On Nina Simone's birthday, I remember a piece I wrote a dozen years ago, about being seduced by Nina when I was a student at a lily-white girls' school in Macon, Georgia, the first college chartered to give degrees to women, by the way. This was in the 60's, when the civil rights movement was heating up and Nina Simone was coming into her glory. I still love her voice and her spirit. I still sing along with her when I leave these mountains where she herself was born (Tryon, NC) and drive back down to the deep South where I grew up.
|Kim Nalley in San Francisco, singing Nina Simone.|
Singing Back to Nina
Am I only indulging my middle-aged imagination as I sit down at long last to a brand-new stereo system and push in a new compact disc, The Essential Nina Simone? Or is this memory real? Real as flesh and blood?
Nina, Nina, where you been for so long?
Thirty-five years ago you were right there in that dormitory room, seducing us, scaring the hell out of us, leaving us limp in our baby doll pajamas and pink foam hair rollers as we sprawled on the floor, resigned to that lily-white Methodist girls’ school in Macon , Georgia, where we were expected to be ladies at all times, white gloves and hose, no cigarettes and no slacks on front campus, no liquor allowed for a fifty mile radius of campus, and if, beyond that, we sipped champagne at a wedding or chugga-lugged Budweiser in a cheap motel in Americus, we had to wait twelve hours before returning to the fold.
You saboteur, who unlocked those iron gates and let you in? My fast friend from Atlanta, that’s who, holding your record aloft in the hall like a fifth of forbidden whiskey, inviting us into her room around midnight to get drunk on your voice.
No endless hands of Bridge that night, no gossip about who went how far with whoever. We turned off the lights, lit our cigarettes, switched you on, and, just like that, we were hooked. We sank into the eroticism of “Wild Is the Wind,” we shivered at Pirate Jenny’s delicious vengefulness. We even threw ourselves into “Mississippi Godamn,” singing out each Southern state with girlish defiance. We were yours, Nina. You put a spell on us big-time!
But it didn’t last. When the record was over, we walked out of that room and into our lives, Southern "ladies" in spite of ourselves, even though we had fought against being belles with every sneer and smoke-ring curling out of our mouths.
No, it didn’t last. How could it? But here I sit, not having smoked a cigarette in years, no whiskey anywhere in the house, waiting for your voice to come back to me through the speakers, and when it does I still go limp, letting it take me where it will in its own sweet time, swelling up and around me, no past, no future, just Nina filling up every pore and corpuscle.
Listening, I become all cellular memory now, feeling blood pound my head, breath fill my lungs. Yes, I still know these songs by heart. They surge like a groundswell of black Southern dirt underneath me and through me, and yes, I still love to sing along with you, Nina, but now, after all these years, I want something more. I want to feel my own voice throbbing, its blood and gristle, its every grain of sand beneath my soles. I want to sing my own deep-down song back to you.
Someday, Nina, I will.
copyright 2000, Women's Review of Books, Wellesley College
|Statue of Nina Simone in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina|