Lulu Zheng

Editor’s Note: This essay references sexual assault.

Nina Simone has offered her listeners solace through music. The history of America, of blackness, of womanhood, is woven through her voice. I think her greatest achievement was her radical vulnerability. Her refusal to hide her emotions and experience validates my own. She wields her honesty like a weapon, destroying taboos and social ills. Listening to Nina Simone makes me feel comforted, in control and strong. I hope to write as she sings — putting all of myself out on the page.

I. “Mississippi Goddamn”

When I first heard this song, I was 14 years old. Although “Mississippi Goddamn” came in the wake of the Birmingham bombing, I hear the indignation of fellow high schoolers leading walkouts for Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown. I hear “I can’t breathe” shuddering through the crowd as we took over the Brooklyn Bridge. As police swarmed one half of the bridge, we pulled protesters from their grasp, over the cold steel of the suspension cables, and into our arms. I watched the police shove an 80-year-old woman against a car. All I could hear was Nina. Her refrain,“too slow!” I didn’t want to compromise. I didn’t want everything to go back to normal. I felt rage at the police, at the passersby ignoring our chants, at America. Nina sings that to “do things gradually will bring more tragedy.” Nina’s rage validated mine. As Dick Gregory said on “Mississippi Goddamn,” “We all wanted to say it. She said it.”

II. “Four Women”

An inclusive portrait of black womanhood, this song reflects the intersections of colorism, history and class. As she sings each story, the listener not only hears these women’s lives, but their emotions. Listening to Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches, I am confronted with my own relationship to black womanhood. You wouldn’t know that I am part black from looking at me. My hair is straight; my skin is fair. I walk through this world perceived as white, while seeing the world through the lens of my mixed race heritage. As Nina sings as Saffronia, “My skin is yellow, my hair is long. Between two worlds, I do belong.” Balancing how I look and where I come from, I try to navigate these two worlds. When I was young, my classmates thought my mom was my babysitter, unable to reconcile her brown skin and curly hair with me. It feels weird to not look like parts of my own family. As I question my identity, where I belong, my relationship to blackness, Nina provides an answer. That blackness is not simple, it is complex. A multitude of experiences, appearances and histories, all embodied by Nina’s four women.

III. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”

In “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” Nina invokes the hopelessness of always living in fear, holding onto a hope that fear will end. I know an all-encompassing fear. The man who grabbed my pussy on the subway, reveling in my frozen 13-year-old shock. The boy who groped me in class. The man who forced himself inside me at 18, smiling as he let me go. The man who didn’t accept my refusals. The men who follow me late at night shouting what they want to do to me. I thought each time was the last time, but they seemed to never end. The echoes of these traumas surround me, they infect my life. Even with partners I really trust, I can find myself recoiling from their touch. I don’t know any other reality. I hope it will end, but when I hear this song I don’t feel alone. I hear Nina’s dreams for a free future. I hear strength and joy that makes me think that maybe things will be okay.

IV. “Lilac Wine”

Nina’s soft and sensual delivery of “Lilac Wine” reminds me of my first queer love. As she describes the intoxication and joy of lilac wine, she feels its forbiddenness. In “Lilac Wine,” I hear forbidden temptations. When I first felt the familiar pangs of attraction and interest for a woman, I was shocked. Even growing up in a progressive area, I still understood love as straight. For two years, I tried to push down my feelings, casting them aside as a stupid adolescent phase. But then there was this girl. I couldn’t suppress my interest, dazed by her intensity and beauty. One night, drunk on shitty beer, we wandered into a playground. She kissed me. Up against a wall, body pushed against body, she broke down my denial. I fell for her; Nina says “hypnotized by a strange delight.” Yet I still couldn’t shake the taboo of it all; I would look around to make sure no one saw — my queerness was not for others to see. I was unsteady; I tried to acknowledge my identity yet still felt ashamed. As I came into queerness, it was dizzying, the way Nina talked about lilac wine, and suddenly I wasn’t crazy.

I feel Nina’s voice projecting itself onto my life. She has helped me navigate fear, love, rage and confusion. Our lived experiences are incredibly different, yet her songs resonate. Deeply, viscerally, I connect to her music. That’s the power of her complete vulnerability. That’s the beauty of Nina Simone.

Lena Gallager | lena.gallager@yale.edu .