as a tropical&sidereal Pisces rising, this transition into Pisces season has me at the mercy of emotional outpourings and intuitive compulsions. for example, i have been playing this gospel song on repeat for days and crying every single time. april hall and tamela mann’s voices are DEE-vine, but this video also reminds me that niggas will not not have safe access to large communal displays of Black faith and joy like Carnival or Mardi Gras ~until the pandemic ends.~ i’m admittedly feeling like an exposed nerve, but i’m trying my best to prioritize ease and joy in the small ways i can, especially since this is Black Presence Month!
i’ve interchanged “Black Presence” with “Black History” and “Black Futures” when talking about this month, but in general i’ve been emphasizing our Presence more than anything. a point of convergence, also known as a confluence, is the location where two or more bodies of water unite. with that in mind, every living moment we are in is a point of convergence. now is the current where the waters of "past" and "future” meet. it’s no coincidence that the word “time” is directly tied to “tide,” the rising and falling of the sea.
this past year, i’ve been led to Afropresentism as a school of thought. created by Neema Githere, Afropresentism poses crucial questions: “We are the African diasporic people living in our ancestors’ future, now. What are we doing with that? How are we alchemizing our displacement? How are we activating the past, to put the present in motion, towards the future? As a mode of BEING in the world, at this moment.” as much as i’m fascinated by where we come from and where we’re going, i worry about the dangers of neglecting to focus on what can be done right here, right now.
for example: Black trans— people are bloodletted by the State and then still expected to be the lifeblood of our liberation movements. another: it’s common practice to tout the Civil Rights or Black Power eras as self-contained phenomena while political prisoners from those periods still remain in bondage for their sacrifices, while hundreds more people taking those risks now might face the same fate of being forgotten by time (if we allow it). this Black Presence Month asks us how do we preserve the physical, emotional, and metaphysical well-being of Black people living now, especially those who feed our spirits with the work they do?
today is Nina Simone’s birthday, so i tribute this issue to her. Miss Simone is certainly an individual who nurtured the spirits of many with her legacy. nacida entre dos aguas, the High Priestess of Soul was no stranger to multitudes and depths. her art, music, and way of life were the epitome of Black Presence. i started listening to her back in college and was enamored off-rip: her song “Feeling Good” was an entry point into her discography for me, as were a few of her other well-known singles like “Ain’t Got No (I Got Life)” and “I Put a Spell on You.” like it was for many of her contemporaries, her music was a guiding light for me in a time when i was particularly beleaguered by the conditions of our world, and she is a sonic stronghold for me still to this day.
CC: ...what i hope to do all the time is to be so completely myself — which, that’s what i hope i am — to be so completely myself that my audiences and even people who meet me are confronted. they’re confronted with what i am, inside and out, as honest as i can be. this way, they have to see things about themselves. immediately.
Nina Simone taught me that i, too, could be unapologetic with all the selves i contained. to learn we once had such a mercurial, radiant, self-possessed, talented, furious, flawed cultural worker in our midst buoyed me in the moments that i needed the uplift most. she grew exponentially in my eyes once i first watched the documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” for the first time. no longer was she just Nina Simone the musician. she became Nina Simone the woman who walked right up to MLK Jr. and said “I’m not noviolent,” directly challenging his entire modus operandi in three simple words. She who consorted with fellow revolutionaries like Lorraine Hansberry, Kwame Ture, Miriamn Makeba, Malcolm X (assassinated on this day 56 years ago — asè). She who asked “Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings, are you ready? Are you ready to build black things?” all while knowing Her answer already.
in the ending sequence of the documentary, they include an alternate rendition of her song "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" which hypnotized me the first time i ever saw it. i was already familiar with the studio version and considered it my abolitionist anthem, but this performance took it to new heights. it took me some time before i could find a recording, and i haven’t stopped rejoicing since i located the version below.
everything about it still enthralls me to this day. the rhythmic call-and-response between her and the audience. the striking white cloth against her deep brown skin. how she is so overtaken by the spirit of the moment that she must dance, shout, clap. it was a revival meeting of her own design, though this was not an uncommon experience at her live shows. Nina Simone was skilled at conjuring a near-religious fervor amid her audiences, which makes sense considering her devout Methodist upbringing. consider her pathos as it relates to music:
Music, you know, is all-encompassing. If you’re not performing, you’re dancing. If you’re not dancing, you’re composing. If you’re not composing, you’re listening. You’re always--I’m always involved in music, the world is!...My brain can’t conceive of getting away from music. That’s me!
