Finding the artist by facing the damage that made me
I wanted to start with the wild weeds and the creaking wood on the front porch, walking up to Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina. I wanted to start where she started, imagining her daddy playing jazz standards on the piano, her mama cooking something good and greasy in the cramped kitchen with siblings zooming around. I envisioned myself, like Alice Walker looking for Zora Neale Hurston’s unmarked grave, shouting Nina in the derelict home, hoping somehow she would appear, gloriously phantasmagoric, and answer all of my incessant probing questions.
It didn’t happen. In 2017, four African-American artists—Adam Pendleton, Ellen Gallagher, Rashid Johnson, and Julie Mehretu—bought her house as an act of political preservation after the 2016 presidential election. Several months ago, when I decided to take a trip to North Carolina, I sent a long email to the artists explaining my intent—to look for Nina, to locate my ancestors—and I received a swift reply that read: I’m afraid the house is not accessible. All the best for your project. I was devastated, but it felt as though Nina were already testing my resolve. She had faced countless closed doors during her career. Now what was I going to do with mine?
As an artist, processing rejection is part of the contract. And I had often heard this defiant refusal in Nina’s music: wavering inside her signature contralto like grit-dark silk, unlocking a broader notion, to me, about the psychological mood of disallowance. What does it mean for me, as a Black writer, to not have acute access to the source of my inspiration? I’ve never been to Africa, and yet, the handprints and rhythms of the continent saturate all of my poems. And doesn’t Nina’s voice seem as if it comes from everywhere, entirely Southern but also diasporic, ancient even, as if it were already present, hovering above the waters before the world was built like the face of God?
What does it mean to see yourself everywhere and not know where you come from? What does it truly mean to be from a place—to be from North Carolina? For Nina Simone, born as Eunice Waymon, Tryon was a beginning, where her origin story started, where she learned to play Bach and Beethoven from Miss Mazzy, a white lady who lived a mile away in the Gillette Woods and had no children, but treated Simone as a daughter. But Tryon was a closed door, a place that couldn’t contain her dazzling, global future. A place she had to leave so she could start. And for me, North Carolina was a type of Southern Mecca, a sacred site I knew I had to reckon and wrestle with by making a pilgrimage, paying homage to my family’s slave roots, facing the damage that made me.
I took a cue from Simone’s life and went to Tryon anyway, without permission.
Three years ago, when I arrived at Vanderbilt University for my Master of Fine Arts in poetry, I felt less than, like an imposter—inadequate because I hadn’t majored in English during college. “Where are the gaps in your reading?” a professor asked me during a recruitment weekend reception while I stuffed a giant chilled shrimp, doused in cocktail sauce, into my mouth. “Everywhere,” I mumbled, exposing myself before I would be exposed. So in an effort to learn more about the traditional Western literary canon, I undertook an independent study on British Romantic Poetry with Professor Mark Jarman, utilizing close reading and textual analysis, and writing weekly poems in response. I wanted to know the rules before I broke the rules. We began with the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” in which William Wordsworth writes:
. . . poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.
This idea was new to me. I had made a habit of rushing and pushing through poems. And reading Wordsworth’s famous statement, I realized that I had believed the psychological state necessary for writing poems was in opposition to tranquility. I decided to try a new approach. What would happen if I wrote out of a tranquil state of mind instead of chaos?
Empowered by this insight, I understood that through stillness I could access trauma. My scholarship at Vanderbilt had generously afforded me time and space to chase my obsessions, to read and write endlessly. So when it came time to respond to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” my poem “The Rime of Nina Simone” unfurled as I feverishly wrote twelve pages, devouring my entire weekend in the spring of 2016. I had recently watched the Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, and like Coleridge’s weary sailor, returned from sea with his story to tell, Nina haunted me. She was everywhere. Nina became the ancient mariner in my life, interrupting me, warning me about her pitfalls and passions. Her presence captivated me and wouldn’t shake loose till she became a central character to my desires on and off the page.
In the poem, I tried to locate my truth as a poet—specifically a Black, female poet—in the biography of another artist and activist. The poem begins with an invocation:
How a Slave Ship was driven by capitalism and racism inside the triangle
of the transatlantic slave trade; and of the strange things that befell;
and in what manner Nina Simone came back from the dead to her
own Country to stop a graduate student on the way to workshop.
