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See the trailer.

I was surprised when I saw the indy film, The Drummer (2020), starring Danny Glover. He portrayed an older man helping those, in ways both big and small, ways that could have landed people in jail. The majority of people alive today never experienced or for that matter never even heard about the struggles of the Viet Nam years.

This movie was not set in Nam. It was not about heroic resisters who refused to go to Nam. Rather this is a nuanced look at how difficult it was to resist, especially when you are fighting a lonely fight. This movie does not take a heroic view of resistance. Resistance was often difficult and full of vacillations. View it and marvel how many sacrifices many people made.

During the Nam years I was a Nike Hercules Nuclear Missile repair person in South Korea. I was trained to arm the nuclear warhead. Additionally, I was trained in Chemical, Biological, and Radiological warfare–a veritable killing machine.

I had dropped out of college and had made 18 years-old. I didn’t know what else to do, both my younger brothers were college educated. The youngest of the three of us became a cardiologist primarily serving the residents of our part of the city until Katrina ripped out his Heartbeats Life Center. When I signed up in 1965, I told the recruiter that I want to go anywhere except Viet Nam.

He laughed. I said “I’m sure ya’ll have some jobs they don’t use in Viet Nam.” He saw that I was serious, and simply said, “yes, but you have to pass a test to get one of those jobs.”

“Give me the test.” I was confident I could pass any test they might have–when I was in the army I developed one of my axioms about the average White male; “if the average White boy could do it, it couldn’t be hard.” That’s how I ended up doing work on nuclear missiles.

I have met Danny Glover a number of times. He is a sensitive and committed man who is a professional actor who has been in a number of block-buster movies, which is why I was so surprised when I saw this movie. It’s not Hollywood. It’s the hard choices that people made during the Nam years.

Check it and wonder if you could do what a relatively small number of people did.

 

The weather was wonderful. Autumn in New Orleans. No need for either raincoat or sweater.

A perfect soiree of fellowship. A convivial gathering of friends you knew and guests you were eager to get to know.

From the time you entered the iron front gate, checked out the informative exhibition in the front room, walked through the two-story, historic cottage onto the back porch, and then ensconced yourself in the backyard, imbibing a selected array of refreshments, this was a welcomed get together.

The SEEING BLACK Florestine Collins Parlor, replete with historic photos, authentic period furniture, actual early cameras, as well as pictorial placards and educational hand-cards freely available to all visitors, was the expert work of committee member Shana griffin. 

The program was officially titled First Frame The Prelude of SEEING BLACK Black Photography in New Orleans 1840 & Beyond. On view 11am to 4pm, Thursday to Sunday, until June 4, 2023.

This program was a revelation not only about photography in New Orleans but also a rear view picture of a woman who expertly persevered in a career dominated by men. Florestine Marguerite Perrault Collins (1895 – 1988) early-on set a sterling example for generations to come.

Beyond the photographs, the period furniture, vintage cameras, and the informational hand-outs, Shana griffin also organized live music to complete the commemorative afternoon. She was supported by the SEEING BLACK trio of Eric Waters; Girard Mouton,III; and Kalamu ya Salaam.

The preludial exhibition featured veteran musicians–Dr. Michael White, clarinet; Greg Stafford, trumpet; Detroit Brooks, banjo; Mitchell Player, acoustic bass. The quartet offered traditional New Orleans jazz at its best. This was not routine, commercial Dixieland bullshit, but rather art and revelry, performed by serious musicians leaning into their improvisations with fervor.

These were professionals, most of whom I knew personally. Although I had major medical issues that included a recent procedure to deal with a cancerous growth on my kidney, and although I could not stay for the entire event, nevertheless I sat adjacent to the band in a corner of the back porch. I did not make my get-away until the band’s intermission.

I really did not want to leave early.  I would have preferred to be energized by the majesty of the music. But when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.

 


Minna Salami

When women speak in their own interests, about their lives, about the established ways women are treated, men would do well to listen. We all should. Women supporting patriarchy, the dominance of society by men, especially old, white men, maintaining the establishment, status quo, is objectively against female self-interest, against female empowerment.

Feminism has never reductively meant turning men into eunuchs. Why are many men against female empowerment–women being strong, women being powerful, women being leaders, none of that weakens men. Gender equality is not implicitly anti-male, yet somehow many man are led to believe that women in charge inevitably leads to the disempowerment of man, instead of the factual and realistic situation of supporting gender equality by the elevation of woman.

Especially in the Black community, where a significant percentage of women are “the man of the house”, such women are active supporters of Black manhood, especially in their sons. The hardest reality for many of us to grasp is that supporting feminism, that being anti-patriarchal does not mean being anti-men. Anti-patriarchy does not reductively mean anti-male; anti-patriarchal means being anti-oppression.