—Nina Simone in Nina Simone: A Historical Perspective
the way Nina Simone described her relationship to music is ecstasy defined. to be so present, so full of a force beyond yourself, that the experience is transcendental. i’ve never understood how the word “ecstasy” actually derives from language meaning “standing outside oneself.”
last year, i wrote some reflections on this performance & how it dovetailed with tarot, as well as the work another Black woman who has been foundational in my growth: bell hooks. both of these women have been influential in the development of my personal politic re: Black pleasure and the ecstasy of Revolution/liberation. even when unintended, Blackness is in conversation with itself. Patricia Hill Collins once wrote that Black feminism isn’t just dialectical but also dialogical:
As part of an oppressed group, US Black women have generated alternative practices and knowledges that have been designed to foster US Black women’s group empowerment. In contrast to the dialectical relationship linking oppression and activism, a dialogical relationship characterizes Black women’s collective experiences and group knowledge.
— Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (page 34)
the perspectives of multiply marginalized Black people do not exist in a vacuum, and they are often mutually constitutive. just like how light cannot exist without shadow, and vice versa. the following post on The Star (XVII), bell hooks, and Nina Simone maps where two bodies of Black feminist praxis unexpectedly meet and dialogue with each other. a point of convergence.
pictured above is my hand holding open Sisters of the Yam by bell hooks to its front pages. On the left is the black-and-white portrait “Waterbearer” by Lorna Simpson. the portrait features a shot of a Black person from the back. they are wearing a sleeveless white dress and their hair is pulled up. their arms are extended and they are holding pitchers in each hand, pouring the liquid out. underneath the portrait is the caption “SHE SAW HIM DISAPPEAR IN THE RIVER/THEY ASKED HER TO TELL WHAT HAPPENED/ONLY TO DISCOUNT HER MEMORY.” on the opposite page rests The Star (XVII) card from Next World Tarot. on the card, an illustrated Black person wearing cropped hair and a pink dress kneels on dry ground. they are backed by a golden sky, and they are framed by butterflies of varying colors/patterns and sizes. they hold two pitchers in their hands, pouring liquid from one of the pitchers onto the ground.
(the divination which i seek / which seeks me will always be oriented towards Freedom.)
if The Tower (XVI) symbolizes the ruin of an old world falling, then The Star (XVII) is what illuminates the new world after the ashes settle. it says “recognize that water is Life, and that (y)our connection to the earth is sacred.” The Star is a quiet phoenix encouraging us towards personal enlightenment.
the Drinking Gourd holds (and is held by) the North Star —which many of our ancestors followed in darkness towards freedom. when re-introduced to the image of the water bearer through tarot, i could not help but remember the inner cover of “sisters of the yam: black women and self recovery” by bell hooks (pictured above). the pages following contain a heartfelt exploration of Black women’s healing and wellness, as well as a critical discussion of the colonial barriers that make healing a difficult project to undertake.
on page 189, hooks quotes a scripture i’ve heard nina simone croon in my favorite rendition of “i wish i knew how it would feel to be free.” hooks does so while explaining how giving voice to the collective pain Black people experience is an important step towards our collective healing.
during the extended ending of her song, nina gets caught in the throes of ecstasy while imagining herself free (wearing her whites, no less). Polaris already in her eye, she shudders singing about the prospect of new vision. a deep breath, then the scripture: “the bible says—the bible says ‘be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind!’”
she is The Star embodied, a fierce truth-teller, a beacon of hope!
as we architect Black freedom/joy/desire/wellness into being, The Star asks that we devote ourselves to the work of imagination and transformation. the internal work flows into the external realm, and back again. the truth is what sets us free.
after writing this reflection, i dove back into her vast archives and found an oasis within her performance of “Take Me To the Water” at Morehouse College in Atlanta in June 1969. the video opens with Nina Simone honoring Lorraine Hansberry as the benefactor of the song, the same writer and critic who provided inspiration for Simone’s “Young, Gifted, and Black.” after painfully acknowledging her dear friend, she utters “i’m a Pisces on the cusp of Aquarius, so i gotta say ‘take me to the water,’” prompting an outburst of applause. to say she then breaks into song would be an overstatement. she sighs her way into it, with an edge so mournful, her voice could be mistaken for a quiet sob at first. Simone then gathers steam, beseeching earnestly to be returned to her domain.
