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West Indian

Literature Conference (CFP)

Archiving Caribbean Literature and Popular Culture

The 35th Annual West Indian Literature Conference
Montego Bay, Jamaica
6-8 October 2016

photo credit: Image taken from page 52 of ‘British Possessions and Colonies.

photo credit: Image taken from page 52 of ‘British Possessions and Colonies.

CFP deadline: Proposals due 17 May 2016 to

Call for Papers
Caribbean literature and popular culture have benefited from technological innovations that facilitate the production, distribution, and consumption of literary and cultural texts. Critical and scholarly inquiry has been renewed by the expansion of canonical and archival possibilities. Digital archives have been established, such as the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC and the Caribbean Film Database. Digital access to Caribbean literary and cultural journals has been extended via mainstream academic databases such as Proquest, Project Muse, and JSTOR, online literary magazines and blogs, and the sale of Caribbean texts through online booksellers. The explosion of social media constitutes a new site of archival production. As the editors of The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literatureobserve, digital technologies enable “the extension of the Caribbean literary archive in both chronological directions at once.” Art forms such as film, theatre, music, dance, and fashion also benefit from this archival expansion. Access to a globalized Caribbean literary and cultural archive also generates new critical, theoretical, practical and ethical questions for critics, historians, and archivists regarding the sites of cultural production, consumption, and interpretation.

The 35th Annual West Indian Literature Conference highlights the significance of the archive in Caribbean literary and cultural studies. We invite papers that explore the centrality of the archive in Caribbean literature, and the conceptual, practical, spatial, and technological aspects of archival projects.

Papers might examine the following issues:

  • Archival Politics, Theories, and Methods
  • The Body as Archive
  • Digital Archiving and Caribbean Literature and Culture
  • Culture, Memory, and the Archive Literary
  • Archives and Publishing
  • Cultural Institutions and the Archive
  • Digital Caribbean 2.0: Social Media and the Caribbean Cultural Archive
  • Archives, Libraries, Exhibitions, Festivals
  • Creative Industries and the Archives
  • Archiving the Caribbean Diaspora
  • Vernacular Archives
  • Sound Archives
  • Visual Archives

Abstracts should not exceed 250 words in length, and should include (1) a title, (2) name, status and institutional affiliation of the presenter(s), (3) a contact email address, and (4) a mailing address. Please also let us know if you require any special equipment. Papers will be a maximum of twenty (20) minutes in length.

Abstracts or proposals for panels comprising three papers should be emailed by 17 May 2016 to

Above adapted from emailed announcement. See the original PDF here.









March 9, 2016

March 9, 2016













By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor 




TechNoir 01

Though anchored by fluttering guitars, distorted bass, and Jennifer Villa’s passionate voice, Technoir seems perpetually at risk of floating off. The burbling synths and glitchy effects that adorn the fittingly titled Soundstrokes EP are in a state of constant are with the earthlier elements. The tension between the two creates some of the EPs most compelling moments, as on the aggressive-yet soulful “Blame It” and the flamenco-inflected “Dirt.” Villa and guitarist-producer Alexandros Phoenix have a strong chemistry, weaving from atmospheric vocal effects to grounded alt-soul in a heartbeat. The whole EP is currently streaming on SoundCloud, as well as available for free download.

Alexandros Phoenix: acoustic, electric and baritone guitars, synths, beats and electronics
Jennifer Villa: voice and vocal effects
additional musicians – Nikos Finizio: bass (1,2,4,5) 
All songs written by Technoir
Arranged and produced by Alexandros Phoenix
Mixed and mastered by Gianluca Polizzi al Fabbrica Musicale Recording Studio, Genova
Artwork by Jennifer Villla and Alexandros Phoenix
Published by Fabbrica Musicale Edizioni




Mar 2016

Mar 2016




DJ Rahdu

supa soul sistas 01

Supa Soul Sisters V​.​1


by BamaLoveSoul


Put some soul in Women’s History Month with our latest mix of
female vocalists. DJ Rahdu throws down one hour of Classics,
Remixes, Flips, and Brand New joints featuring only women on
the mic for your listening pleasure. Tune in and bear witness to
wonderful women from around the world!


released March 6, 2016 Sacha Vee – GING
Yuna – Places to Go
Lion Babe – treat Me Like Fire
Sidibe – Maybe
Hidden Jazz Quartet – Soulosophy ft Bajka
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – I’m Not Gonna Cry
Quantic Soul Orchestra – Follow Me (Left & Right)
ft Alice Russell
Erykah Badu – Gave Me the Life (Singularis Flip)
Corinne Bailey Rae – Been to the Moon
Teedra Moses – Caught Up
Chief – Once in a Lifetime ft Les Nubians
Mental Abstrato – Mimo ft Tassia Reis
Cecilia Stalin – Aisha
KING – The Greatest
Sarah Williams White – No Man’s Land
Little Dragon – Pretty Girls (Tall Black Guy Remix)
Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura Band – Think Twice
(Marc Mac Remix) ft Danay & Carina
Jill Scott – Golden (Afro Street Remix)
Merry Clayton – Southern Man (Scrimshire Edit)
Kim Hill – Taxicab
a l l i e – Cross My Mind
Bri Blvck – Everything
Ayanna Charlene – Guilty
SOIA – I am, you are
Chantae Cann – Beauty Speaks
Iman Europe – Studio




photo by Alex Lear

photo by Alex Lear





our sister is thin. she is leading her whole family down the street. her four year old is just ahead of her. she and her little man, two year old malik, walk hand in hand behind skipping and giggling sekou. she is not paying any attention to things in the streets: the cars, trucks and busses whizzing by in both directions. they had missed the bus they needed. the evening was nice. warm. so why not walk and why not take a short cut down napoleon avenue, a thoroughfare what used to be one of white folks’ big streets? 


a camera swung innocently on her hip beneath the medium sized windbreaker, which enveloped her. although out of sight, the camera was at the ready because she liked to shoot. most of the time without film. she would “see” a scene. compose an artistic comment from a chance encounter. but not being able to afford as much film and processing as she would shoot if she had the green to match her ambition, she would just flash the camera and capture the still in her mind’s eye, the image frozen in her brain as the sound of the shutter-click indicated the shot was complete. some people did not understand taking pictures without film. they either were not deep into art or else they were not poor. but poor artists know, you’ve got to practice your art anyway you can.


cause she was on a family outing. listening to her boys be themselves. actually coming back from standing in line paying a bill and headed to the house that barely qualified as shelter, not to mention was a poor stand-in for a secure and loving place she could accurately call home. because her braids were in place and would not need rebraiding for another three or four months. because the essential bills were now paid. and she did have thirty dollars in her pocket for two weeks of food. because sekou was singing “space is the place…” his favorite sun ra song — oh, she was proud that sekou dug ra. i mean, what parent would not be proud of a four year old with the sensitivity to embrace sun ra? because she was making sure she was walking slow enough so that malik could keep up but fast enough so that sekou would not outdistance them. because malik was just getting over the flu and she kept hugging him from time to time both to cuddle and to take his temperature. because she was enjoying her kids. and had taken fifteen shots of them already today. the last one a little shaky because she didn’t use a flash and the shadows were getting long, which meant shooting at a slow shutter speed and her hand had shook a little as she focused on the look in malik’s eyes and saw the man whose seed spawned malik. the hand shake was not out of hate or even any particular rememberance of love or passion, but rather because this little man looked so much like that big half-a-man and she could not help but wonder would little man grow to become the whole man that the older man was destined never to be. she knew that was her task. to somehow teach these little sweet knuckleheads to become men, somehow, in the absence of a steady man on the scene. if you are a young woman. attractive but not gorgeous. black in color and consciousness. poor as a welfare queen, except not even food stamps stuffed into your bra. proud in the classic “we may not have much but we’re going to make it” way, estranged from your birth family because you have become, some-terrible-how, exactly what your upbringing and college education was supposed to prevent: a poor, single mother of two, head of household, fatherman long gone. if you have struggled with being a statistic for three or four years running. cooped yourself up. did odd jobs here and there. hung on by a thread. managed to hold on to your decency — i.e. declined to live off of ocassional dollars left on the bedside by dawgs who liked the way you jocked their dick — managed to stay physically clean of diseases (and you have found the easiest way to suffer sexual deprivation is to do without completely, except, of course, for the casual hand job in the tub or a particular good spliff of reefer every other week or so), so you’re clean and have managed to hold on to your pride. no begging back to mama. no buckling under to stern papa’s patriarchal nonsense. if you were wearing synthetic clothes even though you prefered cottons and wools. payless sneakers when rockport walkers were really what you needed, especially given that you walked most places you had to go–a buck a throw to ride the bus added up to a tremendous deficit in the pocketbook, and besides, it was usually three bucks to ride because it was cheaper to take family outings then to even think about paying one of the kids in the block to be a babysitter, besides what sense did it make to let kids who were little more than babies watch your babies? if you had finally sold some photos to some magazine for less than you hoped but for as much as you could expect, cashed the money at the corner, paid your electricity bill, paid the rent, and still had thirty dollars and change left over to buy food for two weeks until next payday, because of all of that, if you were shooting a photo of your youngest son and you saw the last man who dispassionately screwed over you staring out of your son’s two year old eyes, your hand would quiver too. all of the above is why her hand shook a little trying while squeezing off that slow-shutter-speed shot.


because of ruminating on all of that and because she just never would have expected it, she wasn’t paying attention to the brother walking toward her until he stopped in front of them. went down into his pocket and began pulling out a pistol that was so long it seemed like it took two hours for him to keep extracting it from its hiding place. he just kept coming up, up, up with that thing.


why was he showing her his gun? was all she could think of at first.


brother was tall but not overly tall. just regular ghetto brother tall. tall enough to be playing ball instead of pulling a gun on her. was moderately attractive, except she did not pay too much attention to his looks because she was faced with the fascination of a lethal weapon about to be aimed at her chest. he maybe weighted as much as her whole family — sekou was no more than forty-some pounds, malik was only about twenty-nine pounds, and she weighed ninety-eight pounds wringing wet — she had weighed herself the last time she took a bath at her girlfriend’s house, her girl friend, whom she hadn’t seen or talked to in months now, kept a scale next to the tub, so when she stepped out, it seemed like the obvious thing to do, to hop on the scale and give it a go, the scale registered ninety eight and a half pounds, she had deducted half a pound for the water dripping off her and for the towel she was clutching and rubbing across her body as she dried herself — so 98 plus let’s say 30 was 128 plus say 45 was 163, no 173, yeah, he looked to weigh 200 or so pounds. shit. he didn’t need no gun to rob her. he could have been like most men and just threw his weight around. but she couldn’t help paying attention to that gun.