While the lessons of formalism were important in the initial composition of this piece, they were inadequate in capturing Simone’s signature sound, an amalgam of the traditional and the modern. I broke away from the strict rhymed quatrains and improvised with the placement of my lines in tandem with the driving symphonic nature of her capacious music. I created something that felt fresh by pushing forth the idea of the ballad. I could feel the twin claims of form and freedom converging, creating a hybrid poem inspired inside and outside of the myopic canon, just as Nina’s pirouetting fingers smashed together Bach and Baldwin and the blues.
I have conversations with the dead, especially dead Black women. By doing so, I locate my story and myself within the past. Galvanized by Coleridge’s poem, I found myself in a dialogue, engaging with Nina as a way of having a conversation with myself:
Come here, she says.
Sorry, I can’t—I’m late. I’m—
I need to tell you something about yourself.Listen, little girl:
For every pain
there is a longer song.
The body pours
its own music.
to play Bach
for endless encores. But
they wouldn’t let me
and they won’t let you.
Things have changed, Miss Simone.
I have a scholarship. They want me here.
They want my poems. They want—
Do they want you,
she says, sucking
her ghost teeth,
or your Black pain?
What’s the difference? I say.
Before I began writing “The Rime of Nina Simone,” I tended to resist identification as a Southern writer, but a line from the poem pinpointed a larger compulsion about my life: “I can’t talk about the trees without the blood.” This line articulated a truth for me. I cannot look at or engage with the landscape of the South without seeing the trauma of the past—I will always see blood on the leaves.
The poem enacts aspects of African-American history and politics, while also establishing a platform from which I could examine my own complex connections to race and gender through the ancestral violence of slavery in the South. This geographical perspective was vital: I was born in Los Angeles but moved to Tennessee when I was seven years old. The move lent an outsider’s perspective to my Southern roots as a writer.
Every writer has his or her own set of obsessions, or flood subjects, as Emily Dickinson would say. For me, trees will never be just trees. They will also and always be a row of gallows from which dead Black bodies once swung. This is a governing image that I cannot escape, but one that I have learned to lean into as I continue to write poems that delve into personal and public histories around race.
I listen to the trees
humming through the poplar leaves
and Southern magnolias. Bloated faces,
these beauteous forms, still swinging,
limp pendulum, waxy bleach-white blooms,
egg whites inside hardboiled eyes
sway and rock, roll forward, fragrant.
I’m ready to find the ruined churches.
(In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
felt in the blood, and felt along the heart.)
I have a second stomach now. Now
I can look at my dead and listen.
Listen, I’m transcribing the soaked,
I transcribed my rage into poetry because I wanted my rage to be useful and even beautiful. Maya Angelou interviewed the High Priestess of Soul in 1970 for Redbook magazine, writing “life has left keloidal scars on her voice.” And yes, it was Nina’s exhausted throat I heard weaving through the lynching trees. I read news reports of mass graves being uncovered in Nashville, and I couldn’t escape her protest songs or the burbling, Southern Gothic landscape underneath my feet teeming with tombstoneless slaves. This grotesque imagery was superimposed over every segregated church, every oxidized Confederate statue, every tattered flag of hate, every plantation wedding. I continued to face the damage that made me, but my wrath wrecked me. I wanted to ask Nina how she kept going, how she held it all—the movement and motherhood, her piano, money, and broken men—even when it was all unspooling.
“I think my mom’s anger is what sustained her,” Lisa Kelly Simone says in the documentary. After I arrived in North Carolina and drove around the mountainous landscapes, I repeated this sentence to myself over and over. I repeated it when I woke up in the morning in my hotel room, and when I walked around the sloping streets in Tryon, chanting it even as I paced around the perimeter of Nina’s house. I wrote it again in my journal, underlining “anger,” hoping to unlock the abstract concept with an image as a cipher, and then my mother’s face appeared, this time from my childhood. I remembered how the anger transmuted her countenance, her shoulders, tighter each time a bill was overdue or after a bad shift at Shoney’s, dropping coins like hail on the kitchen counter. Growing up, every Black woman I knew was exhausted.
