In 1962, Ray Charles sang “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Ella was “Swinging Brightly,” and Sinatra claimed he was “All Alone.” Dexter Gordon was blowing a mellow one called “Go” and Brubeck rose to jazzy prominence with his seminal album “Cool.” Oscar Peterson made a “West Side Story” all his own, while Chubby Checker demanded everyone to “Limbo Rock.”
And I was born.
I believe music becomes a part of our being while we’re still in utero. We toss and flip, we dance and jerk inside our mother’s wombs, and then we make our great escape, crying in those wild decibels as we make our arrival. Maybe I sounded like a soprano sax. Or maybe I wailed like an irritated trumpet.
For as long as I can remember, there was music in our household. It gave our silences a voice. It graced our moods with their own identity. Music had always been a beloved and sometimes turbulent family member. Jazz was like a temperamental uncle or auntie, subject to fits of mayhem or melancholy. The Blues became a sometimes pissed and tempestuous in-law. Swing was a reckless cousin who just loved to jump around and shake things up a bit. And Rock and Roll was an endlessly hip and rebellious nephew. Music was a part of the way we walked and talked, and how we proceeded through our days and how we moved through our nights. Music was also my teacher, and I was a student to the lessons it taught.
Music was in the way my parents made love, and fought. When Nat King Cole began to croon, I instinctively knew that Gig and Dakota wanted to be alone, and they would soon slink away into their bedroom. When Elvis Presley’s Return to Sender played on the stereo, it was safe to assume that Gig was not at home. Gig hated the very idea of Elvis, who’d ‘stolen his best shit from the Black man.’
Music was our most mesmerizing companion, as close to us as a friend who knew our heart of hearts. Music was our most expressive lover. That confidant we told our deepest secrets to was always music. It revealed our joy, our sorrows, our dreams, our desires and all those things our souls and spirits clung to, music did this, by merely daring to exist. And in the Swinton household, music was something close to sacred.
Music was man’s most noble art, and art was what fueled that unquenchable fire inside my parents’ bellies. My mother, she had dreams she never told to anyone. Maybe some part of her had begun to realize the impossibility of them.
Performance, in fact, all things dramatic would continually fascinate Dakota Swinton. By the early ‘60s, she became much more than interested in the theater; Dakota actually wanted to become a vital part of it. Unfortunately, the theater world didn’t take an equal amount of interest in her ambition. She wanted with all her marrow to become someone epic…to be known and respected as a Black Helen Hayes. However, she would suffer the same harrowing and deeply disheartening fate of so many others of color. They, like her, were only viewed with a myopic eye. Dakota felt that particular loneliness of being seen as nothing more than a colored girl, and never for the depth, breadth, or wealth of her wholeness.
It had been another of those disillusioning days of rejection, of people taking one look at her and coldly saying no. Most of them didn’t even allow her the courtesy to read.
Those people who didn’t know her, nor what she was capable of doing or of achieving; those people who refused her even the common decency of a reading, they were killing her… by taking away her heartbeat.
They were doing it slowly, quietly, but nonetheless cruelly. They were taking every one of her dreams by the scrap of their ambitious black necks, and strangling them.
She’d take to her tiny Harlem bed, and inside those claustrophobic walls, she’d weep. Yes, maybe it was silly, but shouldn’t someone have cared? Shouldn’t someone have thought enough of her to at least give her a chance?
Shortly after that series of memorable oppositions to her dreams, Dakota Swinton was done, finished. Meanwhile, Gig Swinton was beginning to hit his stride. All she could do was care for an infant and wait inside that slowly suffocating room for his return from the road. This wasn’t the life she’d imagined for herself. For her, it was in fact, a non-life. What is left to do or to become when your soul yearns and cries out for more, and you try for more, but the world refuses you?
She’d had enough of that often-unconcealed bigotry. She had grown so sick and tired of that whole collective of them; sick of their eyes shooting race movies upon her skin. She was sick of the lies, the games, the half-truths, the fame whores, tired of running around town dragging the weight of her ambitions, only to be stuck, inert in Harlem, each day watching crippled dreams and their dreamers passing by her window. It was not fair. It just wasn’t fair-minded, but it was life as she knew it. A willful Dakota had determined, though bitterly, that she would have to quit and give up the fight to become a star of the stage.
Gig, for his part, was never quite a pillar of support or encouragement when it came to Dakota’s naked ambitions. Her dreams, her desire, they didn’t matter so much to him. Besides, wasn’t he working hard enough, traveling and playing and providing enough to keep his ‘little woman’ happy, clothed, fed and in her right mind?
