Against my better judgment, I attended a watch party to celebrate the release of the long-anticipated documentary chronicling the triumphs and tragedies of Nina Simone’s life, aptly titled What Happened, Miss Simone? The film (directed by Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus and available on Netflix) is a collection of interviews from Simone, friends and family that tells the devastating story of how we loved and lost one of the most talented and revolutionary artists that the Black community (and the world) has ever realized.
I didn’t contemplate whether I would attend the screening because I was afraid that I wouldn’t like the film or because I wouldn’t enjoy the company of friends who love Nina Simone as much as I do. Instead, I feared that I would see Nina as things fell apart, and witness too much of myself in her.
What Happened, Miss Simone? begins just as it should, with Nina playing to a packed, cheering house at the 1976 Montreaux Jazz Festival, looking commanding, elegant, and exceedingly unbothered by the crowd of thousands there mostly to see her. It is this Nina that I love and have set my dreams of being a free Black woman on. After all, if ever there was a patron saint of Black girl magic, or a woman who belongs wholly and completely to herself, it’s Ms. Simone.
Like many women trying desperately to find themselves and understand their human right to take up space in the world, I latched on to Nina. From every account, in the documentary and elsewhere, she was wild and free, and angry, and demanding, and unapologetic, and, essentially, all of the elements we use to make fire.
Actually, Nina was fire—the incarnation of it—and as we praised her, we never contemplated what becoming fire must have cost her soul. We didn’t know how isolated and alone Simone felt as a child growing up as a prodigy and musical genius—who was also Black, dirt poor, and somehow surviving Jim Crow in rural Tryon, North Carolina. Simone’s experiences with Whites were so negative and traumatizing that she imagined her piano teacher must’ve been an alien because she was both White and nice; sadly (and obviously) a combination she’d never known.
After working tirelessly to achieve her dream of becoming the first Black classically trained concert pianist, and being denied a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (a scholarship she felt she rightfully deserved), Simone had to accept, bitterly, that her vision would never match her reality.
So she settled. The great Nina Simone settled into singing (which she initially didn’t want to do at all), playing piano in jazz clubs to make the rent—never being able to introduce her Black audiences to her love for Bach or her highest calling. It seems she also settled into a marriage, first with Don Ross and then with Andy Stroud—who was also her manager and seemed to work Nina like a mule.
Through her marriage to Stroud, Nina’s only child Lisa Simone was born. And although, according to Nina, the first three days after Lisa’s birth were the happiest of her life, her joy quickly turned into inconsolable weeping and rage. She felt stuck in the life she allowed to be chosen for her and became broken—whether as a result of the constant beatings she received from her husband, the bitterness one develops as a result of having her dreams deferred, or the horrifying reality of what living with racism and White supremacy does to the psyche.
Nina tried to escape her pain, her abusive husband, and herself by moving all over the globe—from Barbados to Liberia to Switzerland and to France—but the pain (which doctor’s later diagnosed. according to her daughter, as bipolar disorder) followed her like a ghost wherever she went.
I saw so much of my own story woven into Nina’s as I thought about ways to manage my own pain of being a Black woman in this world, of never quite finding a place to call home, of being everyone’s mule and seemingly no one’s priority. I wondered when my own break might come, when I might give up, whether anyone would cry for me or remember how hard I fought to exist in a world that seems determined that I shouldn’t.
But as I had that pity party for Nina, and for myself, I realized that Nina was not a victim. I remembered that Nina—with diligence and truth and flare—leant her voice and her hands and her beautiful, beautiful soul to our movement. She gave us freedom songs that we are still singing. She taught us that our dark skin and wide noses and thick lips were our beauty and our salvation. She taught us to take no sh*t.
Nina Simone’s light shined, and it shines, and it will shine forever. Amen.
Josie Pickens is an educator, culture critic and soldier of love. Send her your love + relationship questions here. Also, follow her on Twitter @jonubian.
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