Some say Black love is different. Once, I asked my mother why she always yelled at me when I was little. She said I never listened to her when she spoke to me in hushed tones like a white mother would; soft volume is a privilege. My mother screamed when she lost me in the mall once. I followed my name until I found her. The music of her rage sustained me.
What is the price of maintaining fury? What is the difference between fearlessness and recklessness in art and in life—and is there enough of a difference? How do I protect my mental health in conjunction with my activism? What is the price of protest as an artist? Have I made another myth of Nina Simone? I have too many questions I want to ask of the dead.
As a writer, I know I can’t sustain one note, and that poems can be mighty containers for empathy, especially for the people who have hurt us. But again, I want my anger to be useful. I want my anger to give me permission to write what I need to survive. I learned this from Nina. She is everywhere I go, giving me permission to persist—a tenacious ontological resolve, built and bred from struggle and resistance. I recognize my own identity in that searing paradox: growing up as the only child of a single Black woman who worked several jobs to make sure that I could have the best education possible.
Because of this, as a child, I spent a lot of time creating worlds within the solitary space of my imagination, which became an escape hatch for me. My early years were spent speaking back into the silences that filled our apartment when my mother was absent. As I waited to hear my mother’s keys unlock the door so I could sleep, this impulse to create and dream was building a type of survival.
Tryon is touted as the “friendliest town in the South.” It’s gorgeous, vibrantly green and lush in the summer—verdant trees, squished and stacked, decorate the road as Hogback Mountain looms large from the west, a giant sentinel protecting the small, tucked-away town from the brunt of Mother Nature. Kudzu spills down every hillock, climbing up telephone poles and wires: blankets of kudzu, wild and seemingly everywhere, unstoppable.
Looking at Nina Simone’s statue in downtown Tryon, I recite the end of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which reads, “for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” Rilke wrote the poem while staring, entranced, at a headless statue from Auguste Rodin that dazzled him to the point of imperative transformation. Now, almost exactly one hundred years later, I am standing in front of the eight-foot bronze statue of Nina Simone.
She is gigantic, and I know the metal cast is not alive, but I swear the skin is vibrating, belling inside me. Her alchemic presence must have felt this enormous in real life. I reach out and caress her fake heart, trying to sweep and gather the duende-drenched spirit emanating from the statue’s chest, where a portion of her ashes are interred. More magnolia trees and pastel-smeared hydrangea bushes encircle the statue, with train tracks in the background, right off South Trade Street in the Nina Simone Plaza, across from the little Tryon Theater, where construction workers are outside, gnashing on a piece of wood, a man wielding a giant buzz saw, the sounds of which fill the air with loud razors—a cacophony. A busted pickup truck drives by and a white man hollers something indecipherable at me. I do not know if it is a catcall, a friendly howdy, or a racial epithet. My confusion feels familiar: toggling delight and dismay.
Nina sits wearing a long dress, her hands playing a floating wave of piano keys suspended in front of her. Someone has laid an orchid and dried lavender in a tiny, tied bunch on the keyboard. Someone has placed fake pearls around her neck and conch-shaped hairdo. Her skin has tiny artistic cuts, or rather, etchings, almost as if it has been scarified; her eyes are hollowed out, little dark teacups staring across the street to a sliver of Southern Gothic paradise. At first, it seems like a trompe-l’oeil, because the Eden-like square is cut, painted almost perfectly, between a row of historic downtown storefronts—a theater of wilderness, appearing just for Nina. In the center of the scene is a vine-choked telephone pole with an American flag whipping wildly in the wind. The red-white-and-blue symbol of American freedom shines right in her sightline, her gaze fixed and immutable.
Nina’s statue stares down the flag with that famous Midtown glare, the one she pierced through people who were drunk and disruptive when she first started performing at the old Midtown dive bar off the Atlantic City Boardwalk. She would stop singing and playing the piano, freeze and stare, like some Black Medusa, until the rabble-rousers became stone silent or were kicked out of the club by her more serious fans. But here in Tryon, her statue’s truculent glare is still palpable and large. I can sense her rage and exhaustion from the tumult of the sixties, of Black revolution, her dead friends: Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Jimmy Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael . . . Of finding and failing at love on a loop, from endless touring and constant tax troubles, and from losing her beloved daddy, John Divine Waymon.