The social reality and intellectual understanding of feminism is generally misunderstood or outright rejected without any understanding or even debating of the spectrum of feminist advocacy and analysis. Enter Minna Salami who is an advocate and major intellectual in terms of explaining feminism, both its historic foundation and her contemporary advocacy of feminism.

 

 

Today is Wednesday, 28 September, 2022. On this past Monday, I went to the VA hospital for a scheduled sonogram.

Sunday night I had slept in my own bed, in my apartment at Ashe. Monday started out as usual. I made phone calls and followed up online with projects I’m working on, primarily SEEING BLACK–Black Photography In New Orleans 1840 & Beyond.

Had a good long conversation with my good friend, photographer Terri Mimms. Sent her a creative writing piece I did about her and a situation she survived–of course, I had shared this with her when it was written  over approximately two decades ago.

The sonogram operator urged me to go to ER, the emergency room. After sitting there for an hour or so, I was checked out by a physician and sent to another area, only to be told that they wanted to keep me overnight. Yeah, I know, I took it personally. Was not clear what was going on but for certain this was a serious situation.

I am on a major medication regime, about five taps, some cut in half, prescribed on a daily basis. I have been relatively religious in taking my medications. Or so I thought. On Tuesday as the doctors made their rounds Tuesday morning, I received the information that what I thought about taking medications was inadequate.

I was also scheduled for a follow-up sonogram, which was done in the hospital bed with a portable machine. Dr. Dharmini Manogna from hematology/oncology questioned me in detail and, in doing so, helped me understand what could be–emphasis on what was “probably”, the problem. 

I had been taking my medication every morning but I misunderstood the way Eliquis–medically named apixaban–that is designed to prevent strokes.

I have my had experiences with the debilitating effects of strokes. My wife over a two year period sustained three strokes, the third of which left her basically bedridden for the last year of her life. Strokes ain’t no joke. At 75 years-old, not to mention my experience with Nia, who made her transition on February 20, 2020, taught me not to ignore my medical situation. I was intimately aware that strokes can take you out.

Dr. Manogna broke it down to me, Eliquis works but only for twelve hours or so, so I have to take it twice a day. I was only doing once a day. I now fully understand.

When I was discharged Tuesday afternoon, I drove myself home and called my daughter Asante to let her and her partner, Peteh, know I was ok at home in my apartment. Working on a number of writing projects, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t ready to check-out, I had major projects I wanted to finish, especially SEEING BLACK, the photo book and exhibit.

Turns out the first sonogram have revealed a possible blog clot in my lower lung, the follow-up exam that had been done Tuesday morning confirmed that I was clear of blood clots in the lungs, which are deadly. My twice a day, 5miligram tab of apixaban was doubled for a ten day stretch before returning to the one tab twice a day routine.

Thankyou Dr. Manogna for helping me understand why I have to take Eliquis twice a day, probably for the rest of my life. You want to live, follow the prescriptions.

 

Hello.

We hope you all are well, and thank you for your patience.

Our plans to exhibit at Xavier Art Gallery have shifted due to HVAC repair plans at the Administration Building, where the gallery is housed. Instead of exhibiting at Xavier Art Gallery this fall, we will exhibit in summer/fall 2023 after the building reopens.

We are still on track to exhibit in February 2023 at Ashe, and arrangements at other institutions are still underway.

Below is the press release for First Frame, which opens on October 6 at the New Orleans African American Museum. The opening reception is 7 – 9 pm. We hope to see many of you there.

If you haven’t completed the Google form here, please do so by or before the extended deadline of September 30, as we will be following up soon to confirm the photographs we have selected of yours.

-Shana, Kalamu, Eric, and Girard

SEEING BLACK launches fall exhibition centering the photography of Florestine Perrault Collins and other early Black photographers’ approaches documenting Black life, self-expression, political struggle, and social achievement through the camera.

First Frame, the preludial exhibition for SEEING BLACK: Black Photography in New Orleans 1840 & Beyond, opens at the New Orleans African American Museum on October 6, 2022, and runs until June 4, 2023.

New Orleans (September 221, 2022) SEEING BLACK announces the fall opening of First Frame, the preludial exhibition for SEEING BLACK: Black Photography in New Orleans 1840 & Beyond, at the New Orleans African American Museum.

SEEING BLACK: Black Photography in New Orleans 1840 & Beyond is a multimedia, research-based project chronicling and celebrating the history, influence, performative aesthetic, and futurity of Black photography in New Orleans. From photography’s pre-Civil War beginnings to its twenty-first-century practices, SEEING BLACK engages the intellectual inquiry, cultural histories, political positioning, and innovative versatility of historical and contemporary Black photography.

