Talita Long. Photos by Jermaine Cruickshank

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UPROOTED

Talita Long, mother of actress Nia Long...

By By Renée Cummings

After 60 years of living on American soil, artist, art teacher, composer, vocalist, Talita Long, has been spiritually uprooted and transplanted back into the ancestral seedbed of her parents. Mother of actress Nia Long, she's in Trinidad to reclaim a part of her that she knew but not very well. The vibe has been so strong that this is the second time she's been back in the last six months. A call from within grabbed hold of her when she was here last August with her daughter. Since that trip, it has been hard for her to let go of the grip of ancestral hands. It has been a spiritual journey back and with it a reconciliation of two selves, African-American and Afro-Caribbean, reclamation and renewed growth. There has also been some cleansing. "I've lost 12 pounds in 18 days. I feel good. I feel healthy. I've been on a good healthy diet since I got here. It's all natural."

A client of Uchenna Hackett, owner of Livet Wellness Centre and Holistic Spa in Barataria, she's also in town for the official opening of the wellness centre and spa where she will also launch her debut Caribbean music single. Her stage name is Mystique. "I've always been interested in Caribbean music," she says as our conversation moves us swiftly upstairs to where the keyboard is located. She takes the microphone and begins a sweet, sexy, ditty. "Cassie wants to make her baby," she sings in a sultry voice infused with tenderness, sensibility and soca music. "She want it, she want it, she want it bad," she croons in a local accent stored somewhere in her memory. Growing up in Brooklyn, she heard many stories about Trinidad. Her father, Clyde Gillman, was a Belmont boy who migrated to Brooklyn, in 1937. He was 21. Her mother, Pearl Gillman nee Gittens, was born in Grenada but raised in Port of Spain.

"In a big corner house, somewhere, in Port of Spain, that's what I remember her saying. Her father, George Gittens, was a dentist. She was 21 when she moved to Brooklyn, Dean Street." Her mother arrived in Brooklyn three years after her father. "My dad had seven brothers. His mother left her husband in Trinidad and moved to New York. Then she sent for all seven of her sons. My dad was the fifth." Her parents met at a West Indian dance in Harlem, in the days when all of Harlem was Hellzapoppin, swinging, and dizzy like Gillespie. They got married soon after. Although, they didn't know each other in Trinidad, they knew Trinidad, and with a shared appreciation of the same culture and heritage, they connected with their past and began to build a future for their two daughters. Her father was a tailor and worked as a cutter for international fashion designer Geoffrey Beene. He died in 2000, at 83. "Like all West Indians in America, my mom held about three jobs. She opened a hair salon, went back to school for her master's degree, started teaching, then real estate, and now she's retired."

As soon as she and her sister were old enough to travel they began spending summer holidays on the island. She attended Catholic school during her elementary years, where she got the closest thing to a good West Indian education in America. Her college years were spent at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan's Lower East Side, where she graduated with a BA in Fine Arts. Then she was off to Howard University in Washington DC, and finally settled at the University of Iowa where she obtained a MA and MFA. To support herself, her education, and baby girl, she worked in between semesters at CBS in Manhattan. "I was the first African-American graphic artist at CBS," she says with pride recalling some great memories and some great names. "I worked for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. Ned Steinberg, the art director, at CBS, really liked me. It was an all male shop but whenever I was in New York, Ned allowed me to make some money."

She got married at 21. "It didn't last long but I have a beautiful daughter." Raising Nia was a struggle for a student and single mother trying to find her way in the world and finish graduate school. "It was just the two of us so I had to really plan my life. I was trying to get as much education as I could but we were far away from home and didn't have much support." She got a ride from Iowa to San Francisco. But things didn't work out. "It just wasn't the place. I couldn't get a job." She left for California. "I didn't have a computer and needed a computer to work in the industry. It was hard to find a job. I drove a bus on Hollywood Blvd, I was on welfare, and I worked in paste-up at CBS Records, with all that education." But life changed for the better when she took a job in the Adult Education Division at Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles teaching seniors. She found a mentor and was encouraged to get a teaching certificate. In the mid 80s, she obtained a Certified Teaching Credential in Applied Arts from UCLA. "Mr. Becker guided me correctly. I didn't have any family out there." Juggling work, school, and a teenage daughter was tough; and to that add trying to get by living in the ghetto. "I lived Boyz N The Hood," she laughs.

Boyz N The Hood was the movie that shot her daughter into the limelight. Directed by John Singleton it depicted the saga of survival in a Los Angeles ghetto. Although she lived in a similar environment, because that was all she could afford, she ensured her daughter got a good education which meant enrolling her in a school in another district. "I had an aunt who lived in Westchester (LA) so I put Nia in school out there and I had to drive her to school every day. I worked a 12 hour week at $36 an hour and I had to put food on the table. When Nia started acting and auditioning, I had to take her around and it was very difficult." But it paid off handsomely. In high school, Nia met Regina King and they became best friends. King took her to actress and acting coach Betty Bridges, mom of actor Todd Bridges, who played Willis on Diff'rent Strokes. "Betty began to manage Nia. And Nia always wanted to become an actress. When she was 19, Betty got her an interview with John Singleton. That's when she hit big." After starring in Singleton's blockbuster, Nia got a three year run in Guiding Light. The popular soap opera was being filmed in New York so they moved back home. And like her mom, Nia was born in Brooklyn.

"1139 Park Place, BedStuy, that's where I grew up. I grew up with the food and stories about growing up in the Caribbean. I also had Caribbean friends. I came back and forth several times. But I really got closer to the culture, in 1996, when I met a Trinidadian guy and came for Carnival. After that experience, I did a series of 50 paintings on Carnival interpreted through a female goddess and a jab-jab. It was so interesting." Her allegiance to her Caribbean identity and Trinidad and Tobago's folk history is strong. As she claims ownership of that legacy, there's an intermingling of the spiritual, and a devotion to a new cultural emancipation.

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