‘We never talked about men or clothes. It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution – real girls’ talk.’ – Nina Simone
Nina Simone’s remark about not discussing fashion but ‘Marx, Lenin and revolution’ offers a glimpse into the daily political life of Simone away from her more well-known story as civil rights activist and musician. This ‘girls’ talk’ took place with her friend and playwright Lorraine Hansberry – a conversation between two Black women that, as Simone says, was not about men or clothes, but about the creative work they were producing, and how they saw its role in the liberation of their community.
Referencing Hansberry’s autobiographical play Young, Gifted and Black, Simone later wrote a song with the same title in tribute to her friend and comrade after Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at the tragically young age of 34. This friendship and comradeship demonstrates how intimate conversations between political Black women have the power to inspire. They take place away from the gaze of men, away from white people; they can be places of respite in which one can re-energise and rejoin the wider movement that often marginalises and erases the political insights of Black women.
To say Nina Simone has been ‘erased’ would be absurd. She is one of the most celebrated musicians of the twentieth century. There’s no need to write another article, biography or analysis of her political songs. But on the anniversary of her death, we can look at how the story of Simone’s political life is told, and who is telling it; at what they choose to include, and what they do in fact ‘erase’.
Nina Simone is often spoken about as a civil rights activist, and she was. But the civil rights movement encompassed many differing political views on what liberation looked like. Some like the NAACP wanted liberal reforms that were criticised for only being beneficial to the African-American middle class. Black nationalists sought economic independence and a new Black state separate from racist white America, although it was arguably unclear what that new state would look like beyond a Black version of capitalism. As such, not all civil rights activists were referencing Marx or Lenin as an example of the conversations that they had with friends.
For a woman of fierce intelligence, talent, and brilliance, who knew exactly how she wanted to be heard through her music and performance, we can take this as a statement of purpose rather than as a passing comment. Nina Simone was telling us she was a communist, a comrade, a revolutionary.