Tag Archives: america

Miss Simone

When I look at Nina Simone, I see what is right with her, and what was wrong with the culture that surrounded her.

-Tanya Steele

When I was a girl, my dad would listen to Sunday Morning Classics with Hal Jackson every single weekend.  For many years, Sunday Morning Classics woke me early every Sunday and I have never been a morning person but I didn’t mind. Sunday Morning Classics is where I remember hearing Nina Simone’s “MY Baby Just Cares for me” for the first time. I was familiar with the tune because of the classic Channel commercial.  My adolescent imagination was enchanted by her voice and the sexiness it lent to this very French perfume. What she does on the piano in that song is beyond my words to describe. In fact, although the song itself is quite popular, it’s not her vocals but her piano solo that slays. She was after all a prodigy, classically trained in piano from a very young age.

I read her autobiography a few years ago and last night I watched the documentary “What Happened Miss Simone” on Netflix. I had problems with it. But I had problems with her autobiography as well.  I was disturbed to learn how her husband, Andrew Stroud had severely beaten her throughout their marriage as well as tied her up and raped her on one occasion. I was disturbed that she chose to stay with him but based on her mindset I can understand why she stayed.  It was also sad to see how Nina replicated this abusive behavior by beating her own daughter in later years. But again, I can understand why this happened as well.  It became apparent to me as I read her autobiography that Nina was perhaps not the most reliable account of her own life because she seemed only to pull selectively from the parts of her memory that did not require her to take any responsibility for her own negative behavior.

What disturbed me about the documentary was the reliance on her husband to describe her and her declining mental state without ever interjecting that he was responsible for so much of it. It was if you were listening to a perpetrator talk about the unfortunate abuse of their own victim. I was not against him being a part of the documentary but at no point was there any evidence that Liz Garbus sought to investigate him or what in his background had caused him to be such a violent man. Though the facts of his violence were stated, his character was never really called into question. He was called a bully for working her hard. Nina was called violent, angry, difficult, unpredictable, frightening, prone to mood swings and more.

But the violence began long before Andrew entered Nina’s life. And that I believe is what laid the foundation for her acceptance of his abuse. As a girl, Nina was “discovered” by two white women who witnessed her incredible piano playing talent in church where she lead services and followed sermons that her mother gave. Nina’s family allowed these white women to isolate her in their home for many hours a day in their home while they trained her to be that exceptional Black novelty, the first Black classical pianist in America.  Money was raised for her scholarship. Her lessons were paid for. She was treated well. But she was isolated, lonely, always on the outside of things and worst of all, she was forbidden by her parents to ever complain about racial prejudice or to admit that it had any effect on her life. I don’t know if it is possible to really grasp what a thing that is to endure for a black girl born in America in the 1930s but I do know that this was violence that began in the core of Nina’s emotional foundation. Being taken in by two white women who displayed human kindness while facing and witnessing the evils of racism by the same white faces in other situations,  feeling like an outsider in both Black and white circles because like a bird in a gilded cage, she was held to higher expectations, set apart from the group and worked so hard that she basically had no childhood and no healthy form of socialization with her own people.

In this White ruled world, Nina was chosen. She was supposed to feel lucky. But sadly she was tortured, angry and depressed for most of her life except for the rare moments on stage when she could as she said be “free.” And you could see it in her movement; hear it in her voice and the music she made. She was a force of nature and I don’t think she ever really felt understood by anyone. She only came close to being free when she was able to release her spirit on stage. And what she did on stage was beyond the result of careful rehearsal because she would change her performance up all the time. She was notoriously disciplined but she did not allow that to dictate her performance. It was as if she defied her own training or rather she would channel her classical training into something  deeply emotional and spiritual.

The music that made her a star was considered by her family and I’m sure to the two White women who plucked her out of seeming obscurity to be “The Devil’s music.”  How ironic. She had to change her name (her real name was Eunice Waymon) to protect her identity and fragment herself in order to do what came naturally to her. When Nina found deeper purpose as an artist in the Civil Rights movement and began writing protest songs, she was ostracized again by record companies who refused to play her records thereby cutting her off from means to support herself.

How do you not go mad in these circumstances?

