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
Having refrained for years from attending any kind of party at all, I relaxed my self-imposed tension by mixing in a little work with a lot of fun. In a room next to the kitchen (which itself resembled an art installation) I saw a stack of books and, being the bookaholic I am, could not resist their pull.
Picture my surprise when discovering in the pages of Daniel Widener's Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (2010), and Kellie Jones's South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s (2017), extensive references to the woman of the hour. Also nearby was a copy of ELEMENTAL and seeing it made me feel like the spirit of our friend Luther had dropped in to support the launch with his blessings.
By the time of the party, I had already learned that as well as being a visual artist, Suzanne was a poet who had studied with the phenomenal Lucille Clifton (1936-2010). At least two volumes featuring poems by her had been published: What I Love: Paintings, Poetry, & a Drawing (1972), and Animals (1978). Her writing had also been included in notable anthologies like the Nikky Finney-edited The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (2007). Maybe I was hoping to find those among the stacked books as well but, to avoid becoming self-absorbed to a point of rudeness, I forced myself to step away and began taking photographs of Suzanne, different guests, and the lush greenery outside the house.
The symbolic images seen in Suzanne Jackson's 12-foot award-winning canvas "Passages" (1978, above) are described in the FIVE DECADES exhibition catalog as "associated with love, childbirth, and women painted in expressive acrylic layers." It hangs here in front of 1 of 7 display vitrines and next to other compelling works included in the Five Decades retrospective debut at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Arts. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
I tried to avoid cameras myself, not because I felt shy but because for some unknown reason I had begun to sweat--not daintily "perspire" but ferociously SWEAT, like somebody fully-clothed in a sauna--and my shirt was getting soaked. No one else appeared to be having this problem. Reluctantly, when informed that Suzanne wanted an assistant to take a black-and-white photo of me for potential use in a publication, I consented. Soon afterwards, the sweating became too ridiculous and I couldn't figure out why so I said my good-byes and started walking toward my residence, located at the time on the other side of town.
About halfway there, an energized psychic push-and-pull began stirring in my skull and words started to assemble themselves in flashes and clusters. Phrases such as "painted star-fire" and "unmapped territories" swirled and glowed like special effects in a movie. Is this, I wondered, what all the heat which had started flowing through me at the party and forced me to leave before I was ready was all about? A ball of winged language was preparing to reveal itself in one form or another and left me no choice but to stop walking, grab from my shoulder bag a pen and piece of paper, and write the fragments down.
Such experiences were not new to me but the way they sometimes manifested could still come as an unsettling disruption. This was such an instant and every other block I had to stop walking and start scribbling. By the time I got home, I had written a rough draft which looked like it could be the beginnings of a poem. Okay, I thought, I'll just leave it in this folder and go back to it next week sometime.
Except that it refused to wait.
Polychromatic Inked Pages
Over the next few days I kept feeling drawn back to the folder and added to the lines already written in black ink, more lines composed in green, red, and purple ink. Sometimes I wondered: was I writing a poem or painting one?
Eventually, the evolving draft was complete enough to take on the title Syllables Painted on a Suzannian Canvas. It was enough to type up and print a second, then later third and fourth drafts before finally settling on: Suzannian Algorithm Finger-Painted on an Abstract Wall. It fit, I thought, the words which had sweated themselves out, the polychromatic inked pages, and the artist in whose honor the work had been composed.
My hope to come up with an idea for an essay or poem for the planned catalog in a couple of months appeared instead to have become an accomplished mission in a few weeks. It seemed the poem, which in time would be accepted for the pages of the catalog, had started writing itself the moment I read the words HATE HAS NO HOME HERE on the sign in Suzanne's window. Or it may have started long before then, upon that first meeting during my 2004 Harlem Renaissance lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library.
Contemplating how the poem had unveiled itself, I considered it a direct response to the dynamic creative presences gathered that day in Suzanne's home, and to my observances of the current Harlem Renaissance Centennial. This was appropriate enough given the way Harlem Renaissance artists, musicians, writers, educators, and leaders often inspired and empowered each other's creative efforts and political agendas.
