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“She gave ’em hell till the end,” said my friend Arnim last week when Nina Simone passed. The first time he saw her perform was in the late 1960s when he had just reached the legal drinking age and ventured into the Village Gate. She came onstage and announced to the audience that she was “feeling it” and intended to play until she got tired, no matter how long it took. She said she hated being disturbed when she was playing, so if anyone thought they might want to leave, “I suggest you leave now.” She then stepped into the wings, fetched her bottle of cognac, put it on the piano, and began to play, moving, he said, “from the sacred to the profane.” She played some gospel and then railed against how puritanical she found American society. “Sex is a sacrament,” she lectured and then returned to the spirituals. At 6 a.m. she announced she was tired, and he went to make an eight o’clock biology lab at college. Hostage of that transcendent one-night stand, he became a devotee.
Like the novelist Toni Morrison, Simone always took her audiences captive. You had to surrender to her work, give her the silence or singing as demanded, and in return she would enthrall, enlighten, and even menace you with murderous dreams of revenge plucked from Kurt Weill and given the intonations of a sullen black maid. Her driving rhythms and urgent calls played counterpoint to plaintive, often delicate, ballads of love never quite as hoped.
I realized I was a country girl when I first heard her early jazz records at the home of a family friend, a gentleman who sipped martinis and reveled to “My Baby Just Cares for Me” on summer evenings. I was about 10. A few years later, after the sit-ins and boycotts in my home town, when Medgar Evers was killed in a series of ever more deadly reactions to our movement for self-determination, she appeared at the local black college to sing for the students. Simone, like Baldwin and others, was an artist who served willingly and long as a regal warrior for the civil rights movement. If they both became bitter and lived elsewhere later on, they stand as artists who cared enough to be that discouraged. These are rare now. That night, though, she had just written a new song, and as she sang the chorus, everyone jumped up in tears and laughter, and shouted it out with her.
Don’t tell me, I’ll tell you/Me and my people just about due/I’ve been there so I know/You keep on saying, “go slow.”
What Simone did for African American women was more liberating than the sweet elegance of her take on “I Love You, Porgy” (delivered without the fake dialect of all its predecessors), the thought-provoking militancy she added to spirituals like “Sinnerman,” or the wicked humor of “Old Jim Crow” and “Go Limp,” or the wonderfully ironic cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s kitsch hit, “I Put a Spell on You.”
First of all, her songs, whether covers or original compositions, always privileged the black woman’s point of view; they spoke for the dispossessed Sister Sadie who cleaned floors or raised children who would never in their lives again treat black women with respect.
Yes, you lied to me all these years/told me to wash and clean my ears/and talk real fine, just like a lady/and you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie.
“See Line Woman” viewed its exotic black female as an object of desire and admiration in a way unknown outside of the black poetry that was its source, or those raunchy blues songs that polite Negroes did not play, which nonetheless lauded the virtues of a full body and brown skin.
My skin is black/My arms are long/My hair is wooly/My back is strong/Strong enough to take the pain/Inflicted again and again/What do they call me?/My name is Aunt Sara. ?“Four Women”
But it was “Four Women,” an instantly accessible analysis of the damning legacy of slavery, that made iconographic the real women we knew and would become. For African American women it became an anthem affirming our existence, our sanity, and our struggle to survive a culture which regards us as anti-feminine. It acknowledged the loss of childhoods among African American women, our invisibility, exploitation, defiance, and even subtly reminded that in slavery and patriarchy, your name is what they call you. Simone’s final defiant scream of the name Peaches was our invitation to get over color and class difference and step with the sister who said:
My skin is brown/My manner is tough/I’ll kill the first mother I see/ My life has been rough/I’m awfully bitter these days/Because my parents were slaves.
For African American women artists of my generation, “Four Women” became the core of works to come, notably Julie Dash’s film of the same name, and it should be regarded a direct ancestor of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. This Simone song was a call heard by Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and countless artists who come to mind as women who gave us a whole generation of the stories of Aunt Sara, Safronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches.
May the High Priestess’s cult widen to take in the unwise who made her as outrageous as she was.