So I was not crazy about this documentary. In fact, like Steele, I was disappointed even in the title, which seemed to suggest that Nina was somehow to blame for all that happened to her with no emphasis whatsoever on the impact of the culture of racism, denial and compartmentalization that eventually unraveled her. She didn’t go mad for no reason. No woman ever does. Certainly, no Black woman.

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Traveling While Black

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If we are to consider reading as a form of traveling then I have to think about the amount of times I can remember traveling while Black; reading books about the Black experience written by Black people.

When my husband and I travel anywhere,  we always seek out any other Black people who appear and immediately make contact with them.  Because, unless you’re only traveling to places where the native population is Black or of color, you’re usually surrounded predominantly by other traveling White identified people. The same often goes for literature.

I can remember the first work of adult fiction I read was Terry McMillan’s “Disappearing Acts.” I was in high school and felt so proud and smart and sassy carrying that book around and discussing it with all my friends who were reading it too. Never mind the fact that I didn’t relate to many of the character’s experiences. I didn’t care! This was the story of a modern day Black woman written by a Black woman who at the time was breaking ground for new up and coming Black female writers. I had learned so much about the lives of White American girls in Judy Blume novels, Ellen Conford, Francine Pascal, Paula Danziger and more. Notice how long that list of authors was? I could name many more. But with the exception of discovering Janetta Johns that fateful day in the Brooklyn Library R.I.F. club, I didn’t get a chance to travel in the mind and heart of a Black person again until Terry McMillan in the 90s.

Near the beginning of my senior year I discovered a love for the Harlem Renaissance writers. We read “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in on of my high school classes and I was just blown away by it. It was the first book I had ever read that was written completely in dialect. I became obsessed with James Baldwin who let me travel while Black, gay and female! He is fucking beyond. I think it was around this time that I became a more selective reader. I started to discover my favorite authors and understand different writing styles. I wouldn’t walk into a bookstore just looking for whatever caught my eye anymore. I went looking for Baldwin and Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison or collected essays of Black writers like Erotica Noir. I was now traveling while Black, Caribbean and sexy! LOL!

But as in all forms of popular media, there is always a lull in the popularity and mainstream promotion of Black writers and if you’re not vigilant, you won’t always go beyond the best selling table at Barnes & Noble which I can assure you without having stepped foot in one myself for over a week, will be filled with books by predominantly White authors.

Until recently, I myself had not read a book by a Black writer who was not dead since “Unburnable” which Life As I Know It recommended to me over a year ago. I was reading several non-fiction books and waiting like thousands of other eager fans for the next Murakami novel because to travel in a Murakami novel is to go places you cannot prepare yourself for. He is one of the most fearless and dedicated writers I have ever read. Who knows how long I would have floated about lazily in the comfort zone of my favorite authors if Life as I Know it had not also recommended “Americanah” to me? I don’t think I’ve ever traveled while Black like this before.

Ifemelu (A name I love by the way. I sometimes just say it out loud to myself ‘cause I’m American and different names fascinate me) is a woman, describing with Nigerian eyes the experience of being a Black Nigerian in America. Her observations of cultural distinctions, segregation, affectation and assimilation that occur for immigrants in America are personal, global and multi-layered. Nothing about it is purely black and white. She describes with accuracy, sensitivity and intelligence, places and customs and ways of speaking, as well as the subtle transition from national identity to racial identity that comes to define what it means to be Black or of color in America.

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”

The culture shock that occurs for Ifemelu in America with it’s systems of racialization, bad grammar defined as “English” and a litany of condescension and presumption from Whites, Blacks and Africans alike is reductive, traumatic, homogenizing and inevitable.   Some of her experiences read very familiarly to me because of stories my mother has always told me about coming to America for the first time from Trinidad. There are even experiences she relays that I can understand as someone who has never truly felt I belonged completely and solely to that strange and ever shifting definition of “Black American” in any but the most apparent of ways.

