Geoffrey Wells Letter #8: Nina, Nelson and never again.
Recently, I’ve been hearing the same song. Everywhere, sung by a wide array of different artists. Odd. Because it’s like someone has put a spell on me. More odd, or odder, because, “I put a spell on you” is the song I hear, and every time, I think about Nina Simone–though the song was written by Jay Hawkins in 1956. (I suggest you play the video, while reading the rest of this post…)
I was eleven in 1964 when Simone’s cover of the song was climbing the Billboard R&B chart. That was the year I heard, “Rivonia” whispered in our home in South Africa, as if just saying the word would tag us as communists and anarchists. We lived just a few miles from Rivonia where, on Friday, June 12, 1964 Nelson Mandela’s original five-year sentence was extended to life imprisonment for high treason. A year later he was awarded the Joliot-Curie Gold Medal for Peace.
Yet peace was not on Nina Simone’s mind during those civil rights years in the U.S. She was performing at the meetings, and at the Selma-to-Montgomery marches she was rejecting Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach. Her civil rights message was standard in her repertoire. She later wrote in her autobiography that she and her family regarded all races as equal. Neither was Mandela’s final statement to the court a message of peace before his sentencing: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the South African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Over the years Nina Simone returned to my consciousness. She’s appeared in the Cynthia Wells animated short, “Tallulah Queen of the Universe”, and in my novel, A FADO FOR THE RIVER, when she sings “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (Do Not Leave Me). Then recently, “I Put a Spell on You” was sung by Annie Lennox for the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. So, I hear it in the media and the supermarket, reminding me that tomorrow Selma commemorates the 50th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, and the Selma-to-Montgomery march, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On the same date a continent away, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life for fighting for the right to vote.
Which, (like my post last week) brings me to another icon of our modern age, Peter Thiel. Thiel is co-founder of PayPal, who said, “If you can identify a delusional popular belief, you can find what lies hidden behind it: the contrarian truth”. He explains in his book, “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or how to build the future.” how he asks interviewees, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
Here is my speculative answer that I believe both Mandela and Simone might have given in 1964:
Most people believe that blacks in this country will never win the right to vote, but the truth is, they will. Eventually. And the contrarian truth is: Democracy is for all citizens. As Mandela’s autobiography states, it’s a Long Walk to Freedom. And Dr. King, standing on the steps of the capitol of Alabama in Montgomery at the conclusion of the march from Selma, said, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
My answer to Thiel’s question would be:
I believe that most people think privacy is a form of freedom. But the truth is, freedom is not private. It’s a shared responsibility. And the contrarian truth is: Freedom is not a right, it’s a responsibility.
Allison comes to this realization at the end of THE FACES IN THE RAIN.
So perhaps this song is not just a frequency illusion at work.
(Sidebar note: The frequency illusion is also known as the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon, and is perhaps more ironically appropriate, since this revolutionary group executed violence in the name of a vague manifesto, whereas Mandela and Simone advocated a restrained revolution in the name of democracy, proving that what counts are the results, not the methods. The group also trained with the PLO, that also formed in 1964…)
Indeed, Nina, you have put a spell on me.
Before I go…
China has banned ivory imports for one year. To which I say, why only one year? And thanks to Prince William for speaking out on his visit to China.