He could end an argument before it even started. For anyone who might resent black people’s desire to affirm themselves among themselves, when it came to “Young, Gifted and Black,” he sang this: “I’m not tryin’ to bring down nobody else, but it’s sure young, gifted and black.” Case closed.
He wanted to encourage black people through his music, and some people tried to encourage him. Edward Howard wrote the lyrics to Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” he says, as a message to Hathaway himself. Hathaway was then plagued by schizophrenia, and the song was all his friend could give him: “Hang on to the world as it spins around, just don’t let the spin get you down.” He wasn’t going to make it. But he held on long enough to turn a song meant for him into a song for everyone else.
Emily J. Lordi is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the author of the new book Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature. Her music reviews have appeared in NewBlackMan (in Exile), the Feminist Wire and the New Inquiry. She is working on a book about soul.