Editor’s note: Yoruba Richen is the director and Mehret Mandefro and Lacey Schwartz Delgado are executive producers of American Masters: How It Feels to Be Free, a documentary that looks at the historical importance and overlooked contributions of Black performers. Focusing on Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier, the docu — also executive produced by Alicia Keys — airs tonight on PBS in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Richen, Mandefro and Schwartz Delgado wrote this guest column for Deadline.
As we honor Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend and the nation prepares to inaugurate our 46th president, let us remember the Black women our Vice President-elect Kamala Harris described as “too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy.” Specifically, let’s consider the all-too-often overlooked Black female performers, who have long used their art to challenge representations about Black people at a time when America was awakening to a new consciousness about what it means to be free. They sought to inspire Americans to see one another beyond stereotypes and showed Black audiences how to see themselves unencumbered by the burden of racism. We have made it the focus of our work to help bring to light the overlooked contributions of artists like Lena Horne, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Bernice Johnson Reagon and Marian Anderson, who advanced civil rights through the roles they played, the songs they sang and the influence they exerted over the political process and leaders.
These and other Black women have stoked citizen engagement and encouraged everyday people to reimagine what is possible and helped make arts and culture essential to the Black freedom struggle. As the late American hero Congressman John Lewis said: “Without the arts, without music, without drama, without photography, the Civil Rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.” The singer, songwriter and scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon, an original member of the Freedom Singers, whose tours were planned and funded by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), sang songs to politically awaken the masses and to educate the Black community about their rights. One of their popular Civil Rights songs, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” prods people to continue fighting for their freedoms. “Ain’t gonna let nobody, turn me around. Turn me around, turn me around. Ain’t gonna let nobody, turn me around. Keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking. Gonna build a brand new world.” Reagon described how singing these kinds of songs “not only pulled us together, but became our articulate collective testimony to all who stood within the sound.”
What people see in theaters, on TV and in films is another uniquely powerful cultural force that shapes how Americans see each other, ourselves and the world. When Lena Horne, the first African-American signed to a Hollywood studio contract, insisted it include a clause that said she would not play the role of a Black domestic worker, she was using her art to reshape societal expectations about Black people. This revolutionary act was as transformative for Black audiences, as it was for the more general audience that had grown accustomed to stereotypical representations of Black people in movies. Cicely Tyson took this further by forging an entire career made of carefully selected roles like Rebecca Morgan in Sounder (1972), where she played a Depression-era poor Black mother for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, and the title role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), where she plays a character who begins her life as a slave and lives to see the end of segregation as a 110-year-old woman. Tyson imbued these characters with dignity and authenticity that was unparalleled in its depiction of humanity and described her work in Sounder as “the first Black-positive film which shows us as human beings and says something about the unity of the Black family.” Similarly, other artists like Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone and Pam Grier made cultural work that wrestled deeply with issues of representation and communicated the hopes and dreams of Black people in ways that transformed audiences.
For Black audiences that long existed largely outside of any mainstream gaze, these artists performed for them and to them in ways that changed the way Black people saw themselves. Nina Simone’s 1972 performance of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” to four Black children on Sesame Street, while wearing an African gown, was a clear expression of her desire to use the song as a way “to make Black children all over the world feel good about themselves forever.” Where Simone was using her music to say something positive to Black children, Diahann Carroll’s performance as a single mother of six on welfare in the film Claudine (1974) was a critique of the welfare system and communicated to those in power that the ways in which welfare administrators policed Black households was unjust. Both representations were equally important in filling voids in the cultural landscape for Black people to be portrayed in more complicated and real ways.
These Black female entertainers exerted influence not only on their audiences, but also over important political figures. Mahalia Jackson, perhaps the greatest gospel singer of all time, often accompanied Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at his speaking events, opening for him, and prepared crowds to receive his words. So close was their relationship that when Mahalia famously yelled at the 1963 March on Washington, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” it inspired Dr. King to ad-lib the most memorable section of that speech.
That was not the first time Martin had stood on those steps inspired by a singer. Another performer at the March on Washington was Marian Anderson, the pioneering contralto, who, on being barred by the Daughters of the American Revolution from performing at Constitution Hall because of her skin color, then performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. Among the 75,000 in attendance for the free concert that day was a 10 -year-old Martin Luther King Jr., who heard Anderson perform her opening soul-stirring rendition of “America (My Country Tis of Thee)”, a stunning choice given the circumstances of her performance. The impression she left on young Martin Luther King would become clear when he cited her performance five years later in his first public speech at a high school speaking contest he won. The speech was entitled “The Negro and The Constitution,” and a section was devoted to Anderson’s performance. “She sang as never before, with tears in her eyes. When the words of ‘America’ and ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I Seen’ rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, Black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Singing to a nation that had literally denied her the stage, Anderson created an altogether new one that became hallowed ground for the civil rights movement and inspired one of its leading architects.
All of these examples demonstrate how culture helps us conjure new possibilities to practice freedom above and beyond what our individual horizons and collective circumstances allow us to see. In the words of writer-filmmaker Toni Cade Bambera, cultural work “makes the revolution irresistible,” and we believe this work is vital for our present precarious times. Let us turn toward culture to bind our nation’s wounds and do the everyday work of healing.