“I didn’t suddenly wake up one morning feeling dissatisfied,” Nina Simone writes in her autobiography. “These feelings just became more and more intense, until by the time the sixties ended I’d look in the mirror and see two faces, knowing that on the one hand I loved being black and being a woman, and that on the other it was my colour and sex which had fucked me up in the first place.” I know this rage personally. I felt this bitterness too after the violent public deaths of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, the Charleston church shooting, Nia Wilson—the list of Black names continues, and so does the bitterness that follows me on this trip. The horror is constant.
What I love most about Nina Simone: how she responded and translated the hard world around her. “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times,” she said.
I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. . . . I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white, know this. That’s why they’re so involved in politics. We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore. So I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.
This manifesto is present in “Mississippi Goddam,” her first civil rights song, which she wrote after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers. She wanted to make a zip gun and shoot someone, anyone, but her most effective weapon was her music—and the song shot through her, becoming a conduit for her wrath:
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam
This manifesto is also present in me. Nina teaches me how to carry my anger, how to pour the pain into a poem, how to enrapture an audience, how to carry myself like a Black queen even when I feel shattered, even if I have to strain for it. I’ve got to use it all to sing.
I often get asked: What are you? Where are you from? People are asking about my origin, but what they really want to know is that my dad is white and my mom is Black—I’m mixed. Often, as a Black person in this country, I don’t know where I’m from, where I’m really from. Curious people want to trace and place me—and yet, their questioning is a subtle and subconscious way of putting me in my place. The brain likes to make patterns and associations by chunking similar and dissimilar things into separate categories. And I know that, for most, I present a conundrum with my skin tone.
Of course, I gather that most of me is from Africa, but that word, that place, that landscape is loaded, freighted and thrown around, often haphazardly, until it means nowhere, only existing in the Western imagination. It seems as though Africa is mostly referred to as a continent and rarely by its countries, thereby relegating the vastness to one monolithic idea, erasing the diversity of people and cultures that live and die and thrive there. I gather that most of me is scattered across the Black parts of Africa, maybe a part of me is from somewhere off the west coast known as the Slave Coast, along the Bight of Benin as noted on the maps of Negroland from the transatlantic slave trade. But who can narrow it down from there?
After Nina Simone visited Africa for the first time, in 1961, with the American Society of African Culture, she wrote in her autobiography: “All around us were black faces, and I felt for the first time the spiritual relaxation any Afro-American feels on reaching Africa. I didn’t feel like I’d come home when I arrived in Lagos, but I knew I’d arrived somewhere important and that Africa mattered to me, and would always matter.”
Before my trip to Tryon, I spit into a tube to find out where I come from. My saliva was sent off in a little box, and six weeks later I found out I was right—I’m 41.3% Sub-Saharan African. I took the DNA test as a way of knowing myself and trying to answer some questions that seemed unanswerable about my past, especially about my white father, whom I have never met. But beyond my blood, I wanted to grapple with my inheritance, with what it means to come from slaves, from the South, from church folk, from single women raising babies, from Black women singing in choirs, from North Carolina. What does it mean to see yourself everywhere and not know where you come from?
Simone wrote, “Sometimes I think the whole of my life has been a search to find the one place I truly belong.”
All my grandparents are dead, but I still have Joycene, my oldest living relative and second cousin. Joycene is eighty-four years old and still lives at the bottom hem of Warrior Mountain in Lenoir, North Carolina. Joycene’s mom was Pansy, my grandmother Toy’s closest sister. Joycene says her mom and Toy were inseparable until Toy went off to the Air Force. She lives on the same land, close to where my grandmother was born and raised by my great-grandmother, Freelove.
This trip is my first time to visit North Carolina, my first time to visit my family that has lived here for more than five generations. As I drive east on I-40, voluptuous, creamy clouds smudge the sky above my silver Honda. I slice through the base of Black Mountain with Pisgah National Forest to my left and an endless loop of teetering tractor-trailers to my right. I feel a weird combination of anticipation mixed with caution and joy. I review my questions for Joycene out loud in the car. Would any topic be off limits? Would she be happy to see me? I last saw her at my wedding, seven years ago, and that was a wild blur of champagne, sweet-potato cupcakes, and the “Cupid Shuffle.” I reached out last minute, and Joycene was kind enough to switch her shifts at the liquor store to make sure she could visit with me.
