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Nicole Avant speaks onstage at the Grammy Museum in L.A. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

WEEKEND LISTENING: Nicole Avant on Why She Forgave Her Mother’s Murderer

The former U.S. ambassador and daughter of the music industry’s ‘Black Godfather’ discusses grief, grace, and her radical response to a shocking crime.

On November 30, 2021, Nicole Avant got a call from her husband in the middle of the night. The unthinkable had happened. Her otherwise healthy 81-year-old mom, Jacqueline Avant, was in critical condition at the hospital. 

Jacqueline had been having an ordinary evening at her home in Beverly Hills when a man broke into her home in an attempted robbery. He shot her, and then fled the scene.

She died later that night in the hospital. 

It was the kind of unspeakable tragedy that would leave most people paralyzed, enraged, and probably seeking revenge. But Nicole chose a different path. She decided that she’s not a victim, and that she would forgive her mother’s murderer. 

She shares this radical sentiment in her new book: Think You’ll be Happy: Moving Through Grief with Grit, Grace, and Gratitude.

Nicole wears many hats. She served as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas under President Obama—the first black woman to hold the position. She’s been a force in political fundraising. She raised more than half a million for President Obama in one night in 2012, and she was part of a team that hauled in $21 million for him in 2008. She’s also a movie producer, which isn’t exactly surprising considering she was born into black Hollywood royalty—her father was Clarence Avant, the legendary music mogul who managed artists like Bill Withers, Sarah Vaughan, and Freddie Hubbard.

Today, she finds herself again a part of Hollywood royalty, just of more recent vintage. Her husband is Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos.

She sat down with me on the latest episode of Honestly to discuss how she found the power to forgive, whether her mother’s murder affected her politically, and so much more. 

To listen to our conversation, click below. Or scroll down for an edited transcript.


On learning her mother had been shot:

Nicole Avant: I remember my knees buckling immediately and I froze for a second. I could hear my heartbeats, and it felt like it was going to jump out of my chest. I got in the car, and all of a sudden I felt this energy that came over me. I just started talking to my mom and I felt like I was becoming her. And I just said, “Mom, if you can hear me, I don’t know what the fuck is going on, but I’m on my way and I’m going to be here for you. I’m going to take care of you.”

And then I got to the hospital. And I walked in, and I saw my father sitting there, and he’s shaking a little bit. My brother’s pacing back and forth, and I looked at my father, who was physically unharmed, and I just held his hand and I said, “Dad, I don’t know what’s going on. I’m here for you.” 

And he goes, “Oh, she’s in surgery”—his false hope—“Jackie’s going to be okay.” And I just held his hand, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. And then we wait, and then they come out, and then you go into that room, and then everything changed. As soon as I heard those words—“I’m sorry, she did not make it”—my brother was like a pierced animal, just wailing. And then my father slumped onto me, and I just sat up. And I really do think I became my mom all of a sudden. It was because Jackie was like this. Everything was orderly and focused. I started delegating. I said to my brother’s girlfriend, “Get him home. Ted, get my dad in the car with you. I’m going to drive home, and I’ll meet you at the house.” I knew in that second my life has changed forever. Everyone’s life has changed forever. And we got home. My father walked in my house, and I said, “Dad, I don’t know what’s going to go on. I just know that I’m never leaving your side and we’re going to get through this together.”

My mom used to say to us, “One day a train is coming to get you. You don’t know if it’s a stroke train. You don’t know if it’s a heart attack train. So you have to prepare yourself for that train.” And I thought, “Well, Mom, this was not the train we were expecting.” 

On refusing to be a victim:

BW: I think the thing that’s most shocking about reading your book is your reaction to it. I just want to read a few things that leapt out to me. You write, “I’m not a victim, nor is my family. We are victors.” Why is your family not victims?

NA: Because every time I say the word victim, the energy goes all the way down. And yes, on paper, she’s a victim for sure. But energetically, she’s victorious because she lived her life even with an intruder in her house. Up until the end, she fought. She tried to get him out. She didn’t die in her house. She made sure she got to the hospital. And I had to tell myself, I really do believe in choosing to be victorious. My mom used to talk about being triumphant, and she’d say, “I want you to have this attitude of being a triumphant person.” And being a triumphant person does not mean that you escaped through life with no negativity. Being triumphant means you overcome. That means to have a triumph, you have to go through a trial. You have to go through a tribulation. You have to go through a hard time and then make a decision. This is horrific and tragic and whatever else you want to put on to it, but how am I going to look at this?

Because however I look at this is going to change the energy, which will change my behavior, which will then change my actions into how I’m going to move forward. Because I had a life to live. My father was 90 at the time. I said, well, he doesn’t have a lot of time left here. So if I stay in victimhood and I stay in the “Why us? Why this? I can’t believe, I can’t believe. . . ” then I’m not serving me. I’m not serving my parents’ legacy. And I definitely will not serve the small amount of time that I have left with my father. 

