Because I love me some Nina Simone I decided to watch "What Happened Miss Simone" on Netflix today. This is a beautiful and moving documentary that spoke to me from beginning to end; it felt like a splash of cold water awaking me from a deep sleep.
Near the beginning she says, "When I first started to take lessons, I became terribly aware of how isolated I was from the other children, and how isolated I was from the white community and the negro community. They always wanted me just to play the piano for them to dance. I wasn’t asked too much to do anything else. That was very hard."
I knew this isolation. I remembered looking up from the upright piano of our home out of the window that looked over into our neighbor's backyard normally overflowing with kids and laughter. I could hear the bikes whizzing by on the street outside and kids calling to each other but, I had work to do. I had found an emotional outlet for all the things that one feels growing up gay and Black in Mississippi. I knew that somewhere in those 88 black and white keys were answers to the questions I was too young to ask. At 13 I became the pianist and music director at my father's church. Hearing stories of Miss Simone playing in church as a child I was immediately taken back to so many Sunday mornings where after the postlude would end, the congregation would clap (sometimes politely, sometimes uproariously), and they would leave for their post-church Sunday activities I normally had about 15-20 minutes in the sanctuary by myself before heading to the next service. Finally alone, I would play just for me. Very often there would be tears streaming down my face as I realized that the church that I had grown up in, where I played and sang and led the choirs, the place where the Black community had found strength and joy out of misery for generations was not a safe place for me. Or at least not all of me. But, I wasn't just crying because of that. I cried because Sunday morning really is one of the most segregated times and no one really seemed to care. I chose my friends based on common interests and focus. I had friends of all races and ethnicities and I cried when I thought of the walls we were confided to dwell inside. So, I played songs for my friends that they would never hear and I cried.
"I choose to reflect the times and the 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." - Nina Simone
I think much like Miss Simone I did not become a musician in order to become an activist but, at some point I realized that as a musician I literally have a microphone in front of me and when you see injustice in the world it is your duty to speak truth.
Less than a year ago, I was sitting on a couch in Edinburgh, Scotland watching footage from Ferguson, Missouri with Savitri D and members of The Stop Shopping Choir. If it had been captured in black and white one would have been hard pressed to distinguish if this was 1920s, 1960s or 2014. As I watched this I could feel myself changing but, I didn't fully understand how. Four months later we were there, on the ground. Originally we had come to protest Monsanto with an organic Thanksgiving Dinner on their lawn but, that had us less than 15 minutes from Ferguson. We met activists there, had dinner with them and I found the slightly out of tune piano that every church basement seems to have. The Stop Shopping Choir sang some of our songs first then everyone started singing, mainly church songs (I specifically remember "Victory is Mine") and I felt a shudder upon realizing that perhaps my life had a trajectory that I didn't know about. All of those Sunday tears of isolation and sadness had suddenly become Thanksgiving tears of joy.
June 2015 was a roller coaster. There was a stark reminder that the church, a place of sanctuary and safety was never quite as safe as we had hoped. And then the final week of the month rolled in and it became clear that millions of Americans would keep their health insurance, marriage would just be marriage regardless of the genders of the people involved and as a country we even had conversations about the history of the Confederate flag (even in "Mississippi, goddamn!"). It felt that the country was moving in the right direction. The chance to pursue happiness was feeling tangible.
But, alas, the elation was short lived. Suddenly, my Facebook wall was being inundated with articles about "gay" marriage meaning the end of society. My pursuit of happiness for some reason had also signaled the end of civilization. I know, I know. "That's why Facebook has an "un-friend" button." But, 1 - I don't want to live in a bubble, an echo chamber of agreement. 2 - 20 years of friendship, shared memories and experiences can't be erased with the click of a button. And as I was probably the first out, gay person known to some of these people I couldn't help but wonder..."What had I done to make you believe that my desire to find love and happiness was a part of some evil plot to tear down society?" I know there's no answer for this but, the feeling is there all the same.
Last night, I called my mom and we talked for hours. I was energized when she told me about a number of encounters she had had explaining to people the truth about gay marriage. In Jackson, Mississippi. In case you were wondering - yes, she's a superhero. But, this isn't new to her. She's been an ally since before I even knew I would need one. (Can I repeat for emphasis: IN JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI.)
"She was not at odds with the times—the times was at odds with her. I think when a person moves to their own kind of clock, spirit, flow, if we were living in an environment that allowed us to be exactly who we are, you’re always in congress with yourself. The challenge is how do we fit in in the world that we're around. Are we allowed to be exactly who we are?" - Ambassador Shabazz on Nina Simone
Today, I celebrate July 4th not for our history but for our future. A future where we are allowed to be exactly who we are.
Thank you, Mom. Thank you, Savitri. Thank you, Miss Nina Simone.