Salamishah Tillet is the Henry Rutgers Professor of African-American and African Studies and Creative Writing at Rutgers University–Newark. She is the faculty director of the New Arts Justice Initiative at Express Newark and the cofounder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that use arts to empower young people to end violence against girls and women. She is the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post–Civil Rights Imagination and of the cultural memoir In Search of “The Color Purple.” She is currently writing All the Rage: “Mississippi Goddam” and the World of Nina Simone, a book exploring how Simone’s singular protest song changed the world.
I was born a child prodigy, darling. I was born a genius.
A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children and, if necessary, bone by bone.
On our drive to Tryon, North Carolina, last August, my sister Scheherazade and I played “What’s your favorite song?” This time we tailored the game to our destination, since we were traveling one hour south of Asheville to the birthplace of Nina Simone. Scheherazade proffered “Sinnerman,” a ten-minute-plus song whose lyrics Simone learned growing up at her mother’s revival meetings in Polk County. But I surprised her with my choice.
Scheherazade half expects me to go with Nina’s most explicitly political song, “Mississippi Goddam,” the civil-rights anthem on which I am writing a book and which Simone composed in 1964 in response to the assassination of the civil-rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the murder of four African-American girls in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, a year earlier. Instead, I start humming the melody to “Wild Is the Wind,” a song that Johnny Mathis originally recorded in 1957 for a largely forgotten film of the same name and that Nina put on vinyl twice, in 1959 and 1966, transforming it from a silky torch song to a volcanic and melancholic ballad. In its afterlife, Simone’s version of “Wild Is the Wind” has become the standard, covered only by a few, such as David Bowie and George Michael, and appearing on film in Sam Mendes’s romantic tragedy Revolutionary Road in 2008. As we drive along I-26, Nina stirs and I go silent. Her seven-minute opus of cascading piano and swirling vocals fills in the emptiness of our conversation and the spaces between the Blue Ridge Mountains. When I turn off the car, her voice is still there, lingering, clinging to our bodies.
I first visited Tryon in 2015 when I was pregnant with my second child, a boy we’d later name after the civil-rights icon Sidney Poitier and the jazz progenitor Sidney Bechet. A few months after my sojourn, Dylann Roof walked into a black church, prayed, and then murdered six women and three men on a summer night in Charleston, South Carolina. In response, I played Nina’s songs on repeat. It was the only music to which I could listen in order to channel my fury and grief, then and during my ongoing pilgrimages to the sites of mourning at which young African Americans such as Trayvon Martin in Florida, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Rekia Boyd in Chicago, and Michael Brown in Ferguson had died at the hands of white police officers or vigilante white citizens for the simple crime of living while black.
Within these three years, Tryon’s own relationship to Simone has also changed, paralleling her ascendance as the icon of rage and resistance in our age of Black Lives Matter. Very recently, Simone’s renaissance has included an Oscar-nominated documentary on her life (What Happened, Miss Simone?) as well as her emergence as a fashion idol for actresses such as Lupita Nyong’o and Issa Rae, and as a musical muse for Solange’s, Beyonce’s, and Jay-Z’s most recent and politically charged albums. All that flurry came on the heels of a decade-long resurgence: two biographies, a poetry collection, several plays, a biopic, and the constant sampling of her signature sound by Kanye West. Just this past spring of 2018, she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while her birthplace home—which four renowned black artists, Adam Pendleton, Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher, and Julie Mehretu, had purchased in 2017—was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, one of only two in North Carolina.
At Tryon’s city limits, I smirk at the sign that triumphantly declares “Welcome to the Friendliest Town in the South.” Simone, born here as Eunice Waymon in 1933, and her family left Tryon’s segregation behind in the 1950s, to pursue her ambition of becoming a premier classical pianist and their collective dream of racial freedom. Until now, Tryon has been ambivalent about its most famous resident. In 2010, after much controversy about its concept, funding, and location, an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Simone, by Zenos Frudakis, was erected in the town. The Tryon sculptor William Behrends, best known for creating the statue of the black baseball player Jackie Robinson and his teammate Pee Wee Reese in Coney Island, even wrote an opinion piece in the Tryon Daily Bulletin castigating not just the design of the project but its subject’s “fundamental citizenship” as unfit for their town. Specifically, Behrends wrote, “There’s no doubt that Nina was a noteworthy musical talent, but her loyalty, both to her birthplace (Tryon) and her homeland (America) have legitimately been called into question.” He concluded, “That troubled me deeply.” The “Nina Simone Sculpture” now stands at the top of Trade Street, near the town’s center and half a block away from Owen’s pharmacy, the drugstore that the singer had stopped in as a girl “to observe the mixture of indifference and disdain that I provoked in white customers,” as she would later recall in her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You.1 Despite her larger-than-life presence in Tryon, the town continues to be deeply divided by race.
Most of Tryon’s African-American residents live on the town’s east side, a densely populated section that houses the historic Tryon Cemetery and St. Luke CME, Nina’s family church. Diagonally across from the church, at the top of a cul-de-sac, stands 30 East Livingston Street. Blue and battleship gray, surrounded by overgrown grass and imposing magnolia trees, this 660-square-foot clapboard house, with its lack of plumbing and working electricity and its craters in ceilings and floors, appears to have succumbed to time.
Refusing to be forgotten or misunderstood, [the home], like Nina’s legacy, presciently waited for a generation of artists to come along and rescue it for posterity.
