Excerpted from the Prologue from The Last Holiday: A Memoir, by Gil Scott-Heron. © 2012 the estate of Gil Scott-Heron; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
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 long gone.
The Last Holiday: A Memoir
(Grove/Atlantic, Inc.; US: Jan 2012)
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 our neighborhood.
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 Shay. 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.
We all need to see folks reach beyond what looks possible and make it happen. We need more examples of how to make it happen. We will all face difficult circumstances along the way that will challenge our self-confidence and try to disrupt our decisions about the directions we wish to choose.
I hope this book will remind you that you can succeed, that help can arrive from unexpected quarters at times that are crucial. I believe in “the Spirits.” Sometimes when I explain to people that I have been blessed, and that the Spirits have watched over me and guided my life, I suppose I sound like some kind of quasi-evangelist for a new religion. I am not and do not have a personal church to promote. I believe, however, to paraphrase Duke Ellington, that at almost every corner of my life there has been someone or something there to show me the way. These landmarks, these signals, are provided by the Spirits. This is not a subject I offer up for purposes of debate. Whatever you call the intangible influences that help direct you in your life is not the point. My contention is that your blessings derive from your positive contributions. But they must come from the heart. Not because of what you expect in return. Otherwise what you contributed was a loan, not a gift.
I am grateful to dozens of people who helped advance my work over the years, and who helped further the accomplishment I am trying to describe here. I hope that will become clear in the descriptions that follow. In the meantime, I would hope this book helps all of us remember to celebrate Brother Stevie Wonder, on his own birthday and on January 15—the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.—every year.