this performace is a revival of a different kind: it is the chromatic inverse of her live “I Wish…” performance, both in color and mood. our North Star once clad-in-white transforms herself into a psychopomp shrouded in Blackness, ferrying her audience from the material world into the realm of the spirits. she energetically undulates across the stage to the drums in the latter half of the video, her clapping hands punctuating the black backdrop. death has no dominion here.
"In a space before time and words,
the world was covered in a thick blanket of darkness.
It was a warm and loving covering.
Since it was hard for the spirits who inhabited this space
to see one another they learned to live by and through touch.
So if you were running around lost you knew you were found when arms reached out in that loving darkness to hold you.
And those arms that held the spirits in that beautiful dark space
before time are holding us still."
hooks, Sisters of the Yam (page 79)
in tarot, Pisces is represented as The Moon (XVIII), the card directly after The Star (XVII) which belongs to Aquarius. The Moon (XVIII) is a card of illusions, dreams, intuition, and fears. this card speaks to the unbidden power that comes from knowing all there is to know about yourself, even the dark parts. if it comes up in a reading, it might signify the needing to sit with the parts of yourself that U are ashamed of or try to hide.
it’s worth nothing that tarot’s High Priestess (II) — Nina Simone’s eponymous counterpart — has correspondence to the moon as a planetary body. throughout time, High Priests and Priestesses were charged with receiving and interpreting messages from God/Creator/the Universe in order to lead people in collective rituals. if The Moon card represents shadows and the inner world, then The High Priestess card represents the individual responsible for presiding over this sacred space. certainly Nina Simone was an oracle who danced along the kalunga line , dutifully guarding the veil and the spirits behind it.
“Where there is a woman there is a magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. A woman with a moon falling from her mouth, roses between her legs, and tiaras or Spanish moss, this woman is a consort of the spirits.”
— Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo
*quoted in Sisters of the Yam (page 79)
Simone’s High Priestess title was aptly assigned, but heavy is the head that wears the crown. straddling the material and spirit realms was not without its consequences for Miss Simone or the people around her. her life was often troubled by loss, loneliness, violence. throughout her adult life, Nina Simone was both a survivor and perpetrator of abuse, which her daughter, Lisa Simone, openly discussed in “What Happened, Miss Simone?” i don’t aim to idolize Nina Simone with this tribute because i don’t believe in pedestals; the Combahee River Collective teaches us of their dangers. artists shouldn’t be separated from their art, and humanity shouldn’t be separated from artists who have done mosntrous things. as someone who admires her body of work, i aim to hold all of her complexities, which includes acknowledging the hurt she caused. we have a responsibility to tell the truth, especially about the past. truth is an alchemical technology.
@jerkdusoleil: "Happy High Priestess Day: I always take this day to reflect on black genius, trauma, creativity and neurodiversity. I think about what it takes to create a world that truly integrates people with mental, behavioral, and psychic differences. ✨🥂✨ Happy Birthday, Nina.
“The world has proven too often that it has no idea how nurture the minds of genius women. The wear and exhaustion of staring your deepest fears in the eyes day in day out, wrestling with the demons inside you, are overlooked because strong women make it look easy.
Here's to hoping that if you see fire in a persons eyes you'll be brave enough to nurture it and help them light the dark corners of their mind they've been brave enough to explore.” -Gymiah Gariba- .
We all know people whose genius and creative potential is restless. Someone who struggles to function in this material world because they have a foot in an invisible one. A body is a mighty small container for such an overwhelming force and potential.
How are we showing up for the people who experience mental, behavioral, and psychic differences in our lives? Are we integrating them into our community and collective spaces? Or ostracizing them? Trying to educate yourself to understand or demonizing and avoiding? Are you treating them like a resource and then discarding them? Treating them like your personal secret factory for ideas, originality, and inspiration without acknowledgement?
