Nina Simone’s New World Coming

Every year when the clock strikes midnight on December 31, I do something much different than most people. Right at the dawning of a New Year, “Should all acquaintance be forgot,” resonates at every gathering of New Year revelers. Instead of joining with the crowd, I prefer to listen to Nina Simone’s melodic sounds, “There’s a new world coming and it’s just around the bend. There’s a new world coming, and this one’s coming to an end.” I really do appreciate Ms. Simone’s words because they are filled with hope for our race.

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As a novelist, I consider myself to be a dreamer. Most writers who engage in the creation of fiction are dreamers. The great Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in his, Letters to a Young Novelists, that the goal of the writer is to create a world that far exceeds the one in which we live. The dreamer or visionary sees beyond the frailties of our world and shares with us his or her vision of a better existence. What the writer does with words, Nina Simone does in song. Her verse continues, “There’s a new voice calling and you can hear it if you try. And it’s growing stronger with every day that passes by…There’s a brand new world coming…The one that we’ve had visions of coming in peace, coming in joy and coming in love.”

As I look back over this past year, I believe Ms. Simone’s words grow in relevance. As a Black man and writer, my concern for our future as a culture increases with every young child killed by the police or the gangs. For far too many Black Americans in this country there is no peace, there is no joy and there is no love. No matter how hard we’ve tried over the decades since emancipation, we often seem to come up short. And our condition continues to worsen. It is almost impossible to find peace in these turbulent times. When a twelve year old Tamir Rice can be killed by the Cleveland Police and when nine year old Tyshawn Lee can be murdered by a punk gang member and they represent only the tip of the iceberg, we have a crisis. The irony of our dilemma is that there is nothing intrinsically bad or evil about our people. To the contrary we have, over the centuries, been the most forgiving and loving race within this multi-cultural nation in which we live.

That is why every first day of the New Year, I concentrate on a new world that is within our reach. A world where, as Nina Simone tells us in song, is filled with peace, joy and love. That is contrary to what we are experiencing in our communities. And that is why I write. It is my niche and where I am anchored for the remainder of my life. My works will not glorify the vulgar, the obscene, the killing, the drugs and the slow extermination of my race.

chestnuttThe great novelist Charles Chestnutt exclaimed in an interview with Crisis Magazine in 1926, “the realm of art is almost the only territory in which the mind is free, and of all the arts that of creative fiction is the freest.” The issue then becomes how do we as artists use the freedom to create. Do we mirror the violence that is drowning out our culture and write about the negative influences on our young, or do we, as Nina Simone suggests, dream of a new world that is about the eradication of hate and destruction.

I know exactly where I stand on these critical issues to our culture, and I believe that all of us in the year 2016 must take a stand. And hopefully, it will be to uphold the new world that our great prophetess told us “is just around the bend.”

 

Change

The Oxford Dictionary defines change as to make someone or something different. It further defines improve as change for the better. Using these two verbs, allow me to apply change and improve to a brief analysis of the cultural evolution of Black America.

I believe we can identify four specific periods in our history when change occurred specifically within the Black race. The first obviously was from slavery to freedom. The second occurred during the first three decades of the Twentieth Century and especially during the 1920’s. The third period is identifiable with the Civil Rights Movement. We are now witnessing the fourth period of change that began sometime in the 1980’s with the crack epidemic and the introduction of a specific genre of RAP music. Now please keep in mind to improve is change for the better. Conversely is the possibility that change may not be improvement, but could be just the reverse. Therefore, a critique of those four periods of change is only relevant if we can determine if they also improved the condition of Black people in this country.

One would be hard pressed to argue that the change from slavery to freedom was not an improvement in the condition of our ancestors. Yes, they confronted some very insurmountable odds. They understood the tremendous obstacles facing them on a daily basis during the apartheid years. Every major institution in this country lined up against them. The national, state local governments, the courts, the police and even the military set out to keep them in a subservient status. But there was something very special about those beautiful Black folk who united together against their oppressors. They never became negative but instead turned to love, prayer, and an uncanny determination to never give up, never quit, and never succumb to the evil all around them. Their spirit strength and unity became the foundation for our culture. They survived so that we might live.