a gun is a funny thing when it’s aimed at your chest, when it’s in the hands of somebody who doesn’t give a damn about your life, when it’s loaded and maybe also loaded is the person holding the piece. a gun is funny in the macarbe sense that even though she was a statistic of poverty she had never thought of herself as eligible to become a statistic of homicide until she was confronted by a little piece of specifically twisted metal, phallic shaped and capable of spewing a metal projectile that can rent flesh, shatter bone and easily cause fatal harm.


we had embraced when we met, the huge of my bear hug almost wrapped completely around her twice, my right hand on my left elbow, my left hand vice versa, her living flesh encased against my chest, i could feel her breathing, her small breasts, the slenderness of her back, the top of her head not fully up to my chin, she didn’t look sick or anything, or feel weak, but no one would mistake her for being at the top of her game, she had a semi-nervous gesture when i asked how she had been, both hands went to her hair and tugged the braids back on her head, hands over her ears like she didn’t want to hear the question, and she looked down, away from me, before answering that she was just kind of coming out of seclusion. while she made those silent sad gestures, i was thinking about her children being sequestered in a cramped shotgun double, and, of course, trying to be a bit sensitive, i didn’t ask how she was caring for her kids, i mean i was just another man who was not going to support her two young negro males, and if you ain’t going to solve the problem what right do you have to tell a young mother that she ought to take better care of her kids, doesn’t she know that every day she gets up, dresses them, feeds them, as best she can? i guess if i were she i too would have been in seclusion. and then she tells me that she almost got killed.


but that’s life in the waning moments of the 20th century, everybody is almost getting killed, life, especially in new orleans a recent statistical murder capital of metropolitan america, life is murder. i could tell from the quiet, unhysterical, deliberate, clearly ennuciated, without eye contact at first but then the quick glance up into my eyes, i could tell that life is sometimes death from the way she said the word for the day around our way: killed. i could tell this was not an exaggeration.


you know the old saying, what goes up must come down? it’s not the lift off that’s scary, nor the arcing descent, what is scary is surviving the crash. i’m beginning to understand the anxiety of survival. sort of like how it felt surviving the middle passage. what am i living for? how come i’m still alive? when friends and kin fall all around you, you wonder why you’re still standing. in this case, i was also wondering how she was still standing.


i mean it was difficult visualizing her on the sidewalk, pulling malik close to her with a firm hand that just moments ago was leisurely linked to his little palm. or how did sekou, big eyed and backed back against her thighs, how did he look while some original gangsta practiced his mayhem tactics on this family trio. sister got less than nothing–all the cash she will beg, borrow, earn and steal this year will not cover her annual debt, and some hardleg is trying to jack her up. what a tremendous disrespect for life this is. what kind of parasite would ripoff a whole family whose liquid cash is probably less than the cost of the bullets and the gun being used to rob them?


sister laughs nervously as she relates to me how big the gun was, pantomiming the gun being pulled on her, coming up out the dude’s pants, she uses her hand with finger and thumb stiff at a perpendicular angle and just keeps raising her hand higher and higher until it’s over her head. i imagine when all the money you’ve got is thirty dollars and it’s secreted on your person, and your two young boys are scrunched up against you silently waiting for you to do something, and there’s this big dude standing in front of you about to rob you or whatever, i imagine, at that moment, the gun do look like it will keep growing in size, bigger and bigger and bigger.


“i told him, you know you wrong for that. you see my kids…” 


i could not imagine being bold enough to tell a robber he’s wrong for robbing. but beneath the stress of crisis, she rose to protest the moment of her assault. 


“i had to tell him, man, you wrong for that. and then i kinda instinctively backed toward the street. before i knew it, we were standing in the street. a car came along. the driver hit his brakes. leaned on his horn. swerved around us and kept going. i was yelling at the car: stop, stop. the dude hollered at me: give me your money or i’ll shoot you. but by then i was standing in the middle of the street, my arms around my kids and then another car was coming. they was just going to have to hit me and my boys, or stop. fortunately the car stopped. i jerked on the passenger front door but it was locked. roll down your window, i begged. help me. please. help me. i pointed at the dude at the curb: that man is trying to kill us.”


i watched her unconsciouly re-enact the escape as she narrated the scenario of resistance to assault. the unsentimental starkness of her words connected me to her like a fishhook in the flesh, each syllable held fast and pulled me closer because it hurt to back away from her. when i had asked how she had been, i had no idea how near she had come to not being and how out of it i would feel as she related to me the tale of her near demise. 


although each one of her quiet words conjured up an image in my mind, everything i was thinking was abstract compared to the knot of feelings wrenching my gut as i stood transfixed by the mesmerizing sight of her pantomime, her body jerking through the survival motions: the desperate pulling at the car door, her braids thrashing as she frantically grasped for an opening; the fearless pointing at the assailant, her arm extended, ending in an accusatory finger aimed at some spot to the right of me; the protective collecting of her children, the hugging of open space with right arm and left arm, the hunching over, making a shield out of her body. i was hearing her words with one mind and watching her body with another mind, and both minds were marveling at what they witnessed. she sang and she danced. her words were warrior song, her motions, warrior steps. and yet she was unarmed, all she was doing was defending, defending her right to be, to be woman, to be mother, to be walking down the street with her children. you know we’re in bad shape when a single mother and two children are viewed as easy prey, when a literally poor woman who obviously doesn’t have big bucks can’t take a family stroll through the afternoon without one of her brothers pulling a gun on her, threatening murder, demanding her money or her life.


i was simply standing there listening to her story, painfully aware that i was doing nothing but listening. she was not only doing the work of telling the tale, she had also first done the work of surviving the murderous maze of choices facing her that fatefilled afternoon. when a robber puts a gun in your face, most people’s minds shut down and they become incapable of making calculated decisions, incapable of making any decision. most people freeze up and simply do what they are told. but this sister in the flash of a few seconds figured out how to be a survivor. threaded through the labyrinth of violence and somehow found a path to avoid the palpable possibility of getting murdered. this sister refused to go silently into the book of urban armed robbery and homocide. 


i was emotionally exhausted as she continued the story of a murder that didn’t happen. since she was here telling me about it, i knew that the story did not end with her murder, but as she revived the terror of the moment with the sound of her voice and the intensity of her movements, i felt the helpless chill of realizing just how fragile we all are in confronting the callous brutalities of contemporary life. 


even though it would have been a tragedy had she been shot, the greater shame is that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, unbelievable about this story. if i didn’t know it before, i knew it now: the realities of late 20th century new orleans had predisposed me to accept murder as a normal way of life. i wondered what i would have done had i actually been a witness to the attempted robbery. how would i have reacted if i were a passerby? would i have driven away, like the driver of the first car that almost hit them, or would i have simply stood motionless as a tree witnessing a black on black lynching, a black man assaulting a black woman?


“it was an older black man at the wheel of the car that stopped. i pounded on the window. i looked over my shoulder at the dude standing on the curb with the gun still out. please, help us, i shouted. the man unlocked his door. i pushed my kids in first.”


then she addressed me. reminded me that i was not innocently an uninvolved spectator. by directly addressing me, she did not allow me the simple escape of observing her as though she was a television or a movie screen. she reminded me that i, a man, was looking at her, a woman. what was the relationship of my manhood to her? as “a man” i could be a perpretator or i could be a helpmate. she reminded me that manhood was no abstract choice. day to day, incident to incident, relation to relation, one on one, one to many, one to none, each man had to choose how he related to each woman. i didn’t say anything as she interrupted the narrative flow, looked directly at me and made a parenthetical remark as she continued. what could i say? 


“man, it was some shit like in a movie. it was happening so fast. but what was i going to do? i didn’t want my kids to see me getting shot or nothing. or whatever that man with the gun intended to do to me.” the awfulness of “whatever” hung in the air like the scent of foulness in a slaughterhouse. i said nothing and just waited for her to hurry up and get away from the man with the gun.


“at first i was going to tell the kids to run but they wouldn’t move. they just kept clinging to me. so when i pushed them out into the street, they kinda was resisting. but it was the street and maybe getting run over by a car or else standing still and getting robbed and maybe getting shot. lucky for us, a car stopped. so after i got the kids in the car, i jumped in behind the kids. the man who was driving asked me what was wrong. i said just drive please. please drive. and he drove off. i didn’t even look back. to this day i couldn’t really describe that dude to you, but i can still see that big-ass gun.”


and then it was over. she stopped talking. went into herself for a second or so to lock down whatever emotions that retelling and reliving the tale had set loose. 


once she was back to the present, she looked up and into me in real time, swung her attention to my presence and calmly met my gaze without the terror of the past beclouding her bright brown eyes. she was no longer back at the scene of the crime, she was now standing in safety before me, a slight, very slight, smile creasing her face. silent. and then she said: “i’m alright now, but i been kind of staying inside, yaknow.” and then she giggled nervously. i mumbled something about being glad that she was ok, and then recognizing that i had nothing substantial to add, i changed the subject.


days later, i find myself facing the question: what are you going to do about it? it’s over but it’s not over. murder marches on. armed robbery careens through our community unabated. no matter how i twist the combination of causes and effects, proactions and reactions, i don’t come up with any great new insights into the problem. 


in terms of dealing with our very real social problems, i am a beggar standing lonely outside a banquet of the damned. i don’t possess any secret solutions or even any short term suggestions. but i know i must say something. so i raise up these few words and shout out to all my brothers: hey, my brothers, if you see a young sister, reed thin, dark skinned, walking down the street with two big-eyed kids, hey, please don’t fuck with them. and brotherman, if you find them in trouble, please help them. that’s the least a human being can do. help, and, most certainly, do no harm.