I take a sharp left turn and slope down Warrior Road, passing mobile homes and kids without shoes and old Black men with baseball caps smoking on porches. Joycene greets me with a hug on her porch decorated with plants and Black bric-a-brac. She is elated to see me. I notice Joycene has my grandmother’s exact hair—mottled with streaks of snow and slate, it seems to sparkle when the sun slides through it. It’s a bit frizzy because of June’s sweltering heat and the pre-storm soupy air, and the small circumference of her short bob swells, a salt-and-pepper corona. I keep on staring at and around her scalp, scooping her up, thinking of my grandmother, or, rather, thinking what it would have been like to have a grandmother to stare at from across the living room—any room—listening to her mellifluous voice, aged and alto, woven with a soft squeak, like the movements from fast fingers on the neck of some dark folk guitar shifting from string to string. Joycene’s rough-honeyed voice oscillates with the rattling air conditioner jutting out of the window in her living room—and yes, it’s true, I see so much of my full face in Joycene’s face, some fifty years difference, especially in her cheeks and almond-shaped eyes, thinning eyebrows, full lips, and the caramel color of her skin, like coffee with a generous portion of cream.
“What was Freelove like?” I ask, sitting across from her on the couch, with my phone recording.
“A boss,” Joycene chuckles. “We called her Boss. Everybody called her Boss, even her children.”
“Well, we use to call her Mama Freelove, but then she just bossed everyone around. You couldn’t do nothing without her bossing you . . . that’s not the way . . . no, do it this way and bluh bluh bluh!”
“Seems to run in the family.”
“She was bossy, just like your grandmother and mother!” she exclaims while still laughing, and I’m giggling, too, because I know I come from this resilient line of bossy Black women, Bible-reading women, women whose faces have known too much pain from racism, from hard men and even harder labor, from paycheck to paycheck, from prayers on knees. I start with these four women: Freelove begat Toy and Toy begat Verna and Verna begat me.
My skin is blackMy arms are longMy hair is woollyMy back is strongStrong enough to take the paininflicted again and again—“Four Women”
Being around Joycene is wonderful, but every few minutes I want to weep, because I keep forgetting she is not mine. She is not my grandmother. I keep sniffing back tears, hoping to push the persistent stream down to my gut for later, save this specific sorrow for the drive back to the hotel in the deep-dark through the pockets of fog each time I swerve around the waist of the mountain. She reminds me of Toy, or what I remember of my grandmother, but in a woebegone way, because I’m trying to grasp at some sense of belonging, some family bond, some familiar idea, some matriarchal juju for the simulacrum of my grandmother, because I didn’t have a chance to know my real grandmother before she passed away. By the time I arrived into the world, all ten pounds and no daddy, she was already clutched in the claws of Alzheimer’s—blurring before I was born. But I have these scant memories of us together: me a little girl, and her, a part-time ghost—lucid, then disappearing again.
My favorite and most vivid memory is learning to make my first cake with my grandmother. I was five on a stool in the kitchen and watched as she tapped and broke the thin membrane of eggs against the lip of the ceramic bowl. No recipe for her, just muscle memory from years of making yellow cakes. Her pruned skin moved through the ritual of ingredients like dancing marionette hands, except she left the empty eggshells in the bowl and crunched them into the sticky batter. In expectation, I watched our cake rise like a mountaintop through the oven door window. The buzzer went off and we waited for our cake to cool. My grandmother proudly sliced out a wedge for me. I bit and the eggshell shrapnel slid between my gum and tooth; I bled.
Now that I’m a woman more familiar with the effects of Alzheimer’s, I often think about that bright blood in my mouth, that gift: that moment when she forgot to throw the eggshells away. I think about little-girl me peering over the counter at my grandmother’s swift-moving cinnamon-stained hands, stirring with a centrifugal force I want to gather when I feel small, the smell of wet sugar in the bowl, the wafting smell of her perfume, something with lavender, I think, and I don’t remember the rest. The DNA test I took also revealed that I don’t have the ε4 variant for late-onset Alzheimer’s disease—I exhaled.
