“What happened, Miss Simone?” was the query of the late Maya Angelou, who interviewed the Ms. Simone in 1970. Angelou wrote an essay full of elegant descriptions of the woman who was an anomaly and a genius and who was called “The High Priestess of Soul.”
However, upon seeing the documentary bearing Angelou’s question as the title, I feel a more appropriate question would be, “What happened to Miss Simone?”
Much has already been written about the problematic inclusion of her abusive and controlling ex-husband in the film, however I was unbothered by his re-counting of his relationship with Ms. Simone because it revealed the ugliness of his character, and was not, as some have stated, an indictment of Simone. After all, despite being victimized by domestic violence, she managed to finally leave him and created some of the most moving works of musical genius of the latter half of the 20th century. And this is exactly the crux of the story of Nina Simone—the triumph, the glory, the achievement despite obstacle, despite failure, despite imperfection.
We must stop asking our (s)heroes to be flawless creatures, void of human shortcoming. We must celebrate their nuance and the boldness that their humanity required.
In light of our age of gratuitous airbrushing and photoshopping of women’s bodies, fathom the courage that it took to be a dark woman who was not a typical carbon cut-out of beauty, practicing her art in a way that fulfilled her soul in the public eye? Can we imagine the courage it took to be a revolutionary when the songs that spoke to the struggles of your people would not pay the bills? Can we imagine being beaten, tied up, and raped by your own husband at all, and even more so when you are suffering from a little known mental illness that you yourself do not understand? What about watching your closest friends die fighting a cause and your best girlfriend’s light being blown out too soon by cancer (Lorraine Hansberry was Nina Simone’s best friend and died of cancer when she was 35 years old), and your people losing interest in the movement that gave your life meaning?
These are the things that happened to Nina Simone. What has happened to us that some of us don’t understand this? Why do we need our women to be perfect in order to love them without shame?
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but be struck by the tragic effects of abuse. After being beaten by her husband for years and feeling an inescapable loneliness her entire life, at the pivotal moment of her daughter’s blossoming into womanhood, Nina lashes out and becomes her daughter’s abuser.
After internalizing the rampant abuse of black bodies and indeed having her own body abused, Simone has erratic bouts of anger and rage. I reject the use of the word crazy being used to describe Nina Simone. Crazy is an easy term for our denial of injustices, when we don’t understand how another person reacts to injustice.
However, despite what it may seem, I am not saying that Nina Simone was merely a victim. She was victimized, but I am not implying that she was a hapless victim. A victim that has been demoralized and believes she is powerless may believe that her fate is out of her control. Ms. Simone, on other hand, while victimized, did not believe herself to be powerless. She used her voice as an instrument for change. She fiercely stood beside what she believed the purpose of her art to be; that is, in her own words, to ‘give the listener an emotional experience, to uplift them, or tear them to pieces.’
Mother Nina, you have uplifted and “torn me to pieces” every day that I have listened to you since my best girlfriend gave me a CD of one of your albums when I was 15 years old. You made me seriously contemplate my face for the first time as an adult when people began to tell me that I looked like you. You made me weep thinking of a black girl who does not know her beauty in “Images.” “Wild Is The Wind” and “Mississippi Goddamn” are two opposite ends of the emotional spectrum showing us a black woman with a FULL SPECTRUM of emotion --vulnerable, timid, and so in love that it hurts, and so angry and full of rage that to kill is only the next order of business. I love your unapologetic rage and the vulnerability of your spirit. I celebrate your triumphs and acknowledge the strength of character it undoubtedly took to live with a mind like yours in a racist country, an abusive marriage, a discriminatory industry, and countless untold circumstances. I know that your spirit is as free now as your voice was when it embodied the intangible freedom that all of human existence reaches for.
I have thought of freedom very often lately, and try to understand what freedom of body and soul really means to a young black woman in America today. We are bound in many ways, yet we are fighting tooth and nail for a new freedom. As members of a communal heritage, we feel the pressure to be correct and true to our people in a way that many do not. Often we don’t feel free to love the way, and who, we wish. We feel pressure to look a certain way. Our hair is judged, our manner of speech is judged, our emotions are judged and we are constantly threatened by stereotypes that would pigeonhole us, placing our naturally free spirits in uncomfortable boxes. This is not very different from what our foremothers experienced. But we are coming to a new understanding about our freedom. We are building our circles of support in new ways. We are standing up for our right to own our bodies and appearance. We are defending our place in our communities and in the world.
You once sang a song,“How It Feels to Be Free,” that you wish you knew how it would feel to be free.
We are still learning, High Priestess. But we have your voice, your spirit, your courage to light our way and affirm the fullness of our humanity.