It’s Black History Month again. Growing up, I quickly grew weary of the sanitized King and Carver, Slavery and Civil Rights trivia version of black lives as taught in grade schools every February for twelve years of my life. By the time my token-black-girl status forced me onto an It’s Blackademic! team, I was in open rebellion against the saccharine representation of my history and I sought the lesser known, the grittier icons to whom I related.
In 8th grade, the obligatory Black History Month project was assigned to my AP History class. I honestly didn’t have to do as much research as I did. My liberal progressive teacher was a white woman who would naturally defer to my experience on the topic. I knew it was a guaranteed A. This annoyed me. A quote attributed to Nina Simone appeared embedded in one book among the stacks:
“I was never non-violent. Never.”
I felt a spark. I stared at the line for a while. Here was a black woman, an activist, an artist I had never known, but who succinctly, unapologetically embodied the role I’d imagined for myself if I had lived in the era we romanticize every February. And perhaps I had never been introduced to her in the ways I had been to King and Carver and Sojourner, because she was never nonviolent.
Naturally, I at once consumed and was consumed by her. I poked around her life the way we feel entitled to do to our heroes. At the time, Nina was still with us, living in France in what was likely the most peaceful period of her life. There was no mention of “Bipolar Disorder” just yet on the web and print pages I read. It was “Manic Depression” or otherwise her madness was described through anecdotes. She was difficult to work with. She was dramatic. She was brilliant. She was crazy. She was violent.
“Must take sleeping pills to sleep + yellow pills to go onstage. Terribly tired and realize no one can help me—I am utterly miserable, completely, miserably, frighteningly alone.” – Nina Simone’s diary, July 1964.
Why, I’m difficult! My teenage self mused; I’ve been called dramatic a time or two. Crazy, even. And I have aspirations to brilliance, sure.
And perhaps, if I’d lived in a time or in an environment that entitled me to the rage I felt (for reasons I hadn’t discovered yet), I might be violent.
It isn’t unheard of for young people to try and make sense of themselves through comparisons with the people they admire. And then we grow up and discover we’re all adults still doing personality quizzes to determine which Hogwarts House we belong to, so maybe that never stops. At any rate, I saw some of Miss Simone in me. At the time, it was more in a revolutionary sense and the romantic way we sometimes view madness in artists. Later, it would be clinical.
“Now we have names for that s**t. Back then nobody had names for it, nobody was categorizing it. It was part and parcel of what it meant to be an artist.” – Sam Shepard, playwright. Believer Magazine 2010.
After she died in 2003, I learned that she’d suffered from Bipolar Disorder, possibly Borderline Personality Disorder. Certainly it had a hand in wrecking some personal relationships (mine weren’t shaping up too nicely either). There was no denying the volatility of her illness that lent itself to her firing guns at people who disrupted her creative process. There is also no denying she’s iconic, significant to the expression of blackness in the way that only artists — not orators, not inventors — can be. It dawned on me for the first time that she was never nonviolent in her approach to revolution, sure, but maybe what she meant was that she had never been capable of treating herself nonviolently either.
So what I learned from Nina and what I continue to learn is that there is space in all of our movements and our history for each of our unique offerings. And now that we know disorders have names and that they aren’t all just artistic eccentricities, we can drop the romance of madness. Instead, we would do better in noting how far into or out of darkness an afflicted artist has to go to make their art. In understanding my own diagnoses, I have a better appreciation for the times Nina Simone had to fight herself in order to leave the legacy we all adore. What I appreciate most, however, is the promise presented by her life that mental illness is not a disqualifier for living an impactful existence.
To learn more about Nina Simone and Bipolar Disorder, I highly recommend Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, by Nadine Cohodas.
To revel in Nina’s art and impact, you might want to check out What Happened, Miss Simone? on Netflix.
LeKesha is a web developer and book blerd. She advocates strongly for carefree blackness in literature, and prefers bloody over sparkly when selecting her anime. She takes her whiskey neat and her coffee with cream, sugar, and marshmallows, too, if you have them. If not, don’t worry about it.