In a sob-sad confession to her husband, through tears and slobber and bitter regret, Dakota conceded, “I can’t do this, Gig. I… I just can’t keep… trying… and hoping… when my hopes get so swollen they just begin to sag on me… and I can’t keep… doing this… can’t keep living on these… lost dreams anymore.”
Gig said nothing. He only embraced her tightly, and he smiled the grin of utter relief.
But then that creative spark within her was reignited again.
It occurred in a chance encounter, when Dakota happened upon a group of young artists, artists of color, while riding the A-train. Seeing them, listening to them, she instantly became their captive audience. She marveled at just how brand-new and beautiful and animated they seemed. They were intelligently yet enthusiastically discussing the meaning, the soul and the spine of a new play they’d just seen. A few of them were returning home fresh from a reading by a group of emerging Black poets. Others were deeply engaged in reading their playbills; while others were delivering lines from the play itself. For Dakota, it was fascinating to watch all this informed and wonderful movement, to hear the spirited conversations about those very things she’d only dreamed of being, of someday becoming.
It was there, on that train ride home, she would strike up a conversation with a prematurely graying, deep brown-skinned lady named Barbara Ann. This was a woman of such fine breeding and a noble bearing, so full of plans and revolutionary ideas, and she most duly impressed Dakota. This woman spoke with an uncommon eloquence of the urgent ‘need for a sense of dignity and cultural identity.’ The consciousness she’d forged upon those in her presence was such that it left an indelible memory in Dakota. As it turned out, Barbara Ann was a founding member of The Group Theater Workshop in Chelsea, along with a young actor named Robert Hooks. The workshop would later evolve into the Negro Ensemble Company.
With her interest and her passion rekindled, Dakota proceeded to attend every play, every show on off-Broadway she could readily afford… and she became an excited witness to every compelling work with a voice, a message, and a social conscience. Soon she would become acquainted with the up-and-coming talents and firmly established artistes such as like Cicely Tyson, Roscoe Lee Brown, Vantile Whitfield, Diana Sands, Frank Silvera, Douglas Turner Ward, Abbey Lincoln and Louis Gossett.
In the fall of 1964, Dakota would see her new friend again. Barbara Ann was appearing in a production called We Real Cool, a play based on a poem by the writer Gwendolyn Brooks. A talented legion of people who looked like she did were throwing their voices from a stage and making that audience feel every reverberation. It was electric. Barbara Ann, who had built a repetition for being a striking performer, proved nothing short of magnificent in her role.
By the end of the show, against the zealous thunder and roar of applause, her burning desire was completely and most soundly reignited and her passion was instantly reborn. Dakota Swinton wanted nothing more than to be a part of this bourgeoning movement; to truly belong and to be a part of this dynamic new scene. They were young and gifted, lovely and educated, and most of all, filled with that ripeness of new sensation and possibility.
From that point on Dakota Swinton began immersing herself in the political, dramatic, literary and philosophy of Black Bohemian culture. She needed to be an integral part of it. What Dakota didn’t know, she felt, that, with instruction, she could acquire in her haste as she so desperately wanted to learn everything these impassioned people knew and exhibited. Though she had performed on stage before, she was not formally trained as a singer, nor as an actress… and yet she was so ardently artistic. She’d sought to become one of those special, shining people upon whom a light would glimmer; Dakota Swinton wanted nothing than to become another of those golden ones, those sons and daughters of appreciation and applause.
Yes, Art was her goal once more now. The Fine Art of Creation had once again kissed at the fingertips of her soul. Gig was not alone. Gig could pull sounds from the air, melodies from his inner ear, and give the world new music. It was a gift, and she’d always respected and admired it. But she too had talents and God-given gifts worthy of displaying to those crucial ones who truly got it and who knew with every certainty that Art mattered. She drew now, more willfully than ever before, and with even more intensity. Suddenly, she began painting with a renewed fire in her belly, all in an effort to have her work be seen, noticed. She needed someone to sincerely admire her for this gift she possessed, and best of all, to perhaps be praised for it.
Needing an honest, forthright critique, she took this work to her friend Barbara Ann. After viewing several rough sketches, Barbara Ann could clearly see Dakota’s ability. It was then, at best, a diligent application of a finite talent. Yet that talent was quite evident to Barbara Ann. It excited her enough to believe there could be a place for Dakota Swinton within this grand vision she’d imagined.
