It was, as James Baldwin had prophesied, the fire next time. America, in the summer of 1967, was ablaze; some of its major cities in a conflagration of rage. I had read about those fires and a little about the people burning shops and other businesses in their neighborhoods, but I was unaware of their relationship to me, or the consequences of their actions for me. All that mattered was that I had finally been able to obtain enough money to buy an airline ticket to come to America.
I was 19. I had ten American dollars left after I paid for the round-trip ticket from Trinidad to New York. I brought a scrap of paper with the name of an American social worker I had met three weeks before, two bottles of rum and a pint of pepper sauce. I had promised my father a television set and my sisters lots of Yankee clothes; I pledged to send money every payday to my mother.
Nobody in my family knew that in America, I intended to go to college and become a writer and a doctor. Had they known, they would have sent me to Saint Ann’s, the local madhouse, to have my head examined—for, having dropped out of secondary school three years earlier, I had no school-leaving certificates, no GCE passes, in any subject. But a week after I set foot in America, I met Nina Simone, and the dream that I had sheltered since I was four years old began its journey toward reality.
This is the story of that year in which I worked with Nina—and how she set me on the path that would lead to my becoming a writer, earning a Ph.D. and teaching African American Literature as well as creative writing. It is Nina’s story as well—of her journey from Tryon, North Carolina to Mount Vernon, New York, just down the road from Malcolm X’s widow, Dr. Betty Shabazz. More than anything else, it is the tale of the intersection of our lives, with seminal moments in the history of America’s Civil Rights Movement marked through Nina’s music.
Now that she is dead, they love her. Now that she is dead, they honor her. Now that she is dead, they build a bronze statue of her and place it at the railroad crossing in the heart of the town, sing to her loud praises, claim her as their own.
It’s a sunny day in February 2010. The Mayor of Tryon and local figures have come to unveil a statue of Nina Simone, the town’s most famous native. Among the invitees is Nina’s daughter, Lisa, whom I had last seen in Mount Vernon when she was four years old. Lisa hugs me and calls me “Auntie,” even though I know she does not remember me. She is gracious, warm and generous with her smiles to the people of a town in which her mother had suffered many indignities.
The last time she set eyes on Tryon, Nina’s body was riddled with cancer, and her memory of the days when they had hated her was slipping farther away. Like a good daughter, she had come to say a final farewell to her mother, but she had come armed with security guards in a limousine through which she could see but not be seen. In the church, she saw an old friend.
The man—this friend who had loved her since she was a small girl and he a boy, who had shared secrets with her his love of baseball and his wish play in the big leagues—sat that afternoon in the black leather folds of the limousine, and tried to help the girl he knew and still called Eunice remember her past. It one with small joys and massive sorrows, but he wanted her to be reminded of the good times, and how she had triumphed over the bad.
As they rode up and down the slopes of Tryon, that small town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Fred Counts pointed to the places he and Eunice had walked in their childhood. He told her bits of her unremembered story—the parts that she had blocked, perhaps, to save her soul. He told it, and she listened. As her friend Jimmy Baldwin had written many years before in his short 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 mother was buried in a grave on a hillside on the Black side of town, Nina, who used to be Eunice, chose to remember love—the big one that she had lost.
“We sat there and talked and talked and talked and we talked,” Counts told 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 could tell him, because she knew that he had known how much she had loved Abney Whitehead. Fred, after all, was always there, sometimes in the middle, at other times 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 trying to make up for the loss of that light-shinned man with that pretty hair when, in 1961, Nina married a man who could be similarly described? The past, as we know, is never prologue. It remains to haunt and taunt us, to cause us to find remedy in the present.
The songs of pain and sorrow, the blues that came out of her lips and fingertips—that was Nina trying to find a way to the clearing, to a place where she could find the kind of love she had felt for Abney. And peace. For the peace that would bring her contentment was always elusive.
She didn’t have it in 1963 when she sang:
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.
I was a 17-year-old high school dropout working in a cannery in Trinidad when Nina first sang that song. Forced to leave school when my mother could not pay the fees after my father went to live with another woman down the road, the only work I could find was to separate rotten peas from good ones in a chute filled with water.
In the three years that I had been able to stay in school, I had learned nothing about African American history or literature. I knew, though, that America was a great and mighty nation and that its soldiers were encamped in a place called Chaguaramas, near the beach at Carenage, just over the hill from the valley in which I was born. I knew, too, that America’s President, John F. Kennedy, was supposed to be a good man. I did not know why. There was much I did not know about America even though I had complete faith in the possibilities it held for my life.