Organized around a publication, a series of exhibitions spanning multiple sites, a digital platform, an index, and public programming, SEEING BLACK challenges traditional exhibition didactics, conventional object presentations, and historical assumptions of blackness and representation. The project robustly engages a broad body of work from more than eighty historical and contemporary photographers and the themes and vernacular embodied in their images.

“Our oppression has been racialized and genderized to the extent that we do not recognize what’s been done to us,” states writer and activist Kalamu ya Salaam, lead organizer of SEEING BLACK. “It’s not a matter of centering or bringing women into the focus of the lens, as they have already been shaping the frame and leading the work. It’s about changing our understanding of their contributions and mindset about gender.”

As a body of work curated through a collaborative and research-led process, SEEING BLACK will present over 200 photographs and artifacts covering a spectrum of narrative styles, compositions, techniques, and approaches, showcasing contemporary art forms and expanding the historical record.

“Much of what we have access to about Black photographers in New Orleans since the 1840s has been erased in the archival record. The fragmented scants of photographic artists like John Roberts, Louis Foucher, Oryana Valentine, Jrende Meyers, and dozens of others I have documented denote a significant community of Black photographers,” states photographer and researcher Girard Mouton,III. “The recorded work of photographers like Arthur Paul Bedou, Florestine Perrault Collins, George Floyd, Villard Paddio, and Arthur Perrault allows us to experience Black life through their techniques and styles.”

First Frame is an immersive installation centering the photography of Florestine Perrault Collin, the first documented Black woman photographer in New Orleans, and early Black photographers’ approaches documenting Black life, self-expression, political struggle, and social achievement through the camera, curated by Shana M. griffin with Kalamu ya Salaam, Eric Waters, and Girard Mouton,III.

“Unintimidated by a field dominated by men and racist depictions of blackness, Collins navigated various forms of racial and gender subjectivities of the early twentieth century and reimagined the confines of imposed patriarchal domesticity to one of possibilities and creative resistance,” states Shana M. griffin, feminist researcher and interdisciplinary artist. “Inspired by the location of Collins’ first studio and her aesthetic practice of challenging racial and gender stereotypes and controlling images of the Black body through the camera, the archival research and racialized gender analysis of Arthé A. Anthony in Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographers View of the Early Twentieth Century, and the pioneering research of artist, writer, and scholar Deborah Willis, First Frame reimagines the bold and inventive work of early Black photographers, celebrates Black visual histories, and explores the creative risk-taking evident in their work.”

First Frame will feature a reimagined Florestine Perrault Collins Parlor Room and an early twentieth-century Black portrait studio at the New Orleans African American Museum from October 6, 2022 to June 4, 2023.

“Historical photographers challenge negative stereotypes and violent forms of erasure by changing the visual narrative of how Black people were represented in popular culture. Black photographers like Collins documented proof of our existence as we were, a dignified people, recording important achievements in everyday life,” notes photographer Eric Waters.

“The New Orleans African American Museum is excited to partner with SEEING BLACK to present this monumental work and situate the launch of the prelude in the historic Tremé community, the site of Collins’ first two studios,” states Gia Hamilton, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the New Orleans African American Museum.

First Frame will be accompanied by opening receptions and public programming, including panel discussions, workshops, and more.

Following First Frame, the book version of SEEING BLACK: Black Photography in New Orleans 1840 & Beyond will be published by the University of New Orleans Press in the spring of 2023, featuring over 200 images with writings by griffin, Salaam, Mouton, and Waters. “SEEING BLACK will be a powerful, dazzling, and certainly beautiful title,” says UNO Press editor Chelsey Shannon. “We are proud and elated to be a partner in bringing this work to life in handheld form, complementing the project’s other manifestations.”

From February 3 to May 27, 2023, the second exhibition series will take place at Ashé Cultural Arts Center. “As Ashé embarks on its twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration next year, we are excited to feature the work of photographers from and working in New Orleans, celebrating Black life, Black protest, and Black culture through the visual frame of the camera,” states Frederick Wood  Delahoussaye, Chief Creative Officer at Ashé Cultural Arts Center.

The third exhibition in the series will take place during the summer/fall of 2023 at Xavier University’s Art Collections and Gallery.  ‘We are honored to collaborate with SEEING BLACK and look forward to presenting a diverse body of contemporary work from Black photographers,” remarks Anne Collins Smith, Director of the Xavier University Collections and Art Gallery.