Countering Toxic Bigotries & Heinous Practices
The unprecedented advancements of the Harlem Renaissance on multiple cultural fronts helped counter the toxic bigotries and heinous practices of a time when many Americans, if not most, were still entrenched in unyielding mindsets forged during the death-throes of slavery as it was practiced in the 19th century. They remained so even as social, legislative, and technological progressions in the 20th century indicated those who insisted on holding onto delusions of white supremacy were doomed to agonizing personal and collective implosions.
Our present 21st-century hour bears a lot of similarities to the previous time-frame. Works by black artists supportive of progressive change mattered then as they do now because often found within them were/are important ingredients for remedies to what ails our bleeding and burning world the most. Ingredients like symbols of life-sustaining values and language encouraging actions motivated by compassion and mindfulness.
The recognition and celebration of Suzanne Jackson's achievements in this modern era when chaos and enmity command so much attention on a daily basis is a recognition and celebration of some of our better options for moving toward the next century. Her painted, poemized, and otherwise choreographed meditations offer us touchstones of remembrance and awareness. Those touchstones inspire individuals and communities to consider more deeply and more efficiently the choices which have brought humanity to this 2019 moment of quivering uncertainties, and, the options most likely to help us regain the advantages of higher ground and hopes now seemingly lost.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
More than a decade after our first meeting, one afternoon I turned the radio on to catch some jazz music on WHCJ 90.3 FM, Savannah State University's celebrated multi-platform multicultural station. To my surprise, I heard Jackson discussing music with the station's legendary former director of programming, and Jazz Festival Hall of Fame member, Theron "Ike" Carter. Their voices were soon joined by that of the great sculptor and Indigo Sky art gallery founder, Jerome Meadows, and those of two more commentators with whom I was not familiar.
Ike Carter's famously-raspy attention-grabbing voice informed listeners this version of his various broadcasts was called LISTEN HEAR and featured a round-table discussion on different music selections brought in by members of the group. Listening to the show in the weeks that followed, it was a kind of revelation to hear Jackson in concert with the others sharing unbridled enthusiasm for classic jazz musicians like: Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, Yusef Lateef, Miles Davis, and numerous others. Her deep appreciation for jazz--often referred to by Carter as African-American classical music--provided hints regarding how the stories, aesthetics, and energy behind the music might, to some degree, influence her own artistry.
Visiting with Carter, Jackson, and various guests through the low-tech efficiency of FM radio waves became a regular pleasure. The easy simpatico between the sensibilities of the commentators and the brilliance of the music they shared made me feel a little proud to have written the article on jazz for the encyclopedia. It was deeply moving to hear them dedicate the April 12, 2016, program to the memory of Luther E. Vann, who had just passed on April 6. During that broadcast, Jackson spoke of first meeting her fellow artist years before at an exhibition in New York City and referred to him as "one of the best painters in Savannah." Carter would later pay similar tribute on Listen Here to Sandra L. West.
Invitation to a Party
Then time passed as time does and another unexpected development occurred: I received an invitation to a launch party to be held on June 30, 2018, for a forthcoming exhibit of the artist's work.
What!? Really!? This was fantastic news indeed.
The idea of an exhibit of her art excited me because I had only glimpsed samples on the internet and knew the general categorization of her as an abstract artist made Jackson something unique (so far as I could tell anyway). What I knew about Black Women artists came primarily from my work on the encyclopedia and from my adoration for Barbara Chase-Riboud, whom I greatly admired because she also wrote some amazing novels.
It had been a very long time since I'd attended a party of any kind at all. My empathic nature has been known to overload in such situations and get the better of me. I set this thought aside as I walked up the steps of the artist's home and saw in the window a sign which read: HATE HAS NO HOME HERE.
The sign's proclamation bore out as in every room of the house, upstairs, downstairs, on the back porch, in the back yard, and in the adjoining studio, I encountered friends and acquaintances (far too many to name) I had not seen for years. In addition, I met for the first time curator and editor Rachel Reese, along with members of the team who were already playing such an important role putting together the retrospective.
Taking on a Creative Challenge
The suggestion that I consider writing something for the planned Five Decades catalog caught me by surprise. At the time, I was focused on completing and publishing my nonfiction book Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. It seemed highly unlikely I would be able to conjure enough additional creative energy to write a poem worthy of inclusion in the catalog. Yet the notion of doing so was such a beautiful one it could not be dismissed and I recalled with some small amount of guilt Maya Angelou's statement that the more one used one's creativity the more it increased.
