Geographically, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was closer than that of Elijah McClain because it occurred only an hour’s drive from where I grew up and where people who mean a great deal to me have family members. But for some reason McClain’s death, although it occurred all of 1,600 miles away in Aurora, Colorado, felt closer. I did not understand why until recalling two poems written more than a decade ago. The memory of both forced me to sit down and wonder how it was something written so far in the past was having such a powerful impact on my life in 2020.
The first composition is a song lyric titled “ELI-JAH” originally published in the first edition of the novel Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player (sung by a character named Ruzahn), and later in the poetry collection titled Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. It is about a man who refuses to accept reports his brother has been killed so he keeps singing his name, Eli-Jah, to let him know he’s committed to finding him. The complete lyric is too lengthy for the purposes of this post but these are the last 2 verses:
The second text which surprised me with an unexpected emotional connection to McClain is 2 lines at the end of the poem “Vampire Song: The Last Bloodfeast,” also from Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. I recalled when writing the lines that they sounded strange and I changed them several times but always switched back because somehow they felt honest. Reading them, now, I’m stunned at how close they come to an image combination frequently associated with Elijah McClain: the violin and kittens, for his compassionate practice of playing for them on his lunch breaks. This is the quote from “Vampire Song”:
“Soft upon my right thigh, an oddly-colored kitten
There is a possibility I’m making more of these parallels than I should and some might even argue I am forcing them where there are none. They would have a right to that belief.
Before identifying the subconscious links stirring within me such a strong response to the shooting death of McClain, I considered writing a blog titled Music for a Black Skylark in Mourning to express the lingering grief. So I looked for a music video with the words “Black Skylark” in the title and found two. Either one, I felt, could serve as a worthy tribute to McClain and believe he would have appreciated either. The one with which I’ve chosen to close is from volume 5 of the China Meditation Ethno Music Project and titled “A Black Skylark.”
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
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
“…turnin’ nouns into verbs braids into crowns
The poem from which the above quote was taken, “people of watts,” by the late playwright and poet Ntozake Shange (1948-2018) was originally published in her Wild Beauty collection and more recently in the special spring 2020 edition of African Voices Magazine dedicated to Shange and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison (1931-2019). The quoted lines summarize with agonizing eloquence the work Shange and Morrison have done to resurrect the lynched legacies of African American women. I hope they apply as well to my poem, “A Song of Toni Morrison My Soul Now Sings,” included in African Voices’ celebration of the authors’ amazing lives.
Publisher Carolyn Butts, in her introductory note, spells out the importance of the women’s literary triumphs: “Part 2 of our Ntozake Shange issue honors two Black women writers whose language ignited movements around the principles of self-love, healing and interconnectivity. Toni Morrison and Ntozake Shange freed us from restricting cultural mores while stretching our language and shifting our gaze. We tip our pens in gratitude…”
Balancing Scales of Recognition
Women have always occupied major positions in my nonfiction books, fictional works, essays, poems, and journalism. That may have become more evident over the past year with the inclusion of my work in the art catalogue, Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades, and announcement of my forthcoming lecture at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, Georgia.
Morrison in particular has been a recurring subject. However, by comparison, I’ve written far too little about Shange. That realization comes as a major surprise because I recall clearly the controversies stirred over her iconic play: For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, and the impact it had on me and others.
Described as a choreopoem by Shange in the late 1970s, the play had already become a cultural phenomenon (much like the TV production of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has today) by the time I saw it at Temple University in Philadelphia. The playwright had set astonishing witnessed truths, some of them beautiful and some of them horrifying, to linguistic music, and dressed them up in skirted dancing hues. It was as visually captivating as it was dramatically innovative and exhilarating.
Male friends had declined to go see it with me because they bought into the hype it was “anti Black men.” While there may have been grounds for such an argument, I had grown up with too many sisters and female cousins to fail to recognize the shocking validity of Shange’s voice. I had read the works of too many of her predecessors–like Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, and Lorraine Hansberry––to fail to accept that hers was a major authentic contribution to a dialogue essential to African Americans’ expanded understanding of African Americans. As a young writer looking to develop his own voice, how I could I not be astounded by what she had done with hers?
It is not the destiny of literary sisters like Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Shange to rest in peace. Legacies such as theirs tend to lift our love for and memories of them ever higher in power. That is something for which we can always be grateful.
© Women’s History Month 2020
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
From the time when her first short stories and novel were published, O’Connor was identified as a writer with a rare kind of gift. Her specific brand of genius allowed her to adapt powerful religious principles, aesthetic technique, and social observances to create highly original and often shocking literary art which leaned heavily toward the Gothic and grotesque.
She painted with words in the same manner she painted with colors. Stroke by carefully-rendered stroke, she created broken-soul characters who were oddly warped by the jarring impulses of their own scarred personalities, a condition which could make them as misplaced within the confines of their own skin as it could within society.
The Church of Hazel Motes’ Truth
One archetypal example is Hazel Motes, the anti-hero main character in Wise Blood described by Gooch as “a slightly demented saint in the making.” Motes could also be described as a prototype for any number of O’Connor’s characters driven by pain and confusion to rage against their perception of divine, or human, authority over their lives. Hazel Motes is bold enough to propose starting “the Church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.” His own ambitiousness and the ambiguities of human mortality inherent in anyone’s life defeat his intentions and ultimately lead to his destruction.
It is not only the daring with which O’Connor wrote such tales as Wise Blood that made her an exceptional writer but an ear for true-to-life dialect and a command of language that enabled her to bend narrative prose into lyrical poetry like this:
“The smokestacks and square tops of buildings made a black uneven wall against the lighter sky and here and there a steeple cut a sharp wedge out of a cloud.” Or the following: “The outline of a skull was plain under his skin and the deep burned eye sockets seemed to lead into the dark tunnel where he had disappeared.”
