Authors: Gil Scott-Heron
Also by Gil Scott-Heron:
The Nigger Factory
Now and Then: The Poems of Gil Scott-Heron
Published in Great Britain in 2012 by Canongate Books Ltd,
14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE
This digital edition first published by Canongate in 2012
Copyright © The estate of Gil Scott-Heron
The moral right of the author has been asserted
First published in the United States of America in 2012 by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003
The lyrics on page 11 are taken from the song ‘Happy Birthday’ by Stevie Wonder, © Black Bull Music, Inc./Jobet Music Co. Inc.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to Chuck Stewart, whose photograph of Gil Scott-Heron inspired Oscar Wilson’s jacket illustration.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library
ISBN 978 0 85786 301 0
eISBN 978 0 85786 302 7
I admit that I never had given much thought
As to how much of a battle would have to be fought
To get most Americans to agree and then say
That there actually should be a Black holiday.
But what a hell of a challenge. How far would Stevie go
To make them pass legislation tabled ten years in a row?
I didn’t doubt for a second that the brother was sincere
But how many minds had come together in the last twelve years?
How many folks recognized that America had to grow?
And who else could convince them that yesterday had to go?
I had liked the idea of a minister being around
When racing for high stakes, to have his foot near the brakes
Because of what truly could have gone down.
I thought America could have blown up
Before it could ever be said that we had grown up.
And for whatever reason were there Americans who never knew
That Dr. King prevented chaos and would give him his due.
I admired Stevie’s enthusiasm and that he spoke his mind
But right does not triumph over wrong every time.
Ghandi took nonviolence with him when he died.
Over here there was nonviolence, but only on one side.
When white folks beat up and killed people that you knew
You might direct your anger at a building or two.
Instead of making the Old Testament a civil rights guide
And saying that “an eye for an eye” would now be justified
We were told to accept that some white folks had no class
And instead of condemning white people “en masse”
We were told remaining peaceful would be the best thing
And directing that philosophy were men like Dr. King.
Through a storm of provocation to fight we saw
That in order to change America you must change the law.
They called us “militants” and “radicals” and were made to look bad
For trying to secure rights all Americans had.
But behind what’s often written is where you find the real thing
So America might not have made it without Dr. King.
I always doubt detailed recollections authors write about their childhoods. Maybe I am jealous that they retain such clarity of their long agos while my own past seems only
What helped me to retain some order was that by the age of ten I was interested in writing. I wrote short stories. The problem was that I didn’t know much about anything. And I
didn’t take photos or collect mementos. There were things I valued, but I thought they would always be there. And that I would.
There was Jackson, Tennessee. No matter where I went—to Chicago, New York, Alabama, Memphis, or even Puerto Rico in the summer of 1960—I always knew I’d be coming back home to
Jackson. It was where my grandmother and her husband had settled. It was where my mother and her brother and sisters were all born and grew up. It was where I was raised, in a house on South
Cumberland Street that all of them called home, regardless of what they were doing and where they were doing it. They were the most important people in my life and this was their home. It was where
I began to write, learned to play piano, and where I began to want to write songs.
Jackson was where I first heard music. It was what folks called “the blues.” It was on the radio. It was on the jukeboxes. It was the music of Shannon Street in “Fight’s
Bottom” on Saturday night, when the music was loud and the bootleg whisky from Memphis flowed. The blues came from Memphis, too. Shannon Street was taboo at my house, something my grandmother
didn’t even think about. We never played the blues at home.
Our house was next door to Stevenson and Shaw’s Funeral Home. The man who ran that business was Earl Shaw, one of the nicest men I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. His wife was a
good friend of my mother, and our families were so close that I related to his children as cousins for years.
Evidently business at the funeral home was good because I remember clearly when Mr. Shaw purchased another building in East Jackson and the movers came to take everything out of the place next
door. And then the men from the junkyard came to put everything else in the back of an old truck. My grandmother knew the junk man and after a brief conversation with him he directed his two sons
to bring an ancient and well-used upright piano into our front room and push it up against the wall. I was seven years old. Old enough to start learning to play. What she had in mind was that I
learn some hymns I’d be able to play for her sewing circle meetings. That’s how my music playing started.
There was no blues on the living room radio. My grandmother had that one locked on the station that played her soap operas in the afternoon and her favorite radio programs at night. When we got
a second radio, it was quickly dubbed “the ballgame radio,” and, sure enough, when a ballgame was being broadcast I listened. But at other times I’d try to tune in WDIA in
Memphis, the first Black radio station in the country, with on-air personalities like Rufus and Carla Thomas and B.B. King. Late at night I’d try to get “Randy’s Record
Show” out of Nashville.
I heard people talk about a music explosion in Memphis. I knew my favorite music, the blues, came from there, too. But I was living in Jackson, ninety miles east of Memphis, and had no desire to
go anywhere else. Until I had to, when the family—my mother and I—moved to New York City. Though my mother and I left Jackson in the summer of 1962, I had known the move was coming from
the time the new highway was announced. That had been a couple of years and a hundred rumors prior. The route the highway would take had sparked hours of conversation. In the end, it came through
A lot of the neighborhood had already been cleared out when we left. Liberty Street Church, just behind us, and Rock Temple, the Sanctified Church a few blocks away, had already closed up. There
had never been many commercial establishments in that direction and the four lanes were rolling through what had been blocks of aging residences. Soon it would all be gone. I could imagine the rows
of gas stations and fast food joints lining what had been my backyard. Easier access for truckers and travelers going west to Memphis and east to Nashville.
In a way this was a prelude to a larger funeral. The Paving of America constituted a symbolic burying of the hatchet, a signal that the northern CEOs and southern See$s were at long last seeing
eye to eye. The Confederacy had finally found cosigners for its hundred year loan and had negotiated its way from Appomattox Court House through the gauntlet from apostate, around apathy, apology,
appeasement, appeals, approbation, apprehension, and appropriation to approval. The southern quadrant of the contiguous country had done a century of icy isolation and by God a nig . . . a Negro
had put a blow torch to the thermostat. Thurgood Marshall had thawed things, battered the last barricade with Brown v. Board of Education. The financial folks now faced the final frontier.
I had played my small part, a ripple in one of the incessant waves that were wearing down the mountain that had been segregation. Together with Madeline Walker and Gillard Glover, I had
initiated school desegregation in Jackson. And factories would be built. And highways would uncoil like rattlesnakes from Maryland to the Gulf of Mexico. And Jim Crow, the bastard who had swung a
thousand nightsticks and set a thousand crosses on fire, was not dead. But he’d been wounded. That time by three children: Madeline, Gillard, and me, civilians in a civil war.
Since those beginnings, I have not been proud of everything that has happened or that I have done throughout my life. But I consider myself fortunate. I was raised by two women—my mother
and grandmother—who were both dedicated to my well-being and did everything they could to make sure I had every opportunity to succeed in life. They were dedicated to my book learning and
were examples of what I should try to be as an adult and as a gentleman. The mistakes have been due to my own poor judgment both of people and circumstances.
I am the father of three children, regardless of rumor and comment to the contrary. My first born was my son Rumal, an anagram that makes use of the letters of his mother’s first name. My
older daughter is Gia, a soft sounding word for a very feminine delight. My younger girl is named Chegianna and goes by Che—pronounced
. This book is a chance to share some things
with them and other readers, things I hope will be useful. Some of it is purely biographical. The central focus, however, revolves around experiences orchestrated by Brother Stevie Wonder, a true
miracle of talent and concern for his fellow man. I was lucky enough to be with him when he set his mind and heart on doing something important, something that a lot of folks thought was
impossible, and he got it done.