Citizen Green: Shirley Deane’s secret to a long life

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Shirley Deane at home in Winston-Salem. (photo by Jordan Green)

She ushers me into her tidy, sun-dappled apartment in Winston-Salem’s West Salem neighborhood, casually mentioning that she’s just celebrated her 90th birthday. She tells me she doesn’t know how she lived so long, and over the course of our 90-minute visit she keeps coming back to that sense of surprise at her longevity.

Shirley Deane doesn’t look anything like 90. With sparkling eyes, sharp wits and an energetic if deliberate gait, she comes across as someone two-thirds her age. It might have something to do with her experience as a world traveler and an independent person who supported herself in an era that was far less accommodating towards women’s liberation. She displays a mischievous sense of humor, noting my last name and mentioning that all the men she met in Europe with generic color names — Brown, White, Black — turned out to be CIA agents. (For the record, I am not now and have never been an agent or asset of the CIA.)

Sitting across the living room from Deane, it’s easy to see her as the 27-year-old accordion performing jazz tunes on a Norwegian cruise ship in 1956, or driving her Land Rover through Iran as part of a headline-grabbing journey from London to Kathmandu six years later.

Shirley Deane with her Land Rover during her journey from London to Kathmandu.

It’s all in her memoir, An Unreasonable Woman: In Search of Meaning Across the Globe, published by Winston-Salem-based Press 53 in 2010.

Deane’s signature accomplishment is probably the publication of her book, Black South Africans: Profiles of Natal’s Leading Blacks — A Who’s Who, in 1978. Featuring musicians, political leaders and agriculturalists, among other notable black South Africans both famous and obscure, the book includes one page with essential facts, including dates of birth, residence and professional achievements, followed by a vividly written narrative profile for each of the subjects. The fact that there was a need for such a book under the apartheid system that ruled South Africa in the late 1970s, and the resistance Deane encountered in compiling it, strikes me as an apocryphal lesson in the way white supremacy operates.

Deane initiated the undertaking after picking up a copy of a volume called Who’s Who in South Africa, and discovered that it didn’t include a single black person — an incredible oversight in a country with 16 million blacks and only 6 million whites.

“Can you imagine: I almost lost my life,” Deane tells me. “The apartheid government wanted to see Africans depicted as good truck-loaders and unloaders, as good workers in the gold and copper mines. They didn’t want to see black South Africans raised in stature.”

As Deane details in her 2010 memoir, during the course of writing Black South Africans her magnetic tapes containing interviews were erased, her apartment burglarized, and she was harassed by security agents.

To understand why Deane, an American expatriate, was willing to undergo the risk and adversity necessary to complete the project, she says that there are some other things people need to know about her. Her lengthy preface in our conversation hit on two themes: her sense of independence, good fortune to have a talent that enabled her to travel, and rejection of chauvinism.

“I wanted to see the whole world, and I remember when I was 8 years old, the English teacher I had growing up in New York City gave us an assignment: Write a paper on why America is the greatest country in the world. And I wrote, ‘I don’t think America is the greatest country in the world. I think that the world is like an orchestra. And you can’t say that the trombone is better than the flute. And you can’t say that the bass is better than the violin. I think that every instrument plays its part, and just like that every country plays its part.’”

The teacher gave Deane a failing grade. Furious, Deane’s mother went to see the principal to complain. The teacher was fired, and Deane’s grade was changed to an A.

At the same age, Deane, who was born with perfect pitch, got an accordion. The instrument “became my ticket to the world,” she says.

Beginning at the age of 16, she started performing on television and radio. She played nightclub sets from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., part of a “hellish” routine that involved getting up the next day at 8 a.m. to take classes at New York University. One night Deane was performing at a nightclub on Broadway owned by the boxer Jack Dempsey. Three musicians from Oslo who were on leave from the cruise ship where they were employed showed up. After the set, they asked Deane to come back to ship for a jam session. They took her to see the captain, and soon she had a contract that took her across the Atlantic.

In Europe, Deane played her accordion — jazz and classic, never polka — for US Army and Air Force personnel. While in Europe, Deane received a request to take up a nightclub residency recently vacated by Zsa Zsa Gabor in Johannesburg, South Africa.

As soon as Deane arrived in Johannesburg, she encountered a “whites only” water fountain, and the audiences at her performances were exclusively white. The arrangement struck her as ridiculous.

“Even though I only had a two-week contract,” Deane recalls, “I said, ‘I have to go back and do something about this, even if it results in zilch, just so I can put some effort into changing this to some sensible way to live.’”

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