harm. They are not phrases restricted to any single color, gender, nationality, or demographic classification. If anything, by their nature they confirm the presence of someone whose life example seemingly transcends sociological categorization.
The appropriate application of such words is determined by going beyond simply advocating for love- and compassion-based social change in our world to taking the radical dangerous step of embodying that change and living it. We know it is a radical and even, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., a “marvelously militant” thing to do because historically committing to it has cost a lot of beautiful souls their physical existence. We also know Elijah Jovan McClain had taken that sublimely revolutionary step and made the heroic commitment because even in the face of voracious death he did not refrain from proclaiming and living it.
28 June, 2020
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
This is a continuation of the classic 2010 article excerpted from "5 Notable Women of the Past and Present" first published by AXS Entertainment:
Simone’s composition, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," written for her friend Lorraine Hansberry, became one of the major anthems of the civil rights struggle and the title of Hansberry’s autobiography. Her “Four Women” is a marvel of minimalist art in which she deftly dramatizes the impact of racism upon the lives of four different women. In all, Nina Simone composed more than 500 songs and recorded more than fifty albums throughout her prolific career.
[If you missed part 1 of this classic article you can click here to check it out.]
The singer’s achievements were celebrated with, among others, awards like the 1966 Jazz at Home Club’s “Woman of the Year,” and the 1967 “Female Jazz Singer of the Year.” As if to help make up for the anguish in her tortured genius soul, the committee for Human Kindness Day in Washington, D.C., selected her as the day’s honoree in 1974.
None of these, however, proved sufficient enough to compensate for the wounds inflicted by racism or the grief experienced over the death of peers who understood her best. Like Josephine Baker, Abbey Lincoln and others before her, she left the United States in 1978 in search of greater artistic and political freedom. Her journey over the next seven years took her to Barbados, Liberia, England, Switzerland, and France, where she eventually settled. Relocation, however, did not solve all of her problems and she sometimes engaged in widely-reported public battles with stress and depression.
She returned to her homeland in 1985 to perform and record for six years before going to the Netherlands, then moving back to South of France.
The great performer revealed in her 1991 autobiography that she once attempted suicide. Since the publication of I Put a Spell on You, at least two biographers have explored the theory that she suffered from a bipolar disorder and depression. Some have taken this as the reason she sometimes appeared combative towards unruly audiences or certain critics and described it as the cause of her “downward spiral.” Others have interpreted the possibility as one of the sources of her phenomenal talent. Moreover, that fact that she evidently won battle after battle against the illness to produce the triumphant award-winning works that she did, make her in the eyes of many that much more heroic.
Before her death in Carry-le-Rouet , France, on April 21, 2003, Nina Simone enjoyed the satisfaction of receiving honorary degrees from the Julliard School and The Curtis Institute (the very school that had previously denied her application) and honorary doctorates from the University of Massachusetts and Malcolm X University. Consequently, she is often referred to as Dr. Simone.
The Legacy from 2010–2020
One of the greatest confirmations of the value of a musician’s work is the passion with which peers and following generations embrace it. From 2010–2020, Nina Simone has become one of the most covered, remixed, frequently rediscovered, reinterpreted, and generally honored musicians in music history. The sheer diversity of artists––ranging from hip hop and rock stars to Broadway and jazz divas–– who have either “sampled” her work or recorded versions of it, prove her contention that she was an accomplished artist of multiple genres. Among those who have linked their creative visions to that of Simone’s are: hip hop artists Common, Lil Wayne, Timbaland, and Kanye West; the groups Faithless , Walkabouts, and the Animals; and European cabaret singer Barb Jungr as well as American jazz diva Randy Crawford, in addition to many more.
The music icon was also a favored subject of photographers while she lived and is a treasured focus of fine artists now. Sculptor Zenos Frudakis worked with the Eunice Waymon-Nina Simone Memorial Project to create a life-sized bronze statue of the singer. A dedication ceremony was held for it February 21, 2010, in Simone’s hometown of Tryon.
This Mother’s Daughter
Nina Simone was married to her manager and business partner Andy Stroud when she gave birth to her daughter and only child, Lisa Celeste Stroud in 1962. Like her mother, Stroud also developed into an exceptional entertainer. Known simply as Simone, she has starred in such major Broadway productions as Rent and Aida. She made her recording debut in 2008 with Simone on Simone, a CD of covers of her mother’s music. A second album reportedly is set for release in spring 2010.
Following Nina Simone’s death, Simone the Second (more recently listed under credits as Lisa Simone Kelly) established the Nina Simone Foundation (NSF) as s a non-profit organization dedicated both to preserving the performer/composer’s legacy and to spearheading initiatives to establish various education opportunities and cultural resources. From April 16-25 in Atlanta, Georgia, the Foundation will present The Nina Simone Experience. In addition to performances and a fashion show, the event will feature a fine arts exhibition of works depicting images of Nina Simone and visual interpretations of her music.
