Cultural giants in civil rights movement

By Farah Jasmine Griffin / New York Times News Service

Published Jan 19, 2014 at 12:01AM

“How It Feels To Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement” by Ruth Feldstein (Oxford University Press, 296 pgs., $29.95)

Ruth Feldstein’s important new book, “How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement,” is an original exploration of the little-known but central role that black entertainers, especially black women, played in helping communicate and forward the movement’s goals. Lena Horne, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson — the black women entertainers in this book — were popular at the height of an organized global struggle for black freedom, from around 1959 till the mid-1970s. They were influenced by this movement, even as they helped shape it.

Feldstein, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., has not written tell-all celebrity biographies of these women. Nor is hers the story of a group of women working together, although Simone, Lincoln and Makeba became close friends. “How It Feels to Be Free” is a work of cultural history that insists upon the importance of popular art to the work of social change. Feldstein convincingly argues that “culture was a key battleground in the civil rights movement” and that the women in this book anticipated much of what would later emerge in the more militant black power movement and in second-wave feminism. Although a scholarly book, it should be of interest to an intelligent, general readership.

New York, especially Harlem and Greenwich Village, provided artistic and political possibilities for each of these women. The jazz and folk clubs in the Village, theaters both on and off-Broadway, art film houses, television studios and exclusive supper clubs as well as salons, meetings and fundraisers in private homes offered space for performance and for encounters with sophisticated and discerning audiences. Long before it was brought to the attention of most Americans on the nightly news, movement organizing was underway in New York.

The city was also home to a bevy of left-leaning artists and intellectuals including Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, jazz drummer and composer Max Roach (whom Lincoln married), Lorraine Hansberry (“A Raisin in the Sun”) and James Baldwin. These figures brought a radical political culture of the ’40s into the next two decades, and they welcomed and embraced the women in Feldstein’s book. In return, participation in this vibrant environment helped shape these women’s sense of themselves as artists and political beings engaged in an international struggle against white supremacy.

“In all sorts of ways, they insisted that the liberation they desired could not separate race from sex,” she writes. Describing her friendship with Hansberry, Simone recalled they “never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution — real girls’ talk.”

Although Simone and Lincoln identified with a conception of blackness that transcended national borders, it was Makeba, from South Africa, who best epitomized the international dimension of black women’s performance and political engagement. Makeba will perhaps be the least familiar to readers. But, as Feldstein demonstrates, she received widespread acclaim from U.S. critics and audiences when she first arrived in the United States in 1959.

By exiling her from her country, Feldstein writes, “white South African authorities created a more effective symbol of apartheid’s cruelty than she could have done herself.” Makeba’s frequent appearances on U.S. TV and collaborations with Belafonte offered many Americans their first encounter with an African and helped to challenge sensibilities shaped by Tarzan movies. She constructed an image of an accessible but cosmopolitan entertainer who affirmed her people’s struggles by the dignity with which she represented their culture.

Like Makeba, the virtuosic Simone, nightclub chanteuse turned serious jazz artist, Lincoln and the gifted actress Tyson all rejected “standards of beauty defined by Americaness and whiteness.” (Makeba, for example, refused to appear in advertisements for the popular skin whiteners of the day.) Together, they offered an alternative notion of black glamour and femininity, one that embraced unstraightened hair, darker skin, serious artistic ambition and political consciousness as central. These choices mirrored their artistic practice as well.

Simone went directly to the most heated sites of the civil rights struggles to perform for younger activists. After the Birmingham, Ala., church bombings that killed four little girls in 1963, she wrote the incendiary “Mississippi Goddamn.” Lincoln shared Simone’s righteous indignation; her prolonged scream in the middle of the song “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace,” registered years of black women’s anger and defiance.

If Makeba is the least familiar to contemporary audiences, Carroll is perhaps the most surprising in the context of this book. She was not known for her activism or affirmation of black women’s beauty as the others were. She was a more conventionally glamorous figure, who wore high couture and straightened hair or wigs. She performed on Broadway, in high-end nightclubs and worked in both film and television. She was the least threatening and in many ways the most successful of all the women in Feldstein’s book.

With her crossover appeal, Carroll is linked most closely with the legacy of Horne, this book’s elder figure. Feldstein, however, uncovers Carroll’s history of early activism on behalf of the civil rights movement. She used her celebrity and her home to help raise money for civil rights organizations and understood her career as a pioneering one that introduced black women to stage and screen, especially the small screen.

By considering these diverse women together, Feldstein avoids portraying any one of them as “exceptional, early or ‘ahead of the times.’” Instead, she presents them as part of “an emergent collectivity.” This collectivity was made possible by the tremendous social and cultural change underway during the height of their popularity.

The movements of the day encouraged them to conceive of themselves as more than sex symbols or entertainment industry commodities. Feldstein brilliantly demonstrates the ways these women, their images and performance strategies animated transformative struggles for social change.

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