“In order to rise from its own ashes, a phoenix must first burn.” Set against the backdrop of the Nova Scotia wildfires, I was struck anew by the line from The Parable of the Talents, an acclaimed novel by the Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler (1947-2006).
Published in 1998, the narrative details a society ravaged by climate catastrophes, racism, gender violence, and religious zealots. As Butler told it, the path out of despair rests in the ability of people to embrace our common bonds as a human family; as in the support that has been showered on Nova Scotians impacted by the fires and those toiling tirelessly to quell the flames.
For me, Butler’s reference to a phoenix rising from ashes also evoked the woman born Anna Mae Bullock in Jim Crow Tennessee and who died, last month, in Switzerland, as the singer revered around the globe as Tina Turner. She was 83.
As such, Turner had bested the average life span for Black women by seven years. Shortly before her death, she attributed her blessings to her Buddhist practice and to the devotion of her second husband, Erwin Bach, from whom she’d received a kidney transplant in 2017.
Turner’s split from her monstrous first husband, Ike Turner, and the evolution of her romance with Bach has been widely documented, notably in the riveting 2021 film TINA by Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin.
I suspect that Turner was receptive to the project because of Martin’s mother, the path-breaking Black grunge musician Tina Bell who died, destitute, at age 55.
“That could have easily been me,” I imagine Tina Turner thinking to herself.
I was living in northern California in the 1980s-90s when Turner, having ascended as a solo artist, won several Grammy Awards and began spectacular stadium tours, including a show for a record-breaking audience of nearly 200,000 in Brazil. For comparison, that’s more than the entire population of Prince Edward Island.
A few hours before Turner’s September 1993 concert in an outdoor arena near my then home, a friend gifted me with two tickets to the show. Astounded, I called a journalist colleague who dropped everything and joined me. Neither of us had ever seen the singer perform live.
I’m incapable of describing what it was like to watch Tina Turner, then 53, and resplendent in her signature stiletto heels, command the stage for nearly two hours. Luckily, an online search will reveal numerous clips of her rocking out, full-tilt boogie. She gave her final performance, in England, at age 69.
Here’s Turner reflecting on her remarkable journey. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve felt a strong bond with nature,” she noted in her memoir That’s My Life. “The fields … where I grew up, were my refuge, my escape from the harsh realities of my life. I was the child who always had scraped knees and tousled hair because I climbed trees and rolled in the grass.”
She continued: “When I look back, I can see the story of my life through the clothes I wore. There was always a connection. The opportunity to sing with Ike in the early days was like something out of a fairytale for a teenager whose dream was to perform onstage. I felt so elegant in my gown, like a princess. But that gown was a prison, just like my marriage. I wanted to move, so my skirts got shorter and less constricting because freedom was important to me, onstage and in life. … From my wigs to my shoes, and everything in between. It’s a form of personal expression for me.”
This brings me to the friend who gave me the concert tickets. A white male with Ivy League credentials, he’d forgone more lucrative careers to become a teacher at schools that served marginalized youths. Unlike his peers, he always wore vibrant coloured shirts — orange, yellow, pink, lavender — and wacky ties (think: Looney Tunes characters) on the job.
One day, while visiting my friend’s school, I noted the stark contrast between his wardrobe and the nearly uniform black, brown, olive green, and gray attire of his students. “It’s intentional,” he replied, noting that he aimed, through his physical being, to “brighten” the world of the youngsters with whom he’d cast his lot.
So, I was flattened in September 2019 when my friend took his life. Then 59 and apparently unable to cope with a firestorm of maladies that had engulfed him, he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. A passerby had reportedly failed to prevent his plunge.
As it happened, I’d just arrived in California for a visit and received the tragic news, firsthand, from his family. In the 20 years I’d lived in the region, I’d never walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. But a few days after my friend’s memorial service at a school where he’d inspired countless youths, I traversed the iconic 2.7 kilometre structure painted with the brilliant hue International Orange C0362C.
Hence, when reading recent reports about the death of the Queen of Rock and Roll, I was especially moved by mentions of the many philanthropic contributions she’d made in her adopted homeland. Among them: a municipal rescue boat that she’d purchased for her lakeside community near Zurich.
It was christened “Tina.”
The Provincial Mental Health Crisis line can be reached toll-free at 1-888-429-8167.
Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life.