In a Cultural Diversity class I took years ago I learned about transnational migration and the term ethnic enclaves. It was the first time I fully understood that for immigrants coming to America or travelling back and forth from their homeland to America, these spaces (most familiar to me in the boroughs of New York City) were meant to insulate them from the often unwanted shock of watching their family be stripped completely of culture and nationality in order to become this thing called American. On the other hand some immigrants strive to emerge themselves fully and to leave all their cultural affectations  their accent, customs, an entire mindset and mannerism behind in order to get the best access to work and the possibility to create wealth and security for their children and children’s children. Those immigrants who can pass as “White” often benefit greatly from these opportunities. Unfortunately this doesn’t work out so well for immigrants with dark skin because what they inherit when they come to America is a racial classification that informs nothing but racist systems of oppression.

So far the most successful depiction of the shift in identity from nationality to Black Americanism is in Ifemelu’s description of her beloved nephew, Dike who is uprooted from Nigeria as a baby and raised by his mother, Ife’s Aunt,  in America. His only link to his national identity is his mother who among other things reinforces negative associations of Nigerian ways to him by only speaking the native language to him when she is very upset. This is something I believe Adichie mentions deliberately because she is aware of the long terms effects on the children of immigrants when they negatively and or exclusively associate native language with anger and shame.

This is how a non-American person can come to believe without being able to trace the origins of this belief that their own native culture is a thing to be dismissed and erased, to be replaced with one which will never regard them as anything other than marginalized and inferior transplants.

As I read “Americanah” and silently chant and root for ifemelu not to lose her culture completely, it occurs to me that she is perhaps gaining another kind of self along the way, and that because of her determination to be authentic and honest in her reflection, she is becoming something far greater than what can be categorized by either race or nationality and yet could not exist without these identities. Because nothing is perfect for her and her family in modern day Nigeria either. And she is honest and candid about conditions there as well. But to find any kind of home, you must first know from where it is you are coming.This is why Black Americans often suffer from the most unbearable, exhaustive and psychologically dysfunctional sense of displacement. This is also why it cannot be overstated that literacy, where America ranks as 15th in the world, is a massively indispensable tool both of evolution and revolution.

Lessons in Non-equality and Why Segregation Often Works: Part 1

Earth Life

Have I lost you already?

Well if not just bear with me. It’s going to take me a few entries to work up to my point here (and I do have one) and when discussing touchy subjects like segregation and “equality I’m a fan of starting out with relatively simple examples that are easy to grasp and that most of us would agree are typically universal truths.

Let’s start with life forms and eco systems. Most of us can agree that different life forms, plants, animals, trees, reptiles, insects require different sources of energy and environmental sustenance to survive and thrive. Right? There are some plants and animals that have been imported and breed in non-native regions so we also know it’s possible to see life which had its genesis in one region, say South America growing and thriving in another region of America.

When you visit most any major Botanical Garden in America you will see the hot climate desert plants in the greenhouse where the environment is kept arid and moist. Domestic Cacti plants are perhaps the easiest plants to take care of because they need very little water. You over water a cactus and you could kill it. On the opposite spectrum are those plants that have very specific needs. It may not be enough to just water them every day or twice a day and leave them in the sun. The Phalaenopsis Orchid is such a life form. It’s rumored to be the easiest orchid to care for but you do have to pay considerably more attention to caring for it than you would a small domesticated cactus plant.

Now let’s consider a root vegetable like the Beetroot. Root vegetables rely very heavily on nutrients that come from the earth so it can be naturally assumed that the soil they live in is treated differently than the soil in which Orchids and Cacti or generally grown.

Years ago, when I lived with my family in the Bronx, we had a nice sized plot of earth in the back yard in which we planted tomatoes and peppers and squash among other things. And I remember that because we did not plant the squash far enough away their long tangled vines choked out a lot of the tomatoes we had planted. We weren’t experts and hadn’t anticipated it. Squash needs a lot of space. Certain varieties have vines with fine and curly creeping tendrils. It’s not like they mean to suffocate other plants. It’s just the nature of the way they grow.

Now, those examples being given, can we agree that Orchids, Cacti and Beetroots are not equal? Yes, they are all plant life forms, but they require very different nutrients, amounts of light, water and food to survive.  I’m certain that any skilled botanist and or farmer would not advise planting cacti, orchids and Beetroot side by side either. But! They could probably survive under the same roof.

Okay, I’m going to give you the rest of the day to let all this sink in and then return tomorrow with part two.

You might be thinking: Is this chick really going to compare people to plant life?

Maybe…Stop jumping ahead!