Born Eunice Waymon, in , she was the sixth of eight children of John and Kate Waymon, who were descendants of slaves and pillars of the small black community of Tryon, North Carolina.
Her mother was a Methodist preacher, a severely religious woman who made extra money by cleaning house for a white Tryon family; her father, who had started off as an entertainer, worked at whatever the circumstances required. Even during the Depression, the Waymons made a good home. She especially enjoyed playing for visiting revivalists, because of the raptures she discovered that she could loose in an audience with music. At the other end of the spectrum, she was five years old when the woman for whom her mother cleaned house offered to pay for lessons with a local piano teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich.
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Giving a recital in the local library, at eleven, Eunice saw her parents being removed from their front-row seats to make room for a white couple. There were some laughs, but her parents were returned to their seats. But, the skin grew back a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black. Her skin was very black, and she was made fully aware of that, along with the fact that her nose was too large.
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The aesthetics of race—and the loathing and self-loathing inflicted on those who vary from accepted standards of beauty—is one of the most pervasive aspects of racism, yet it is not often discussed. The standards have been enforced by blacks as well as by whites. But Nina Simone, strong and fierce and proud Nina Simone? Countering the charge of physical inferiority, in her youth, was the talent that her mother assured her was God-given.
Music was her salvation, her identity. Thanks to a fund established by a pair of generous white patrons in Tryon, she was sent to board at a private high school—she practiced piano five hours a day, and graduated valedictorian—and then to a summer program at Juilliard, all with the unwavering aim of getting into the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia, where admission was terrifically competitive but tuition was free.
Her destiny seemed so assured that her parents moved to Philadelphia before she took the Curtis exam. The fact that she was rejected, and believed that this was because of her race, was a source of unending bitterness. It was also a turning point. In the summer of , in need of money, Eunice Waymon took a job playing cocktail piano in an Atlantic City dive—the owner demanded that she also sing—and, hoping to keep the news of this unholy employment from her mother, turned herself into Nina Simone, feeling every right to the anger that Nina Simone displayed forever after.
At times, it seemed that she could outdistance her feelings. Although she complained of working too hard and touring too much—of being desperately exhausted—her life was not the stuff of the blues. And then, before a concert in early , Stroud found her in her dressing room putting makeup in her hair. The marriage dissolved in , but it was many more years before she received any helpful medication.
All the more remarkable, then, the strength that Simone projected through the sixties. It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that her songs were mostly about civil rights.
Stroud, with his eye on the bottom line, was always there to keep her from going too far in that direction. By the late sixties, she was so afraid of falling behind the times that she expanded her repertory to include Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, and, covering all bases, the Bee Gees.
But womanly strength was in everything she sang: in the cavernous depths of her voice—some people think Simone sounds like a man—in her intensity, her drama, her determination. I love you, Detroit—you did it! Was she the voice of national tragedy or of the next American revolution? And then King was shot, on April 4, Sections of Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, and more than a hundred smaller cities went berserk. Despite her rhetoric, Simone was profoundly shaken, and her views of what might be accomplished in this country only grew more bleak. Are you ready to do what is necessary?
It had been five years since the Harlem riot of , the granddaddy of sixties riots; New York had largely escaped the ruinations of both and Despite her best efforts, Simone failed to incite a riot in Harlem that day in The crowd received the poem as it had received her songs: with noisy affirmation, but merely as part of a performance.
People applauded and went on their way. There are many possible reasons: no brutal incident of the kind that frequently set off riots, massive weariness, the knowledge of people elsewhere trapped in riot-devastated cities, maybe even hope. It was not a victory she could believe in or a mood she could sustain. Pop-rock did not really suit her, and the jazz and folk markets had radically shrunk; the concert stage still assured her income and her stature. And if the collapse of her marriage was in some ways a liberation she was also now without the person who had managed her finances and her schedule, and who had kept her calm before she went onstage by forbidding her alcohol, among other means , and got her offstage quickly when the calm failed.
She was left to govern herself in a world that suddenly had no rules and, just as frightening, was emptied of its larger, steadying purpose. Looking back on the historic protests and legislative victories of the sixties, one may find it easy to assume a course of inevitable if often halting racial progress, yet this was anything but apparent as the decade closed.
She left the country in Travelling to Liberia with her twelve-year-old daughter, she stayed for two years, during which she performed hardly at all. She left Liberia for Switzerland in order to put her daughter in school there. Eventually, she moved to France, alone. The remainder of her life, some twenty-five years, is a tale of escalating misery. Yet the ups of her life could be almost as vertiginous as the downs. Rereleased, the record went gold in France and platinum in England.
In , she sold out the Olympia, in Paris, for almost a week. She toured widely during her final years. In Seattle, in the summer of , she worked a tirade against George W. The most indelible image of her near the end is as a stooped old lady reacting to the enthusiastic cheers that greeted her with a raised, closed-fisted Black Power salute. The rap connection with Simone is hardly surprising, since rap is where black anger now openly resides.
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