Wearing Nina’s Dress

I’m thinking about the ways I perform strength in public, with snark for days and the sharpest winged eyeliner since I started playing with drugstore makeup a few years ago. I’ve began to believe the myth of my own indestructibility, so much so that I continue to engage with people who make harmful statements diluted with well-meaning jokes and talking points because I shouldn’t isolate myself. I should be available. Shouldn’t I?

I was just asked by that anonymous villain who I’ve been referring to over the past few weeks, to dig deep down in my “graceful and giving” self to hear his side of a story to which I already know the end. As if all my grace has not been used up trying to keep my hurt private so I can perform strength for classmates who don’t really care about me, my well-being or my work, for friends who actually do care but need me to be there for them at different times, for people who prefer to dismiss me as anti-social or “You just don’t like people”  when I’m really just tired of sectioning different parts of myself for others like birthday cake, for strangers who routinely step on my toes and knock me in the chest with large bags and elbows because they didn’t see me there.

I’m not for everyone. I’m impossible to savor and digest. And you just have to deal with it. 

[I wrote the piece below a few weeks ago after watching the documentary “The Amazing Nina Simone” at the Roxbury International Film Festival in Boston.]

***

Wearing Nina’s Dress

I’m sitting in a dark theater, grateful that I decided to attend a screening of the documentary “The Amazing Nina Simone” on my own. I’ve lost track of how long the film has been running for, and the point at which I gave up and let the tears form channels on my face. I can’t imagine taking in the life and legacy of the glorious Nina Simone in any way other than crying quietly by myself in public. Two and a half hours of magnificent and complicated black womanhood would have been soured by the awkward de-brief on the walk back to the train. No walk is long enough to give a crash course on black women’s bodies and the ways our art and our selves are scorned by most, and consumed by voracious appetites all at the same time.

“You know I made 35 albums, they bootlegged 70. Oh everybody took a chunk of me.”

Nina Simone is standing on stage at the Montreux Jazz festival in 1976, in a sleeveless black dress, no jewelry except for the silver choker around her neck. At this point, I have cringed repeatedly for each time she has been referred to as “scary,” “intimidating,” or “over the top.” I’m destroyed by the fact that her own personal revolution, her pursuit of her authentic self and her insistence of belonging wholly to herself are always bearing the weight of the desires of her fans and critics. A journalist speaks wistfully about how he wishes he could’ve been the “piece of toast” Nina sang about, and the audience laughs at his unashamed yearning for Nina and her body.

Later in the film, Nina Simone responds to a French journalist’s question concerning the career she never had as a classical pianist.

“Yes, I regret it. I’m sorry that I didn’t become the world’s first black classic pianist. I think I would have been happier. I’m not very happy now.”

The crack in her voice as she says these words, and her obvious attempts to swallow her tears hurt just as much as the awkward laughter rippling through the audience when Nina Simone is shown later chastising her concertgoers from the stage. Her unraveling is comedy for my fellow viewers. She is irreverent, breaking the conventions of performance etiquette and embarrassing people who dare to stand up while she’s on stage. She is sassy, spicy, even. And it’s amusing. All I can see is her piercing stare that seems to have no one at the other end of it.

I am forced to confront the fact that we, the theater audience, are also consuming Nina like a product, engaging with her story in whichever way suits us best. Goddess. High priestess of soul Fearless activist. Unstable. Difficult. Bad mother. Tragic, tortured soul. I feel a useless guilt for partaking in this feasting on Nina Simone’s life story. I’m picking out the parts that resonate with me the most, so that I too can cling to her like a life raft, or a prophecy of what becomes of black women artists who expire in the process of creating art that is misunderstood and torn into digestible morsels for a ravenous public. I keep black and white photos of her as my phone screensaver. I want stills from her stage performances as prints for my bedroom wall. I listen to “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” on repeat while I shower. I use her as a warning signal for what can happen to me: a black woman artist who is determined to let my work eat me up as long as it benefits even one reader. I’m not much better than the eager fans that watched her decline with popcorn butter melting between their fingers.

I’m wearing Nina’s dress. It’s a yellow halter-neck with black diamonds dotted all over it. There is a hungry crowd grabbing handfuls of the hem and trying to shove it into their mouths. This makes it very difficult to stand, to walk tall. I stumble every few steps, trying to resist the gravity that is trapped in these people’s fists. I try to snatch back the dress, but it disintegrates into yellow powder flecked with the burnt ends of matches in my hand. I’m naked, graceful, and available for everyone.

Image: Portrait of the singer Nina Simone, October 1969.  (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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