You know who Nina is, don’t you?
Nina Simone writes to Langston Hughes
When she wrote this effusive letter in July of 1965, Nina Simone was 32. The year had started badly with the death of her dear friend and mentor, Lorraine Hansberry. Then, in March, Simone had sung to thousands at the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March. June saw the release of her new album, I Put a Spell on You, followed by a six-country European tour that began in England. It was there, as she sat in her London hotel room one evening, that she finally found time to write to Langston Hughes, a poet, novelist, playwright, activist, and giant of the Harlem Renaissance she had first met in 1949 at her high school, where he was visiting to give a talk. A decade later, he heard her debut album and, stunned, praised it in print. A friendship soon began, and with it, letters.
And now, in 1965, at long last, Simone had started to read and annotate The Big Sea, Hughes’ 1940 autobiography, and she needed to let him know her thoughts.
Hughes died in 1967, months after passing to Simone a poem he had written titled Backlash Blues. She put it to music and sang it live many times; later that year it also appeared on her album, Nina Simone Sings the Blues. Beneath the following letter is footage of Simone singing it in March 1969, in Paris.
I’ve owed you this letter for some time now - so I’m finally doing it.
Thank you - thank you for your books you gave us. I’m reading “The Big Sea” right now and it gives me such pleasure - you have no idea! Is it so funny - I read chapters over and over again - ‘cause certain ones paint complete pictures for me and I get completely absorbed!
Then too, if I’m in a negative mood and want to get more negative (about the racial problem, I mean), if I want to get downright mean and violent I go straight to this book and there is ALSO material for that. AMAZING.
I use the book - what I mean is I underline all meaningful sentences to me - I make comments in pencil about certain paragraphs etc. And as I said there is a wealth of knowledge concerning the negro problem, especially if one wants to trace the many many areas that we’ve had it rough in all these years - sometimes when I’m with white “liberals” who want to know why we’re so bitter - I forget (I don’t forget - I just get tongue-tied) how complete has been the white race’s rejection of us all these years and then when this happens I go get your book. I’m looking forward to using it more and more in this way as times go on.
As a matter of fact, Langston, I feel sorta tongue-tied now for there’s so much I’d like to say to you and I can’t possibly write as fast as I think and even if I did I’d be here all night writing this letter.
I know one thing - I’ve always admired you and been proud of you - respected you and felt honoured to know you - but brother, you got a fan now! I’m going out to buy every book you’ve written - I had no idea I could enjoy you so. You see, reading isn’t easy for me - but “The Big Sea” is so varied and so simply written that I don’t have to force myself to concentrate - It grips my imagination immediately PLUS everything in it I identify with, even your going to to sea - and I’ve never been to sea.
Enough of this!
I enjoy it immensely, okay? ‘Nough said.
Andrew, Lisa and I are in London - have been for two weeks. Working at a club. The job is finished, we remain here another week for promotion and TV and then move on to France, Belgium, Spain for another two weeks. Then home. No pleasure - just work. Please let us see you sometime.
You know who Nina is, don’t you? I mean I didn’t sign my last name!!? (Joke)