Women You Should Know:
by Angelique Palmer
My grandmother insisted on two things in her home: that we show reverence for her faith and that we call her Nanny. And on Sundays, we’d have grits and eggs with our toast. It is the smell of grits-- married quick-like to the coffee and chicory, the authoritarianism of sunrise bathing every surface in my Nanny’s one bedroom apartment and that black radio; these things are most austere in my memory’s snapshot. The radio of course, is what’s important here: its place of esteem on the side table by the window, next to the almost full ashtray, coupled to Nanny’s rocking chair.
When Nanny’s radio played Mahalia, everything stopped: the grits boiled over, the sun took a knee, the coffee tried to be as black as the radio, and the radio was the voice of God. Mahalia sang and Nanny felt whichever applicable emotion. Mahalia sang and Nanny wept or praised or danced or cried out so the rocks and radios didn’t have to. No one told Nanny anything she didn’t want to hear, and she wasn’t hearing a lot of what the world would tell a person born woman and black in 1920’s New Orleans. But she heard Mahalia whenever she sang, and I knew all up and through my tiny body, this was powerful.
Mahalia too, was New Orleans born and bred, but she grew up singing in the pews of Mount Moriah Baptist Church. She would go on to give concerts everywhere from Munich, Germany to Carnegie Hall. She was a sensation. In 1956, she debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show and in 1958 recorded Black, Brown and Beige with Duke Ellington and his band on Columbia Records.
She was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement. She sang at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy and it was her voice that pacified the many mourners at the funeral Dr. Martin Luther King.
Mahalia Jackson died in 1972, succumbing to complications from multiple health problems.
Her bluesy gospel was legitimate. It was southern: a spicy roux of spiritual obedience and social defiance. It was a bloodletting: every moan told the listener she felt everything she sang. It was in essence gospel- perseverance, reverence, adoration, but it was sung in a way that tells people where you’re from and changes where they’re going.
Mahalia Jackson was quoted as saying, "Gospel music is nothing but singing of good tidings -- spreading the good news. It will last as long as any music because it is sung straight from the human heart." This is a lesson that has lasted a lifetime for me. From Mahalia I learned what kind of poet I want to be. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Nanny and Mahalia taught me how to choose my gospel- the rays of my good news, to use the full capacity of my lungs for singing it, and to watch it change someone- even, and especially, if that someone is me.
Editor's Note: Thanks to Angelique for selecting powerful, affecting women who are dear to me - with no coaching! - and creating such beautiful tributes! You can find earlier posts in the Women You Should Know series in the blog archives from March 2014, 2013, and 2012. If you are interested in being a guest blogger on the Zestyverse, let us know!