The arrangement of additional sites is underway to present the full scope of the photographers participating in SEEING BLACK.

Historical work included in SEEING BLACK draws from the collections of Arthé A. Anthony, Cheron Brylski, Charlene Legaux Richard, Tex Stevens, Amistad Research Center, Xavier University of Louisiana Library, The Historic New Orleans Collection, the Hogan Archive of New Orleans Music and New Orleans Jazz at Tulane University Special Collection, the UNO Earl K. Long Library’s Louisiana and Special Collections, the Library of Congress, the New Orleans Public Library, the Louisiana State Museum, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, and LSU Libraries Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections.

SEEING BLACK is supported by several community partners, including the New Orleans African American Museum, Xavier University Art Gallery, Xavier University of Louisiana Art Department, Ashé Cultural Arts Center, PUNCTUATE, University of New Orleans Press, Antenna, Amistad Research Center, and The Historic New Orleans Collection.

SEEING BLACK is funded in part by the UNO Press with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Jazz and Heritage Foundation, Monroe Fellowship of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, Platforms Fund, and Rosenberg Foundation.

FIRST FRAME

First Frame, SEEING BLACK: Black Photography in New Orleans 1840 & Beyond’s preludial exhibition, is organized by SEEING BLACK and presented in collaboration with the New Orleans African American Museum. SEEING BLACK is organized by writer and activist Kalamu ya Salaam, feminist activist, researcher, and artist Shana M. griffin, photographer and activist Eric Waters, and photographer and historian Girard Mouton,III.

New Orleans African American Museum of Art

The New Orleans African American Museum of Art, History, and Culture (NOAAM) was founded in 1996 under the guidance and extensive support of the City of New Orleans Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development. Located in the Tremé section of New Orleans, NOAAM seeks to educate, preserve, interpret, and promote the contributions that people of African descent have made to the development of New Orleans and Louisiana culture.

Ashé Cultural Arts Center

Ashé Cultural Art Center’s innovative programming is designed to utilize culture in fostering human development and civic engagement. As ecosystem builders, Ashé delivers programming and direct services that support, leverage, and celebrate the people, places, and philosophies of the African Diaspora.

Xavier University Art Gallery

The Xavier University Art Gallery’s primary mission is to increase the knowledge and understanding of our global African Diaspora community and diverse contemporary culture through the particular lens of the vast visual histories and cosmologies of the descendant communities of Louisiana. The Art Collections and Gallery believes in the power of art to change communities. It facilitates this transformation through the organization and production of exhibitions, publications, and public programs on the issues of descendant communities and the world at large.

University of New Orleans Press

Founded in 2003, the University of New Orleans Press is a nonprofit book publisher stemming from the rich cultural tradition of New Orleans and its surrounding region. The Press seeks literature inspired by this tradition as well as work that contributes to the intellectual and aesthetic life of academic and general audiences everywhere.

SEEING BLACK—Photography In New Orleans 1840 and Beyond

PO BOX 51325
New Orleans, LA 70151
 

The central truth of African American history is that Black women have been our fiercest and most steadfast warriors–and I mean “American” in the total western hemispheric sense. Nanny in Jamaica, Harriet Tubman in the USA, and numerous others from Canada to Peru, many of whom are uncelebrated, are the true sheroes of existence during slavery, colonialism, and day-to-day racism.

Black women are not often celebrated and instead are often overlooked as the warriors they are and historically have been. I am not saying that men have not historically fought the good fight–we have. But Black women have too often been ignored in the history of African struggles in the Western Hemisphere as well as on the continent.

Questions of accuracy and historical truth not withstanding, the The Woman King is a beautiful and important correction of the erasure of Black women. Staring Viola Davis and directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood, in many ways this is Wakanda part 2 and we are just getting started in telling our whole story.

As we used to say way back in the seventies, “be there or be square”. We need this movie.

https://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/woman-king/

https://www.smithsonianchannel.com/special/warrior-women-with-lupita-nyongo

A really balanced review of the movie is contained in a documentary that was done by Lapita Nyong’o who was initially cast to be in the movie. Check out her investigation of women warriors–before or after you see The Woman King.

 

 

In my estimation, Chicago has long been a bedrock of Black America. Cultural expression and political activity, Chicago has it in spades–in this new age, Chi is the home of this nation’s largest Black publishing firm, Third World Press.

Chicago is also the home of Curtis Mayfield, the most prolific and insightful of the seventies songwriters. His life was tragically shortened when a gust of wind blew sound equipment onto his body during a performance in New York that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

His infirmary notwithstanding, while flat on his back he recorded a last album that is one of his best ever: 1996’s New World Order, although I remain enthralled by his Viet Nam-era, 1973 album Back To The World, which was both a vow and a theme song for a multitude of us soldiers station overseas.

