When I look at Nina Simone, I see what is right with her, and what was wrong with the culture that surrounded her.
When I was a girl, my dad would listen to Sunday Morning Classics with Hal Jackson every single weekend. For many years, Sunday Morning Classics woke me early every Sunday and I have never been a morning person but I didn’t mind. Sunday Morning Classics is where I remember hearing Nina Simone’s “MY Baby Just Cares for me” for the first time. I was familiar with the tune because of the classic Channel commercial. My adolescent imagination was enchanted by her voice and the sexiness it lent to this very French perfume. What she does on the piano in that song is beyond my words to describe. In fact, although the song itself is quite popular, it’s not her vocals but her piano solo that slays. She was after all a prodigy, classically trained in piano from a very young age.
I read her autobiography a few years ago and last night I watched the documentary “What Happened Miss Simone” on Netflix. I had problems with it. But I had problems with her autobiography as well. I was disturbed to learn how her husband, Andrew Stroud had severely beaten her throughout their marriage as well as tied her up and raped her on one occasion. I was disturbed that she chose to stay with him but based on her mindset I can understand why she stayed. It was also sad to see how Nina replicated this abusive behavior by beating her own daughter in later years. But again, I can understand why this happened as well. It became apparent to me as I read her autobiography that Nina was perhaps not the most reliable account of her own life because she seemed only to pull selectively from the parts of her memory that did not require her to take any responsibility for her own negative behavior.
What disturbed me about the documentary was the reliance on her husband to describe her and her declining mental state without ever interjecting that he was responsible for so much of it. It was if you were listening to a perpetrator talk about the unfortunate abuse of their own victim. I was not against him being a part of the documentary but at no point was there any evidence that Liz Garbus sought to investigate him or what in his background had caused him to be such a violent man. Though the facts of his violence were stated, his character was never really called into question. He was called a bully for working her hard. Nina was called violent, angry, difficult, unpredictable, frightening, prone to mood swings and more.
But the violence began long before Andrew entered Nina’s life. And that I believe is what laid the foundation for her acceptance of his abuse. As a girl, Nina was “discovered” by two white women who witnessed her incredible piano playing talent in church where she lead services and followed sermons that her mother gave. Nina’s family allowed these white women to isolate her in their home for many hours a day in their home while they trained her to be that exceptional Black novelty, the first Black classical pianist in America. Money was raised for her scholarship. Her lessons were paid for. She was treated well. But she was isolated, lonely, always on the outside of things and worst of all, she was forbidden by her parents to ever complain about racial prejudice or to admit that it had any effect on her life. I don’t know if it is possible to really grasp what a thing that is to endure for a black girl born in America in the 1930s but I do know that this was violence that began in the core of Nina’s emotional foundation. Being taken in by two white women who displayed human kindness while facing and witnessing the evils of racism by the same white faces in other situations, feeling like an outsider in both Black and white circles because like a bird in a gilded cage, she was held to higher expectations, set apart from the group and worked so hard that she basically had no childhood and no healthy form of socialization with her own people.
In this White ruled world, Nina was chosen. She was supposed to feel lucky. But sadly she was tortured, angry and depressed for most of her life except for the rare moments on stage when she could as she said be “free.” And you could see it in her movement; hear it in her voice and the music she made. She was a force of nature and I don’t think she ever really felt understood by anyone. She only came close to being free when she was able to release her spirit on stage. And what she did on stage was beyond the result of careful rehearsal because she would change her performance up all the time. She was notoriously disciplined but she did not allow that to dictate her performance. It was as if she defied her own training or rather she would channel her classical training into something deeply emotional and spiritual.
The music that made her a star was considered by her family and I’m sure to the two White women who plucked her out of seeming obscurity to be “The Devil’s music.” How ironic. She had to change her name (her real name was Eunice Waymon) to protect her identity and fragment herself in order to do what came naturally to her. When Nina found deeper purpose as an artist in the Civil Rights movement and began writing protest songs, she was ostracized again by record companies who refused to play her records thereby cutting her off from means to support herself.
How do you not go mad in these circumstances?
So I was not crazy about this documentary. In fact, like Steele, I was disappointed even in the title, which seemed to suggest that Nina was somehow to blame for all that happened to her with no emphasis whatsoever on the impact of the culture of racism, denial and compartmentalization that eventually unraveled her. She didn’t go mad for no reason. No woman ever does. Certainly, no Black woman.