True, the entire volume of ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love contained ekphrastic verse derived mostly from meditations on paintings by Vann. But a large number of the poems I'd written since then were elegies acknowledging and mourning the passing of beloved friends or famous individuals. Here gleaming before me at the Five Decades launch party was an opportunity, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous statement on jazz: to let poetry speak to life by commemorating the ongoing achievements of a largely-unsung s/hero who combined within her person multiple artistic gifts and persuasive passion disciplined enough to infuse those gifts with history-altering purpose.
I therefore promised to consider writing something--most likely an essay but possibly a poem--for the catalog and said I would provide a more concrete yes-or-no answer in a month or so. That was what I said. The almighty multiverse apparently had something else in mind.
NEXT: A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 3 of 3)
Please CLICK HERE to read: Part 1 of A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light.
author of The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois
and Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
That the story of two chroniclers of the Harlem Renaissance should have had its beginning in Savannah, Georgia, in the early 1990s, might seem unlikely but it did. Sandra and I met as writers often do: in a bookstore. I was the manager at a now defunct Waldenbooks store interviewing for a part-time worker and she was interested. The interview turned into a two-person literary salon as, somehow, we started talking about writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and contemporary art.
Scheduling requirements would not allow me to hire her but neither did it bring our dialogue to an end. Long before either of us would consider working on Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, within a year she would suggest I consider writing poetry for a book of her then husband Luther E. Vann's art. We would for a time work together on the Savannah Literary Journal, and in her role as an assistant editor for the weekly Savannah Tribune, one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the country, she would publish a feature story on me. We would also team up for different literary programs, so when the time did come to tackle the encyclopedia we were ready, as a team, to answer history's call to duty.
Worthy of Our Ancestors' Legacy
Although we moaned, groaned, and outright blubbered over difficulties encountered completing Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, the hardcore truth was we were two lit-geeks who would have been disappointed had there not been any major hurdles to overcome and thereby prove ourselves worthy of our ancestors' legacy. If ever any book was worth burning candles at ends we did not even have, it was the encyclopedia. Sandra trusted that I would pull through because I was somewhat younger and had energy enough to carry my multiple loads. I trusted she would pull through because she had one of the finest literary minds and most committed dispositions toward African-American literary culture I had ever encountered. Moreover, it was she who had invited me to join the project.
This is a framed news article titled "A legend’s place" written by Sandra L. West about Georgia civil rights icon W.W. Law. It hangs on the wall of the W.W. Law Center in Savannah, GA. The photo in the lower right corner is of West. The article was published in the Savannah Morning News Black History Month 1996.
The really big surprise was one that often stuns first-time authors. It was learning how much promotional work remained to be done after the writing was accomplished. That was also the fun part with Sandra taking on book signings and interviews up north while I did the same down south. Still, she emailed to remind me it was not enough that we had completed the history-making volume itself. We needed to record the history we were continuing to make through related activities:
"Aberjhani, we need to keep a running list of what we have done thus far. Especially since we have done a ton of public relations stuff ... I know you have been busy on your end and I would like to have at least one major list of things done ... because, you never know. Please plug in what you did... radio interview for Michael Porter and WBAI, the Gusby TV interview, signings, etc. We also need to plug in print reviews, and all those newspaper interviews of you.
By "line of defense" she meant irrefutable proof the success of the encyclopedia warranted additional printings and a revised, maybe expanded, second edition. The follow-up eventually would come in the form of InfoBase’s eBook of the title and its addition to publisher Facts On File's history database. Any plans on an updated edition to correspond with the current Harlem Renaissance centennial never surfaced. Given the significance of the 100th anniversary of the renaissance and the way numerous institutions are observing it around the globe, many thought an updated reissue was going to happen automatically. But the world of publishing in 2019 as impacted by social media and various Internet influencers is a far cry from what it once was. So in 2003 my co-author assigned herself the role of Team Encyclopedia scorekeeper and started recording notes like the following:
SEPTEMBER 2003, BOOK SIGNING. Aberjhani & Sandra L. West host Book
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.