“Everybody’s talking bout…” – The Music of Nina Simone for Today’s Frustrations
African American Intellectual History Society August 2, 2015.
It has been a year since the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Their deaths kicked off a movement challenging police brutality. From the deaths of Garner and Brown slogans like: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” “I Can’t Breathe!” and most notably “Black Lives Matter” arose to proclaim the value of Black lives in the midst of an overwhelming tide of racial violence. One year later, the list of victims keeps growing. Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, the murder of the Charleston Nine at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church, Sandra Bland in Texas, Sam DuBose in Cincinnati, and many others keep engaging the conversation on the value of Black lives. New hashtags like “#SayHerName and #IfIdieinpolicecustody reflect what has become a disturbing reality. In one year the list as well as people’s frustration keeps growing.
On any given day, I can open up my Facebook newsfeed, and see a diverse list of postings from militant outrage to statements proclaiming love, compassion, and understanding are the answers to people decrying that Black people must value their own lives first to the questioning of whether the victims truly met the standard of etiquette as dictated in politics of respectability. A post by one of my friends punched through the noise of Facebook. She recently attended an event in a local national park. When she left the party, she unwittingly drove in the wrong direction and was stopped by Park Police. In that moment, she was absolutely terrified. In that moment, she realized that any action might be misconstrued by the police officer, and she could become the next victim. The traffic stop went surprisingly well, yet my friend’s experience reflects the nature of the times.
My colleague Rhon Manigault-Bryant posted “Life Goes On:” A Meditation from Howard Thurman as a source of solace. I have also found the writings of Howard Thurman, but at this particular moment I find myself in need of a stronger expression of what I can best describe as righteous indignation. Approximately 50 years ago, Nina Simone captured her frustration with the violence against Blacks in her iconic song “Mississippi Goddam.” The song is a melodic indictment of the violence, the calls for Blacks to act respectably, and the requests for slow methodic change. The song would ultimately have a deleterious effect on Simone’s career, but it remains a significant musical expression of the Civil Rights era.
Noelle Trent recently earned her doctorate in American history at Howard University. Her dissertation, “Frederick Douglass and the Making of American Exceptionalism,” examines how noted African-American abolitionist and activist, Frederick Douglass, influenced the development of the American ideas of liberty, equality, and individualism which later coalesced to form the ideology of American exceptionalism. Dr. Trent also holds a Master’s degree in Public History from Howard University and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She has worked with several noted organizations and projects, including the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Park Service, Catherine B. Reynolds Civil War Washington Teacher’s Fellows, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History. She has presented papers and lectures at the American Historical Association, Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the Lincoln Forum, and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. She currently resides in suburbs of Washington, DC.