—kalamu ya salaam












Black by Choice

by Nick Douglas


pinchback 01

If I were you, Pink, I would not let my ambition die. I would seek to rise and not in that class either but I would take my position in the world as a white man as you are and let the other go for be assured of this as the other you will never get your rights.”

This was the stark message that Pinckney Benton Stewart (P.B.S.) Pinchback received from his sister in 1863. She had made the brutal judgment that Pinchback would never be able to attain his goals as a black man, but could succeed as a white man. 

Luckily for black America, Pinchback did not follow her advice. Instead he took the powerful path of achieving his ambitions as a black man. 

Pinchback made history by serving as Louisiana’s first and last black governor during Reconstruction. He was a champion for black education in Louisiana and helped obtain the grant to establish Southern University. His legal maneuvering and tactics helped bring the Plessy v Ferguson case challenging segregation to the Supreme Court. 

Pinchback’s personal story is as interesting as his public life. It highlights the cooperation, coexistence and clashes of blacks and whites in the U.S. during his lifetime.  

Pinkney Pinchback was born free in Macon, Georgia in 1837. His mother Eliza Stewart was a slave who had been freed by his father, the white slaveholder Major William Pinchback in 1836. Eliza and William Pinchback would have 10 children together, while at the same time Pinchback had a white family.  In 1837 Pinchback moved both his families to a plantation in Mississippi. Pinkney and his brother were sent to private school in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

When Pinckney was 11 years old his father died. His mother Eliza, fearing that William Pinchback’s white widow might try to claim Eliza’s children as her slaves, fled to the free state of Ohio after his death. In 1842 Mississippi had forced all free people of color to leave the state or to be re-enslaved fearing they might insight slaves to rebel. It seems likely the Pickney’s mother Eliza Stewart, fled because her conditional freedom and the freedom of her children was dependent on their father, William Pinkney’s protection. With his mother and his other siblings safely in Ohio, Pinkney left school at age 12 to help support his family. He worked as a cabin boy and a hotel porter.

In 1860 Pinchback married Nina Emily Hawthorne, a free woman of color, in New Orleans. In 1862 he made his way to New Orleans after its capture by the Union Army. In 1863 he joined the Union Army, was commissioned captain of the all-black 1st Native Guard Regiment and helped raise several companies of soldiers. Pinchback resigned his commission, as did other black officers in the Native Guard, due to being passed over for promotion and poor treatment at the hands of white officers.


After the war Pinchback became active in the Republican Party. The landscape of Louisiana politics was volatile during Reconstruction. Pinchback was elected to the Louisiana State Senate, where he became Senate president. He became Lieutenant Governor when Louisiana’s first black elected lieutenant governor Oscar Dunn died in office. Pinchback served as the first and only black governor of Louisiana for 15 days while Governor Henry Warmouth answered to an impeachment inquest board.  It would be more than one hundred years, 1990, before another black man, Douglas Wilder, would be elected and serve as governor of the state of Virginia.


The 1872 elections in Louisiana were marred by massive fraud, collusion and intimidation by the White League, a military arm of the Democratic Party used to disenfranchise black voters.  In 1873 Pinchback was elected to Congress. Pinchback’s congressional seat was disputed and the dispute was not settled for some years afterwards. Eventually it was given to William Kellogg. 

In early 1872 Pinchback purchased the bi-weekly New Orleans newspaper the Louisianan, a black weekly newspaper, which he published until 1879. He used the paper to promote his political views.  


During this time two prominent black Alabama legislators, Jeremiah Haralson and James Rapier, voted to condemn all legislators who had opposed Ulysses S. Grant in that year’s election. The motion would have condemned Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Senator who had opposed Grant and his conciliatory stance towards Rebel states. Sumner advocated full civil rights for all former slaves as a condition of readmission to the Union.  Sumner had devoted his life to the abolition of slavery and advocating for black civil rights and equality and Pinchback refused to vote to condemn him. 

In addition to being heavily involved in national politics, Pinchback became a champion for black education in Louisiana. He served as the director of New Orleans Public Schools and on the Louisiana State Board of Education. He is credited for gaining support to found Southern University in 1880. 

In 1885 Pinchbank studied law at Straight University, a school founded to help educate former slaves in New Orleans, which later became part of Dillard University.  He was admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1886. Pinchbank joined the Comité des Citoyens in the 1890s, which launched the Plessy v Ferguson case, the legal challenge to segregation which wound up in the Supreme Court.

The legal team from the Comité des Citoyens argument before the court failed. Their challenge to segregation was denied by the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling in 1896.  In 1898, Louisiana passed a new state constitution which disenfranchised black voters for decades. Numerous Southern states joined Louisiana in systematically disenfranchising and discriminating against people of color. Race relations reached its nadir after the turn of the century with vicious attacks on blacks throughout the nation. These attacks helped to bring about the formation of the NAACP in 1908 and set the U.S. on course for the massive civil rights actions of the 1950s and 1960s. 


In 1892 Pinchback moved to Washington, D.C. with his family, where he lived the rest of his life. He died in 1921 and was returned to Louisiana and buried in Metairie Cemetery. Pinchback’s grandson, Jean Toomer, was a well-known author and poet during the Harlem Renaissance. 

Pinchbank’s appearance could have easily allowed him to pass as white and live a successful life as a white man. Some of his family members encouraged him to do just that. He could have avoided all the racial barriers set up by white Americans to thwart black ambitions and success. When asked which heritage he drew upon as a source of pride, Pinchback replied, “I don’t think the question is a legitimate one, as I have no control over the matter. A man’s pride I regard as born of his associations, and mine is, perhaps, no exception to the rule.” Instead he became a hugely successful leader and a role model for many black Americans. His story and the varied stories of other black legislators who fought for civil rights and equality after the Civil War and during Reconstruction needs to be shared with all Americans.

Nick Douglas is author of: Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. Available on




Feb. 29, 2016

Feb. 29, 2016




The Weight of

James Arthur


baldwin 01

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah travels to
James Baldwin’s home in
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, and
examines the impact of a writer
whose legacy cannot be erased.



By BuzzFeed Contributor



It was an acquaintance’s idea to go there, to James Baldwin’s house. He knew from living in Paris that Baldwin’s old place, the house where he died, was near an elegant, renowned hotel in the Cote D’Azur region of France. He said both places were situated in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a medieval-era walled village that was scenic enough to warrant the visit. He said we could go to Baldwin’s house and then walk up the road for drinks at the hotel bar where the writer used to drink in the evening. He said we would make a day of it, that I wouldn’t regret it.

For the first time in my life I was earning a bit of money from my writing, and since I was in London anyway for work and family obligations I decided to take the train over to Nice to meet him. But I remained apprehensive. Having even a tiny bit of disposable cash was very new and bizarre to me. It had been years since I had I bought myself truly new clothes, years since going to a cash machine to check my balance hadn’t warranted a sense of impending doom, and years since I hadn’t on occasion regretted even going to college, because it was increasingly evident that I would never be able to pay back my loans. There were many nights where I lay awake turning over in my mind the inevitable — that soon Sallie Mae or some faceless, cruel moneylender with a blues song–type name would take my mother’s home (she had co-signed for me) and thus render my family homeless. In my mind, three generations of progress would be undone by my vain commitment to tell stories about black people in a country where the black narrative was a quixotic notion at best. If I knew anything about being black in America it was that nothing was guaranteed, you couldn’t count on anything, and all that was certain for most of us was a black death. In my mind, a black death was a slow death, the accumulation of insults, injuries, neglect, second-rate health care, high blood pressure, and stress, no time for self-care, no time to sigh, and, in the end, the inevitable, the erasing of memory. I wanted to write against this, and so I was writing a history of the people I did not want to forget. And I loved it; nothing else mattered, because I was remembering, I was staving off death.

So I was in London when a check with four digits and one comma hit my account. It wasn’t much but to me it seemed enormous. I decided if I was going to spend any money, something I was reluctant, if not petrified, to do, at the very least I would feel best about spending it on James Baldwin. After all, my connection to him was an unspoken hoodoo-ish belief that he had been the high priest in charge of my prayer of being a black person who wanted to exist on books and words alone. It was a deification that was fostered years before during a publishing internship at a magazine. During the lonely week I had spent in the storeroom of the magazine’s editorial office organizing the archives from 1870 to 2005, I had found time to pray intensely at the altar of Baldwin. I had asked him to grant me endurance and enough fight so that I could exit that storeroom with my confidence intact. I told him what all writers chant to keep on, that I had a story to tell. But later, away from all of that, I quietly felt repelled by him — as if he were a home I had to leave to become my own. Instead, I spent years immersing myself in the books of Sergei Dovlatov, Vivian Gornick, Henry Dumas, Sei Shogonan, Madeline L’Engle, and Octavia Butler. Baldwin didn’t need my prayers — he had the praise of the entire world.

Sophie Bassouls / Corbis

Sophie Bassouls / Corbis

I still liked Baldwin but in a divested way, the way that anyone who writes and aspires to write well does. When people asked me my opinion on him I told them the truth: that Baldwin had set the stage for every American essayist who came after him with his 1955 essay collection Notes of a Native Son. One didn’t need to worship him, or desire to emulate him, to know this and respect him for it. And yet, for me, there had always been something slightly off-putting about him — the strangely accented, ponderous way he spoke in the interviews I watched; the lofty, “theatrical” way in which he appeared in “Good Citizens,” an essay by Joan Didion, as the bored, above-it-all figure that white people revered because he could stay collected. What I resented about Baldwin wasn’t even his fault. I didn’t like the way many men who only cared about Ali, Coltrane, and Obama praised him as the black authorial exception. I didn’t like how every essay about race cited him. How they felt comfortable, as he described it, talking to him (and about him) “absolutely bathed in a bubble bath of self-congratulation.”

James Baldwin and my grandfather were four years apart in age, but Baldwin, as he was taught to me, had escaped to France and avoided his birth-righted fate, whereas millions of black men his age had not. It seemed easy enough to fly in from France to protest and march, whereas it seemed straight hellish to live in the States with no ticket out. It seemed to me that Baldwin had written himself into the world — and I wasn’t sure what that meant in terms of his allegiances to our interiors as an everyday, unglamorous slog.

