The first thing that caught my eye when I picked up Nina was the familiar art style on the cover. I wracked my brain trying to remember where I’d seen it before, and all of a sudden it came to me: Christian Robinson had also done the artwork for Josephine, Patricia Hruby Powell’s pictorial biography of Josephine Baker, another Black woman performer who spat in the faces of her detractors and will forever be remembered as an iconoclast. Then I did some research and discovered that I’ve read and enjoyed several books featuring Robinson’s illustrations in addition to Nina and Josephine: You Matter, Antoinette, School’s First Day of School, Leo: A Ghost Story, Last Stop on Market Street, and Gaston.
One thing that holds true throughout history is that white supremacist racists can’t stand Black excellence. It cows them and forces them to confront their own inadequacies. Nina Simone is a quintessential example of that.
Eunice Kathleen Waymon, the little girl who would grow up to become Nina Simone, was born the sixth of eight children on February 21st, 1933. Her mother was a Methodist minister and housekeeper. Her father was a handyman who at one time owned a dry-cleaning business and who unfortunately suffered from bouts of ill health. Little Eunice showed signs of genius at an early age, displaying a seemingly preternatural talent for music that far exceeded what anyone could possibly have expected from such a small child. The music seemed to come from somewhere deep inside her, flowing from a secret river only she could access.
Eunice’s mother only allowed her to play hymns and other church music, but her father surreptitiously introduced her to the wonders of jazz. Her personal favorite composer grew to be Johann Sebastian Bach, whose compositions started off soft and crescendoed into a passionate fervor, which reminded Eunice of the rhythms of her mother’s preaching.
Since preaching didn’t pay all the bills, Eunice’s mother also worked as a housekeeper. One of the white women whose house Eunice’s mother cleaned learned of Eunice’s gift on the piano, and along with Eunice’s mother, endeavored to do anything in her power to help the little girl receive the best training possible and reach a wider audience with her music.
Their efforts more than paid off when Eunice was accepted into the Juilliard School of Music. Afterwards, she also applied for a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She was denied admission and started playing in jazz bars in Atlantic City to earn money. She mostly did this so she could continue studying with private tutors and further her classical education. No matter what she did, Eunice kept her eyes focused on improving her craft, which in my opinion is one of the main hallmarks of a true artist.
Because of the kind of music heard in these establishments and the predilections of the clientele, Eunice had to adopt a nom de plume to keep her family from learning of her moonlighting gigs. Thus Nina Simone was born.
The proprietors of the establishments Ms. Simone played in insisted she sing as well as play. Nina had never before thought of herself as a singer, being trained as a classical pianist from the time her legs were too short to touch the floor as she played. But if they wanted her to sing, then sing she would.
Soon after she started singing to accompany herself on piano in Atlantic City bars, she catapulted into the spotlight. From 1958-1974, Ms. Simone recorded more than 40 albums and captivated audiences in performances all over the world. She still felt the sting of anti-Black racism but for a long time chose not to use her platform for activism. However, following the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi in June 1963 and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church which killed four young Black girls in Birmingham, Alabama that September, Nina had finally had enough.
Her first protest song was “Mississippi G*****” (I’m censoring the title for my mom, who reads this blog), which appeared on the album Nina Simone in Concert (pictured below).
White Southern Evangelicals were incensed at the audacity of this Black woman who refused to smile and simper and coddle their fragile feelings. So outraged were they in fact that promotional singles sent to some radio stations were returned broken neatly in half. And what a metaphor for the America of the 60s and now the 20s. It should be a matter of profound shame that we are still fighting for basic human dignity in the year 2021 with two large contingents of the population debating whose lives should and should not (or don’t and will never) matter.
All in all, Nina is a pictorial biography of the highest caliber. I wouldn’t be one smidgen surprised if it’s named one of the best books of 2021 written for children because in my opinion it already is. I love seeing Black creators celebrated by other Black creators because representation matters and little Black children deserve to see people who look like them living lives they want to emulate. They need that blueprint. The creators already exist; it’s up to us to amplify their art.
Nina: A Story of Nina Simone was released by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers on September 28th, 2021 and is now available to purchase wherever books are sold.
Bonus: My Favorite Recording by Nina Simone
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