Davidson Reads: An Evening of Words and Music

Nina Simone. Illustration by Richard Farrell ‘22.

Margo Parker ‘21

Humanities correspondent

The acoustics in Tyler-Tallman are marvelous, but when Dr. Brenda Flanagan took the stage Tuesday night, everyone leaned in anyway. At “Davidson Reads” last Tuesday, Davidson’s resident “Renaissance woman” read from Mississippi, God Damn!, her forthcoming memoir about her time working for and with Nina Simone. In her Caribbean Literature and Creative Writing classes, Professor Flanagan is known for her passion and candor, withholding no insight about the language, her students’ interpretation, or her lived experience. Her presentation, “Nina Simone and the Civil Rights Movement,” promised a glimpse into the lives of two creative minds as they intertwined amidst the “conflagration of rage” of the late 1970s. She did not disappoint.

Mississippi, God Damn!, as its title suggests, pays careful attention to considerations of place. The selection from which Dr. Flanagan read takes place in Nina’s hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, “nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” Here, Fred Counts recalls Nina Simone back when she was just his childhood friend Eunice: listening to his dreams of playing pro baseball; lamenting the racial discrimination at the local drugstore while “the rest of us kids just took it up as life.” We return to Tryon with an older, sicker Nina on the occasion of her mother’s funeral. Despite Fred’s reminders of “the good times, and how she had triumphed over the bad,” all we see of the world through Nina’s eyes are the ways it broke her heart.

While Eunice and Fred were sipping sodas from Owens’ Drugstore, a young Brenda Flanagan was sorting peas in a Trinidadian cannery, saving up for a plane ticket to the U.S.. It’s hard not to read these two settings teleologically, as amalgams of condensed pressure and potential energy from which these two stars were born. For Flanagan, the journey to the U.S. wasn’t a straight line away from Trinidad. Mistreatment, exploitation, and doubt appear and reappear in the narrative, crashing down on her young self like waves on a distant shore. When asked about her tendency toward autobiography in her creative work, Flanagan chuckles, recalling just how tempting it is to exact fictive revenge on those who have wronged you. “Sometimes it’s just not what’s right for the story,” she lamented. The caveat: that burgeoning writers should take note of where, or to whom, they keep coming back. For her, that’s Nina Simone.

Tyler-Tallman itself is a space defined by, and defying, genre. As the main performance hall in the Sloan Music Building, the space showcases visiting musicians and lecturers alike, but rarely both at the same time. However, on Tuesday night, our audience enjoyed not just Flanagan’s prose, but the musical stylings of Gerard Benson and Judith Porter as well. The performance oscillated between genres just as Flanagan’s narrative transitions between characters and continents. In interstitices between—or maybe parallel to—moments of text, Benson and Porter locate the characters’ personal pain in a collective agony, articulated in their covers of Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and “Young, Gifted and Black.” It seems unfair to describe Benson and Porter’s renditions of these songs as “accompanying” the text (as the event advertisement does). Each act contextualizes and humanizes the other: the music characterizes the “goddam” treacherous world of creative opportunity in which Flanagan’s narrator comes of age, while the book illuminates just how much the remarkably “gifted” Simone was willing to give of herself.

In his African-American Literature class, Dr. Garry Bertholf refers to passages of assigned reading as “gifts” for the class. It’s no coincidence that, in his introduction to “Davidson Reads,” he fondly recalls sitting in on Flanagan’s African-American Literature class, and describes her scholarly practice as “deeply inspired and disciplined.” After listening to but a brief selection of Mississippi, God Damn!, it feels irresponsible to consider creative work anything but a gift, offered to the listeners out of deep personal sacrifice. The work argues wholeheartedly for art as labor, and for a human (and humane) understanding of the artist. In her office hours, Flanagan describes the autobiography in Mississippi, God Damn! as “painful,” and cites that pain as a major factor in the publishing timeline. Revisiting her first few years in the U.S.—her struggles to provide for a family back home, an abusive first marriage, and the realization that here, she was “black, before anything else”—is a fraught process, even decades later. She hasn’t read I Put a Spell on You, Simone’s memoir, nor has she watched Netflix’s What Happened, Miss Simone? Some things are hard to remember, she says. Others are hard to forget.

Flanagan concluded her reading to thunderous applause and a standing ovation, before handing over the stage to Amanda Ottoway ‘12. Ottoway, a recent Davidson grad, read from The Rebounders, which details the unique experience of women student-athletes at Davidson. Flipping open a crisp copy of her first book (and, in doing so, intensifying the jealous admiration of every aspiring writer in the room), she blinked quickly under the stage lights and endorsed the room’s silent consensus: it was going to be really hard to follow that one. She did, though, sharing stories of triumph and heartbreak and the sociopolitical context that exacerbates the two. She glanced occasionally at Flanagan, who taught her Creative Writing class years before, and who now sat smiling in the front row. It occurrs to me that what makes Flanagan such a good professor and what makes her such a good creative writer are probably the same thing: her steady, pedagogical love. The world’s hateful ears, into which Nina Simone poured her music, never appreciated her when she was alive, Mississippi, God Damn! tells us; but “now that she is dead, they honor her . . . sing to her loud praises, claim her as their own.” So Flanagan adores her for us, in the epistolary, achronological way that memoir makes possible, in a “love letter” to who Nina was when she wasn’t being Nina Simone. At “Davidson Reads,” Flanagan chose to share the stage: with her students, with the Trinidadian girl in the pea cannery, and with Eunice, who loved deeply and loudly and, despite the years, unforgettably.

God damn.

Margo Parker ‘21 is an English major from Gainesville, FL. She can be reached for comment at maparker@davidson.edu.

An earlier version of this article mistakenly described Nina Simone’s autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, as posthumously published. I Put a Spell on You was first released in 1992, and then republished (with an introduction by Dave Marsh) after Simone’s death in 2003.

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