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The second historical period of change occurred as Blacks, three generations removed from bondage, jettisoned the old slave mentality and rejected the notion that somehow they were inferior and must always remain subservient to a race of people who assumed their superiority. This period of change can best be understood through the works of the Harlem Renaissance artists. Moving into the 1920’s and led by the godfather of the movement, Dr. Alain Locke, these artists made it clear in their works that a new Black consciousness had evolved. The writers, painters, poets and musicians had one common theme; they were proud of their race, believed in self-reliance and demanded their rights as American citizens. Dr. Locke expounded on this theme in his anthology, The New Negro, published in 1925. Dr. Locke recognized the damage done to the perceptions of Blacks right after Reconstruction failed and during the next fifty years. His goal, as he stated in the foreword to the anthology was “to document the New Negro culturally and socially, to register the transformation of the inner and outer life of the Negro in America.” According to Locke, the old Negro had been socially constructed as “Uncle Toms,” “aunties,” “mammies,” or “sambos.” He went on to describe the New Negro as one who operated with the dual purposes of bringing new leadership to modern America and “rehabilitating the race in world esteem from that loss of prestige for which the fate and conditions of slavery have so largely been responsible.” (Aberjhani and Sandra L. West, Harlem Renaissance, Checkmark Books, An Imprint of Facts on File, Inc New York, 2003). These artists also began to take pride in their African heritage and often argued that the “New Negro” was Pan African in outlook and determined to link Blacks in this country with people of color all over the world. This particular period of cultural change had a positive impact on Black Americans. It allowed Black artists and spokespersons to express new perceptions of the race and take pride in who they were and from where they had come. According to Aberjhani and West the New Negro phase of cultural development allowed educators at Black high schools and colleges throughout the United States during the latter half of the Twentieth Century to employ its general philosophy to motivate their students to set and achieve goals beyond what they expected. (Ibid, 234)

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The third phase of change occurred with the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in conjunction with the Black Arts Movement. Activism rather than the arts dominated this period of change. The artists were complimentary to the warriors who took to the streets throughout the south and marched against apartheid. This period represented the greatest coming together of activists, writers and musicians in the history of the struggle. James Baldwin, John Killens, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone, Malcolm X., Kwame Ture, John Lewis, Julian Bond and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are some of the significant contributors to the cultural change in the third phase. It was an improvement within the core of the culture because it was a continuum of accentuating the beauty of our race and love we shared among ourselves as initially expressed during the Harlem Renaissance.

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We are now in the fourth phase of change. It began in the 1980’s and was influenced by crack cocaine and a specific genre of RAP music, “gangsta rap,” and a specific genre of books called “street lit.” Activism became less important and race pride was relegated to a lesser position of importance. This phase has an existential theme. Nihilistic behavior runs rampant within the Black community. There seems to be more concern with the individual than the race. The expression of Black consciousness instilled into the race during the 1920’s and perpetuated throughout the next five decades lost its importance. We no longer refer to ourselves as “Brothahs” and “Sistahs” but instead as “Dawgs,” the “N” word and the “B” word. Gangs dominate our youth in urban areas and money made from the sale of crack cocaine is often glorified. Brothers selling this poison can launch successful careers that take them from the crack house to the White House. Movies like Straight Outta Compton and television dramas like Power and Empire subtly send a message that money is more important than ethics and morals. At this juncture, I will withhold assessing whether this change has improved on the quality of the culture and leave that to the reader.

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Inevitably, there will be a fifth phase of cultural change. It happens in every race and every country. A major question and concern will revolve around what characteristics of the previous cultures will be adopted by future generations. Will the creators of the future phase build on the second and third phases or will they continue to build on the changes made in the past thirty years.