In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Cassandra Lane’s memoir We Are Bridges is as compelling as it is important, a book that explores how previous generations set the stage for our present.
NPR Books wrote of the book:
“We Are Bridges makes a stunning contribution to what must become our collective memory.”
There’s a popular sentiment right now that we don’t need any more Black trauma stories, and I absolutely understand that attitude — I love to laugh and love and travel as much as the next person. My belly is full of chuckles. My skin tickles with silliness. My mouth crackles with cackles over the corniest of jokes. I walk in my #BlackGirlMagic with pride. I receive my son’s #BlackBoyJoy all day every day. Who needs more stories about trauma in the Black community when trauma continues to happen in real time right here in the 21st century?
Who can take turning on the TV or computer and watching a cop kneel on the neck of a Black man until that Black life is gone and then turn around and watch a movie or read a book about the lynchings that preceded this modern-day one, these modern-day ones? And yet, I wrote a book, We Are Bridges: A Memoir, that explores the lynching of my great-grandfather, Burt Bridges, that explores the generational impact of that one act of racial violence. The book’s cover is blue, and I think that is perfect. I am a daughter of the South, a Black daughter of the South. The blues is shut up in my bones. I hail from a family of southern musicians—guitar players and quartet singers. They sang and played gospel that sometimes sounded like the blues and sometimes offered a respite from it.
I started writing We Are Bridges twenty years ago, and I knew I had to get this story out before I would be released to write any other book. A dear friend, who has written and directed wildly popular comedies and shows for television, gave me the language I needed to capture why I wrote the book I wrote: to dig into the pain and, at the same time, to offer salve. Blues and gospel.
Folks have called the book a “lyrical memoir,” and for any lyrical notes, I pay homage to the many poets and musicians who have influenced my life and, in turn, my work. I like to write in complete silence in a room that I turn into a womb — with candles, incense and a space heater. In this warm quiet, I can hear my mother playing her Fender guitar, I can hear my uncles singing, I can hear Grandmama chanting. I can hear Billie Holiday haunting my soul as she sings about “Strange Fruit” and I can hear Edwin Hawkins and the Northern California State Youth Choir lifting it again with “O Happy Day.”
Why was I compelled to write Bridges? Because I dance in the rhythm of joy and pain (thank you, Frankie Beverly & Maze). Because neither cancels out the other. Tenor and bass and soprano and alto are like sunshine and rain. I grew up in Louisiana and didn’t leave its mud until I was 30, heading for a place where they say it never rains. But Tony! Toni! Toné! (and before them: Albert Hammond) didn’t tell the whole truth about Southern California. While rain here is rare, it does rain. Do you know what it’s like to desperately miss the rain and not even know it until it drizzles, for just a few minutes, in the desert, waking up brick-dry soil? Do you know what it’s like to see ashes raining down more often than water?
Don’t deny the rain lest you burn up in the flames of the sun.
“It Never Rains in Southern California” by Tony! Toni! Toné!
As a girl growing up in the South, California seemed like a dream. We transplants bring our surface ideas of what this complicated place is based on the films we’ve watched, the songs we’ve memorized. I loved listening and singing along to this song as a young woman. I was a freshman in college when it first came out, and I could imagine myself one day living far away from the rain and all that plagued my home and family. Long a romantic at heart, this Southern California was the place where love felt light, where your desire traveled from afar to meet you under the sun, where your budding love could blossom. How that would happen without water, I did not know.
“Another Spring” by Nina Simone
This song is one of my all-time favorites because it reminds me of my great-grandmother Mary, who still daydreamed about Burt Bridges, the love of her life, the father of her only child, until she died in 1982 at 90-something years old. I used to watch her sitting on the porch, shooing away ghosts, talking to herself, so the way this song starts off — with Nina’s heavy, knowing voice — feels just like Grandma Mary:
Old people talk to themselves
When they sit all ’round all day
This old woman I knew
I used to go over there and sit with her
And she’d be sitting around
In a rocking chair talking to herself
I love the way Nina takes us from third-person narrator to first-person, straight into the old woman’s head: “Sometimes, the night comes down on me/And I know what’s ahead/An evening in this cold old house with no one to say goodnight to me when I go to bed…” and then the repetition of that coldness and loneliness…it creeps along the hairs on my arms; it squeezes my heart. And yet, the song takes a turn just as the first-person narrator plummets to what appears to be the bottom of despair. She begins to sing of spring! The piano lifts! And we are hearing the birds chirping right along with her. The sun beams, joining us in cheering for her renewal, hope, for her life — and our own. We will all grow old, if we’re lucky. We’d do ourselves a service to listen to the longings of our elders, and to meet them in the middle of it.