Here’s to cultivating understanding and clarity and dismantling the systems that make it impossible for all of us to thrive. Here’s to cognitive liberation 🥂
i reflect often on how Nina Simone’s original dream to become a classical pianist "dried up like a raisin in the sun" (cc: her friend Hansberry) after she was rejected from the Curtis School of Music. this diverted her onto the path that has since garnered her widespread applause, but at what cost? Nina Simone never originally intended to be a vocalist, yet her distinct voice was positioned to carry the weight of other people’s freedom dreams. in What Happened, Miss Simone, Lisa Simone, Nina Simone's daughter, recounts a tale of how her voice never reached the same octave again after recording "Mississippi Goddam," so angry was she at the bombings that claimed the lives of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley (asè).
anti-Blackness pushed her to use her voice in the way we know it now, and anti-Blackness is what eventually robbed her voice of its upper register. no longer being able to soar to the same heights because her vessel had been too far burdened is heartbreak compounded. despair weathered both her body and mind, yet still she went on into that Freedom Summer and beyond, shaking the fodder from her wings and doing her best to remain in flight.
Happy Heavenly Birthday, Miss Simone. U were our Star and our Moon, tasked with producing your own light and reflecting it back towards us all. for all the hope U gave the world, i can only pray U left feeling like the world gave U enough in return. i can only pray that you’re in the hereafter playing classical piano to your heart’s content. thank U for the gift of your Presence.
post-script: here is a list related to Black Presence and the cartographies charting ways for us to Be Here Now:
today is also Claudia Jones’ birthday, so i’d be remiss if i didn’t blow a kiss into the ether for her too! she was a Black anti-imperialist who blazed trails wherever she was. this piece tracks the history Notting Hill Carnival, which she was responsible for starting.
“Carnival will rise once again. And when it does, I have no doubt that, with the knowledge in our hearts that Carnival can be a political space and a celebration of resilience and renewal, we’ll return to the streets as energized and radicalized as Claudia Jones would have wished.”
essay: On (Afro)Presentism with Neema Githere (cited earlier)
essay: “Nowhere to be suicidal, nowhere to be free” by Hunter Shackleford
an incisive quote: “Where do you go when the world wants you dead and when the people who love you want you free? Where do you run when there is nowhere to hide from anti-Black violence, and there’s nowhere to tell the truth about wanting to die?”
i linked the cached version above since the original article was unfortunately reported for its frank discussion of being Black and wanting to die, which Hunter discussed on their Twitter. Black folks deserve to have spaces to openly reflect on wanting to exit an unliveable world without fear of censorship or reprisal. i have been there in the past and i know niggas who have been too. sending U love and understanding if you’re there right now.
resource: Black Emotional and Mental Health (BEAM)
BEAM is a national training, movement building and grant making organization dedicated to the healing, wellness and liberation of Black and marginalized communities.
newsletter: ALIE(N)ATION by Ingrid Raphael
a beloved friend started a newsletter, and the most recent issue, Webs of Care, is a thoughtful, time-bending workshop on care and naming y(our) needs. tap tap tap in!
resource: TEXAS WEATHER CRISIS ASSISTANCE — the people of Texas are being viciously abandoned by the state while dealing with a highly-fatal deep freeze. circulate this doc to those who might need it!
fundraiser: my nigga needs $$ to live — if you’re non-Black and reading my work, donate to Black Genderless Rent & Utility. invest in Black life now now NOW.
“[folks from] New Orleans, Trinidad & Tobago and Brazil perform a medley of songs as a way to come together and virtually celebrate Carnival and Mardi Gras in 2021.”
graphic score/improvisational performance: “Pythia Is a Black Girl’s Name” by Li/Lisa E. Harris
“Pythia is the name and title given to the original Oracle at Delphi, in service to Apollo, Greek God of the Sun. Every priestess following in that lineage and receiving visions at the sacred location of Delphi, was also referred to as Pythia. Pythia in modern day Greek, means “baby girl”; it also still retains the translation of prophetess. In ancient Greek lettering, the spelling of Pythia looks similar to the word NUBIA.
“Pythia is a Black Girl’s Name” is a piece I composed to big up the Black Woman, to say the names of our sisters missing and/or murdered by the police in the USA, to reclaim the beauty and creativity of our naming of ourselves and our daughters. To set correctly again, the energy that is spent to call us out of our names, by imagining and sounding new names we have never even heard of before. Here we are Still because we say So.”