On what forgiveness means to her:

BW: The man who murdered your mother is 30 years old. He had an extensive criminal record. He had spent five years in prison for robbery and then was sentenced to another four years, also for robbery, and had been released on parole in September of 2021, a few months before he walked into their house. He has gotten life in prison. So in a sense, you’ve gotten justice, but forgiveness is another story, right? 

And you write this in the book: “Forgiveness is a choice and a gift to yourself. I cannot carry the anger and the resentment and the fury because it’s just a dead weight on my heart, and I have to protect my soul.”

I think most people, when they hear that, will say, how is it possible that you could have that level of clarity? And for anyone listening who can’t forgive the person that wronged them, what advice do you have for that person?

NA: I think the advice I would give is: change your definition of forgiveness. Because forgiveness has nothing to do with condoning, excusing, trying to understand a behavior. I don’t give a shit about him at all. The forgiveness was more about setting yourself free. For me, forgiveness was taking my attention off of you. I have to untether myself from your energy. Forgiveness is really giving up the burden of anger and fear and resentment. It’s a daily thing. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I just forgive you. It happened.” No, it’s a practice. Every time he came into my head and every time I said, “Why, why, why?” and “I hate that this happened. I hate that this happened in my family and to me and to my mom. And how could you be so cruel?” I would say to myself, “Nicole, take your attention off of a situation that you can no longer change, off of a person that you do not know and you do not respect. He doesn’t deserve your energy. He doesn’t deserve your time. He doesn’t deserve your thoughts. You take your energy back.

My energy is my power, and I’m going to take it back and focus on my mom. Focus on my father. Focus on the good that my mom did in this world. Focus on her energy. What she brought into the earth.” And then I would try to pull that energy down from her and move through life with that. And I could not do that by thinking about him and thinking about his actions. I cannot move forward the way I want to on the planet with him as a dead weight, by thinking about him. And I was like, this cannot consume me.

BW: You write about talking to yourself and you say, “Please don’t let me hate this man. I cannot let my frustration and fury take over me. He’s not getting that.” And then you later say, “I have a choice to either let what happened to my mother define me and rule my life or choose something else.”

What’s the something else?

NA: The something else was life. Life itself. Reconnecting to the life force that I believe is positive. It’s a choice. For me, I wanted to get back to living. And my mom really, really loved living. She didn’t just live. She really enjoyed her life. And I knew it would make her soul so sad to watch me give my whole life away to a tragedy that I can’t change. Believe me, I could have gone there, and I think I would have had every reason, and you would have understood. 

BW: There are people who don’t get out of bed for much less.

NA: Yes. And I thought, this is hard, and this is not comfortable. And there were some days where I just couldn’t function, but at least the intention was always there to live my life. And then my friend Diane von Fürstenberg wrote me a letter and it was so beautiful. And she reminded me of what her mom said to her being a Holocaust survivor: “You owe me a life. That’s all you owe me is a life.”

And Diane reminded me, “You have a life to live. You’re going to make your mother really proud. My mother went through hell, and she came out and she was like, start again.” And we have enough history to show us. If my ancestors could go through slavery and go through Jim Crow and go through civil rights and all the trauma and the pain and the suffering, and they didn’t give up. They kept living.

On how her mother’s murder affected her politically:

NA: I’ve been disappointed, especially being born and raised in L.A. I have seen the differences of this city. I’ve seen when it’s been really great and then when it’s turned a corner. The last five years before my mom died, I would drive around going, “What the hell is going on? How are we one of the largest economies in the world functioning like this?” Los Angeles is one of the best cities in the entire world. And there was a lack of order. It was like, “Who’s in charge? What’s happening?” And what upset me was people who could live behind gates didn’t know what about everybody else was going through—

BW: And cannot afford private security.

NA: Yeah. And just the idea of calling the police and calling, saying there’s somebody outside of my door and they’ve pitched a tent. “There’s nothing we can do.” That’s the one thing that the government has to do is you have to protect your people and you have to have order. That’s what we hire you for. So you can’t say to a taxpayer, “Good luck.” Good luck? No. I know a small business owner who gets a ticket for her hedges being two inches higher than they’re supposed to be, but yet somebody can come and shoot heroin in front of her house, lay there, defecate all over the place, and she calls the police and [they say] “There’s nothing we can do.” And that is not okay. And everyone knows it’s not okay. 

On Black Lives Matter and defund the police:

NA: This arrogance of society—you don’t get to be the 20-year-old white girl to talk about defund the police. Who are you to say that? What are you talking about, by the way? There are so many people in neighborhoods—in black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, whatever—they want order. They want to be able to call somebody. They want help, they want assistance. So seeing lots of very young white liberal people speaking on behalf of all black people—we don’t need you to speak on our behalf at all. No one asked you to, by the way. And we can speak for ourselves, and we’ll tell you what we want.

I was going into a store in Malibu, and people were chanting “Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.” And I’m like, I get it, and I parked my car. “Black Lives Matter.” I’m black. I know. I mean, they’re literally in front of my car, “Black Lives Matter.” I’m like, “Got it, got it.” I get out of the car, I go get my food, I come out, and I hold the door open for all these protesters. They walk in. Not one person says thank you. Not one. Not one person looked at me. Not one person said thank you to me. To the last one I go, “Yes, you are correct. Black lives matter. You’re welcome.” Fucking idiots.