So even now I have no idea why I went. Why I took that high-speed train past the sheep farms and the French countryside, past the brick villages and stone aqueducts, until the green hills faded and grew into Marseille’s tall, dusky pink apartments and the bucolic steppes gave way to blue water where yachts and topless women with leather for skin were parked on the beaches.

It was on that train that I had time to consider the first time Baldwin had loomed large for me. It had occurred 10 years earlier, when I was accepted as an intern at one of the oldest magazines in the country. I had found out about the magazine only a few months before. A friend who let me borrow an issue made my introduction, but only after he spent almost 20 minutes questioning the quality of my high school education. How could I have never heard of such an influential magazine? I got rid of the friend and kept his copy.

During my train ride into Manhattan on my first day, I kept telling myself that I really had no reason to be nervous; after all, I had proven my capability not just once but twice. Because the internship was unpaid I had to decline my initial acceptance to instead take a summer job and then reapplied later. When I arrived at the magazine’s offices, the first thing I noticed was the stark futuristic whiteness. The entire place was a brilliant white, except for the tight, gray carpeting.

The senior and associate editors’ offices had sliding glass doors and the rest of the floor was divided into white-walled cubicles for the assistant editors and interns. The windows in the office looked out over the city, and through the filmy morning haze I could see the cobalt blue of one of the city’s bridges and the water tanks that spotted some of the city’s roofs. The setting, the height, and the spectacular view were not lost on me. I had never before had any real business in a skyscraper.

Each intern group consisted of four people; my group also included a recent Brown grad, a hippie-ish food writer from the West Coast, and a dapper Ivy League sort of mixed-race Southeast Asian descent. We spent the first part of the day learning our duties, which included finding statistics, assisting the editors with the magazine’s features, fact-checking, and reading submissions. Throughout the day various editors stopped by and made introductions. Sometime after lunch the office manager came into our cubicle and told us she was cleaning out the communal fridge and that we were welcome to grab whatever was in it. Eager to scavenge a free midday snack, we decided to take her up on the offer. As we walked down the hall the Princeton grad joked that because he and I were the only brown folks around we should be careful about taking any food because they might say we were looting. I had forgotten about Hurricane Katrina, the tragedy of that week, during the day’s bustle, and somehow I had also allowed the fact that I am black to fade to the back of my thoughts, behind my stress and excitement. It was then that I was smacked with the realization that the walls weren’t the only unusually white entities in the office — the editorial staff was strangely all white as well.

Because we were interns, neophytes, we spent the first week getting acquainted with each other and the inner workings of the magazine. Sometime towards the end of my first week, a chatty senior editor approached me in the corridor. During the course of our conversation I was informed that I was (almost certainly) the first black person to ever intern at the magazine and that there had never been any black editors. I laughed it off awkwardly only because I had no idea of what to say. I was too shocked. At the time of my internship the magazine was more than 150 years old. It was a real Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner moment. Except that I, being a child of the ’80s, had never watched the film in its entirety, I just knew it starred Sidney Poitier as a young, educated black man who goes to meet his white wife’s parents in the 1960s.

When my conversation with the talkative editor ended I walked back to my desk and decided to just forget about it. Besides, I reasoned, it was very possible that the editor was just absent-minded. I tried to forget it myself but I could not, and finally I casually asked another editor if it was true. He told me he thought there had been an Algerian-Italian girl many years ago, but he was not certain if she really “counted” as black. When I asked how that could be possible, I was told that the lack of diversity was due to the lack of applications from people of color. As awkward as these comments were, they were made in the spirit of oblivious commonwealth. It was office chatter meant to make me feel like one of the gang, but instead of comforting my concerns it made me feel like an absolute oddity.

On good days, being the first black intern meant doing my work quickly and sounding extra witty around the water cooler; it meant I was chipping away at the glass ceiling that seemed to top most of the literary world. But on bad days I gagged on my resentment and furiously wondered why I was selected. I became paranoid that I was merely a product of affirmative action, even though I knew wasn’t. I hadn’t mentioned my race in either of my two accepted applications. Still, I never felt like I was actually good enough. And with my family and friends so proud of me, I felt like I could not burst their bubble with my insecurity and trepidation.

So when I was the only intern asked by a top editor to do physical labor and reorganize all of the old copies of the magazine in the freezing, dusty storeroom, I fretted in private. Was I asked because of my race or because that was merely one of my duties as the intern-at-large? There was no way to tell. I found myself most at ease with the other interns and the staff that did not work on the editorial side of the magazine: the security guards, the delivery guys, the office manager, and the folks at the front desk. Within them the United Nations was almost represented. With them, I did not have to worry that one word pronounced wrong or one reference not known would reflect not just poorly on me but also on any black person who might apply after me. 

In 1965, James Baldwin was paid $350 for an essay that is now legend. 

I also didn’t have to worry about that in that storeroom. I vexingly realized three things spending a week in the back of that dismal room. That yes, I was the only intern asked to do manual labor, but I was surrounded by 150 years of the greatest American essays ever written, so I read them cover to cover. And I discovered that besides the physical archives and magazines stored there, the storeroom was also home to the old index card invoices that its writers used to file. In between my filing duties, I spent time searching those cards, and the one that was most precious to me was Baldwin’s. In 1965, he was paid $350 for an essay that is now legend. The check went to his agent’s office. There was nothing particularly spectacular about the faintly yellowed card except that its routineness suggested a kind of normalcy. It looped a great man back to the earth for me. And in that moment, Baldwin’s eminence was a gift. He had made it out of the storeroom. He had taken a steamer away from being driven mad from maltreatment. His excellence had moved him beyond the realm of physical labor. He had disentangled himself from being treated like someone who was worth-less or questioning his worth. And better yet, Baldwin was so good they wanted to preserve his memory. Baldwin joined the pantheon of black people who were from that instructional generation of civil rights fighters, and I would look at that card every day of my week down there.

What makes us want to run away? Or go searching for a life away from ours? The term “black refugees” applies most specifically to the black American men and women who escaped in 1812 to the British navy’s boats and were later taken to freedom in Nova Scotia and Trinidad, but don’t many of us feel like black refugees. Baldwin called these feelings, the sense of displacement and loss that many Black Americans ponder, the “heavy” questions, and heavy they are indeed. Sometime in early ’50s, after being roughed up and harassed by the FBI, James Baldwin realized that while he “loved” his country, he “could not respect it.” He wrote that he “could not, upon my soul, be reconciled to my country as it was.” To survive he would have to find an exit. On the train to Baldwin’s house I thought more about that earlier generation and about the seemingly vast divide between Baldwin and my grandfather. They had very little in common, except they were of the same era, the same race, and were both fearless men, which in black America actually says a lot. Whereas Baldwin spent his life writing against a canon, writing himself into the canon, a black man recording the Homeric legend of his life himself, my grandfather simply wanted to live with dignity.

It must have been hard then to die the way my grandfather did. I imagine it is not the ending that he expected when he left Louisiana and moved to Watts — to a small, white house near 99th Street and Success Avenue. After his death, I went back to the house in Watts that he had been forced to return to, broke and burned out of his home, and gathered what almost 90 years of black life in America had amounted to for him: a notice saying that his insurance claim from the fire had been denied, two glazed clay bowls, and his hammer (he was a carpenter). My grandfather had worked hard but had made next to nothing. I took a picture of the wall that my grandfather built during his first month in LA. It was old, cracked, jagged, not pretty at all, but at the time, it was the best evidence I had that my grandfather had ever been here. And as I scattered his ashes near the Hollywood Park racetrack, because he loved horses and had always remained a country boy at heart, I realized that the dust in my hands was the entirety of my inheritance from him. And until recently, I used to carry that memory and his demand for optimism around like an amulet divested of its power, because I had no idea what to do with it. What Baldwin understood, and my grandfather preferred not to focus on, is that to be black in America is to have the demand for dignity be at absolute odds with the national anthem.

From the outside, Baldwin’s house looks ethereal. The saltwater air from the Mediterranean acts like a delicate scrim over the heat and the horizon, and the dry, craggy yard is wide and long and tall with cypress trees. I had prepared for the day by watching clips of him in his gardens. I read about the medieval frescos that had once lined the dining room. I imagined the dinners he had hosted for Josephine Baker and Beauford Delaney under a trellis of creeping vines and grape arbors. I imagined a house full of books and life.

Scenes from James Baldwin’s home in the south of France. 

Photos by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

baldwin 04 baldwin 05 baldwin 06


I fell in love with Baldwin all over again in France. There I found out that Baldwin didn’t go to France because he was full of naïve, empty admiration for Europe; as he once said in an interview: “If I were twenty-four now, I don’t know if and where I would go. I don’t know if I would go to France, I might go to Africa. You must remember when I was twenty-four there was really no Africa to go to, except Liberia. Now, though, a kid now … well, you see, something has happened which no one has really noticed, but it’s very important: Europe is no longer a frame of reference, a standard-bearer, the classic model for literature and for civilization. It’s not the measuring stick. There are other standards in the world.”

Baldwin left the States for the primary reason that all emigrants do — because anywhere seems better than home. This freedom-seeking gay man, who deeply loved his sisters and brothers — biological and metaphorical — never left them at all. In France, I saw that Baldwin didn’t live the life of a wealthy man, but he did live the life of man who wanted to travel, to erect an estate of his own design, and write as an outsider, alone in silence. He had preserved himself.

Baldwin left the States for the primary reason that all emigrants do — because anywhere seems better than home.

Decades after Baldwin’s death in 1987, what I found left behind in his house was something similar to what I saw as we waded through my grandfather’s house after it had burned down. In both houses, I found mail strewn in dirt piles in rooms that no longer had doors or windowpanes, and entryways nailed over to prevent trespassers like us. In each case, someone had clearly forced entry in order to drink beer. In Baldwin’s house, the scattered, empty beer cans were recent additions, as were the construction postings from a company tasked with tearing it down. So that nothing would remain. No remembrance of the past. In both places there was not even the sense that a great man had once lived there.

James Baldwin lived in his house for more than 25 years, and all that was left were half a dozen pink teacups and turquoise saucers buried by the house’s rear wall, a chipped fresco on a crumbling wall, and orange trees that were heavy with fruit bitter and sharp to the taste. We see Baldwin’s name in connection to the present condition more often than we see Faulkner’s, Whitman’s, or Thoreau’s. But we can visit the houses and places where they lived and imagine how their geography shaped them and our collective vocabulary. By next year, Baldwin’s house will just be another private memory for those who knew it.

