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MLK Day assembly leaves students cheering—and thinking

When the Greenhills student body gathered Friday for a special assembly to recognize the Rev. Martin Luther King, they expected to hear a lot about Dr. King—but probably didn’t expect to hear anything at all about fiery civil rights singer Nina Simone.

Guest speaker Brenda Flanagan, an author and former Greenhills faculty member who now teaches English at web-mlk-day-1Davidson College in North Carolina, wanted students to learn about some of the less-remembered but hugely important figures in the movement led by King.

So she told the story of Simone, a superbly talented musician whose goal of playing as a classically trained pianist was stifled by the prevailing racism of the time. Flanagan is at work on a book about the musician, whose role in the civil rights movement—with songs like “Old Jim Crow,” a cover version of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” and her first direct reference to systemic American racism, “Mississippi Goddam” —is often overlooked.

“This isn’t black history,” Flanagan said of the struggle for civil rights. “This is American history.”

Flanagan’s own story is also one of struggle. She was born in Trinidad, the twelfth of fourteen children, and had to leave school at 14 to help support her family with factory work and calypso singing. She also worked as a journalist before coming to the United States in 1967 with dreams of higher education. After several years of marriage and motherhood, she began studying at the University of Michigan, where she ultimately earned a PhD, winning several prestigious Hopwood Awards along the way for short stories, drama, and a novel.

web-bandFlanagan was introduced by members of Greenhills middle school group Diversity in Action. The Upper School jazz band also performed, including one of Simone’s signature songs.

Her published work includes the short story collection You Alone Are Dancing, In Praise of Island Women and Other Crimes, and Allah in the Islands. She’s been a cultural ambassador for the State Department since 2003.

Saturday, April 24
Open to anyone ages 16 and up. Limited quantities available.
Greenhills is closed for mid-winter break and will return on Tuesday, Feb. 22.