His music documented an era and demonstrated the resilience and resolve to never give up as long as we are breathing.

 

 

 

But nary a drop to drink. From somewhere I remember that poetic line. What tiggers the recall is the situation upriver from New Orleans in Jackson, Mississippi where my friend C. Liegh lives. At this point I should say survives–they have gone days without potable water flowing through the faucets. Now they can’t even bath in it nor was dishes. Nothing. Nada. It’s verboten.

Where I’m from, we go through days, sometimes weeks of water disruption during the perennial hurricane seasons. I know how it feels, and as we say: it ain’t nothing nice!

It’s worse, of course, when it is as it is in Jackson. Not a natural disaster, but rather a man-made, preventable calamity. Jarvis DeBerry, a colleague from Mississippi wrote this about the situation.

The reality of racism hitting hard. Find out more about Jackson. Do whatever your can, even if it is no more than spreading the word about what’s going on.

I close with the words of C. Liegh McGinnis, who sent out a recent posting:

Hey Y’all,

Thanks to so many of y’all from around the country for checking with us regarding Jackson, Mississippi’s water crisis. Unfortunately, flooding is a usual thing in many parts of Mississippi, even the capital city. And, then, the failing water system of Jackson compounds the issue. My area (Clinton) is cool, and the water has begun to recede in some of the hardest-hit areas. Yet, because Jackson’s water treatment center is so old, one of the pumps failed and has left much of the city without water. And, no one knows how long this will continue. Again, Clinton and the areas around Jackson are fine though many folks in Jackson are suffering. The real issue is that Jackson doesn’t have a tax base. As I’ve stated before, white flight does not kill a city. But, the majority of the black middle class left both the city of Jackson and Hinds County. (My wife, Monica, and I were determined to remain in Hinds County because of its majority black population.) So, without a tax base, the city has no way to repair its water treatment center or is outdated pipe system. Additionally, because two of Jackson’s black city councilmen have been wasting time haggling with Mayor Chokwe Lumumba to ensure that a black-owned company does not receive the contract for the city’s garbage collection services, which it fairly and lawfully won, the city has not been able to do much about its failing water treatment and pipe system. To make matters worse, the racist Governor Ole Tater Tot and the Mississippi legislature is withholding the funds that can repair the system because it wants Jackson (a majority black city) to relinquish its control of the city airport to one of the neighboring all-white cities. Moreover, Tater has a history of rejecting federal funds designed to provide aid and relief to poor people because keeping people poor and poorly educated is what keeps them chained to the planation system. Thus, it’s Mississippi politics as usual, and, at the moment, the evil-ass Confederates have the upper hand as they are aided by inept Negroes. But, thanks to U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson for using his position as head of Homeland Security to leverage President Joe Biden to sign the Mississippi Emergency Declaration, which will provide necessary funds. However, at the moment, I don’t know how much this assistance will extend to repairing the water treatment center and the years of old pipes. (The Jackson Advocate has an insightful article about federal aid here.) Still, Thompson and Biden have already done more for Afro-Mississippians in this moment than King of the Taters has done his entire time as Governor.  So, thanks for thinking of us. But, my family is good so far. Also, my sister, Beth, and brother, Chris, who live in Jackson, have decent water pressure. Nevertheless, a good portion of Jackson is in bad shape with no real help in sight as of yet. Of course, Monica has been doing Monica-like things, such as taking water to folks and even offering some shower time to family and a few folks we know.  My job is to make sure that we have enough clean towels. Don’t really know how that became my job, but it is what it is.

 


photo by Ric Francis

One look at our extended family and the average American would be totally confused. What the heck are y’all?

Let’s see, my Mama, Esmerelda, is Mexican. Part indigenous, part Spanish colonial, come from around Vera Cruz. My Papi, Roberto, all he know is his people are from near Cancun. We never thought too much about what we was til we made it to Texas — at home we say it Tay-hass. And then it gets complicated.

My older brother, he snuck up cross the border, moved on to New York. He wouldn’t never tell us exactly how he got to the Bronx, decided to move to Spanish Harlem and hooked up with a Puerto Rican woman. They had a passel of children. I’m talking seven or eight of them. So you know I got nephews and nieces all over the place.

My sister, the girl four years older than me, has long black hair, fair skinned and is so pretty, they was always hiring her as an extra in Hollywood movies. Ole, that girl could dance. Although after a while didn’t hear much from her. Maybe a card at Christmas time and for Mama birthday. But we would see her in the movies all the time, although most times she had a non-speaking role.

