It was, as James Baldwin had prophesied, the hearth subsequent time. America, in the summertime of 1967, was ablaze; a few of its main cities in a conflagration of rage. I had examine these fires and somewhat concerning the individuals burning outlets and different companies of their neighborhoods, however I used to be unaware of their relationship to me, or the results of their actions for me. All that mattered was that I had lastly been capable of get hold of sufficient cash to purchase an airline ticket to return to America.
I used to be 19. I had ten American dollars left after I paid for the spherical-journey ticket from Trinidad to New York. I introduced a scrap of paper with the identify of an American social employee I had met three weeks earlier than, two bottles of rum and a pint of pepper sauce. I had promised my father a tv set and my sisters numerous Yankee garments; I pledged to ship cash each payday to my mom.
No one in my household knew that in America, I meant to go to school and develop into a author and a physician. Had they recognized, they might have despatched me to Saint Ann’s, the native madhouse, to have my head examined—for, having dropped out of secondary faculty three years earlier, I had no faculty-leaving certificates, no GCE passes, in any topic. However every week after I set foot in America, I met Nina Simone, and the dream that I had sheltered since I used to be 4 years previous started its journey towards actuality.
That is the story of that yr through which I labored with Nina—and the way she set me on the trail that might result in my turning into a author, incomes a Ph.D. and educating African American Literature in addition to artistic writing. It’s Nina’s story as properly—of her journey from Tryon, North Carolina to Mount Vernon, New York, simply down the street from Malcolm X’s widow, Dr. Betty Shabazz. Greater than anything, it’s the story of the intersection of our lives, with seminal moments within the historical past of America’s Civil Rights Motion marked by way of Nina’s music.
Now that she is lifeless, they love her. Now that she is lifeless, they honor her. Now that she is lifeless, they construct a bronze statue of her and place it on the railroad crossing within the coronary heart of the city, sing to her loud praises, declare her as their very own.
It’s a sunny day in February 2010. The Mayor of Tryon and native figures have come to unveil a statue of Nina Simone, the city’s most well-known native. Among the many invitees is Nina’s daughter, Lisa, whom I had final seen in Mount Vernon when she was 4 years previous. Lisa hugs me and calls me “Auntie,” although I do know she doesn’t keep in mind me. She is gracious, heat and beneficiant together with her smiles to the individuals of a city by which her mom had suffered many indignities.
The final time she set eyes on Tryon, Nina’s physique was riddled with most cancers, and her reminiscence of the times once they had hated her was slipping farther away. Like an excellent daughter, she had come to say a remaining farewell to her mom, however she had come armed with safety guards in a limousine via which she might see however not be seen. Within the church, she noticed an previous good friend.
The person—this pal who had beloved her since she was a small woman and he a boy, who had shared secrets and techniques together with her his love of baseball and his want play within the huge leagues—sat that afternoon within the black leather-based folds of the limousine, and tried to assist the woman he knew and nonetheless referred to as Eunice keep in mind her previous. It one with small joys and large sorrows, however he needed her to be reminded of the great occasions, and the way she had triumphed over the dangerous.
As they rode up and down the slopes of Tryon, that small city nestled within the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Fred Counts pointed to the locations he and Eunice had walked of their childhood. He advised her bits of her unremembered story—the elements that she had blocked, maybe, to save lots of her soul. He advised it, and she or he listened. As her good friend Jimmy Baldwin had written a few years earlier than in his brief story Sonny’s Blues: “While the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell; it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”
That afternoon, when her mom was buried in a grave on a hillside on the Black aspect of city, Nina, who was Eunice, selected to recollect love—the large one which she had misplaced.
“We sat there and talked and talked and talked and we talked,” Counts informed me. “It was lengthy, you know. But then she comes out with, ‘but I lost Abney.’ I think she got a little relief when she told me. She wouldn’t tell this to anybody.” She might inform him, as a result of she knew that he had recognized how a lot she had liked Abney Whitehead. Fred, in any case, was all the time there, typically within the center, at different occasions on the sidelines of Eunice’s life.
“He had the pretty hair, you know, and his skin was light brown. He liked to draw. She lost him to her next-door neighbor, Annie Mae.” Was she making an attempt to make up for the lack of that mild-shinned man with that fairly hair when, in 1961, Nina married a person who might be equally described? The previous, as we all know, isn’t prologue. It stays to hang-out and taunt us, to trigger us to seek out treatment within the current.
The songs of ache and sorrow, the blues that got here out of her lips and fingertips—that was Nina looking for a strategy to the clearing, to a spot the place she might discover the sort of love she had felt for Abney. And peace. For the peace that may deliver her contentment was all the time elusive.
She didn’t have it in 1963 when she sang:
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my relaxation
And everyone is aware of about Mississippi Goddam.
I used to be a 17-year-previous highschool dropout working in a cannery in Trinidad when Nina first sang that music. Pressured to go away faculty when my mom couldn’t pay the charges after my father went to reside with one other lady down the street, the one work I might discover was to separate rotten peas from good ones in a chute crammed with water.
Within the three years that I had been capable of keep in class, I had discovered nothing about African American historical past or literature. I knew, although, that America was an excellent and mighty nation and that its troopers have been encamped in a spot referred to as Chaguaramas, close to the seashore at Carenage, simply over the hill from the valley through which I used to be born. I knew, too, that America’s President, John F. Kennedy, was presupposed to be a great man. I didn’t know why. There was a lot I didn’t find out about America although I had full religion within the prospects it held for my life.
