Teaching Nina Simone
Updated: Nov 16, 2020
As I prepare to teach my American Literature II course next semester, I have been returning to Nina Simone's "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)" over and over again. It is no secret that I love Nine Simone—my children all recognize her voice when we are in the car—and I am no stranger to teaching lyrics and music in a literature classroom. This year, however, following the summer of uprisings and the ongoing relevance of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I have been thinking a lot about how the narrative of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been whitewashed in the decades following his death. For this reason, I will be teaching his "Letter from Birmingham Jail"—a perennially understudied text. But I also want to make sure that this unit does not become merely an intellectual exercise in what MLK wrote. As I have long argued, education is not just about knowledge production, but also affect production. So this year I am going to pair this reading with two songs by Nina Simone, performed live shortly after the death of MLK. The lyrics, as always, are powerful—but I particularly love the idea of having my students spend over twelve minutes listening to (and feeling) the wonderful mix of singing and sermonizing that is "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)." Hopefully, this will help students to better understand the impact of MLK's death in its moment, while also giving them an opportunity to place the words of the song in conversation with the world within which it is performed here. If nothing else, this will give me another excuse to listen to this performance over and over again (and call it work!). Have you heard it before? If not, I highly recommend that you take a listen!