I did not know that when Nina sang “Alabama’s gotten me so upset” that she was, most likely, referring to the tsunami of hate that people who looked like her had been enduring in America since most of them were first brought from West Africa. Neither was I aware that those words signified the pain she must have felt over the terrorizing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which had been bombed by white men; over the murder of four young girls that day, and the injuries that 20 other parishioners had suffered.
Oh, how that must have upset her, to the point where her only release was to cry, in song, about her rage. It was only one in a litany of misery that she could recount from her own childhood in Tryon, if she chose to remember.
Tennessee made me lose my rest. How could she, or any person in America with the color of her skin, get a good night’s sleep knowing that those men who had bombed that church in Alabama were members of a larger group called the Ku Klux Klan, spawned in Pulaski, Tennessee with the sole purpose of lynching and terrorizing people who looked like her—especially those who, like her and Fred, dared to dream of a life beyond the borders of segregation?
Working in that cannery, I, too, had dreamed of a world in which I would be able to attend college, become a writer, make a name for myself and return to my country in triumph—to tell the story of the doctor, a most important man, who had raped me when I was 12, and have somebody finally listen, and finally believe me.
My dream was to go to America, where all things were possible. All things were not possible, at least for people who looked like me, who dreamed, like Nina. But I did not know that. It was only in 1962, a year before Nina wrote Mississippi Goddam, that I found out that, like her ancestors, mine had been brought from West Africa and enslaved in the West Indies.
On the eve of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence from Britain, its first Prime Minister, an historian, had written the first History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. It was from that book that I came to know about slavery. Nina Simone was 29 years old in 1962, and she knew about enslavement—not because it had been taught to her as a crucial part of American history, but because she lived its legacy each day of her life.
Fred Counts knew, too, but to him it was such an normal aspect of life that he had ceased to think of it. Not his friend Eunice, though. Eunice always knew it was wrong; always felt it in her bones. Years later, Fred still marvels at her acumen as he tells me a story of an incident that occurred one afternoon when they were both about 12 years old.
She used to walk to music all the way over in Gillette Woods to Miz Mazzanovich. I would go in and do this half a day work for this lady in the yard across the way, and she would come right by coming from piano lessons. Then I would be getting off and we would walk down the street. There’s this drug store down there on the corner, Owens drugstore. As we walk by, I’d made a little money and I stop and buy us a soda. We were big buddies. So we walk on in the drugstore and I buy us a soda. We drank our sodas going down the hill because we couldn’t sit down and drink them inside. So we got down—we were just talking—but I noticed her mind just kept wandering, wandering.
I said: “What’s the matter?” We crossed the little bridge down where the stream ran on. She said: “You know we can’t be serving the same God.”
I said: “What you talking about?” She said: “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 won’t say the word. I think she had some divine gift or something that she saw through these things even when the rest of us kids just took it up as life.
We know now that she was certainly gifted, and we know that she knew she was. She was also complicated, and much of the dissonance that seeped through her could probably be attributed to what I, growing up as an island colonial under the Union Jack, did not know.
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam! Nina knew that the surname she had given Mississippi had been well-earned as a result of the indecencies that great state had heaped upon the human spirit. In 1962, Governor Ross Barnett called upon his people to join him in preventing a young man named James Meredith from enrolling at the University of Mississippi in defiance of the Circuit Court’s ruling that Meredith could be admitted, and the caution from President Kennedy and his Attorney General Robert Kennedy, that Meredith should be admitted.
In Mississippi Goddam, Nina reminds us of other atrocities: picket lines; school boycotts; the attempts by some to link the struggle for civil and human rights to a communist plot to take over America. Of all this I knew very little. Our newspapers carried very brief news of the desegregation battles being waged in America—of efforts by people calling themselves white, to repress and suppress those they designated as Black.
But even if I had known that those Black people were my people; that the hurts they experienced I, too, could suffer when I came to America, and that I would cease to be Miss Phillips daughter, that one who always has her head in a book, that one who sang calypso, who wrote poetry—my mother called them “poultry”—that the newspaper sometimes published; that I, in America, would become just “Black,” would I have given up my hope, my dream?
I came. And it was in coming that I came to understand what it means to be an African of the Americas. It was Nina, Empress of the Blues, who would be the one to teach me how to walk in this world—Black, proud and undaunted.