Bob Dylan said, “The purpose of art is to stop time,” and this is why I love writing poetry: to stop time for the length of a poem and become myself again and celebrate the gift of blood in my mouth. I write to access that same pulse, that blood-jet, that wine-dark optimism, the beating heart of the poem, the punctum: “that accident which pricks, bruises me,” Roland Barthes once said. I’m hoping to glean and stretch the personal and universal implications with some lingering resonance.
I want a little sugar in my bowlI want a little sweetness down in my soulI could stand some lovin’, oh so badI feel so funny, I feel so sad—“I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”
When I look at Joycene, I start to think I might come from somewhere. When I look at Joycene, I start to think it’s okay that my grandmother is gone. She tells me not to wait till I’m too old to move back home like she did, because all her friends are dead now. She has pictures strewn about her couch and coffee table, pictures filled with faces I do not know. She points and says, “This is your family. . . . This is Pansy here in the white dress. This is Toy and Aunt Vi. This is John Wesley. This is . . . ” She keeps putting pictures in my hands, showing me my people, my large, extended family, pointing as if to say, this is where you come from. Here, look. Look. I’m looking down, trying to make these static images sing.
I stare hard and study the faces, trying to find my features again: my almond eyes, my wide nose and slender hands. They all had such slender hands—piano fingers, I think. Joycene sits back down in her periwinkle recliner with a zebra robe and house slippers. Above her on the bookshelf is a Black doll whose legs are dangling over her head. Above the doll is a portrait of Obama, which I’ve also seen in my auntie’s house. There is a way in which the women of this family handle papers that begins to feel like an inheritance, stacks of letters and bills, receipts and ephemera, and Joycene goes through such a stack as I ask her questions.
“Do you know where she got her name from . . . Freelove?”
“You know, I have no idea. . . . I assumed it was from some of the slave owners. I thought it was a nickname. ’Cause who names . . . who names somebody that!” Joycene cackles.
Later, we go to her back porch and she points past her manicured lawn (that she still mows when she has the energy) to a large thicket, a few hundred yards away, bisected by several voltaic power lines, buzzing. She points to the start of my family, to the house where Freelove lived and reared ten children, alone. I imagine my grandmother as a little girl running around the Southern wildness, and somehow I am brought back to Nina’s birthplace in Tryon, eighty miles away, which is set in a landscape so similar to my own roots: a little house crammed with children, a matriarch, some chickens, lots of trees, and God.
I’m standing at the start of my origin story, off Warrior Road. I’m looking at the overgrown plot of land where my family began, the dried-up creek where Joycene tells me they once pulled up water in pails to drink and draw baths from. I don’t want to romanticize the land, but damn, it feels good to be from somewhere, feels rich to look at something rough and green and feel a sliver of ownership. Even if it ain’t fancy where I come from, I got a place on a map that I know is mine. I’m from somewhere. I know where I start now and I’ve got Joycene, too, and my other cousin Dee, who lives right next door. Dee says next time I come to visit Lenoir I need to give her some warning—they want to have a cookout for me, “go all out,” she says, roast a whole pig on a spit in the front yard and everything.
Joycene is not my grandmother, but she is the asymptote, so that from far away I can’t see how the two women—one alive and one dead—don’t intersect. I pretend that she is my stand-in grandma, just for that day, talking to me about where I come from—
“Do you know how we ended up in North Carolina?” I ask Joycene.
“Okay. Slavery,” she pauses for a half breath. “When the slaves were freed, my grandmother said they gave them Warrior Mount—they were way down in the woods somewhere—and when the slaves were freed, somebody gave them Warrior Mountain, which is this big ol’ mountain right here in front us. And they lived up there, and she said they all practically starved to death . . . because, well I guess, because of the conditions up there. And then somebody . . . I don’t know how they . . . Anyway, they settled here.”
You always know when a Nina Simone song spills out of a speaker. The temperature changes, the mood and muscles relax, and everyone at the party seems to pause.
