Writings, Essays, Lyrics, Musings, Commentary . . .

Article #20: Nina & Me: Journey To My Blackness & My Blueness

In the mid-1960's, I was a young adult, living in New York City, learning to be comfortable in my own skin. For many, it was a time of excitement, a time of self-realization, a time of immense growth. Growth almost always requires a teacher. Some followed Martin, some followed Malcolm, I followed Nina.

Nina Simone. Born in North Carolina, but classically trained up North, at Julliard, she held a mirror for me (I was born in Virginia, educated in Boston, living in New York). She mirrored the duality of one's existence -- how to function in both black and white worlds. . . without compromise. She wore her hair in an afro, she wore African garb. Her beauty was different and. . . she held the mirror for me. I found my own beauty. I was okay with me. I no longer wanted to be white -- I stopped straightening my hair, I liked my big lips and flat nose, I liked bright, "loud" colors and . . . I liked my speech. Nina taught me to love myself.

Nina's music brought me even deeper into the well of blackness. She made me ask the hard questions:

"Mr. Backlash -- who do you think I am? You lift my taxes, freeze my wages and send my only son to Vietnam."
I needed to know ". . . why the king of love is dead?"
". . . kill them now or kill them later?"
"will there be another spring?"

She made me understand the joy in my heritage:

take me to the water. . ."
"flo me la. . ."
"another Sunday in Savannah"
And later, as primitive as it got, "Exuma" and "Damballah"

She clarified the pain of my heritage:

"how it would feel to be free"
"Mississippi goddamn!"

She created novel images from the words of others:

"strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees"
"Suzanne. . . and you know that she's half crazy"

She taught me how to love:

"In the dark. . ."
"In the morning when the moon is at its rest. . ."
"you'd be so nice to come home to. . ."
To love all "four women"-- and the toughest was called "Peaches"

Oh, this woman taught me how to think and how to feel and how to be strong and delicate. Not just me. Me and my friends. We would come together on the weekend, more than once, each bringing her own stack of Nina recordings. We'd place them in chronological order and listen, and relisten, munch a little, and listen some more. (We also did this with Coltrane and with the Staple Singers.) For a whole weekend. Nina was our teacher and we were young, gifted and black!

Listening to a live recording, while she was playing the piano intro to "Sugar in My Bowl," she whispers, "Bessie Smith, y'all." Ah-ha, that's what THAT music is!! The song was originally recorded on the "Nina Sings the Blues" album and I loved it. I loved all those songs on that album, but on the live recording, she documented the source and told me where to look. (Note: she'd been given songwriting credit on the first recording. She had made some changes to Bessie's, but the song wasn't hers.) So it was that I first heard Bessie and. . . my life has never been the same.

Bessie and Ida and Ma and Sippie and Alberta and Victoria. . . Nina took me to all of them. I found strong independent spirits that I had never known before. My love is as fervent now as it was then. They all became my friends, my sheroes. And they, in turn, open the door to the blues, every kind of blues. But, back to Nina. She played in and around New York often when I was living there. I saw her dozens of times -- from a benefit in a church on Lennox Avenue, to the Apollo Theatre, to the Newport Jazz Festival. I was totally a groupie or, better, a student. I saw her sweet, bitter sweet, sassy and. . . nasty. Oh yes, if you coughed or sneezed, she might stop the performance. If something felt out of sorts to her, she might leave the stage all together. And I always excused her. My teacher could do no wrong.

Until. . . she did it to me. Some years later, after I'd moved back home. I started to perform here and there. I earned a slot for an open mic at Dylan's in Georgetown in Washington, DC. At the close of open mic, some selected performer would them get a half hour slot. A friend of Nina's was in that slot and. . . she'd come to see him. Oh my, Nina and I would be in the same small room. I would get to speak to her, to look her in the eye, and to tell her how I love her.

I practiced my self-introduction in my head the entire time her friend was performing. I would introduce myself as a close friend of someone who had recently helped Nina. For the past few years, as I'd been told, Nina had been living in Europe and could not return to the U.S. due to some tax problems. My close friend (let's call her Marie), who is actually Godmother to my son and a lawyer, interceded to clear up Nina's tax matters and made it possible for her to return.

I go up to Nina, trembling all over, and say something to the effect of "Hello, Ms Simone. My name is Gaye Adegbalola and we have a dear friend in common, Marie So&so." I just know that this name dropping will get me in good with her and I was ever so discreet. Nina's reply, loud enough for everyone in the place to hear, "Marie, that lesbian. She's an awful lesbian in New York City." Nina ranted on and on about my friend's dirty sexuality -- mind you," lesbian" was not a word to say out loud in black power circles. I was pissed, but more than pissed, I was embarrassed. All my friends had heard and, of course, I was deep in the closet at the time. I couldn't even speak up and defend Marie. I was stunned, I was horrified.

How could my shero not be grateful to Marie? How could my African warrior priestess be so homophobic? How could she discriminate like this? I was cut to the core and. . . broken hearted. My love for Nina came to an abrupt halt.

But, as with all broken hearts, time has a way of healing matters. As I grew into my life as a blues woman, I could never deny Nina's overwhelming influence on my music and my life. But for the longest time, I refused to buy her CDs. Oh I have lots of vinyl, but only 2 CDs and they were gifts. Then last month, in the AARP magazine, there was a brief story about Nina and how a 4 CD set of her years on the Phillips label (her main years in the 60's and 70's) was being released. I tore the article out. I decided it was time to end my personal Nina boycott. I needed to savor her goodness and forgive the Dylan's event. I was glad to have the article, the information. I placed it in my book of daily meditations. It was like meeting a long lost friend.

Then last week, my son calls: "Mom, I just heard on the radio that Nina Simone died." I was grateful that the news came from him. He and only a few others knew the powerful role Nina played in my life. My heart was heavy. (I'd already been to 5 funerals in the past 3 weeks -- each one taking it's on toll.) She didn't really see "another spring."

Spring, a time of regeneration, rebirth. Again, Nina has me asking the hard questions:

Why do we wait so long to forgive?
Why do we focus so strongly on the negative things in our lives?
Will Nina rest in peace?
Another Nina song supplies the answer:
"to everything there is a season. . ." Thus, I turn to Ecclesiastes 3.
Peace be still.