I didn’t know that when Nina sang “Alabama’s gotten me so upset” that she was, more than likely, referring to the tsunami of hate that individuals who appeared like her had been enduring in America since most of them have been first introduced from West Africa. Neither was I conscious that these phrases signified the ache she should have felt over the terrorizing of the 16th Road Baptist Church in Birmingham, which had been bombed by white males; over the homicide of 4 younger women that day, and the accidents that 20 different parishioners had suffered.
Oh, how that should have upset her, to the purpose the place her solely launch was to cry, in music, about her rage. It was just one in a litany of distress that she might recount from her personal childhood in Tryon, if she selected to recollect.
Tennessee made me lose my relaxation. How might she, or any individual in America with the colour of her pores and skin, get a great night time’s sleep figuring out that these males who had bombed that church in Alabama have been members of a bigger group referred to as the Ku Klux Klan, spawned in Pulaski, Tennessee with the only function of lynching and terrorizing individuals who seemed like her—particularly those that, like her and Fred, dared to dream of a life past the borders of segregation?
Working in that cannery, I, too, had dreamed of a world by which I might be capable of attend school, turn out to be a author, make a reputation for myself and return to my nation in triumph—to inform the story of the physician, a most essential man, who had raped me once I was 12, and have someone lastly pay attention, and eventually consider me.
My dream was to go to America, the place all issues have been potential. All issues weren’t potential, at the very least for individuals who appeared like me, who dreamed, like Nina. However I didn’t know that. It was solely in 1962, a yr earlier than Nina wrote Mississippi Goddam, that I came upon that, like her ancestors, mine had been introduced from West Africa and enslaved within the West Indies.
On the eve of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence from Britain, its first Prime Minister, an historian, had written the primary Historical past of the Individuals of Trinidad and Tobago. It was from that guide that I got here to find out about slavery. Nina Simone was 29 years previous in 1962, and she or he knew about enslavement—not as a result of it had been taught to her as an important a part of American historical past, however as a result of she lived its legacy every day of her life.
Fred Counts knew, too, however to him it was such an regular facet of life that he had ceased to think about it. Not his pal Eunice, although. Eunice all the time knew it was incorrect; all the time felt it in her bones. Years later, Fred nonetheless marvels at her acumen as he tells me a narrative of an incident that occurred one afternoon once they have been each about 12 years previous.
She used to stroll to music all the best way over in Gillette Woods to Miz Mazzanovich. I might go in and do that half a day work for this woman within the yard throughout the best way, and she or he would come proper by coming from piano classes. Then I might be getting off and we might stroll down the road. There’s this drug retailer down there on the nook, Owens drugstore. As we stroll by, I’d made just a little cash and I cease and purchase us a soda. We have been massive buddies. So we stroll on within the drugstore and I purchase us a soda. We drank our sodas taking place the hill as a result of we couldn’t sit down and drink them inside. So we acquired down—we have been simply speaking—however I observed her thoughts simply stored wandering, wandering.
I stated: “What’s the matter?” We crossed the little bridge down the place the stream ran on. She stated: “You know we can’t be serving the same God.”
I stated: “What you talking about?” She stated: “Well, we went in and bought us a soda in Owens Pharmacy. And they’re sitting there—it’s hot! And they’re sitting down under the Casablanca fans, enjoying theirs. We paid the same for ours and we have to drink ours from down the road. We can’t be serving the same god.”
At that age! At that age! See? I don’t know if she’s reincarnated or, I gained’t say the phrase. I feel she had some divine present or one thing that she noticed by way of this stuff even when the remainder of us youngsters simply took it up as life.
We all know now that she was definitely gifted, and we all know that she knew she was. She was additionally difficult, and far of the dissonance that seeped by way of her might in all probability be attributed to what I, rising up as an island colonial beneath the Union Jack, didn’t know.
Everyone is aware of about Mississippi Goddam! Nina knew that the surname she had given Mississippi had been nicely-earned because of the indecencies that nice state had heaped upon the human spirit. In 1962, Governor Ross Barnett referred to as upon his individuals to hitch him in stopping a younger man named James Meredith from enrolling on the College of Mississippi in defiance of the Circuit Courtroom’s ruling that Meredith might be admitted, and the warning from President Kennedy and his Lawyer Common Robert Kennedy, that Meredith must be admitted.
In Mississippi Goddam, Nina reminds us of different atrocities: picket strains; faculty boycotts; the makes an attempt by some to hyperlink the wrestle for civil and human rights to a communist plot to take over America. Of all this I knew little or no. Our newspapers carried very temporary information of the desegregation battles being waged in America—of efforts by individuals calling themselves white, to repress and suppress these they designated as Black.
However even when I had recognized that these Black individuals have been my individuals; that the hurts they skilled I, too, might endure once I got here to America, and that I might stop to be Miss Phillips daughter, that one who all the time has her head in a e-book, that one who sang calypso, who wrote poetry—my mom referred to as them “poultry”—that the newspaper typically revealed; that I, in America, would grow to be simply “Black,” would I’ve given up my hope, my dream?
I got here. And it was in coming that I got here to know what it means to be an African of the Americas. It was Nina, Empress of the Blues, who can be the one to show me the best way to stroll on this world—Black, proud and undaunted.
Brenda Flanagan is the Edward Armfield Senior Professor of English at Davidson School and an award-profitable novelist, essayist, poet and playwright. She has represented the U.S. as a cultural ambassador in 12 nations. Brenda emigrated to the U.S. in 1967 and went to work as an au pair for Nina Simone earlier than incomes her B.A., Masters and Ph.D at The College of Michigan, Ann Arbor.