They don’t even get the irony of the whole thing. And they’re screaming at everybody. I’m like, “You don’t even see the person who’s in front of you, and you want to speak for the entire race of people?” No, you don’t get to do that. 

On her father’s journey from picking cotton as a child in the South to becoming a music mogul in L.A.:

BW: One detail from your book that stuck with me is the advice your dad was given as a child when walking down the street. He was told, “Don’t look up.” Why was he told not to look up? 

NA: Because at that time the Klan was running rampant, and they were a real terrorist group. And he was taught, when you walk to school, look straight ahead. Look to your right and your left and behind you. But don’t look up. And he asked his mom, “Why can’t I look up?” She said, “Because I don’t want you to see a family member, or anybody, hanging from a tree.” And when he told me that story, I’m thinking, I can’t even imagine. I mean, we’re living in a society now where if your latte is not right, it’s like, “My God, I’m going to kill myself.” 

There’s this great book I have at home. It’s a photo book, and it’s called Without Sanctuary. And it’s a photo book of lynchings in America. And my mom got me two copies and she had me keep one in my apartment. And when I went to the Bahamas [as ambassador], she had me take the other one. She goes, “I want you to look at this on your desk every day. Because when you have a hard day, I want you to open that book, and I want you to look at someone who’s hanging from a bridge, hanging from a tree, and you look at that and you owe them a life.”

My dad always tried to remind me, “You read about the church bombings, you read about the sit-ins—the way it’s framed, though, it’s as if they were one-off situations.” This was daily. This was all the time. There wasn’t just one church bombing in one city. There was a church bombing everywhere in every city, especially down South. It was constant torment and fear. And I asked my dad, “Wasn’t there a time where you just wanted to just say, ‘Take me now or I just surrender?’ ” He said, “Many times. I cried myself to sleep more than I ever want to imagine.” But he said, “But there was something in me like this life force. I just connected to that force and said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to be here, but whenever I die, I want to die trying. I want to die trying to do my best, be my best, trying to make things better for other people. I want to die productive.’ ”

BW: Your dad ends his life here in Los Angeles, living in Beverly Hills, one of the most connected, celebrated music managers in the country. How did he get out of the degradation and the impoverishment that he was born into and make it to here? What was his big break out of it?

NA: There was a terrible moment with his stepfather, who was very violent. He would drink a lot and would come home. My dad being the eldest, he had a very hard time with his stepfather, who was so abusive to his mother. And there was one day that was the final straw and my dad said, “I found rat poison. I just put it in his sandwich. I was so desperate. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take looking at my mother with bruises and bleeding.” 

It was horrific. And his younger brother told the stepdad, “Don’t eat that, don’t eat that.” But immediately my father’s stepfather said, “You’re out.” And he kicked him out of the house. That’s why he left ninth grade. And thank God he got to the North. There was one aunt who was living in New Jersey, and he got to New Jersey, and he did every job possible. He was a janitor. He was a waiter. He did anything that any black person could do. He washed dishes most of the time.

My dad had this Forrest Gump life where he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time with the right people. And then he ended up at Teddy Powell’s Lounge in New Jersey. He was working as a doorman there. Then he got promoted, and then he was handling the money for this jazz group. And then, long story short, he was yelling at—I think it was Sarah Vaughan—and he was arguing with her. And Joe Glaser, who was her manager, was there, and he loved it. He loved my dad’s grit. He loved his passion. He loved that he was honest and noble. And thank God, because Joe kind of took him immediately under his wing and he goes, “You should be an agent. I can make you the first Negro agent.” And my dad’s looking at this man. He goes, “And I’m just looking at this nice Jewish man. And he was like, “Mr. Glaser, I don’t want to write reports. I don’t want to do all that.”

But Joe never gave up. He just said, “All right, then stick with me. You’ll move around with me and I’m going to teach you things, and hopefully you’ll listen. And I’m going to open doors for you.”

On the title her father would have given a book:

NA: He literally would say to me every time he’d read the newspaper for the last 20 months, he’d say, “I’m so happy I’m almost out of here. This shit’s crazy. Everyone has gone crazy.” I asked him when I was writing the book, “If you were writing a book, what would your title be?” And he had just watched MSNBC, and somebody had said, “There’s been zero progress for black people.” He looked at me and goes, “See, this is the problem. I’m 92. I have been hurt physically, emotionally, spiritually throughout my journey, and I definitely know that I have made progress for people. That woman is in that newsroom because my generation made sure that she got into that newsroom and could speak freely and have that microphone. So how dare she look into that camera and look at people like me that there’s been no progress.” He said, “Because when I was growing up, we were not in that room.”

And I said, “Okay, so what’s the title of your book? And he said, “You’re Fucking Welcome.” It summed it up perfectly. “You’re fucking welcome.” 

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