Friday, November 3, 2017

Nina Simone is an American and So Am I (the final installment)

Chicago reintroduced me to Nina Simone the summer of 2013. When I found a best of album (The Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl 1967-1972), I discovered Nina's contribution to the civil rights movement and, subsequently, her slow disappearance into what I would later learn was bipolar disorder.

I waited tables that first year in the Windy City, and I would come home in the middle of the night, put in my headphones, and take Linus for long walks while I listened to music on Spotify.

I introduced myself to lots of artists that year because I had access, like I was getting away with something. To name a few, I explored the likes of Tupac, revisited the 90s, and stumbled upon Nina Simone's To Be Young Gifted and Black.I was growing up older, colder, and so was she.

I recall one evening hearing Mississippi Goddam for the first time.

Picket lines
School boycotts
They try to say it's a communist plot
All I want is equality
for my sister my brother my people and me

In the documentary, What Happened Miss Simone (Netflix 2015), there is footage of Simone asking Dr. Martin Luther King what to do with all her feelings of rage. He, of course, encouraged her to focus energy on the nonviolent protests that would later go down in history as true democracy in action. 

But they killed him. 

So she sang this song, raging in a glorious, vulnerable masterpiece that the time for silent protest was over. That it's taking too long. Moving too slow. 

And they ran her out of the country. She was destroyed politically and publicly. The beautiful black woman with the incredible voice was not singing the songs that everyone wanted to hear. 
She wasn't smiling or trying to be nice.

Today there are so many voices scrambling and screeching to be heard and so many lives lost to alcohol, pills, guns, and violence, corporate violence, that America is not what they told us it would be. Yet, "they," whoever they are, are still trying to tell us that we need to hold on...for freedom? For what America......was?

America enslaved, tortured, raped, and murdered, countless human beings. Take a day and listen to the words to songs like "Strange Fruit," and "Mississippi Goddam." Take a month....take a month that is longer than February, take two months, and listen to the voices of those that have been trying to play by a set of rules that offers them very little.

Just like rage that gets stuffed down for far too long, the urgency of the song builds:

You keep on saying "Go slow!" "Go slow!" But that's just the trouble...

"Do it slow,"
"Do it slow"
Mass participation
"Do it slow"
"Do it slow"
Do things gradually
"Do it slow"
But bring more tragedy
"Do it slow"
Why don't you see it
Why don't you feel it
I don't know
I don't know"

The "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality is impossible in a nation controlled by large corporations.

The lies about black crime told to make white girls afraid. The false masculinity of the disillusioned men who rape and take what they have literally been taught is "rightfully" theirs by design. The white boys and girls that scream "all lives matter" who have been told the lie that the Black Lives Matter movement is a personal attack. It is not.

And the churchgoers that voted for our current president and still try to talk to me about love that surpasses all understanding.

We have all been lied to. Why don't you see it? Why don't you feel it?

Nina Simone's family found her years later, drowning in depression. It's hard to see the world for what it is as an artist, as a lover of what human beings can create through expression, and keep going.

When you see the lost, the unloved, the broken, and the hated, all marginalized and demonized so that one group of people can say they are better or stronger, so that someone can claim ultimate power and final say, it's hard not to drown in hopelessness because what's the point?

And that is what is happening to this country. It is ignoring the rage that it is due. Because we have all been lied to, been distracted, been in love. The Bible teaches that only the Truth will set you free.

So we are all in prison. Quietly, comfortably, wasting away in a prison that we don't have to accept.

You cannot live a lie. You can try. You can surely try. But it will eat you up, destroy you from the inside out. You can dress it up, buy all the best treatments for gaping wounds, but it will kill you in the end.

It's too slow. The admitting of our sins. It's time to admit them.

How long can we live in the safe notion that if we keep quiet and pray about it, it will work itself out? We are the answer to our prayers. We are the present and the future. What we do...not say....not pray....but what we DO is the only thing that matters.

