As you may know, I'm a little sensitive about tributes to the irreplaceable Nina Simone. When I heard that Hollywood executives cast Zoe Saldana to play her in a movie, for example, I had to join the chorus of voices
pointing out the trouble with having a petite, light-skinned actress represent Nina, who had to fight to claim the beauty in her dark skin. I'm drawn to Nina's strength, her struggle, and her damn good music, and I like to honor her as a personal hero of mine, so maybe that's why I feel so protective over her legacy.
Well, now musician Meshell Ndegeocello has released a new tribute to Nina Simone with her album Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone. And this time, I can't find a bad word to say about it. In fact, the album leaves me speechless, in silent awe, much like the music of Nina Simone. Since I can't find the words for it, I recommend this excellent write-up on NPR, which says,
"Ndegeocello's has always been Simone's heir apparent. Ndegeocello, like Simone, has dared to cross musical boundaries, express bold politics and be a steadfast presence as an African American woman instrumentalist in a male-dominated music scene."I still believe, of course, that
nobody could possibly take Nina's place. But it's good to know that she didn't just leave behind shoes too big and too bold for anyone else to fill. She also left her footsteps behind, and when we follow her path with the best intentions, we can continue to walk the road to revolution.
This is a strange edition of Friday Friends. Usually, I use these posts to highlight a blog I like, or a literary hero of mine, or an organization doing important work. Today's Friday Friend is Nina Simone - not a particular interpretation or recreation of Nina Simone's work, but Nina Simone herself. Because some stories just need to speak for themselves. As a singer, songwriter, pianist, and civil rights activist,
Nina Simone made an unforgettable impact on the world. Personally, I have her to thank for helping me feel permission to love me for me. Her incredible sense of self-respect was nothing less than a fiercely radical act of courage, when she faced racism that said she wasn't good enough, and colorism that would call her anything but beautiful. Like me, Nina Simone looked in the mirror to see dark skin and big features, so like me, she had to see past the messages that attach the word "ugly"
to such features. Hers is a story that can teach us about true beauty, the kind that emanates from a spirit of self-love.
Now, Nina Simone's life is being adapted into a story as told by Hollywood, the source of so many of our messages about beauty. In Hollywood, beauty means lighter skin and smaller features, so in order for our Nina to be a Hollywood hero, she will be played by Zoe Saldana. She will be a romantic lead, because no leading lady is complete without the company of a leading man - never mind that the man in this story, her assistant Clifford Henderson, was, in fact, gay. And she will give us hope, with an altered happy ending - isn't it inspiring to know that every dark-skinned woman could someday be immortalized onscreen as a light-skinned woman? Perhaps there's hope for beauty after all.
Don't get me wrong - I do think Zoe Saldana is a beautiful woman, and for all I know, she could pull off the role very well, as far as the acting goes. And I'm not one to try to challenge someone's Black Card - her more mainstream features don't make her any less black than Nina Simone. So why does it matter if her skin is the right shade for the role? Because, unfortunately, choosing someone whose experience of blackness is so far from the challenges Nina faced follows a predictable Hollywood pattern
reinforcing hurtful messages about what it means to be beautiful. It's very rare to see this happen in reverse - a dark-skinned actress picked to portray someone who was much lighter. Instead, those who don't fit Hollywood standards of beauty must be replaced. And why? Will audiences relate more to someone who is thinner and more conventionally gorgeous
than the average woman? Will we learn not to let history repeat itself, to avoid underestimating the power of a dark-skinned woman, when we see her depicted as a light-skinned woman? Nina Simone's daughter has spoken up about the movie plans, sharing that the project is unauthorized, and giving clarification about her mother's platonic relationship with the film's "romantic" lead.
She also speaks about her mother's unseen beauty, her intelligence, and her revolutionary spirit. All of which could have an indelible impact if it were captured on the big screen. So I prefer to leave Nina's story as told by Nina, through her music, her soul, and her vision for justice. We don't need to rewrite lives, alter people's appearance and sexualities
, and ignore their truths in order to tell their stories. Nina Simone had no shame in who she was. We can respect her enough to know that she doesn't need to live up to Hollywood standards to be beautiful. I've posted this video a couple of times before, but it's always worth re-posting. Here's Nina Simone singing the words of William Waring Cuney's poem "No Images."
This is part of a longer nonfiction piece I've been working on, about discovering the truth of my beauty through art, not the media.
There was a time when I thought beauty had nothing to do with me. I didn’t see any part of myself in the fashion magazines, in the movies, or on TV, not even in commercials advertising artificial ways to turn an ordinary face into a pretty one. In a way, this was a good thing. It helped me find my authentic self. When other girls my age tried to cover their true selves with the right clothes and makeup, I didn’t bother. There was no chance of beauty for me.
As a teenager, of course, it wasn’t as simple or positive as abandoning the quest for artificial beauty to embrace my authentic self. I was pretty miserable about the idea that I’d never be beautiful. I was mad, not at the beauty standards that excluded me, but at myself for failing to meet them. If I couldn’t be beautiful, it seemed, then I couldn’t be loved. At fourteen, I was missing that vital first step toward romantic love – I’d never been kissed, and for that I blamed my acne-marked skin, my widening hips, and most of all, my too dark, too big, unkissable lips.
Untitled by Myra Greene
from the series
Character Recognition, 2006
Though I avoided taking beauty products seriously, there was some fun in trying them out. I remember a day when a few of my closest friends, fair-skinned and beautiful in my eyes, were playing around with makeup. I saw no harm in joining in the fun, giggling and battling for the mirror, holding up photos of models and trying to match their poses.
One of my friends, a girl who often heard compliments on her beauty, handed me her lip gloss, telling me to try it on. Now, I didn’t know much about makeup, but I could tell just by looking at the pale pink bottle that it was meant for girls with lips of a similar color, not for me. I tried to say so, but the other girls encouraged me to give it a chance. I wouldn’t know how it would look until I tried, they said. Then they all waited. The giggling had stopped. I was ruining the fun.
So I sighed, said “fine,” agreed to try the lip gloss on so I could prove them wrong and we could move on. I touched the pink brush to my lips, sure this was a bad idea, but somewhere in the back of my mind was a quiet hope that perhaps they were right, after all. This was makeup I’d avoided, but maybe spreading it on my lips would be the key to unlocking my beauty.
But when I turned to show my face to my friends, I knew I’d been right after all. They shrieked with laughter, and when I turned to the mirror, I could see why. I looked ridiculous. The glittery pink goo looked hopelessly out of place, as if there was nothing it could do for someone like me, with the dark of my lips persisting through, rather than fading to the shimmer meant to make them beautiful.
The laughter burned, and I wiped the gloss away, as urgently as if it was burning me, too. They tried to insist that I join in the laughter, that I stop being so serious and accept the hilarity of the situation.
My friends didn’t know that, while they were surprised and amused by the absurdity on my face, this situation wasn’t new to me. I’d been there before, looking into the mirror with disappointment, sure that nothing I put on my face could possibly make me beautiful. All I wanted now was to leave, and let them continue without me. I was ruining the fun. My lips were destroying the dream of beauty.
She does not know
she thinks her brown body
has no glory.
If she could dance
under palm trees
and see her image in the river,
she would know.
But there are no palm trees
on the street,
and dish water gives back
-William Waring Cuney