See, what happened was, Papi moved us to New Orleans after Katrina when there was all kinds of work rebuilding the city. For a good six, seven, even ten or twelve years after that we could always find work. Made enough money to save some, send some home, and even make a house note on a double in the Seventh Ward.

All the lil ones be speaking English in school and Spanish at home. They don’t be confused, just jump back and forth, like playing hop scotch.

Liela, the pretty one out in Hollywood, she don’t have no children. But all the rest of us do.

Ok, so my twin brother, he married an afro-woman, name of Rosemary, but she go by Peaches. Sweet smile, with deep, deep, deepest dimples you ever seen. Their baby is so cute.

Now, my youngest brother he live way out in the East part of New Orleans and go with this Vietnamese girl he hooked up with in high school. She say, on a romantic tip, it be easier for her to be with Black people than for Black people to be with Vietnamese. She pregnant, of course, I wonder what they children going to look like.

Now here is where some people find us mixed up, complex, and something like a United Nations. I got an uncle who married a woman who part Italian and part Negro. They met in public school and both say they don’t care what they people say, they love each other.

I know it seem like we all mixed up but we all just men and womens trying to find love whilst we do what we got to do to live our lives.

When Mama was sick, almost on her death bed, Liela, she come home to see her before Mama move on. Papi, he was so sad, most like when his dog, Teddy, died. They had been together ten years. Well, when Mama caught that cancer, less than a year after Teddy died, there wasn’t nothing that anybody could do to cheer Papi up. He not even smile when they served him lemon meringue pie.

I would have long talks with Liela, wanted to know all about Hollywood and being in movies, and everything. I would be telling her about who was who. I believe at one time we count up to forty-some cousins. I ask her how come she ain’t never had no children. She got real quiet. Most time she talk about anything. About everything. Even much told me about different men she been with and how they treat her, what they do romantically, and all, some of it really intimate. So, I figured there had to be a reason she never got pregnant or nothing.

I told her I wouldn’t be asking except she was so open about life when she talk with me. She got real quiet at my question about not having no children. She told me she was pregnant once but got it taken care of.

She saw I didn’t get it at first. “I had an abortion.”

I had so many questions but had the good sense to know that if she wanted me to know more, she would have said more. She make good money dancing and being in movies, but when she went in to thinking about the baby she gave up, she just get quiet.

“I figure we got enough babies in our family.” The next day Leila went back to the west coast and Mama passed away four months after that. Papi, he hung on for two more years, but he kind of wasted away after Mama left us. Liela came for Mama funeral but was gone a couple of days later, which is when I decided I would name my baby Liela Rose if she was a girl and Roberto if he was a boy, even though Leila didn’t never come here when Papi passed on two years after Mama.

When my school assignment was to write about my family, I kept it on the down low because my Teach-For-America young teacher would never have understood everything about us.

 

I wrote about her long ago. Another century ago. Saw her on television mid-century in the past millennium. Then, in subsequent years in concert whenever she came to New Orleans. Even won awards and such for my attempts to capture her meaning and impact.

Another mellinium and I am still writing about her.

Indeed, long after I am gone, I am sure some other scribe will memorialize our dark lady of deep song.

= = = = = 

= = = = = 

Nina is song. Not just a vocalist or singer, but actual song. The physical vibration and the meaning too. A reflection and projection of a certain segment of our mesmerizing ethos. Culturally specific in attitude, in rhythm, in what she harmonizes with and what she clashes against, merges snugly into and hotly confronts in rage. All that she is. Especially the contradictions and contrarinesses. And why not. If Nina is song. Our song. She would have to be all that.

Nina is not her name. Nina is our name. Nina is how we call ourselves remade into an uprising. Eunice Waymon started out life as a precocious child prodigy—amazingly gifted at piano. She went to church, sang, prayed and absorbed all the sweat of the saints: the sisters dropping like flies and rising like angels all around her. Big bosoms clad in white. Tambourine-playing, cotton-chopping, tobacco-picking, corn-shucking, floor-mopping, child-birthing, man-loving hands. The spray of sweat and other body secretions falling on young Eunice’s face informing her music for decades to come with the fluid fire of quintessential Black musicking. But there was also the conservatory and the proper way to approach the high art of music. The curve of the hands above the keyboard. The ear to hear and mind to understand the modulations in and out of various keys. The notes contained in each chord. She aspired to be a concert pianist. But at root she was an obeah woman. With voice and drum she could hold court for days, dazzle multitudes, regale us with the splendor, enrapture us with the serpentine serendipity of her black magic womanistness articulated in improvised, conjured incantations. “My daughter said, mama, sometimes I don’t understand these people. I told her I don’t understand them either but I’m born of them, and I like it.” Nina picked up Moses’ writhing rod, swallowed it and now hisses back into us the stories of our souls on fire. Hear me now, on fire.