It's not time to let go and let God. It's time to stand up, and be counted. And it's time to start paying attention. Those who are living are suffering...including you.

I am a terrible vessel.

History is full of prophets that we've chased away because they did what we were terrified to do: be completely vulnerable. Like Nina Simone.

America wanted Nina Simone to pay for her "sins," while it continued to ignore the sins that would bring it...bring all of this point in history.

Maybe an angry black woman isn't the problem.

"Oh but this whole country is full of lies. You're all going to die and die like flies."

She said in an older interview, used in What Happened Miss Simone (Netflix 2015), that her biggest regret is not getting to play classical piano at Carnegie Hall. The interviewer was astonished. Nina Simone had played Carnegie Hall...but not classical piano. That means something to a musician, the dream of creating something beyond words in a space made for that very creation.

Instead, at Carnegie, she played what audiences wanted a black woman who could play and sing to play, and when they didn't like what she sang, they threw her in the fire, to burn.

And burn she did.

Before the truth can set you free, you need to know what it means to be free, but, more than that, you have to try to imagine what it means not to be.


Saturday, July 22, 2017


I've had a lot of time lately. To think. I spend hours in the sun, laughing at myself for the meager attempt at farming I've managed to scratch out of this wet hot American summer.

And I'm beginning to remember the tiniest of details in my story.

Like the bird's nest in the garden of our house in North London, Turnpike Lane, April. Saturday morning, the sun was out, and Liam and I were doing the Guardian crossword. We had already broken up, but we lived together, like we always did. I remember the baby birds, singing like they never sang before, and I was annoyed, suffocating.

I wanted to stand up and yell at him to make this work, to love me like I was willing to love him. But it was too hard. Always too hard.

Yet here we were. Like nothing had changed. Sipping coffee in the garden, listening to the screeching baby birds. Reading the fucking Guardian.

There are days I feel like I've been sitting on my hands for my entire life, listening to others map out a course that would be perfect for me, lists of things I should do, and biting my tongue.

The little girl me is kind of ticked off. Where did she go? Why did I tell her to get lost? When did depression find me? Huddled inside of myself, unable to tear down the walls in front of my own eyes.

And when I did begin to take the walls apart, I found that the clarity, thanks to my own imagination, was superb.

I probably punished Liam for a lot of things for which he was not responsible. It's okay, though, because I punished myself pretty hard with my next boyfriend, and even harder after that for punishing myself so hard with him. I mean, I liked my last boyfriend. We had some magical times, but we hurt each other pretty badly, and I surprised myself at the amount of total bullshit with which I was willing to put up just to feel like I had some semblance of the beginnings of a nuclear family to prove that I was, indeed, capable.

Yes. There was a time I took cute pictures with boys. 
Liam was good to me. Liam courted me. He wrote to me. He listened to me. He came to visit me. He stayed with me, gave as much as I gave. It wasn't perfect, and his list of cons is just as long. But that's the way it will be with everyone.

Plus, I was on the precipice of depression, untreated, and even I wasn't prepared for what was coming.

Every day I have to forgive myself. To remember that I am worth courting, worth chasing. Because I didn't believe it when it first happened to me, and I wasn't able to fully accept it.

The more I open up, however, slow down, breathe, half smile, speak softy to myself, the more I am able to remember those details and mine them for what they mean to me. What they can teach me.

On my last night in London, at the pub with the whole gang, my friend Paul asked me what the real reason behind all of my wandering was, and I don't even think I hesitated when I replied, " For my daughter, so she will wander further, live more fully, and be proud of me."

I may not have a daughter, or a son, but the message is still very clear.

Life continues. People are born and people die. Love is found and lost, and baby birds yell like little boys when they're waiting for breakfast in the back of some house in North London.

None of my experiences stand alone, and even the tiniest details, regardless of the circumstances, combine to comfort me when I feel lost, when I forget who I am and where I'm going.