A bird fell to earth, reincarnated from her birth: Euripides in the House of Nina Simone

Birds flying high you know how I feel

– Nina Simone “Feeling Good”

Why you wanna fly Blackbird
You ain’t ever gonna fly
Why you wanna fly Blackbird
You ain’t ever gonna fly

– Nina Simone, “Blackbird”

The tension between the bird’s desire to fly and the failure of its flight in Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ and ‘Blackbird’, is found expressed by women in the plays of Euripides. The Troezenian women of the Hippolytus, wish they could fly away, while in Andromache, Hermione, the new wife of the enslaved Andromache’s master, Neoptolemus, states directly that she wishes, in vain, that she could be a bird and fly away. Yet the most extended futile expression of escape using the image of birds and their flight comes from the chorus of Iphigenia in Tauris (1090-1105) – here in the translation from Edith Hall’s great book on the play and its enduring reception:

Here the chorus, as wingless birds, think back nostalgically to Greece, to where they were captured during the war and sold into slavery. They specifically recall their home on the island of Delos, which may have had a markedly political resonance at the time, since, as Thucydides tells us (5.1), in 422 BCE, the Athenians removed the Delians from Delos, only for the oracle of Pythian Apollo to tell the to return them.

To return to Nina Simone, this politically charged nostalgia for one’s place of birth, within the imagery of the wingless bird, occurs in her song ‘Fodder on my wings’:

A bird fell to earth, reincarnated from her birth
She had fodder in her wings
She had dust inside her brains
She flitted here and there
United States, Switzerland, France, England, everywhere
With fodder in her wings
And dust inside her brains
Oh how sad. Oh how sad. Oh how sad.

Hearing the first line with the chorus from Iphigenia in Tauris in mind, made me think that flight, imagined or achieved, brings us face to face with the question of our own place of origins, where we came from, and how, while everything else may be escaped from by us, we cannot truly fly away from our origins. The odd phrase ‘reincarnated from her birth’ encapsulates this idea of the grounding of one’s birthplace.

Earlier this year, a group of four artists – Adam Pendleton (pictured outside the house below), Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher and Julie Mehretu bought the house in Tryon, North Carolina, where Nina Simone was born.

 

According to an article in The New York Times, the rationale for this purchase was:

an act of art but also of politics, a gratifying chance to respond to what they see as a deepening racial divide in America, when Simone’s fiery example of culture warrior seems more potent than ever.

To turn back to Euripides, I discovered about this project from a Classics Graduate student, Megan Miller, with whom I am working at Ohio State. After attending Pendleton’s lecture here in Columbus a few weeks ago, Miller was reading an article about the artist in Vogue when she reached the paragraph about Simone’s house. This project of cultural recuperation hit home to Miller, not only as a North Carolina native, but also because back in 2007, as an Undergraduate, she was awarded a Simone Project Awards 2007 Senior Scholarship.

Aside from any affinities with Euripides’ plays, Nina Simone’s political legacy for creative protest is not only embodied and actively transformed by the recuperative project of Adam Pendleton, Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher and Julie Mehretu, but it is also present in a concrete way in the work of a Classicist. From the foundation of her Simone award ten years ago, Miller has embarked on an ambitious and timely research project about American myth making and ideas of belief in the age of Trump, a project that, in its own way, is grounded in Nina Simone’s legacy for calling out racist and sexist patriarchy and enacting change for a better, more diverse and inclusive future.

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