My first memory of Nina is twofold. One that music critics considered her ugly and openly said so. And two that she was on the Tonight show back in the late fifties/very early sixties singing “I Love You Porgy.” Both those memories go hand in hand. Both those memories speak volumes about what a Black woman could and could not do in the Eisenhower era. They called her ugly because she was Black. Literally. Dark skinned. In the late fifties, somewhat like it is now, only a tad more adamant, couldn’t no dark skinned woman be pretty. In commercial terms, the darker the uglier. Nina was dark. She sang “Porgy” darkly. Made you know that the love she sang about was the real sound of music, and that Julie Andrews didn’t have a clue. Was something so deep, so strong that I as a teenager intuitively realized that Nina’s sound was both way over my head and was also the water within which my soul was baptized. Which is probably why I liked it, and is certainly why my then just developing moth wings sent me shooting toward the brilliant flashes of diamond bright lightening which shot sparking cobalt blue and ferrous red out of the black well of her mouth. This was some elemental love. Some of the kind of stuff I would first read about in James Baldwin’s Another Country, a book that America is still not ready to understand. Love like that is what Nina’s sound is.

nina 11.jpg
Her piano was always percussive. It hit you. Moved you. Socked it to you. She could hit one note and make you sit up straight. Do things to your anatomy. That was Nina. Made a lot of men wish their name was Porgy. That’s the way she sang that song. I wanted to grow up and be Porgy. Really. Wanted to grow up and get loved like Nina was loving Porgy. For a long time, I never knew nobody else sang that song. Who else could possibly invest that song with such a serious message, serious meaning? Porgy was Nina’s man. Nina’s song. She loved him. And he was well loved.

In my youth, I didn’t think she was ugly. Nor did I didn’t think she was beautiful. She just looked like a dark Black woman. With a bunch of make-up on in the early days. Later, I realized what she really looked like was an African mask. Something to shock you into a realization that no matter how hard you tried, you would never ever master white beauty because that is not what you were. Fundamental Blackness. Severe lines. Severe, you hear me. I mean, you hear Nina. Dogonic, chiseled features. Bold eyes. Ancient eyes. Done seen and survived slavery eyes. A countenance so serious that only hand carved mahogany or ebony could convey the features.

The hip-notism of her. The powerful peer. Percussive piano. Pounding pelvis. The slow, unhurried sureness. An orgasm that starts in the toes and ends up zillions of long seconds later emanating as a wide-mouthed silent scream uttered in some sonic range between a sigh and a whimper. A coming so deep, you don’t tremble, you quake. I feel Nina’s song and think of snakes. Damballa undulations. Congolesian contractions. She is an ancient religion renewed. The starkness of resistance. And nothing Eurocentric civilization can totally contain. Dark scream. Be both the scream and the dark. A crusty fist shot straight up in the air, upraised head. Maroon. Runaway. No more auction block. The one who did not blink when their foot was cut off to keep them from running away. And they just left anyway. Could stand before the overseer and not be there. Could answer drunken requests to sing this or that love song and create a seance so strong you sobered up and afterwards reeled backward, pawing the air cause you needed a drink. You could not confuse Nina Simone with some moon/june, puritan love song. Nina was the sound that sent slave masters slipping out of four posted beds and roaming through slave quartered nights. Yes, Nina was. And was too the sound that sent them staggering back with faces and backs scratched, teeth marked cheeks, kneed groins, and other signs of resistance momentarily tattooed on their pale bodies. And despite her fighting spirit, or perhaps because of her fighting spirit, the strength and ultra high standard of femininity she established with her every breath, these men who would be her master would not sell her. Might whip her a little, but not maim her. Well, nothing beyond cutting the foot so she would stay. With Nina it could get ugly if you came at her wrong, and something in her song said any White man approaching with intentions of possessing me is wrong. Nina sounded like that. Which is why this anti-fascist German team wrote “Pirate Jenny” and it was a long, long time before I realized that the song wasn’t even about Black people.

Nina Simone was/is something so potent, so fascinating. A fertile flame. A cobra stare. Once you heard her, you could not avoid her, avoid the implications of her sound, be ye Black, White or whatever. Her blackness embraced the humanity in all who heard her, who experienced being touched by her, whose eyes welled up with tears sometimes, feeling the panorama of sensations she routinely but not rotely evoked wherever, whenever she sat at the altar of her piano and proceeded to unfurl the spiritual history of her people. When Nina sang, sings, if you are alive, and hear her, really hear her, you become umbilicaled into the cosmic and primal soul of suffering and resurrection, despair and hope, slavery and freedom that all humans have, at one level or another, both individually and ethnically, experienced, even if only vicariously. After all, who knows better the range of reactions to the blade, than does the executioner who swings the axe?

