Brenda Flanagan left Trinidad with two bottles of rum, a pint of pepper sauce, a scrap of paper bearing the name of an American social worker she'd met three weeks prior, and unspoken aspirations to attend college. A week after setting foot in the country for the first time, she landed a job as an au pair working for prodigious talent and ‘High Priestess of Soul' Nina Simone.
In her forthcoming memoir, Mississippi, Goddamn!, Flanagan tells the story of the year she worked with Simone's family, and how that encounter altered the course of a high school dropout, who left Trinidad and a job in a cannery separating rotten peas from good ones, for the unknown in America.
"It is Nina's story as well -- of her journey from Tryon, North Carolina, to Mount Vernon, New York, just down the road from Malcolm X's widow, Dr. Betty Shabazz," Flanagan writes. "More than anything else, it is the tale of the intersection of our lives, with seminal moments in the history of America's civil rights movement marked through Nina's music."
Accompanied by a jazz band featuring Judith Porter and Gerard Benson, Flanagan brought her story, and Simone's, to an eager audience in Tyler-Tallman Hall this semester as part of the Davidson Reads series, hosted by the English Department. The reading alternated with musical numbers, including the book's namesake, "Mississippi, Goddamn!," and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," an anthem of the civil rights movement written in memory of playwright Lorraine Hansberry. For an excerpt from Flanagan's memoir, visit Ms. Magazine's blog.
Flanagan is the Edward Armfield Sr. Professor of English at Davidson College and an award-winning novelist, essayist, poet and playwright. She has represented the United States as a cultural ambassador in 12 countries.