It was April in Minneapolis. My first blizzard. I was there for a reading, but it had been canceled due to the inclement weather. Michael Bazzett, a friend and wonderful poet, decided to throw a mescal party. He had two kinds: one that tasted like junipers, pine cones, and a freshly cut garden hose; and another that engulfed the roof of my mouth with smoke and ash and lava splatter—but then instead of being rough, the finish was surprisingly sweet, with hints of sea salt caramel taffy, smooth as it slipped over my tongue like loud syrup.
The snow was relentless and piling up outside of Michael’s windows. Cars were gradually disappearing into white mounds as we chatted about poems and puppies, each of us trying new adjectives to describe the fabulous sensations in our mouths. I don’t remember which Nina Simone song it was that started playing from his speakers, but the music was familiar to my bones and everyone at the party slackened just a bit. I remember thinking Nina is everywhere I go. Something warm loosened in my stomach, maybe from the mescal, but I started humming along. I think it was “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”
I saw her again when I watched and re-watched Childish Gambino’s iconoclastic music video for “This Is America,” which portrays Black joy with flashes of Black violence, constantly switching back and forth: grief and gratitude, dance with death, Black minstrelsy with hip-hop. I heard her singing “Lilac Wine” during an interlude in Beyoncé’s powerful 2018 Coachella performance.
At the foot of her bronze statue in Tryon, North Carolina, I’m brought back to my knees. I touch my hands to her hands; I climb to reach my ear to her ear. I listen for the Atlantic Ocean. I must change my life.
I stare at the American flag across the street from her statue, whipping wildly in the wind, and sing:
Love me, love me, love me, say you doLet me fly away with youFor my love is like the windAnd wild is the wind.—“Wild Is the Wind”
I put Nina’s birthplace in my phone’s GPS, and as I grow closer to the destination my whole body hums with anticipation. Even my bones feel as if there is some kind of metal detector inside them, beeping louder as the miles shrink down and through and up the winding, snakelike roads. I take hard left turns and even harder right turns, unfolding tiny vistas before me. Nina said, “There was the special nature of Tryon itself,” and that “there wasn’t a black side of town: it was more like a series of circles around the centre with blacks or whites living in these circles . . . it was a checkerboard type of living . . .”
I drive around another sharp loop: then right onto Grady Avenue, left onto Markham Road, then left onto East Livingston Street—and there it is, a shining city on a hill, except there is no sheen to it, just a small, derelict house with moldy wood siding, the color of creamy jade, and a peeling tin roof. The bottom of the house is exposed and lifted on chunks of brick cinder blocks that puncture the red dirt underneath. Nonetheless, the house radiates, a sacred space.
A giant magnolia tree with two waxy, white blooms enshrouds the back half of the property. I’ve always adored magnolia trees for their flamboyant bigness, and it seems this one, in particular, is protecting the house, covering the battered roof with irregular patterns of shade, slivers of daylight spilling through its natural canopy. Trees know, and I could tell this one remembers the Black family that once lived here.
There is a NO TRESPASSING sign stapled to the front porch, and I am too much of a rule follower to see if the front door will open. I don’t need to anyway. The house itself is bursting with Simone’s intensity, maybe even her ghost, and my churning heart thumps as I peer and try to peek through the clouded and dirt-caked windows. I imagine little Nina entangled under her mama’s legs in the kitchen, her dad playing on the pump organ, her seven siblings zipping and shimmying around the tight corners.
I conjure Nina’s first memory, from the outside looking in to what I imagine is the kitchen: her mother singing “I’ll Fly Away” as she helps Nina cut out disks of wet biscuits by pressing down and gently twisting the glass rim of a mason jar. I sing along softly under my breath as I walk around the perimeter of the house, absorbing the landscape in circles, hoping the house will crumble like the walls of Jericho, revealing the diorama of Nina’s early life.
I’ll fly away, oh gloryI’ll fly away in the morningWhen I die, Hallelujah by and byI’ll fly away
There is a charge inside the sticky Southern air. Sure, you could say it’s from the bloated storm clouds brewing overhead, but that soul-rich electricity isn’t from the fluctuating ions bouncing around the atmosphere, invisible.
Nina is here.
Excerpts from “The Rime of Nina Simone” from I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, by Tiana Clark, © 2018. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
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