But, from our porch view, I see something I did not notice last time I was here. Built in 1928, this is by far the oldest house on the block—all of the others date from the 1990s, but for a brand-new one constructed at the street’s end by Habitat for Humanity. In other words, what distinguishes the house is not simply its hilltop view or its historic designation, but also its state of paradox: it is in disrepair yet intimately manicured, a place that should have been demolished with the original homes on the block, and yet endures. Refusing to be forgotten or misunderstood, it, like Nina’s legacy, presciently waited for a generation of artists to come along and rescue it for posterity.
“We actually purchased the home sight unseen,” Pendleton admitted to me about their $95,000 purchase. “I can’t tell you what an incredible moment it was to pull into Tryon and drive up the hill and see this incredible beacon.” After a slight pause, he said, “It feels like it’s from another era, but also something that connects the past to the present.”
The previous owner, Kevin McIntyre, a former economic-development director for Polk County, bought the house in 2005 and invested more than $100,000 of his own money in its renovation, adding a number of intricate artifacts to the rooms. A dusty coal-stove oven is tucked in a corner. A map of Ghana and a wooden crucifix hang on the walls. Three issues of the women’s monthly McCall’s Magazine sit next to the January issue of Carter G. Woodson’s Journal of Negro History, all published in Nina’s birth year of 1933. A partly covered bed in one room; stacks of turquoise shingles in another. A woman’s black-heeled shoe lies turned over on the floor, while a black-and-yellow-striped Panama hat hooks itself on the wall with an exposed electrical switch hovering as its backdrop. By far the most incredible item is a weathered pedal organ displaying two song sheets, Bach’s “Little Preludes and Fugues” and Nina’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” a song inspired by the death of her good friend the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. I suspect Nina would have welcomed the gesture, for as she recalled in I Put a Spell on You, “Everything that happened to me as a child involved music. It was part of everyday life, as automatic as breathing.” She continued, “At the time I was born we didn’t have a piano in the house, we had a pedal organ. When our house was burned down, the pedal organ was the first thing rescued out of the fire.”2
In these walls we hear the tender sounds of a girl before she became the voice of a people and a nation still longing to be free.
By 2015, McIntyre had lost the property to money troubles caused by a divorce. When the house went on the market in 2016, most of the residents surrounding it thought it would be destroyed. Pendleton learned that it was up for sale when Laura Hoptman, then curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, e-mailed him asking if he knew anyone who might be interested in buying. “I think I sat on the message for a day or so,” Pendleton told me. And after Hoptman wrote back that she had also contacted artist Rashid Johnson, “I got the idea, ‘You know what? Why don’t we just purchase it?’”
Pendleton is widely acclaimed for his politically engaged conceptual art—Black Dada Flag (Black Lives Matter), for example, which he created after George Zimmerman was acquitted for Trayvon Martin’s murder. When I ask him what makes his work similar to Simone’s, though, he resists my easy comparison. Instead, he confides that he is more invested in the “slippages” between their different mediums and the divergent meanings produced by his use of sculpture and photography and her compositions and performances. But he sees collaborating on Nina’s home as an even deeper and perhaps more radical gesture than he has previously made. “It’s like you go from being just an artist to being a kind of citizen artist,” he opined. “I think it kind of disrupts the social fabric in a very different way than an object on the wall.”
For Gallagher, whom Pendleton approached about joint ownership alongside Mehretu and Johnson, the house is “a portal where we can access [Simone] in this very specific way . . . we can imagine her being there . . . we all know her in Liberia, her in Switzerland, her in Paris, [and here we know] her in the very beginning.” Gallagher has engaged a wide range of forms and topics throughout her career, including but not limited to Minimalism, minstrelsy, and Moby Dick; this collaboration is already influencing the meditations on architecture, loss, and history in her most recent work. She sees her and her colleagues’ efforts to create an artist’s retreat in the Simone house as a way of collectively transforming the place into “a living fossil” where “writers, dancers, and other people do a residency and make art.” She concludes, “It should be a living place that gets maintained. And I think it’s really important for us to know that people come out of this country and go to Switzerland, to Barbados, and have that kind of trajectory. It’s about not just aspiration but connection. This living past that we can take care of.”
Most important, as art and archive, Nina’s home tells a largely untold story of her genius, of the way the Waymon family nurtured their black-girl prodigy to transcend the racial limits into which she was born. It holds the memories and dreams of a family on the move. It stores her hopes before Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music rejected her when she auditioned there in the 1950s. Before she had to reinvent herself as jazz chanteuse Nina Simone. Before her friends Hansberry, Langston Hughes, and Jimmy Baldwin died. Before Malcolm and Martin were murdered. Before she chose exile. In these walls we hear the tender sounds of a girl before she became the voice of a people and a nation still longing to be free.
As we pack up to leave the house, two older African-American men approach us. The more reticent one lives across the street. When I ask him about the house, he smiles and slowly tells us that he has been looking out for the house, making sure that no harm comes to it.
The other, a fifty-year-old man named Malik, who lives in New Rochelle but was born here in Tryon, says his mother took piano lessons from the same teacher Nina did, an Englishwoman who lived two miles away, Muriel “Mazzy” Mazzanovich. As my sister and I begin to turn away, he calls out, thrusting his chest forward and flashing a wide smile, and offers us a keepsake of his own.
“Y’all know some black artists bought this house, right?”