I do not know if I will ever see his house again. If I will be able to pull sour oranges from his trees and wonder if they were so bitter when he lived there. But I do know that Baldwin died a black death.

For a while when I came back to the States, I started to send strange, desperate emails to people who knew him that read:

For the last two days, I’ve basically found myself frantically, maniacally looking for everything that I could find about Baldwin’s life there. To be honest, I’m not at all sure what I am looking for, but when I walked up that steep little hill, past the orange and cypress trees out onto the main road, and looked back at his house I just felt a compulsion to start asking people who knew him about his life in that house. The compound is almost gone, as they are in the process of demolishing it and yet something about it and him seemed to still be very much there.

Baldwin once wrote, “Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.”

I sent those notes — feeling as hopeless as I sounded — because I wanted to save that building. I did not want it and him to vanish into the terrifying darkness. Because I was scared that no one else would ever be able to see that Baldwin had a rainbow kitchen — an orange sink and purple shelves — in his guesthouse. I wanted someone else to wonder what he ate from this kitchen, who stayed in this annex of his estate, who he loved, whether his love felt free in this kitchen, in this house where two men could embrace in private behind the ramparts of his home in another country. I wanted someone else to understand the private black language found in one of Baldwin’s last conversations with his brother David. Frail, sick, and being carried to his deathbed in his brother’s arms, what the world thought of him might as well have been an ocean away. In that moment, Baldwin didn’t refer to French poets, or to the cathedrals of his genius, he instead returned to a popular song. He loved music, and he told his brother: So it is true what they say — he is my brother and he’s not heavy.

There is no great mystery behind why Baldwin’s house isn’t treated like Anna and Sigmund Freud’s in London or rebuilt and replicated like Dante Alighieri’s in Florence. “We lost the house because supposedly there was no way to prove that it was his,” his niece Kali-Ma Morrison tells me with a slight edge in her voice. “People contested his right to ownership in the French Supreme Court and after 10 years of fighting to save it, we lost.”

For months, I had wanted to know about the women who read as almost mythical in Baldwin’s life and work, the siblings and nieces who are tasked with being the legal keepers of his legacy. I was also curious because in the strange early hours of the morning just before the bakeries open and the fog lifts herself from the mountains, I sat in a village in the South of France and watched Baldwin defend our future as black women on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968. My god, how I loved his exasperation and anger as he told primetime television, “I don’t know if the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know that the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools that we have to go to. Now: This is the evidence. And you want me to make an act of faith — risking myself, my life, my woman, my sister, my children — on some idealism which you assure me exists in America which I have never seen?” In 1968, James Baldwin was already asking, What is any movement without all of us? What is a black conversation that divides our concerns?

Kali-Ma — Baldwin’s niece — is in her late twenties. She is a visual artist and poet, and although she has piercings and tattoos, she looks like the sort of young woman who once appeared in tintype photographs — patient, timeless, and very beautiful in an intoxicatingly demure way. Her grandmother Gloria is Baldwin’s sister, and handles her brother’s estate. Her other grandmother is Toni Morrison. Kali-Ma hands me a cup of green tea, reaches down to stroke her purring cat, who has been clawing her ankles for attention, and then goes over to a bookcase that sags with books and pulls out some of her uncle’s belongings that she retrieved from Saint-Paul-de-Vence. She hands me a faded copy of his book A Dialogue (written with with Nikki Giovanni), his copies of Freedomways magazine (including one with Lorraine Hansberry on the cover), and a small brass plaque (engraved in French) awarded to him for his commitment to human rights.

We are both very quiet. I trace the Greek severe-style angel on the award with my finger until she shrugs and says, “I know I should probably have this stuff locked away, or covered in laminate, but I like him out here, you know, being here with me and mixed in with the other books. Alive.” I came to her place to take a picture of Baldwin’s typewriter. This is what I told her. But I think I also came because I wanted to see someone who is his flesh and blood. I wanted to see that he was really theirs, their Uncle Jimmy. Because if he was theirs, the logic followed, then he was also ours.

Baldwin artifacts

Photos by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah 

baldwin 07 baldwin 08 baldwin 09 


Baldwin’s people have an old-world, sophisticated manner. They offer you three types of tea, whiskey, and their time. They’re patient and generous. They never ask me what I’m doing there. They are tolerant of my desire to find the quiet bibliography that he left behind in the small notations, brushes, and ephemera of his life. Annotations I believed when taken together would tell a private story of his battles and alienations as a gay black man who was born into poverty as the eldest in a solar system of siblings (there were nine of them), but who was also singularly rich, with an agile mind, a louche, lithe body, and a long-eyed gaze.

In the 21st century, black history must shirk any oversimplification. What I unfortunately realized late in the game was that I had allowed myself to understand Baldwin through a series of abstractions, one that was principally based upon how strangers, outsiders, and gatekeepers had interpreted his life. In their telling, I had never heard how Baldwin had felt like he could make peace with his old friend Richard Wright, but it would take a big bottle of booze and a whole night of talking in that garden in Saint-Paul. They never told me just how much Baldwin loved his records — spirituals and Bessie Smith. Or how he had met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to press the government about its callous response to the civil rights movement. No one had ever told me to study with care the Harlem in the way that he could keep a cigarette dangling from his lips, just so, balanced between a Blood’s deep blues and a 125th Street cool. 

They never told me just how much Baldwin loved his records — spirituals and Bessie Smith. 

“The American triumph—in which the American tragedy has always been implicit—was to make Black people despise themselves,” Baldwin wrote in a forward to Angela Davis’s book If They Come in the Morning. He signed the letter Brother Jimmy and addressed Angela Davis as Sister Angela. When I was younger, the way Baldwin explained the conditions of “Negroes” to others made me question his devotion, but as I held his copy of Davis’s book in my hands and re-read those words, it was evident that America had never triumphed over James Baldwin.

One afternoon, Trevor Baldwin, Wilmer “Lover” Baldwin’s son (the younger brother of the nephew addressed in Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew”), tells me about “Uncle Jimmy’s” visits back to the States, when he would return to the house that he had purchased for his mother on 71st Street. Trevor is a down-to-earth, forthright Morehouse man, a Harlem man, and he recalls what both he and his father admired most about Uncle Jimmy. “He walked with a certain sense of manhood,” Trevor told me. “You could easily see he was gay but [he] walked with his chest out and he’d cut you with his tongue.”

“Which is to say he had self-pride?” I asked.

“Yes!” Trevor said. “He had to move to Europe because he was seriously worried that he was going to kill somebody.”

Trevor always knew that Uncle Jimmy was in town because suddenly his grandmother’s house would swell with visitors. “Uncle Jimmy,” he laughed, “brought everybody to her, Maya (Angelou) included, and Toni, and said, ‘Here’s something else you don’t need, but I got another sister. You got another child.’

“He was the man of the house. He was the patriarch of us all.”

I like this image of Baldwin, it is both vanguard and conventional, but I also enjoy the way Kali-Ma shudders when I ask her if her uncle was a patriarch. Of his sisters? His mother? No, she says.

She looks for a word to describe what he was. I try to help. We are both writers, but we could not find a single word to describe this man who told his adopted sisters that they had to write down their stories and later pragmatically assisted them in their endeavors, who had best friends in many countries in all professions, and who taught his older brother and young nephews a rare, lasting lesson in bravery — that we must be brilliant and big enough to be ourselves. To have pink teacups and brown typewriters. Baldwin defined what made him a great writer on his own terms. He also ensured that his success was not dependent on his silences. He taught us all that the greatest black art demands that there be no “rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty” or our power. Some people will consider this vain, but isn’t this what all good warriors have always done: venerating, salvaging, and celebrating ourselves in between battles? Is this not our real inheritance?

I have spent months thinking about something his former agent’s granddaughter Eliza Mills revealed to me after she found out that I had been to his home in France. “James Baldwin used to play dodgeball with my dad and his friends. And he’d stay up and out all night and go to bed when my dad and his sister were going to school in the morning. My grandfather helped sell a couple of his books and would read/edit things. I think he was writing The Fire Next Time while he lived there. I’ve seen a note or two that he wrote to my grandfather in the books he left at their house.”

Breathless at the idea of all of this, I asked her if she was for real or kidding me.

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

“Yeah,” she replied, incredulous to my doubt. “One little inscription is written in rainbow ink and half in French.”

Last week, when I got back from seeing his brown typewriter, I wrote down the word “joy” and underlined it three times, like it was an obligation, a chore, something that I would have to find, if not fight for. I did this because isn’t the more intimate, tenebrous story the one where we recognize each other not only in our despair but also in our joy? In your rainbow ink and your sleeplessness nights, in your demands and, in your nieces and nephews who love you like a black god. I will find you — in the enthusiasms of our people’s style, our verve and our wit, the way you slouched in your seat and crossed your legs, in the ways that they will misunderstand you but we will always know you, in the abridgments that we will make to history, changing it forever.

Because I am telling this now, writing it all down, I am finding time to regard memory and death differently. I’m holding them up in the light and searching them, inspecting them, as they are not as what I want them to be. On that hill, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, I wanted to alter fate, and preserve things. But why? He did not need me — Baldwin seemed to have prepared himself well for his black death, his mortality, and even better, his immortality. Indeed, he bested all of them, because he wrote it all down — both on the page and in his beautiful gestures.

And this is how his memory abides. On the scent of wild lavender like the kind in his yard, in the mouths of a new generation that once again feels compelled to march in the streets of Harlem, Ferguson, and Baltimore. What Baldwin knew is that he left no false heirs, he left spares, and that is why we carry him with us. So now when people ask me about James Baldwin, I tell them another truth: He is my brother, he ain’t heavy.

Waring Abbott / Getty Images

Waring Abbott / Getty Images


This piece is drawn from the forthcoming anthology The Fire This Time, which is out from Scribner on Aug. 1, 2016.












diagram of the heart


Captures The Beauty

of African Literature

in Images of

Hausa Novelists



By Ainehi Edoro

Images by Glenna Gordon via


Novelist Khadija Gudaji composes a book on her bed in Kano.

Novelist Khadija Gudaji composes a book on her bed in Kano.