In an interview with Jet Magazine in 2008, Simone pointed out, “I am keeping my mother’s name out there in a positive light, which she deserves because she sacrificed a lot and she stood for a lot. She deserves to be recognized and honored for that.” She accomplished that mission to critical acclaim as executive producer of the 2015 Netflix biopic on her mother titled: What Happened, Miss Simone?
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance Centennial 1919-2029
The year 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of an article series I wrote called 5 Notable Women of the Past and Present and which was first published by AXS Entertainment. Included in the series were profiles of: musician and actress Abbey Lincoln, comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley, author Octavia Butler, social justice advocate Dr. Abigail Jordan, and Ms. Simone. It is an honor to recognize Ms. Simone’s brilliant legacy and extraordinary life at this time with two new works of art––titled Ode to the Genius and Good Intentions of Nina Simone Numbers 1 and 2–– and republication my article about her ongoing influence on contemporary musical artists. That influence remains as true now as a decade ago. Lessons from Nina Simone on Love, Music, and Commitment part 1 starts now:
Getting to Know Ms. Simone
Many modern audiences first became familiar with the name Nina Simone in 2005 after Canadian singer Michael Buble’ recorded her 1965 hit song, “Feeling Good,” and which finalists on the popular American Idol television show sang before world audiences in 2007.
However, long before Buble’ or American Idol finalists sang “Feeling Good,” Nina Simone made a lasting name for herself on several continents as one of the great singers, composers, and performers of the twentieth century. The fact that at least a dozen books document her life and work illustrate just how great she was and how enduring her music remains. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, by Nadine Cohodas, is one of the latest such titles just published in February 2010.
The singer herself published in 1991 (the first London edition) an autobiography titled I Put a Spell on You. Describing just how Simone went about working her musical magic, author and former Ebony Magazine music editor Phyl Garland wrote in her in her own book, The Sound of Soul, The Music and Its Meaning, that:
“She casts her spell with the fluid but frequently complex patterns of notes she etches on her piano and with the distinctive sound of her richly reedy voice.”
Another way to gauge the impact of Simone’s life and legacy is to look at it like this: whereas the great Aretha Franklin earned, and has worn with dignity, the title “Queen of Soul” for at least four decades, Nina Simone earned and wore for decades the title “High Priestess of Soul.”
North Carolina Beginnings
She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. Both her parents, John Divine Waymon and Mary Kate Waymon, were entertainers when they met but later settled into more stable professions to raise their eight children. Her mother became a devoted Methodist minister, which later prompted Eunice Waymon to adopt the name Nina Simone when she began performing in night clubs and bars.
Simone’s talents as a pianist were recognized early and her family supported her goal to become a world-class concert pianist. She was good enough to study for a time at the renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York but her application to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected. This rejection, she felt, was based more on her race than her abilities and it has often been cited as a major source of the political fury that characterized some of her music. The planned career in classical music took off instead in the direction of more popular genres. Recording her first album, Little Girl Blue, in 1957, she enjoyed a hit with the George Gershwin song, “I Loves You Porgy.”
While she was quickly labeled and marketed as a jazz performer, Simone had actually developed into a mistress of diverse musical forms that included not only jazz, but gospel, blues, Broadway show tunes, Black folk songs, and other styles in classic American modes. She could have easily carved out a successful career for herself in popular music and simply enjoyed the wealth and fame that comes with such success. But in addition to her musical sensibilities, she also possessed a social/political consciousness that was magnified by friendships with individuals like the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author James Baldwin, and author Langston Hughes, all of whom at various times lent their artistry to the struggle for racial equality.
It was Hughes who said, “Nina Simone is as different from other singers as beer is from champagne.” While he contributed liner notes to at least one of her albums, she in turn wrote with him the hit song “Backlash Blues.”
Commitment and Consequences
The singer once stated that as far as she was concerned, the job of a creative artist was to address the pressing issues of her times. Towards that end, she wrote and recorded a number of songs that addressed individual moral responsibility as well as the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s. Following two events in particular––the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in Mississippi and that of four Black girls in a Birmingham church–– she recorded the now classic “Mississippi Goddamn.”
The composition is in part satire, part social criticism, and part political outrage, which, given the real-world apartheid conditions and context of the times, makes a great deal of sense. She introduced the song by emphasizing its title and pointing out that she meant every word of it, then sang with fierce courage and intelligence: “Alabama's gotten me so upset/ Tennessee made me lose my rest/ And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam…”
Aside from expressing outrage, the singer also implored:
“Can't you see it
While many championed Simone for her courageous outspokenness at a time when passive endurance was considered the key to civil rights success for African Americans, others vilified her for it. Many radio stations banned the song and the impact upon her career would prove a lasting negative one. Other powerful protest songs, notably music legends Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” were also released during this period but apparently considered less confrontational or threatening than “Mississippi Goddamn.”
NEXT: Lessons from Nina Simone on Love, Music, and Commitment part 2
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance Centennial 1919-2029
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.