Revolutionary Performances

By Fiona I.B. Ngô July 3, 2014

How It Feels to Be Free by Ruth Feldstein

THE FIGURE of the Black Revolutionary, to a particular and change-minded audience, appeals for many reasons. The figure can represent not only who we want to be, but also what we want the nation to be. And more — if sometimes this figure carries our hopes for the future of a nation striving for social justice, sometimes the figure seems to represent the belief that social justice has already been obtained. This strange chronological versatility is important to the way our culture imagines what the Revolutionary can do: even though most actual revolutionaries responded to particular, on the ground, historical conditions, as a social figure the Black Revolutionary’s struggles seem to be continuous, existing outside of history. So, strangely, that figure can stand for our past and present, as well as our future. What this means is that the very ways in which progressive culture valorizes black revolutionaries make it difficult to understand them, as unique individuals, with specific rather than general social goals.

One of the many remarkable aspects of Ruth Feldstein’s How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement is that it manages simultaneously to trace histories of black thought, activism, and performance, while reconstructing histories of how journalists, writers, and others imagined blackness through the civil rights era; in other words, she traces both the idea of the Black Revolutionary and actual revolutionaries. Feldstein’s interest is in developing the stories of six black, female performers: Lena Horne, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, and Cicely Tyson. Feldstein's book provides useful archival work on the civil rights movement and the women upon whom she focuses, finding new and interesting information about musical performance, black activism, and racial representation in film and television. Highlighting the public reception of these artists and intellectuals, Feldstein’s sources — drawn from collections at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in California, as well as popular publications such as the Chicago Defender, Variety, The New York Times, Ebony, Sepia, High Fidelity, and Down Beat — demonstrate how these women engaged multiple publics, building connections, for instance, to black and white audiences with a spectrum of responses to political activism.

The overall significance of these prominent women is that, because of the range of ways they were able to connect to audiences, they helped to create a new national imagination of blackness in general and of black femininity in particular. And what’s valuable about Feldstein’s work is that she’s able to restore a fuller sense of these women. The media attention these women received, especially from liberal outlets interested in social justice, often flattened out their differences in order to foster a univocal imagination of the Black Revolutionary. But Feldstein convincingly shows that the politics these women espoused varied quite dramatically. Taken together, they offer an illustration of the complex ideas and tensions of the civil rights movement.

Part of Feldstein’s contribution, of course, comes simply from the provocation of her subject: her central argument that women entertainers should be considered as a significant part of the civil rights movement. The figure of the Black Revolutionary is typically imagined as masculine; in fact, the figure is so masculinized that that African American politics and activism are frequently associated exclusively with men. This has been particularly true in the imagination of leadership and intellectual thought during the civil rights era. Feldstein “brings women entertainers and their contributions center stage to histories of civil rights and the rise of feminism,” providing new contributions to the history of race in the United States, scholarship on the civil rights era, and feminist studies. She suggests that, “a fuller understanding of black activism and feminism requires expanding the realm of political activity.” She does so by taking seriously the politics forwarded by female performers, their activities and thoughts that, as Feldstein points out, are often overlooked for their contribution to civil rights discourses.

Making her case, Feldstein draws on the work of important scholars of the civil rights movement and of black expressive culture — for instance, Daphne Brooks, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Kevin Gaines, Peniel Joseph, Taylor Branch, and Robin D. G. Kelley — but her accessible tone should appeal to a wide audience of readers interested in these performers and the cultural issues of their lives. Feldstein’s conversation with these previous works of history and performance studies helps her place these women as contemporaries of one another. Although this move might seem obvious, it is surprisingly radical: doing so performs the important work of understanding the cultural and political contributions of black women as a sustained movement, rather than each woman being taken as an exception to the societal positioning of women, African Americans, or African American women.