Littattafan Soyayya —roughly translated into “books of love”—is the pride and joy of contemporary Nigerian fiction. It refers to a large body of romance pulp-fiction produced and read in Northern Nigeria. 

Glenna Gordon who spent two years documenting life in northern Nigeria captured the lives of the brilliant and entrepreneurial women behind the Soyayya literary phenomenon. Many of these photographs, including others of day-to-day life in the north was recently published in a book titled Diagram of the Heart.

Soyayya literature is one of the few existing literary movements carried out entirely in an African language. Written in Hausa, these novels are consumed by a vast community of readers. 

It all started in the 1980s—a whole decade before Nollywood—with the publication of romance stories by writers such as Bilkisu Ahmed Funtuwa and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu. Today, these stories can be bought everywhere in the north, from Kano to Zaria.

There is so much that is amazing about Soyayya novels. Like Nollywood, the success of these writings has depended solely on informal book markets and grassroots support. Without the backing of established publishing houses, these writers have been able to build a vibrant literary industry. Of course, it matters that the leaders of this decades-long literary movement are mostly women. Kwara State University professor Carmen McCain is the go-to person for those interested in learning more about Soyayya novels [see here]. Dr. McCain also illustrated the soyayya passages excerpted in Gordon’s book. Soyayya stories are hard to find in English, so kudos to Dr. McCain for collaborating with Gordon on that front. 

Gordon’s images are hauntingly beautiful. But they are also so refreshingly real. They show a different side of life as an African writer—a side that is often lost in the global obsession over celebrity African authors. These are the writers down there in the trenches, working hard to open up new avenues for producing, circulating, and consuming African fiction.

Kudos to the writers and to Gordon for telling their stories so beautifully.

Firdausy El-yakub reads a romance novel in her bedroom in Kano, Northern Nigeria on March 21, 2013. Her university has been on strike for weeks, so she spends most of her days reading and dreams of one day becoming a novelist too. Her father allows her to go to the market and buy new books often. While Northern Nigeria is best known for Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group whose name means ‘Western Education is sinful,’ there’s a small but significant contingent of hijab wearing ladies writing subversive romance novels.

Firdausy El-yakub reads a romance novel in her bedroom in Kano, Northern Nigeria on March 21, 2013. Her university has been on strike for weeks, so she spends most of her days reading and dreams of one day becoming a novelist too. Her father allows her to go to the market and buy new books often.
While Northern Nigeria is best known for Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group whose name means ‘Western Education is sinful,’ there’s a small but significant contingent of hijab wearing ladies writing subversive romance novels.

Novelist Rabi Talle has multiple phones in her house. Readers will often call asking for love advice.

Novelist Rabi Talle has multiple phones in her house. Readers will often call asking for love advice.

Novelist Balaraba Ramat Yakubu whose book Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home was made into a film and translated to English.

Novelist Balaraba Ramat Yakubu whose book Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home was made into a film and translated to English.

Farida Ado, 27, is a romance novelist living in conflicted and rapidly Islamicizing Northern Nigeria. SheÕs one of a small but significant contingent of women in Northern Nigeria writing books called Littattafan soyayya, Hausa for Òlove literature.Ó

hausa 06

Farida Ado, 27, is a romance novelist living in conflicted and rapidly Islamicizing Northern Nigeria. SheÕs one of a small but significant contingent of women in Northern Nigeria writing books called Littattafan soyayya, Hausa for Òlove literature.Ó

Farida Ado, 27, is a romance novelist living in conflicted and rapidly Islamicizing Northern Nigeria. She’s one of a small but significant contingent of women in Northern Nigeria writing books called Littattafan soyayya, Hausa for ‘love literature.’

Author Amina Hassan poses for a portrait in her home in Kano on April 21, 2014. She loves Jane Austin novels.

Author Amina Hassan poses for a portrait in her home in Kano on April 21, 2014. She loves Jane Austin novels.

A computer in the home of a novelist in Kaduna. Some women write in computers while other work in long hand.

A computer in the home of a novelist in Kaduna. Some women write in computers while other work in long hand.

hausa 10hausa 11hausa 12


Ainehi Edoro – I’m finishing up a phd at Duke University where I study African novels, which I believe are some of the loveliest things ever written. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

Glenna Gordon’s photo book Diagram of the Heart is currently available through Red Hook Editions and on her website













JazzSign/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

JazzSign/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis


The Stacks:

How Nina Simone


Her Genius

How Eunice Waymon, an aspiring
classical pianist,
 transformed herself
into Nina Simone (the subject of
Oscar-nominated documentary this
year) is part
 hardluck story, part fairy
tale, and like so many things
 in her
life, the good and the bad were
impossible to

Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C., in 1933, the young woman who the world would come to know as Nina Simone was so prodigally gifted as a classical pianist that she wound up at Julliard after high school and trained with a private tutor, who helped her prepare to audition at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. When Curtis rejected her application, she redoubled her efforts to become a classical pianist. To make ends meet, she accompanied voice students in a music academy and subsequently took a job playing piano in a bar in Atlantic City in the summer of 1954. It was there that she found her style, and the name Nina Simone.

Following is an excerpt from Princess Noire, Nadine Cohodas’s thoughtful, illuminating biography of Simone.

June 1954–June 1956

It was through her students that Eunice got to Atlantic City, New Jersey, the beachfront resort town about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia that was famous for three things: the annual Miss America pageant, which had been held at the convention hall since 1940; the Boardwalk; and the topflight performers who entertained the white tourists flocking to the grand hotels. As segregated as any Southern town, Atlantic City had its own black section, here a few blocks north of the Boardwalk, with nightspots that drew the best black talent. Blacks were also found on the Boardwalk, but as the mainstays of the housekeeping and custodial staffs at the hotels. Carrol had been a bellhop at the Claridge for a couple of summers after he got out of the service.

Eunice got curious about the place when she learned that a few of her college-age students took summer jobs at the hotels. One of them said he played the piano in a bar, and Eunice’s surprise must have shown on her face—she didn’t think he was very good. “Yeah, I know”—he shrugged—“but they’re going to pay me $90 a week.” And that didn’t include tips. It was nearly twice as much as Eunice made on her own. She was intrigued enough to follow up, and through the student, she found an agent who in turn booked her into the Mid-town Bar on Pacific Avenue. It was one block away from the Boardwalk and in the heart of the white entertainment district. Carrol remembered that her first booking was on the weekends. They would go together, and she could commute back and forth from Philadelphia.

Early in June 1954, Eunice made her way to 1719 Pacific Avenue, a nondescript one-story building with a sign out front that said “Mid-town.” She didn’t know what to expect, having never been in a bar before, but standing outside, she took a deep breath, opened the door, and went in. She stopped abruptly, overwhelmed by the smell of the place and barely able to see. The smoky air made her eyes water, but she collected herself, walked to the bar, and asked to see Harry Stewart, the owner.

What did she want? the bartender asked. Eunice told him she was the new piano player. The man said she’d have to wait a few minutes because Stewart was busy, but would she like a drink in the meantime? That would be nice, Eunice replied, and asked for a glass of milk. The request brought good-natured laughter from a few of the regulars sitting at the bar. Eunice blushed, and looked around to get her bearings while she waited.

The Mid-town was a long, narrow room with a bar that stretched about two thirds of the way down one wall. A few tables and chairs were laid out in the remaining space, and a piano stood on a tiny raised stage at the back. Eunice noticed sawdust on the floor. Locals thought of the place as “just a plain bar—almost a neighborhood type bar,” as one put it, for working people. A kitchen was in the back, “Open All Night” under the direction of “Chef Alberto,” a newspaper ad announced. Stewart advertised himself as “your host.” “He was a little Jewish guy and had a fat cigar in his mouth as a permanent fixture,” Eunice remembered, though she didn’t recall how she knew he was Jewish. Perhaps it was just a guess, given the standard view that men who ran nightclubs were usually Jewish. Stewart took Eunice over to the piano, which was no worse than many she’d seen, but it distressed her to see water dripping down from a leaky air conditioner exactly where she would sit. Stewart noticed the same thing, excused himself for a moment, and returned with an umbrella. He opened it and jammed it up into the ceiling near the air conditioner so that now the water was rerouted into a bucket in front of one of the tables.

How did Eunice want to be billed? Stewart asked. The question brought her up short. In the excitement over the new job, she had forgotten about what her family, particularly her mother, would think about her playing in a bar. She might as well tell Kate she was consorting with the devil. But even if Kate never found out, Eunice also realized she could lose students if their parents knew she was slumming in Atlantic City.

“Nina,” Eunice replied on the spot.

“She’d always liked ‘Nina,’” Carrol explained, noting that Niña was Spanish for little girl.

Fine, Stewart said. But what about the last name? “Simone,” she said without hesitation.

“It was not contemplated,” according to Carrol. “It was a natural. It seemed to go with it.”

The two names together suggested a certain panache. And when pronounced with a Latin flavor, they sounded vaguely foreign: “Nee-na… See-mone.” “I chose the name Nina because I had always been called Nina—meaning little one—as a child,” she told the Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin in 1960, though neither Carrol nor her older siblings had any recollection of the nickname. In a different interview the same year with the magazine Rogue she said “Nina” was adapted from a boyfriend who called her Niña. “I don’t know where the hell I got Simone from.” When she published her memoir in 1991, Nina said that “Simone” came from her appreciation of the French film star Simone Signoret. Variations on the theme, “Nina Simone” felt right as soon as Eunice put the two names together.

Stewart told her to come back in an hour and start to work. When she returned, the regulars at the bar stared in bemusement. Apparently they had never seen a black woman entertainer in the Mid-town dressed like Nina. She had changed into a chiffon gown, applied makeup, and fixed her hair as though she was performing at one of her classical recitals. She didn’t mind the customers, but she was anxious in this new setting because she didn’t know what was expected of her. She calmed herself by ticking off all the pluses: she had talent, she was well trained, and whatever these snickering men at the bar thought of the way she looked, she was the finest pianist they had ever heard. She didn’t know anything about this Count Smith, who got top billing in Stewart’s ad, but he couldn’t be any better than she was even if Stewart advertised him as “royalty at the piano.” Nina might be playing at a bar for a bunch of men who were drinking too much, but if she closed her eyes and thought only of the music, she could be onstage at Carnegie Hall.