“You really do tell such wonderfully rich stories with your art. Do you ever think on a bigger scale or a broader scope than this?”
“Oh! I think bigger all the time, my sister! All the time!” Dakota declared.
“Well, bigger is beautiful. I could see you perhaps becoming a scenic designer. We need more Black talent in every area and on every avenue if we really want to start a revolution!”
Constant rejection ultimately signaled that she had no business being an actress, but Dakota Swinton had shown a thirst, and an unquenchable degree of ambition. She sought to find a destiny attained only by a brilliant few. She was asked by Barbara Ann to join her in the realization of a long-held dream. The dream was of creating, of carving out an individual and a most singular contribution to the art world; that dream was one of forming a theater.
This idea was so exciting it caught a fire inside Dakota Swinton’s mind. It burned so brightly with the promise of something better than the life she’d known. It was the time and the place for a new Black innovation, and this was something Dakota felt so ready to not only welcome but to embrace wholeheartedly.
Only, her husband wouldn’t hear of it. For Gig, it wasn’t very feasible. In his opinion, the theater was no place for a young mother to be. Besides, he needed her home to tend to things while he was away touring.
“I’ve never met one of those actors or stage people that had a lick of sense about them. They all as crazy as bedbugs! Runnin’ around here lookin’, actin’ and bein’… like somebody else! It ain’t normal.”
“And I suppose all those jazz-playing men you hang with are normal? And all those funerals we been to up in Chelsea were for normal people, too? I guess they ain’t running around being promiscuous, smokin’ dope, snorting power up their noses, or sticking needles in their arms?”
“Don’t be a snake in my grass, woman! Maybe some of ‘em do, or used to, but I don’t. You can ask anyone who knows me, who tours or plays poker deep into the A.M. with me, and they’ll tell you, Gig Swinton ain’t no junkie! Gig Swinton is a serious musician! Ain’t nothing abnormal about me. And I don’t want you runnin’ around here acting abnormal, or being around any abnormal people either. It ain’t healthy for you, or my family. Nah. You need to keep her ass home and just be a good wife and mother. That’s all the actin’ you need to be doin!”
The lady Dakota had met in the rain, the person who’d befriended her so immediately and inspired her to believe in the realization of her dreams, this was a woman named Barbara Ann Teer. Miss Teer went on to become a radiant light upon the terrain of theatrical and cultural change.
Her light manifested its greatest shine on the tower that would become The National Black Theatre, which Miss Teer founded in 1968.
Many gifted young artists, actors, writers, playwrights and poets started out there, and later came into prominence, all under the auspices of Miss Teer’s dream. Unfortunately, Dakota Swinton was not destined to be one of them.
Dakota, in her despair, felt stifled, alone and misunderstood. She was made to feel as though she were being systematically cheated out of her rightful destiny. Even this man she loved, the one she believed in and married, he had tricked her. He’d promised her the moon and the stars. But he’d never told her that he would be the sole owner and proprietor of the sky.
Gig had stolen something precious from Dakota. When he’d asked that she be his partner, his quiet, peaceful bird-like wife, she thought that they would someday fly together. But once that bird was safely inside the cage he constructed, he’d taken away her ability to soar.
It was a whole new strain of pain. It seemed as if nothing and no one could ease it or soothe this new wound nor placate the ache stewing within the contours of her heart and spirit. Nothing could calm the hot coursing blood pounding through her veins, pushing through her arteries quite like the gravity she found inside her music. Music was her mind’s only friend and teacher. Music was the only thing that made her non-life worth living. She rose, bathed, she went through her succession of empty, restless, colorless days, cared for her baby, and she cooked and she cleaned in the vocal companionship of Nina Simone. She played Nina Simone incessantly. She felt somehow in league with that tone. She listened like a musical apprentice to that moaning, yearning, longing cry of Simone’s. It seemed that Nina Simone and she alone, could not only articulate but embody the complexity of this twinge lodged so deeply within her. Those vocal demonstrations of ache and of arrogance and rage and of brilliance and most of all, that sheer and most excellent sound of vulnerability coincided with this inner sound she herself had grown to know. She relied upon the strength of Nina Simone, because The High Priestess could be so silky smooth and sensitive one moment, and then suddenly explode into a fit of anger and wail with a great throat full of rage in the next. Dakota related, in spades, to this distinct duality.
There are notes, some notes that sing us slowly… and then there are notes that cry so sharp and so high, they virtually define us in our deepest quietude.
Rage had slowly become a note Dakota Swinton knew very well. In fact, rage would soon become her latest theme song.
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