Read Farah Jasmine Griffin’s article on Ann Petry in Harvard Magazine. Ann Petry’s The Street became the first novel by a black American woman to sell more than a million copies and Dr. Griffin provides her own unique insight into the life of this fascinating woman.
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Ann Petry by Farah Jasmine Griffin in Harvard Magazine
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Looking For Lady Day’s Resting Place? Detour Ahead
When Billie Holiday died in 1959, thousands of mourners attended her funeral at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in New York City. The overflow crowd lined the sidewalks. Honorary pallbearers included such jazz greats as Benny Goodman and Mary Lou Williams. Newspapers and magazines ran heartfelt tributes.
But where is Holiday buried? She’s not in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery, the well-known spot for famous dead jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Celia Cruz, Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton. She’s buried at St. Raymond’s Cemetery — or, as singer and Holiday fan Queen Esther puts it, “Way, way, way out,” in the Bronx.
Queen Esther and Columbia University professor Farah Jasmine Griffin recently did a show at The Apollo Theater based on Holiday’s music and the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. Griffin is the author of If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday. They are both huge admirers of Lady Day. And they recently paid their first visit to her grave.
“I think people assume she’s in Woodlawn,” Griffin says. “Because that’s where everyone else is. … So people assume that, unless you go looking.”
Musician Queen Esther and writer Farah Jasmine Griffin collaborated on a theatrical show featuring Billie Holiday’s music.
So why is one of the most influential singers in the world buried in a place that is so inaccessible?
“Probably because it was cheap,” says Donald Clarke, author of the Holiday biographyWishing on the Moon.
The story goes that, when Holiday died, her life savings of $750 were found strapped to her leg. Decisions around her death were left to her estranged husband, Louis McKay, who, by most accounts, was a louse.
Clarke says McKay was a “wannabe gangster” who didn’t pay for Holiday’s funeral. Instead, it was reportedly funded by a wealthy jazz fan, Michael Grace. Clarke says Grace also offered to pay for Holiday to be buried next to Babe Ruth at an upscale New York cemetery. But McKay wouldn’t have it.
“He took over because he wanted to, and because he could,” Clarke says.
McKay decided Holiday should be buried alongside her mother, Sadie Fagan, at St. Raymond’s. Clarke concedes that’s probably what she would’ve wanted.
But then, a year after her death, it was discovered that Lady Day still had no tombstone. The plot wasn’t even marked. One visitor to St. Raymond’s described it as a “small square of gray, mean-looking ground.”
As the news spread, so did the outrage. In May 1960, DownBeat magazine — a bible for jazz fans — wrote that it was a “situation that would’ve appealed to Billie Holiday’s sharp sense of the ironic.”
“Where,” the magazine went on, “were all the people who had made money off the singer during her life”? DownBeat started a collection to pay for a tombstone. Once again, Holiday’s husband objected. Clarke says Louis McKay announced “that he intended to have Lady and Sadie’s remains removed to the St. Paul’s section of the cemetery and that he would erect a monument at a cost of $3,500.”
Holiday and her mother now share a tombstone. On a recent rainy day in June, it was clear others had also made the pilgrimage. A small statue of an angel, a little porcelain dog, and a famous photo of Holiday were among the tokens left behind.
In her 44 years, Holiday suffered through poverty, racism and addiction. She was hounded by the media and often made headlines. So maybe she would’ve liked the solitude and tranquility of St. Raymond’s, say Farah Jasmine Griffin and Queen Esther.
“She’s here … far removed from everyone. She isn’t harassed. She’s having some respite, some peace,” says Queen Esther.
Though many people might like to see Holiday honored with a mausoleum, Griffin says, “There’s something about the conventionality of it that’s nice, too.”
In any case, she says, “It’s not so much where they’re buried, it’s how we remember them.”
Farah Jasmine Griffin
If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery
With so many bone-dry books on jazz printed daily, Farah Jasmine Griffin’s paean to Billie Holiday arrives like the aroma of gardenia. Griffin, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, makes no claim that her book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery is the work of a musicologist or a musician. She is neither. She is a highly intelligent, articulate and, most of all, passionate lover of jazz—someone who also happens to be a black woman and thus connects with Holiday in various and profound ways. She explores those connections in this highly personal view of Holiday, and what it means “to be talented, black, sensual and complex.” She finds in Holiday not only a spiritual soul mate—someone too often judged by everything but her talent—but also a model for her own art as a writer. “Listening to her pare down a lyric and melody to the barest minimum free of pretension, making it impossible not to confront its meaning, became a model for me of a way of doing intellectual work.”
The basis of Holiday’s talent was her integrity—her refusal to be a maid or a whore in a white man’s world. She instead decides to become a singer. The title—If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery, is a line from a Rita Dove poem. “Choosing to be a mystery is the one way to maintain a semblance of control,” Griffin writes, “to keep your inner self to yourself. This is an act of agency for the unfree.”
Of course, Holiday’s story isn’t one of strict heroism; it is also one of tragedy. She was a victim of brutal men, both black and white. To find a woman who transcends that victimization, Griffin turns to Abbey Lincoln, a woman who chooses “self-care over self-destruction.” Lincoln made the decision to “stop singing songs about no-good men who didn’t know how to treat women. I discovered that you become what you sing. You can’t repeat lyrics night after night as though they were prayer without having them come true in your own life.”
Art, to Griffin, is more than beauty. It is truth, too. Her book provides a wonderful instruction in what it means to be moved emotionally and intellectually by great music and the artists who make it.