“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday
I didn’t hear this song until I was in college, and it haunted me so much that I would play it over and over, back-to-back, much to my roommate’s dismay. I knew that my grandfather’s father had been lynched, so the song felt personal and immediate in ways I could not yet put into words. I knew the scent of magnolias well, and while I not seen Black bodies hanging from trees, my blood relatives had seen such atrocities, and their blood is in my blood and so my mind’s eye could not look away.
“Don’t Explain” by Billie Holiday
As a kid, I devoured my mother’s romance novels and any romantic classic movies I could catch. The instrumentals on this song remind me of one of those classic movies, as does the sweet tone of Billie’s voice — and yet, the lyrics are heartbreaking. She is declaring her absolute love for a man she knows is a cheat. She hushes him and tells him “don’t explain/You’re my joy and pain.” I refer to this song in “We Are Bridges,” which weaves themes of race and romance (and broken romance) throughout.
“Push It” by Salt-n-Pepa
I can still see my sister and me dancing to this song and all the other ’80s greats, the music blaring from the jukebox at the washateria in DeRidder, Louisiana, our skinny hips gyrating. We had no idea what we were singing and dancing to, not really, but our bodies loved the heavy, suggestive beats and our curiosity was piqued by the rough command of the women’s voices. These were not timid, soft Southern women. These women were telling people — men, too! — what to do. “Push it good. Push it real good!”
“Una Furtiva Lagrima” by Enrico Caruso
While writing “We Are Bridges,” I looked up and listened to songs written and performed in 1904, the year Burt Bridges was likely lynched. It is painful to imagine the freedom and creativity it takes to craft a work of art while at the same time the accepted societal norm was to continue freely oppressing and killing members of a group of people, cutting short their dreams and potential and love (yet, how is that different from today?). “Una furtiva lagrima” (A furtive tear) is the romanza from Act II, Scene 2 of the Italian opera L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) by Gaetano Donizetti. It is sung by Nemorino (Caruso) when he finds that the love potion he bought to win his dream lady’s heart, Adina, works. I wish there had been a “potion” to bring Burt back to Mary. To eradicate racial terrorism once and for all.
“Tilobign” by Rahel Getu
My solo dance breaks often include Ethiopian music, and I love Rahel Getu’s voice. This song, “Tilobign” means “I am in love.” While I don’t speak the language, I understand it. We ride on the waves of her lilting voice. In love, in love, in love. I listen, too, to recordings of Native American and African chants, sounds that remind me of the chants my grandmother used to sing around the house while doing her housework or quilting. You don’t always need to understand with your mind. Sound knits itself in places beyond it.
“Family Prayer” by Sister Rosetta Thorpe
“Don’t forget the family prayer,” Tharpe, hailed as the “mother of rock and roll,” sings. “Prayer will even make those who hate you love you/make them love you every day.” I mean: Who wouldn’t love that? This song makes me happy because the lyrics are so fun, and the beat makes your feet itch to shout, the way my grandmama used to do during the many prayer meetings held at our house when I was growing up. As the daughter of a gifted Black woman guitarist, I lap up old videos of Tharpe standing in the middle of a stage, her strong alto belting out tunes as she plays her guitar with such soulful and, simultaneously, rocking ease. “Up above my head, music in the air…and I really do believe there is joy somewhere.” Yes. As long as there is music — no matter what kind — there is joy.
“When Doves Cry” by Prince
Intoxicating. Vivid imagery. Sad. Sexy. Sensual. Heartbreaking. The passing on of family traits and drama. If this song isn’t a kind of blues, I don’t know what is. And if Prince could embrace the blues, who are we to shun it?
“Like A Ship” Pastor T. L. Barrett & Youth For Christ Choir
This song has been arranged in wildly different ways more than a few times: “very slow, in between and in a more upbeat jazzy sound,” my mother says. I wish I had a recording of Mama playing it the way she did when we were growing up — sad and slow, full of longing and vulnerability, an opening, a surrendering. It moved my little-girl soul. The good news is that there is still time. She rarely performs publicly anymore, but her music room holds at least a dozen electric guitars, and amps and mics. I will ask her to record herself playing her version of “Like a Ship” so that it exists outside my memory, so that we can pass it on and on and on.
Cassandra Lane is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Lane received her MFA from Antioch University LA. Her stories have appeared in the New York Times’s Conception series, the Times-Picayune, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and elsewhere. She is managing editor of L.A. Parent magazine and formerly served on the board of the AROHO Foundation.