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
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
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.
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.