Nina hit you in the head, in the heart, in the gut and in the groin. But she hit you with music, and thus her sonorous fusillades, even at their most furious, did you no harm. In fact, the resulting outpouring of passions was a healing. A lancing of sentimental sacs which held the poisons of oppressive tendencies, the biles of woe-filled self-pity. A draining from the body of those social toxicants which embitter one’s soul. A removal of the excrescent warts of prejudice and chauvinism that blight one’s civil make-up.

Sangoma Simone sang and her sound was salving and salubrious. Her concerts were healing circles. Her recordings medicinal potions. She gave so much. Partaking of her drained you of cloying mundanities. Poured loa-ed essentials into the life cup. You left her presence, filled to your capacity and aware of how much there was to achieve by being a communicative human being.

Nina Simone. Supper clubs could not hold her. Folk songs were not strong enough. Popular standards too inane. Even though she did them. Did them to death. Took plain soup, and when she finished adding her aural herbs, there you had gumbo. Nina hit her stride with the rebellious uprises of the sixties, and the fierce pride of the seventies. Became a Black queen, an African queen. Became beautiful. Remember, I am talking about a time when we really believed Black was beautiful. Not just ok, acceptable, nothing to be ashamed of, but beautiful. Proud. And out there. Not subdued. Not refined. Not well mannered. But out there. Way out. Like Four Women. Like Mississippi Goddamn. Like Young, Gifted And Black. Like Revolution. Like: “And I Mean Every Word Of It”. This was Nina who did an album with only herself. Voice. Piano. And some songs that commented on the human condition in terms bolder than had ever been recorded in popular music before. Are we The Desperate Ones? Have We Lost The Human Touch?

My other memories of Nina have to do with the aftermath. I recall the aridness of counterrevolutionary America clamping down and shuttering the leading lights of the seventies. Nina’s radiance was celestial, but oh my, how costly the burning. Seeking fuel she fled into exile. Who would be her well, where could she find a cool drink of water before she died?

Then, like indiscreet body odors, the rumors and gossip began floating back. The tempest. The turning in on the self. What happens when they catch you and bring you back. Reify and commodify you, relegate you back into slavery. You are forced to fight in little and sometimes strange ways. But the thrill is gone. Cause only freedom is thrilling, and ain’t no thrill in being contained on anybody’s plantation, chained to anybody’s farm. Anybody’s, be they man, woman or child. Nobody’s. Nothing thrilling about not being liberated.

Nina, like most of us, went crazy so that she could stay sane. Just did it hard. Was a more purer crazy. Cause she had so much to be sane about. So much that leeches wanted to siphon, sip, suck.
 
How do you stay sane in America? You go crazy. In order to be.
To be proud. And beautiful. And woman. And dark. Black skinned. You have to go crazy to stay sane. You have to scream, just to make room for your whispers. You have to cry and cuss, so that you can kiss and love. You have to fight. Fight. Fight. Lord. Fight. I gets. Fight. So tired. Fight. Of. Fight. Fighting all the time. But ooohhh child things are gonna get easier.

Don’t tell me about her deficiencies, or her screwed up business affairs, her temper tantrums, her lack of understanding, her bad luck with men, her walking off the stage on the audience. Don’t tell me about nothing. None of that. Because all of that ain’t Nina. Nina Simone is song. And all of that is just whatever she got to do. Like she said: Do What You Got To Do. Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

I play Nina Simone. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. This morning. Tonight at noon. Under the hot sun of Amerikkka, merrily, merrily, merrily denigrating us. In those terrible midnights. I play Nina Simone. Just to stay sane. Stay Black. To remember that Black is beautiful, not pretty. Beautiful is more than pretty. Beautiful is deep. I play beautiful Nina Simone. Nina Song. I play Nina Simone. And whether Nina’s song turns you off or Nina’s song turns you on, whose problem, whose opportunity is that?

No. Let me correct the English. I don’t play Nina Simone. I serious Nina Simone. Serious. Simone. Put on her recordings and Nzinga strut all night long. And even that is not long enough.
To be young, or ancient. Gifted, or ordinary. But definitely Black, definitely the terrible beauty of Blackness. Nina Simone. Nina Song. Nina. Nina. Nina.

Oh my god. I give thanx for Nina Simone.

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