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“…because a village is always somewhere burning
and if you do not look because it is not your village
it is still your village.”
from Eyes, Stones by Elana Bell
Nina Simone was listening to the radio at home when she heard about the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four black girls. It was 1963. The year Dr. King wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail. The year Kennedy announced the Civil Rights Bill. The year Medgar Evers was gunned down in his own driveway. But four little girls?
As Simone later recalled, “All the truths that I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped my face… It came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination. In church language, the Truth entered me and I came through.”
She went into the garage. When her husband, Andy, came home a few hours later, he found her sitting on the floor with a mess of tools spread out in front of her. Nina Simone was trying to build a hand-made gun.
“I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone,” she explains in I Put a Spell on You. “I didn’t know who, but someone I could identify as being in the way of my people getting justice for the first time in three hundred years.”
Andy, standing behind her as she continued to work, finally said “Nina, you don’t know anything about killing. The only thing you’ve got is music.”
Eventually, she put down the tools, went to her piano, and wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in a hour. Music was her gun.
Lately, in the face of the madness any person with a pulse and an internet connection is privileged to, I’ve been inhaling the essays in June Jordan’s Some of Us Did Not Die. On the worst mornings, when I’m on fire before I even know why, I read her essays before I do anything else, hoping that maybe – just maybe – she’ll prepare me to face it.
Then, a sentence in “Nicaragua: Why I Had To Go There,” hit me with a realness so pointed, it felt like malice. “Here in the United States you do get weary, after a while; you could spend your best energies forever writing letters to the New York Times. But you know, in your gut, that writing back is not the same as fighting back.”
June Jordan goes on to explain that after reading about the violence in Nicaragua (this was 1983) she decided she had to go there and see the people herself. She knew it in her gut. It’s an amazing experience. There, with the people and the poetry they so eagerly embrace and the conversations and images, June Jordan “fights back” by “going there” by being human with her fellow villagers.
But what about the rest of us, the ones who read “writing back is not the same as fighting back” and feel the sting of a slap? Not because what June Jordan wrote was mean or unfair, but because it was so utterly true and frustrating. What about those of us who say to ourselves, “but this poem is the only thing I’ve got”?
All I’ve ever wanted to do was create and witness art that might save my life. And, thus far, it has. Art has pulled me back from the edge of myself more times than I can count. I’m sure that’s true for many of you as well, but, lately, it hasn’t been enough – saving myself, I mean.
I’m a black gay man in America. A dicey proposition, to be sure, but I’m not Trayvon Martin. Or Rekia Boyd. Or Brandy Martell. I’m not the Occupy protester getting beaten with a baton as she takes a stand against NATO in downtown Chicago nor am I the mother in Southside Chicago who reads about another night of shootings in her neighborhood and wonders who exactly is occupying whom. I’m not one of the 90 men stoned to death in Iraq for having “emo” haircuts and tight-fitting clothes, but my village is burning.
I believe Nina Simone tried to build that gun because that night she realized what all other-ed bodies eventually realize: a gun was already at her head. She feared a song might not be enough. The fact that this gun could not be seen didn’t make it any less real or lethal. And I wonder if it felt like comfort or a trigger being pulled to be told “the only thing you’ve got is music.”
I read recently that a preacher in North Carolina told his congregation that all gays and lesbians should be quarantined behind an electric fence and left to starve. Then I read about CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman, who tried to defend herself against an attacker with a pair of scissors and was forced to plead guilty to manslaughter in order to avoid a murder charge. Now she’s been sentenced to 42 months in a men’s prison. The news stories wash over me until I feel like I’m sitting on the floor of Nina Simone’s garage with fragments of unfinished, desperate poems and essays in my lap. Is witnessing the only thing I’ve got?
Because that’s who we are, witnesses, the ones who refuse sleep, the ones who dive into the wreck and go as deep as they can until finally, there is nothing left to do but testify on the page. I heard the shot. I saw the mob. I was there. I was there. I was there. Here, I hope, art as witness is the beginning of the answer to the question that concludes June Jordan’s essay, “When will we seize the world around us with our freedom?”
I had hoped to write a column about some aspect of queer life and cultural criticism and, I suppose, that is exactly what this is, but I won’t sleep any easier for it. This essay was written with a gun to its head. And, I suspect, the poem, the story, the song you’re writing tonight will be written under the same condition.
So, tell me: what does your gun sound like?