THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF NINA SIMONE
May 15, 2019
When a song becomes part of the fabric of the culture, it’s easy to disconnect it from the human who produced it. Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is such a song. Its haunting melody and vulnerable lyrics have contributed to it becoming a kind of Black anthem, so much so that the music can feel divorced from its intention. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is a Black American standard, and when you’ve become accustomed to the sound, you can miss its vulnerability, its melancholy, and its want — which is then only amplified by the countless samples of the song that have appropriated and re-contextualized the music and lyrics to other situations.
But a meditation on this Great Black American song is necessary, in order to know not just Simone’s artistry, but also her troubles. “Maybe, you’ll understand me now. When sometimes you see that I’m mad,” she laments. The verse erupts into instant recognition: “Oh Lord! Please don’t let me be misunderstood.” She reaffirms, “If I feel edgy, I want you to know that I never meant to take you out on you. Life has its problems and I have my share.” When we do an autopsy of this classic, it’s most obviously a cautionary tale to future people Simone might love — in all ways, not simply romantic — and an apology to those whose love she has already harmed.
This has been a common feature of the blues: to be confessional and cathartic when church and therapy aren’t available. When I think about the strides we are just now making as a collective culture to talk about abuse and trauma, it doesn’t surprise me how Simone arrived at certain moments of lyrical expression found in “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” One need only consider her now-widely accepted mental health.
According to the acclaimed Netflix documentary, What Happened, Ms. Simone? Nina experienced a litany of abuse from her husband that was both immediately traumatic, as well as the cause and intensity of her long-time mental health. She lived with an undiagnosed bi-polar condition that was only exacerbated by her husband’s abuse, which acted as PTSD. Compounded with being raised in the Jim Crow south and coming into adulthood underneath an era of intense white supremacist violence, lynching and segregation, Simone inherited an environment that facilitated the deterioration of her mental health.
In the documentary, her daughter, Lisa Simone, discusses candidly her mother’s abusive and toxic behavior, that she often had to suffer through. Lisa does so bluntly, but carefully. She resists the need to vilify or excuse her mother; rather, she offers the truth in a way that shows just how our realities and behaviors are crafted by both our personal histories and mental health.
“Maybe, you’ll understand me now,” Simone sings. And in her death, it still feels like an earnest plea — not just for Nina but all Black people. The song holds the regret and shame of behavior that many Black people hold inside of them until death. It’s not an absolution of toxicity, but it’s witnessing that we’re all haunted by the darkness of our trauma and that we’re all attempting to heal, maintain our health — and sometimes those attempts fail. And when they do, more than being right or wrong, loved or hated, we want to be seen. We want to be understood. And in that lyric — in its wisdom, written by Bennie Benjamin, Horace Ott and Sol Marcus, but made real by the late singer — we can understand Nina Simone and our own lives that much better.