Feldstein’s carefully selected examples bring to light an engaging range of black intellectual thought and experience. Her portrayals of Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone as talented women with radical politics take into account not only race in the United States, but racial histories and constructions at work over the surface of the globe. The South African singer and activist Makeba, for instance, “affected meanings of black power on two continents.” As Feldstein notes, at times in popular culture “she came to embody Africa for Americans, black and white, reproduced long-standing perspectives of Africa as a primitive space where racial and gendered ‘others’ might live.” In other instances — from the stage at the Village Vanguard to a turn in Come Back, Africa, a controversial film from 1960, which exposed the violence of race relations in South Africa — Makeba highlighted her transnational politics, purposefully creating connections between US-based civil rights and anti-apartheid activism in South Africa. In this way, she successfully linked US racial politics to global movements of internationalism and decolonization. Likewise, Julliard-trained Nina Simone espoused a radical politics that connected people of color in struggle around the world. While in England, Simone shocked her white audience by demonstrating her identification with fans from West India and Africa. As she told Melody Maker in 1968, “The Negro revolution is only one aspect of increasing violence and unrest in the world.” Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun and Simone’s confidant, remembers their “girls’ talk” as being about “Marx, Lenin, and revolution.” Feldstein clearly demonstrates a fondness for these kinds of radical geopolitics and how these women forwarded a vision of racial, gendered, and class politics not bound by national borders.

Other artists were less able to test the boundaries of politics in the United States. Feldstein clearly appreciates Cicely Tyson’s craft, for instance, but she also points out that the politics forwarded by Tyson have a different, more limited scope than that of Makeba and Simone because of how she was received. Tyson, famous for her superb acting in Sounder (1972), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), and Roots (1977), often chose roles with historical heft. These parts, however, often placed Tyson outside of contemporary narratives of struggle and an urban habitus, creating a more easily accepted story of black struggle as having unfolded in a static, rural past. These films, Feldman suggests, were seized upon to substantiate a social view quite different than the pan-African politics espoused by Makeba and Simone: the fiction that Africans and African Americans did not face the same kinds of violence contemporarily, even as they both created space for strong black womanhood. Tyson, thus, came to stand as a soothing rather than confrontational figure of black radicalism: while audiences could acknowledge the strength and perseverance of African American women through Tyson's performances, they also managed to excuse themselves from thinking about institutional anti-black racisms in the present.

Ruth Feldstein’s book seems particularly prescient given current debates about black feminism. Black women performers are often held up as resistant icons, composed of strength, intelligence, and talent. But as we know, the image of “the strong black woman” can hold multiple meanings, and not all of them good — even for an audience inclined to admire them. As with the reception of Cicely Tyson, black women’s images can be used to cover over other forms of inequality. For example, bell hooks recently raised a controversy by pointing out what she feels to be Beyoncé’s collusion with “imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Feldstein’s book helps us contextualize hooks’s polemic; hooks seems to yearn for the kind of politics that Makeba and Simone might have fought for in the era of decolonization. And Feldstein also helps us see why hooks may well be right: her book allows us to align Beyoncé’s carefully managed image within the Black Revolutionary model, where radical politics can be simultaneously praised and vacated by a progressive but complacent audience. So, while Beyoncé’s success is understandably admired, her circulation as a figure of strength, and thus implicitly of a better and more just world, ironically allows the idea of her to occlude other political terrains, such as the naturalization of neoliberal entrepreneurship that she also embodies as a singular “Queen.” In a time when performers, artists, and writers are held up as role models and arbiters of public opinion, their relationship with feminism should be closely monitored. Feldstein’s book is a timely reminder that performers have at times been deeply engaged in a range of global and national politics and that black women have been at the forefront of generating thoughtful feminist ideas.


Fiona I.B. Ngô is the author of Imperial Blues: Geographies of Sex and Race in Jazz Age New York.

LARB Contributor

Fiona Ngô is an Associate Professor in Asian American Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  She specializes in 20th-century transnational U.S. cultural and intellectual history with particular attention to music and aesthetic cultures. Her first book, Imperial Blues published in February 2014 by Duke University Press, focuses on the role of imperialism in shaping the gendered, racial, and sexual logics of Jazz Age New York.  With Elizabeth Stinson, she is has co-edited a special issue of Women & Performance called “Punk Anteriors” (October 2012), to which she has contributed an article titled “Punk in the Shadow of War,” which takes on Los Angeles’s early punk scene through the lenses of space, violence, political economy, imperialism, and racial formation in the critical years following the official end of war in Viet Nam. She has also co-edited a special issue of positions on “Southeast Asian Diaspora” (Summer 2012) with Mimi Thi Nguyen and Mariam Lam, and published an article called “Sense and Subjectivity” concerning the figure of the Cambodian refugee in camera obscura (May 2011). She is currently at work on a book tentatively titled Structures of Sense, which focuses on Southeast Asian American art practices, disability, welfare, and queer immigration. When not teaching or writing, Dr. Ngô writes songs and collaborates in an as-of-yet-unnamed music project with Alice Bag, