In 1997, when he was 20 years old, the New York-based artist Rashid Johnson travelled with a friend from their hometown, Chicago, to Ghana, on a pilgrimage to the final resting place of the most prominent Black intellectual of the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois. Arriving in Accra, Johnson enacted a ritual familiar to Black Americans across generations: that of searching for home in a lost ancestral past. More than 30 years earlier, in 1961, Du Bois, disillusioned after a life spent fighting Jim Crow racism, had left the United States for Ghana at the invitation of the Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah. Two years later, he became a Ghanaian citizen, and on August 27, 1963, the eve of the March on Washington, he died. “I remember just being in this house and feeling his presence,” Johnson, now 45, recalls.
Five years ago, Johnson partnered with three other prominent Black American artists — the conceptualist Adam Pendleton, the abstract painter Julie Mehretu and the painter, collagist and filmmaker Ellen Gallagher — to help bring another towering ancestor into focus: the genre-defying musical performer and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Simone’s childhood home, located in Tryon, North Carolina, a small town of 1,600 nestled at the base of the southern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was at risk of succumbing to age and neglect. Once the artists were made aware of this, they bought the house, for $95,000, in 2017. The following year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated it a national treasure.
The French historian Pierre Nora invented the concept of les lieux de mémoire, “sites of memory” — be they places or personas, objects or concepts — that contribute to the symbolic coherence of a nation’s identity. In 2022, much as in the 1960s when Simone answered the call to activism, the United States is openly contesting its collective identity. Some seek a return to an imagined America whose greatness depends on selective erasure of its diverse and complex history. “We live in a moment when half the country would be perfectly content to forget somebody like Nina Simone,” Pendleton says. “What a precarious state; what a precarious place to be culturally, historically.”
The artists have an important partner in Brent Leggs, the executive director of the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Launched in 2017, the action fund aims to identify and preserve what Leggs calls “nationally significant projects that express the Black experience.” Leggs, 49, saw in the modest clapboard home the very qualities that make many historical Black American sites so necessary — and so vulnerable to loss. “I was inspired by the simplicity of this unadorned vernacular structure that at first glance might appear to be missing history and meaning,” he says. “I believe deeply that places like the Nina Simone childhood home deserve the same stewardship and admiration as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello or George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore estate.”
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in the 60-square-metre house at 30 East Livingston Street. Simone’s mother was an ordained minister and domestic worker; her father ran his own dry-cleaning business and worked as a handyman. Modest though the home might seem today, back then it embodied the promise of prosperity. The Waymons’ plot of land afforded them room for a vegetable garden. They enjoyed other small luxuries, as well, as described in Nadine Cohodas’s 2010 biography, “Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone”: a stove in two of the three rooms to keep the house warm during cold months and to heat water for bathing; a small pump organ where Eunice picked out her first notes; a swing in the yard; even a tennis court just across the street. The exercise of segregation was more nuanced in Tryon than it was in large metropolitan areas like Charlotte and Atlanta, but it nonetheless exerted itself as a palpable lack. Simone, her parents and her siblings (she was the sixth of eight children) lived in the home until early 1937, when her father suffered an intestinal illness that left him incapacitated for a time. The next several years were itinerant, the family moving to close to half a dozen now-forgotten homes in and around Tryon.
Those early years on Livingston Street established Simone’s foundation as an artist. “Everything that happened to me as a child involved music,” Simone wrote in her 1992 autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You.” “It was part of everyday life, as automatic as breathing.” Her mother, Mary Kate, sang church songs to her daughter; her father, John, introduced her to jazz and the blues. By the time Eunice was 4, she was accompanying her mother on piano as she preached Sunday sermons at St. Luke C.M.E. Church.
The years that followed were quite literally the stuff of storybooks (two children’s books about Simone’s life have come out in the last five years): Recognised as a prodigy, Eunice studied under a white woman, whom she called Miss Mazzy, who schooled her in Beethoven and Bach; the town rallied around Eunice and raised money to support her education, including time in New York City, at Juilliard; soon thereafter, she faced wrenching rejection from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, where she had hoped to continue her studies in classical music; instead, she made a surprising star turn as a lounge singer at an Atlantic City, New Jersey, nightclub, leading to a recording contract; a string of hits followed for Eunice (now called Nina); then, galvanised by the social and political upheavals of the 1960s, she achieved artistic complexity and individualism through what she would later call “civil rights music.”
Like Du Bois, Simone was an expat: When she died in 2003, after a protracted illness, she was living in Carry-le-Rouet, a small seaside town in the south of France, some 7,000 kilometres away from the house on East Livingston Street where she had been born 70 years earlier. Even though she lived nearly half her life outside of the United States — from Liberia to the Netherlands and beyond before settling in France — she remained forever enlisted in the cause of racial justice in America. Simone’s enduring power emanates from her art and from her activism, as well as from her activist art. Her biggest hits — “I Loves You, Porgy,” “Trouble in Mind,” “I Put a Spell on You” — are ingenious reinventions of other people’s songs grappling with love, loss and longing. But her most cherished recordings — “Four Women,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Mississippi Goddam” — are original compositions that give voice to an insurgent Black pride and defiance. It is these qualities, this complexity of vision, to which the four artists respond.
“I think the most interesting question is ‘why, why, why?’” Pendleton says. Why Nina? Why now? For him, the answers are clear. “I’m interested in the questions that Nina Simone’s legacy raises. And these are not just questions about music; [they’re] questions about the avant-garde, about abstraction, about how artists speak to each other across generations and across time.” Pendleton, 38, whose work often incorporates language layered like a palimpsest, finds his artistic connection to Simone in a shared commitment to the complexity, at times the indeterminacy, of voice. (Simone once said of her vocal instrument, “Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”) Listening to recordings like “Sinnerman” or “Feeling Good” or “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead),” which she performed in the days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 1968 assassination, “demands a kind of deep listening, a kind of geometry of attention,” Pendleton explains.
It is fitting, if unexpected, that a group of visual artists — not musicians — came together to rescue Simone’s childhood home. They share common goals: that the home be preserved as a place of artistic creation and invention; that it support aspiring artists, particularly those pursuing the path from which Simone was excluded, in classical performance and composition. In the fashion of Simone’s classical compositional approach, the artists offer variations on these shared themes. Pendleton wonders if the home might function like a StoryCorps site, providing a space for oral history and reflection. Mehretu, 51, thinks it could “offer a refuge and a space of development” for creative people. Johnson, perhaps inspired by his travels to Ghana, imagines it as a site of pilgrimage — in both the physical and the virtual worlds. Leggs understands all of these visions and more coming together as part of the enduring legacy of the home, and ensuring that Tryon, as Leggs puts it, “has a Black future.”
The language of historical preservation — easements, adaptive reuse, stewardship planning — might not inspire much passion. But in the mouths of Leggs and the four artists, these words become incantations. Collectively, they understand that while Simone’s childhood home is a potent symbol, it is also a century-old structure in need of maintenance and basic upkeep. It’s a contrast worthy of Simone herself, a singer both of show tunes and knife-sharp indictments of racist duplicity, a loving freedom fighter and truculent aggressor, a figure who tests our capacity to contain the challenging but essential facets of our national history. Nearly two decades after her death, she is still bearing witness, living her life after life through the artists she inspires in the house where she was born.