Once she sat down Nina drew on more than a decade of experience, though she was only twenty-one: gospel from church, Bach and the others from her work with Miss Mazzy, Carl Friedberg, and Vladimir Sokoloff, plus all of the popular tunes she had learned playing for Arline Smith’s students and her own. She could mix and match and meld, improvising as she went along. She wouldn’t be tied down to three-or four-minute songs like most piano players, and that first night what she played weren’t really “songs” at all but extended poems made up of musical notes instead of words, none of it on paper, all of it in her head. Some of them went on for thirty minutes.

Shortly after four a.m., when the last of the diehards had shuffled out of the bar, Nina asked Stewart for his opinion. The piano playing was very nice and interesting, he said, but why wasn’t she singing?

“I’m only a pianist,” Nina replied.

Not according to Stewart. Tomorrow night, he told her, “you’re either a singer or you’re out of a job.”

On the ride back to Philadelphia with her brother, Nina realized she had only one alternative: turn herself into a singer. She had used her voice before only as sidelight, when she sang as one of the Waymon Sisters or when she gave occasional pointers to her students. Her limited range allowed her to do only so much with her voice, so the solution was to make singing just one element of her performance rather than the centerpiece. Her voice, she decided, would become “the third layer complementing the other two layers, my right and left hands.” To put theory into practice, at her next performance she picked an easy popular song, sang a lyric, and then played around with it, repeating a line once or twice and then moving on. In another song, she repeated an entire verse and then started to improvise the lyrics as she went along. She reminded herself of the congregants at some of those revivals she had played in Tryon, when folks got up to testify, shouting out their revelations over and over. When the night was over, Nina had her own revelation: she was having fun. But more important, Harry Stewart enjoyed it, too.

Nina got more comfortable with each performance, and it dawned on her that she was creating something uniquely hers, even if what came out was Eunice Waymon of Tryon, North Carolina, filtered through Johann Sebastian Bach of Eisenach, Germany. But however unusual, she welcomed the synthesis. For the past year Nina had kept the different parts of her musical life separate. One part was her storefront business, the work to make money. The other part was her real life spent with Bach, Liszt, and the other great composers. She practiced every minute on her own time and then polished the various pieces once a week with Vladimir Sokoloff. She could tolerate the work at the Mid-town by making her sets as close to classical music as possible, even though she had to play popular tunes and sing. “The strange thing,” she recalled later, “was that when I started to do it, to bring the two halves together, I found a pleasure in it almost as deep as the pleasure I got from classical music.” What’s more, Nina had to admit that after so many years of feeling pressure to achieve at the keyboard, “the Mid-town had made me looser.”

Word spread quickly that something special happened at the club. After midnight new people were coming in, whites, but younger whites than the regulars and much more attentive. They were the hotel waiters and bellhops looking for entertainment before heading home. Happily for Nina, they were more attuned to her style and expectations than the usual barhoppers.

Remembering Miss Mazzy’s instruction, Nina treated the Mid-town like a concert hall, and she was dumbfounded the first time one or two patrons who’d had too much to drink were so boisterous they could be heard above her playing. It broke her concentration, and she resolved right then not to tolerate it. She simply stopped and waited until they quieted down and then returned to the music. Apparently no one had ever done that before at the Mid-town, and the regulars were surprised. But these new customers appreciated it, and almost immediately they became her unofficial bouncers, shushing the noisy patrons and, when necessary, escorting them out of the club.

Nina didn’t care what Harry Stewart thought about the new rules of decorum. In fact, he didn’t seem to mind, and with good reason. Nina was good for business—she was told the place was busier than it had been in years. It was in midsummer, as Carrol remembered it, that Stewart extended her playing time and gave her a schedule of nine p.m. to four a.m., with fifteen minutes off every hour and all the milk she wanted. By this time, Nina had found a place at a rooming house on New York Avenue, which was close to the black clubs but not too far from the Mid-town. Now when she finished her last set, she didn’t face a long drive home. Instead, just before sunrise she walked the few blocks to her room and collapsed into bed for six or seven hours. When she got up, she might listen to some music and visit with a friend, but most of the time she was by herself.

Despite Nina’s obvious popularity, Stewart had hedged his bets. He didn’t include her in the Mid-town’s regular weekly ads in the Atlantic City Press, which continued to promote Count Smith. The ad promised “continuous entertainment,” which presumably was Nina.

Some of the regulars, many of them Nina’s age, introduced themselves over the summer, but she didn’t consider them friends. Nina could be anything but welcoming, sitting at the piano overdressed for the surroundings, playing for hours with her eyes closed, almost imperious in her brief acknowledgment of the audience. She didn’t mean to be uninterested or remote, and she was tickled when they stopped at the piano to compliment her, even if she didn’t make a big show of her appreciation. That’s just the way she was, a bit shy, and perhaps, even without thinking about it, she kept her distance because these folks were white. One night Nina overheard someone explain that she played with her eyes closed because she was a drug addict and was always high. She drank only milk because she got sick from drinking liquor. This was so far from the truth it should have been comical. Instead, the comments hurt Nina to the point of tears.

But she knew that only Harry Stewart’s opinion counted, and he wanted her back the next summer. This got Nina thinking as she returned to Philadelphia in September to resume her old routine as Eunice Waymon, piano teacher and piano student. She had never enjoyed accompanying the aspiring singers, and by early 1955, she resolved to find more work performing because it paid better. Her goal, however, was still the same: to earn enough money to study full-time at a music conservatory. She continued to find her instruction with Vladimir Sokoloff rewarding, and during one lesson or another she must have shown him what she had been playing at the Mid-town. He was impressed.

“Why don’t you pursue this as your profession?” he asked her. He remembered the passion in her reply: “Oh no. My first love is classical music, and I want to be a pianist.”

Nina was not quite a star when she returned to Atlantic City in June 1955, but she had a following, and Harry Stewart and the regulars at the Mid-town were waiting for her. Stewart spent money now to get the word out. The Mid-town’s regular ad in the Atlantic City Press announced her first performance, Wednesday, June 1, with her name in all capital letters, and proclaimed her the “new sensation at the piano.” She had displaced Stan (The Man) Facey, who had gotten top billing in May. Now he was relegated, in smaller type, to the “plus” category.

Opening night was gratifying: the place was full and Nina was relaxed. She eased up with the customers, too, and as the days went on, she made friends with the regulars. One of them, Ted Axelrod, initially had kept a respectful distance, but finally he approached her to say how much he enjoyed her music. Could he share some of what was in his collection with her? Sure, Nina replied. “He’d play me songs I never heard before, and every so often he’d suggest I include them in my live set,” she recalled. One evening he came in with a Billie Holiday record and said he’d like to hear her sing “I Love You, Porgy,” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. As a favor to Axelrod, Nina said she would work up the tune.

Holiday’s version was a delicate rendering that featured an understated piano and a barely perceptible bass. She also smoothed away some of the nonstandard English in the lyrics—Gershwin’s title was “I Loves You, Porgy.” Nina followed her lead and adapted the song to her strength, her piano playing. She tapped into her classical music training for the opening bars, evoking Debussy with arpeggios and Bach with a few trills. Her voice was duskier than Holiday’s, but she gave the lyrics a similarly poignant reading. After the first chorus, she repeated the melody on the piano before picking up the next verse. Holiday’s version, which was recorded for the Decca label in December 1948, went on for just over two minutes. Nina’s piano and vocal embellishments made hers twice as long, but the overall subdued sensibility was the same.

The Mid-town regulars made “I Love You, Porgy” their private hit, so Nina sang it every night. Kenny Hill, a twenty-one-year-old Atlantic City native who had just gotten out of the navy, was one of those regulars. He had found temporary work as a bellhop at the Haddon Hall hotel on the Boardwalk and often passed by the Mid-town after work. He stopped in one night shortly after Nina started and became an instant fan, astonished that a down-home place offered such sophisticated entertainment. “Once you heard her— she had a way of getting you,” he explained. “You knew that she had to go places.”

Hill was the friendly sort, rarely if ever intimidated. He introduced himself to Nina, and this summer, more at ease than the last, she was friendly in return. She had given up the formal concert-hall dress and now showed up for her sets in casual clothes. Hill called it “Bohemian. She dressed like a New Yorker.” Most evenings he stayed through Nina’s last set, sat around to chat with her, and often escorted her back to the rooming house on New York Avenue. “I was in love with her talent,” Hill admitted. It wasn’t a romance, just a nice summer friendship.

Nina’s sets had evolved into a merry-go-round of styles and genres that was rarely the same on any given night: folk songs, show tunes, hits, and some that should have been hits, along with her own creations, which sometimes were the extended piano compositions she played that first week at the Mid-town. As the summer drew to a close, the thought of going back to teach untalented kids was unbearable, and through her agent she found a job in Philadelphia at the Poquessing Club on South Nineteenth Street. It had opened about eighteen months earlier and was a step up in decor, pay, and clientele from the Mid-town. Because the first audiences didn’t know her at all, she could play her Mid-town sets in the opening weeks, and they turned out to be as well received in Philadelphia as they had been in Atlantic City. In a repeat of that experience, word quickly spread. In December, Frank Brookhouser, who wrote the Evening Bulletin’s “Man About Town” column, included Nina in his installment on the eighth. “Kept hearing about a girl who plays the piano and sings at the Poquessing Club. Finally heard her last night. Will hear her again many times. She’s sensational, the finest new talent we’ve heard in this town in many years.”

Brookhouser thought Nina’s looks were similar to Marian Anderson, one of her idols, “but she’s very very different, weaving a singular spell all her own at the keyboard with her husky, emotionally charged voice and a completely individual piano style which reflects her classical training.” With an uncanny prescience, Brookhouser also picked up a tinge of the melancholy, finding in her music “an atmosphere of blue lights and sad memories.”

Nina’s fame brought another pressing problem: she needed to tell her mother about her club work. She decided to take the direct approach and frankly admitted that she played in nightspots as Nina Simone but that she was doing it—and this was absolutely true—so that she could pay for continued classical lessons. She had not, she wanted Kate to know, given up her dream of being a classical concert pianist. What’s more, she never drank liquor in the clubs, and the music she played was not the bump-and-grind, gutbucket blues Kate had so disdained. In fact, Nina explained, she mixed in classical music whenever she could and gave a classical twist to tunes usually played with a pop arrangement.