Such statements, beaded as they were with strong philosophical nuances, would make any writer in any language an exceptional one.
The N-Word Factor
For many African Americans, O’Connor is not an easy read because her fiction is very true to the Southern rural language of her times. That means the word “nigger” tends to flow like breath out of many of her characters’ mouths with such a total disregard for its social, political, or spiritual implications that their use of the word might prompt many a hardcore rapper to reconsider his or her fondness for it.
The degree to which O’Connor herself may have been racist is an issue biographer Brad Gooch does periodically address: “She had returned to settle in a society predicated on segregation and had taken on its charged voices and manners as the setting of her fiction.”
In short, from O’Connor’s perspective as a literary artist, to avoid racially derisive language, and in some cases customs, would have meant dodging an ugly truth rather than confronting it head-on. Moreover, readers should note she was far from being alone in this regard among white and black American writers in the previous century.
NEXT: Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor (final part 3)
If you missed part 1 of Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor and would like to read it Please Click Here.
Aberjhani is a multi-genre author of history, memoirs, poetry, fiction, and journalism. His most recent book is Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah.
Among the biggest surprises to come my way in 2019 was an invitation to give a talk and sign copies of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah at the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, Georgia. Health issues prevented me from accepting the initial invitation but I am now slated to give a presentation in May 2020. The plan is to also have available for signing a forthcoming book in which I recount adventures and misadventures involving three iconic writers: O'Connor, James Alan McPherson, and John Berendt.
Any literary biographer will tell you writing a book of meaningful depth on an influential author requires a ton of research involving what other writers have already said about the subject. The following are reflections on another scribe's brilliantly-informed perspective, first published by AXS Entertainment as: "Events, Books, Highlight Flannery O’Connor’s Legacy."
Regarding a Gifted Child
One of the words most frequently used to describe Flannery O’Connor is “paradoxical.” Exactly why that word is such an appropriate one is demonstrated with informed passion and masterful skill in Brad Gooch’s finely layered biography: Flannery, A Life of Flannery O’Connor.
The fact that the mystery of O’Connor’s life and work continues to draw increasing attention in the twenty-first century is amazing when considering how steeped it is in the language of her times—the very racially-charged South of the mid-1900s–– and when noting her early death from lupus at the age of thirty-nine.
Gooch begins his story by revisiting a moment which would remain a reference point of both humor and symbolism throughout O’Connor’s remarkable life. He takes us to the author’s childhood home in Savannah, just off Lafayette Square, where in 1930 she was visited by a news cameraman “to record her buff Cochin bantam, the chicken she reputedly taught to walk backward.” While a chicken may have been the first bird to enhance her public profile, in her personal essay about the incident, The King of the Birds, O’Connor noted “My quest, whatever it was actually for, ended with peacocks.”
Her childhood penchant for reversing the accepted order of things might be read as nothing more than weird if attributed to another five-year-old. Because it is O’Connor, it may instead be viewed as one early hint of a creative sensibility which in time would create and coax characters into acting out challenging dilemmas of the human condition as she observed it. Biographer Gooch’s narrative is particularly astute when it comes to his evocation of how that sensibility recognized its own value and instinctively preserved itself within “a regulated and meticulously organized world within a world.”
Her tactics included the creation of poems, cartoons, and booklets in which she presented portraits of Edward O’Connor, her adored businessman father, and the resilient Regina Cline O’Connor, her mother. They also included somewhat restrained rebellions against the authority of the nuns, at St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls, whose job it was to help shape her character into one reflecting modern Catholic grace and values.
Loss and Suffering
Like nearly all Americans who grew up during the 1930s, Flannery O’Connor’s childhood was marked by the economic ravages of the Great Depression. Her father lost first his real estate business, then a succession of jobs until he was forced to accept a position in Atlanta in 1938 and moved his family to Milledgeville, where in time his daughter would become one of its most famous citizens. Even more notable than the family’s financial up and downs was Edward O’Connor’s death from lupus at the age of forty-five in 1941. His daughter was then fifteen.
Each turn of fate in Flannery O’Connor’s life as recounted by Gooch seems to have reinforced her personality with powerful measures of theological insight, focused creativity, and humor. A couple of years following her father’s death, she noted: “A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder.” Most people stop at the “grief” part and allow themselves to simply wallow in it until ready to move on. The mystery of the “wonder” continuously pushed O’Connor forward.
At the age of twenty-five, in December 1950, she was told she was suffering from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, but two years later learned her true condition had been hidden from her. Sally Fitzgerald, one of her closest friends, told her she was suffering from the same disease which had killed her father. By the time she learned her actual condition, she had already distinguished herself as an aspiring writer at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and as one from whom great things were expected at the renowned Yaddo Artists’ Colony. Her status as a professional author rested mostly on a number of short stories published in prestigious literary journals and on her now classic 1952 novel, Wise Blood, published just a month before learning about her medical fate.
Such “devastating knowledge” might have reduced another sensitive soul to a simmering puddle of depression from which they might never have recovered. As Gooch points out:
“She did not know whether she would be allotted the same three years of borrowed time as her father, following his diagnosis, or if indeed ‘the Scientist’ possessed a miracle cure. She had her doubts.
She also had her faith and intellectual passion, both of which helped her to confront the enemy known as lupus. (Gooch’s report on how doctors treated individuals with the disease in the 1950s is particularly interesting in light of the Food and Drug Administration’s 2011 approval of a drug called Benlysta as a treatment option; the authorization marked the first time in fifty-four years a new drug received such an endorsement.)
NEXT: The N-Word Factor: Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor (part 2)
Aberjhani is the author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savanna and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. He is also an accomplished artist & photographer.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.