On this day in 1933, Eunice Waymon was born in Tryon, North Carolina. Most of us know her as the incomparable Nina Simone. To celebrate the talents and the message of the amazing “high priestess of soul,” let’s take a peek inside the biography of the music legend written by Nadine Cohodas, now available in paperback and ebook. This passage from Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, recounts a concert from 1969 on the campus of Morehouse College.
View the full episode of Black Journal from October 1969 that features Simone’s interview and performance (which begins about 3/4 of the way through the episode) archived at WNET’s thirteen.org. We’ve added some other videos of the songs mentioned here so you can hear her voice and feel her music while you read and think about her.
From Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (pp. 229-230):
The producers of Black Journal, the public television show, wanted to film Nina on a college campus, and they worked out an arrangement with Andy [Stroud, Nina’s second husband and manager at the time] to cover her at Morehouse College in Atlanta, the alma mater of Dr. King. Nina’s hairstyle and stage dress had long reflected her various moods. For this date, she dressed all in black, her slacks stuffed into knee-high boots so they billowed out like pantaloons, her sweater adorned with a long silver necklace. She wore her hair in an Afro, now the style on many college campuses. (Howard University had even devoted two pages in one student publication to the various-sized Afros that could be seen around the campus.) During “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” one of Nina’s earliest songs, the camera caught the young men in suits and ties and the women in their Sunday best stealing glances back and forth while Nina sang.
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” enraptured both performer and audience. At the line “There’s a world waiting for you,” she took one hand off the keyboard and without missing a beat pointed to the audience for emphasis. The camera picked up row after row of heads nodding in agreement.
“Oh, I’m feeling good now!” Nina exclaimed. When she got to the end, she didn’t want to stop, so she threw her arms in the air like a sprinter who had just crossed the finish line. Then she gave the crowd, already cheering, one last chorus. “Hold on! Hold on!” she shouted, repeating the instruction five more times, milking the last note, neither embarrassed nor self-conscious at demanding more attention. Finally, she jumped up from the piano, bowed to the audience, and headed to the dressing room.
“My work completely takes all my energy,” Nina said later, “but when there are kids who come backstage afterward who want to talk, or who are moved to the point sometimes, they’re moved to tears and want to know more about it, they shake my hand and kiss me and want to talk about their problems, I find the time to do so. I discourage breakfasts and speeches because I don’t make speeches,” she continued, “but I will go out of my way in spite of the fact that I’m too tired to do it, to talk to them at least five minutes or so, to sock to them the same message that I just finished singing onstage and perhaps to get some of their grievances off, just to make them feel that they are not alone. I feel a responsibility—they’re so glad to see me. I represent something to them, and I can’t give them enough. They need me, and when I’m needed, I have to give, and the most important thing is they are our future.” Nina understood that her gifts came with responsibilities, even burdens, not just for her but for the recipients of her message as well.
“I try to make my songs as powerful as possible,” she explained, “just to make them curious about themselves. We don’t know anything about ourselves,” she continued. “We don’t have the pride and the definition of African people. We can’t even talk about where we came from. We don’t know. It’s like a lost race, and my songs are deliberately to provoke this feeling of who am I, where do I come from, you know? Do I really like me, and who do I like me? If I am black and beautiful, I really am, and I don’t care who says what.”
Text from Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, by Nadine Cohodas. Copyright © 2010 by Nadine Cohodas. Paperback edition published in 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press, by arrangement with Pantheon Books/Random House, Inc.
Nadine Cohodas has upcoming events in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Asheville, N.C. in March and April. Visit her author page on the UNC Press website for details.
- Black Journal, aired October 1969, courtesy of WNET; Baltimore Afro-American, June 28, 1969, p. 10; Baltimore Sun, June 24, 1969, p. B6.↩