As Nina remembered it, Kate was unmoved, wanting nothing to do with her daughter’s new, if temporary, career and that hurt. But Nina wasn’t surprised. She knew Kate could never accept certain things—“although that didn’t include the money I gave her every month earned ‘out in the world’”—Kate’s derisive term for any place that wasn’t the church.

Nina forged ahead anyway. Her growing reputation led her to another agent, who booked her into more upscale supper clubs. She was no less committed to proper decorum in these new places than she had been at the Mid-town, only now she had a new tactic. Instead of stopping the music altogether, she simply stared at the offending parties. The unblinking eyes and the stern look on her face left no doubt about her feelings. Besides, the hard stare was more polite than calling out the loud patrons.

Nina continued her studies with Sokoloff even though both of them knew she had passed a line of demarcation. The cutoff point for Curtis applicants was twenty-one. Nina was already twenty-two. Sokoloff agreed to keep working with her, but now her pursuit of a classical career would have to be without a degree from Curtis.

In the meantime Nina readied for her return to the Midtown in the summer of 1956. She started at the end of June, and Harry Stewart welcomed her with a new ad that anointed her “the incomparable Nina Simone.” Ted Axelrod had also returned with a new group of friends eager to hear her, and while she enjoyed his company, Nina wanted something more than friendship with a fan. One evening she struck up a conversation with a young good-looking white man who had a nice smile. He was sweet but not in a cloying way, and his sense of humor made Nina laugh. His name was Don Ross, and he came back the next evening, waiting for her at the bar with a glass of milk in his hand. She was charmed.


From Princess Noire by Nadine Cohodas. Copyright (c) 2010 by Nadine Cohodas. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.







February 12, 2016

February 12, 2016














Photo: Kiara Collins

Photo: Kiara Collins

Why We Wear Our Crowns is a series that highlights social justice advocates from the African American community and throughout the African Diaspora. We hope that by showcasing those who dedicated their lives for us to own ours, you’re inspired to wear your crowns proudly.


Photo: blacktimetravel

  • Photo: blacktimetravel


February 21, 1933- April 21, 2003
Singer, Songwriter, Arranger, Pianist, Activist

There is a text by Maya Angelou that says “The matter of art is inevitably the matter of life. That is to say, art reflects life, influences and creates life.” Masterpieces come in different forms, all of which, offer the influencer the opportunity to express their lived experience in their best medium. Just as a painter has a paintbrush or an orator has their words, Nina Simone’s tool was her music. Simone was a gifted storyteller and talented musician that utilized her medium of musicality to act as a message for the masses. In doing so she enticed her listeners to wake up and take a stance on the prevalent issues happening at the time. She didn’t belt out a tune or play a note that didn’t serve a purpose and throughout her career, her music acted as a weapon for justice by any means necessary. 

Photo: tumblrPhoto: tumblr

Before she was Nina Simone, she was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, born in small-town Tryon, North Carolina in 1933. She took to the piano at the age of three and first began her music career at her local church. As she became more skilled on the keys and developed a repertoire of classical arrangements, she aspired to become a concert pianist. Growing up as a black girl in the harsh Jim Crow South and being subject to discrimination despite her unprecedented talent didn’t deter Simone from her musical dreams. After being rejected from a musical program from the Curtis Institute of Music, for what Simone cited as racial discrimination, she moved to New York City and began her studies at the Juilliard School of Music. It was while in New York City that Simone began to venture out of the gospel background she grew up with and into other musical genres such as jazz, pop, and the blues, as she took to singing in nightclubs to make ends meet. In nightclubs she sang covers of popular songs of the day mixed with her arrangements on the keys and became well known for her dynamic and unique sound. Simone’s beginnings of being known as the “High Priestess of Soul” began as her intense, sultry voice and powerhouse classical skills on the piano drew in crowds and gave her fans with names as famous as her own.

Simone would go on to sign her first record deal at the age of 24 with Bethlehem Records where she recorded the popular songs, “I Love You Porgy” and “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” before leaving the company. It was after signing with Colpix Records in 1959, when Nina began being regarded as the performer we remember today. With a group of like-minded individuals surrounding her including Stokely Carmichael, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin that were invested and dedicated to speaking out against racial injustice, Simone began to tune her music to a much more political stance. Though Simone previously released songs that payed homage to her blackness, it was following the death of Civil Rights advocate Medgar Evers and the murder of four girls in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, that Simone was triggered to move her career into a new direction. She began to make songs that directly addressed the racial tensions of the time which gives way to why she is so highly regarded for her artistry today. Her legacy is still so palpable because the music she made at the height of the Civil Rights Movement is relevant to the suppressed issues that followed and the ever present Black Lives Matter movement today.

Her controversial song “Mississippi Goddam” (1964) which was banned on most radio stations because of it’s defiant lyrics, set Simone apart from other artists as she was unafraid of making music that made listeners uncomfortable. Simone’s stance in regards to gaining and protecting the rights of African Americans was anything but, non-violent. Her approach took her to perform her songs in civil rights meetings and also advocate for violent revolutions. Her later songs “Why (The King of Love Is Dead)” written after Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, “Four Women,” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” acted as lyrical mirrors that reflected the painful but, real issues African Americans faced during some of the most tumultuous eras of American history. Simone was revered as an activist by civil rights leaders of the time because her music articulated resistance in a way that acted as protest. Not only was she loud and brazen in the words she wrote, sang, and performed but, she did it all while being unapologetically talented, black, and a woman in an industry that so easily would congratulate white mediocrity.

Photo: tumblrPhoto: tumblr

Despite her significance and visibility in the music industry and in the CRM, Simone didn’t find the commercial success she was seeking and took time to reflect in Barbados in 1970. Little did she know that in an act of protest for the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam war, Simone opted out of paying her taxes and it was upon her return to the country from Barbados, that she was informed of a warrant for her arrest. To evade criminal charges, she sought refuge in Barbados and later traveled throughout Liberia and Europe before settling in France in 1992. Between the time she left the United States and found a home in France, Simone toured and performed in clubs throughout Europe and released records through various labels. Her song “My Baby Just Cares For Me” from her 1958 album “Little Girl Blue” found a resurgence in 1987 when it became a Britain Top 10 single after being used in a Chanel No.5 perfume commercial. She even made appearances in the United States where she never faced prosecution for the charges that were once imposed upon her.

However the work and music she produced in the latter part of her career didn’t give her the financial or commercial success she desired either. Her personal reputation of being combative and prone to mood swings, which were later revealed to be a result of her mental illness, led her to feel misunderstood and she reflected that in her last works. She published her autobiography, “I Put A Spell On You” in 1992 and released her final album “A Single Woman” in 1993. Her last record reflected a demeanor of the solitude she lived in and pain she felt as an artist that was never truly understood. A decade after releasing her last album, Simone passed away in her sleep, at the age of 70 in her home in Carry-le-Rout, France.

Photo: tumblrPhoto: tumblr

Spanning a career with nearly over 40 albums and 40 years, Nina Simone is known as an icon of American music and one of the best griots to ever take the mic. Her music and character defied standards in a way that was just as powerful and prophetic of giving a speech or marching across cities. Her artistry led her to become an inspiration for many singers, writers, poets, and creative artists who would follow in her footsteps and as it relates to the current wave of #BlackGirlMagic, Simone may very well be the prototype. She was mystifying in the way she was able to entrance and command the attention of an entire audience and confidently tell her truth as she saw fit. Nina Simone set a standard of what it means to be not only young, gifted and black, but unapologetic and unrelenting in the spirit of all it encompasses to carry the blessing and burden of blackness and she is the reason why we wear our crowns.









Cave Canem Poetry Prize

Established in 1999 with the selection of Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work by Rita Dove (Graywolf Press, 2000), this first-book award is dedicated to the discovery of exceptional manuscripts by black poets of African descent.

Award: Winner receives $1,000, publication by University of Georgia Press in fall 2017, 15 copies of the book and a feature reading.

DeadlineManuscripts must be submitted no later than Tuesday, March 15, 2016 at 11:59 pm EST. Winner announced via email by or before October 2016.  

Entry Fee: $20. Entry fees are non-refundable.

Final JudgeKwame Dawes (Judge reserves the right not to select a winner and/or honorable mentions.)

First Readers: Mahogany L. Browne and Dante Micheaux.

Manuscripts are read without the readers and judge’s knowledge of contestants’ identities.

Eligibility: All unpublished, original collections of poems written in English by black writers of African descent who have not had a full-length book of poetry published by a professional press. Authors of chapbooks and self-published books with a maximum print run of 500 may apply. Simultaneous submission to other book awards should be noted: immediate notice upon winning such an award is required. Winner agrees to be present in the continental United States at her or his own expense shortly after the book is published in order to participate in promotional reading(s). 

Exclusions: Current or former students, colleagues, employees, family members and close friends of the judge; current or former employees and members of the board of Cave Canem Foundation or the University of Georgia Press; and authors who have published a book or have a book under contract with University of Georgia Press are ineligible.

If any of the selected authors fall under the above exclusions, they will be disqualified and a replacement chosen from among the finalists. As the poetry community is small and the contest is judged without knowledge of the submitter’s identity, acquaintance with the judge and participation in a workshop taught by the judge are not disqualifying criteria.


  • Submit manuscripts online at Hard copy submissions will not be considered.
  • One manuscript per poet.
  • Upload manuscript as a .doc or .pdf document. Include a title page with the title only and table of contents. Author’s name should not appear on any pages within the uploaded document.
  • Include your cover letter in the Submittable text box—DO NOT include within the .doc or .pdf document of your manuscript. Cover letter should include author’s brief bio (200 words, maximum) and list of acknowledgments of previously published poems. 
  • Manuscript must be paginated, with a font size of 11 or 12, and 48-75 pages in length, inclusive of title page and table of contents. A poem may be multiple pages, but no more than one poem per page is permitted. Columns are not permitted.
  • Manuscripts not adhering to submission guidelines will not be considered.
  • Post-submission revisions or corrections are not permitted.

View previous Cave Canem Poetry Prize Winning Books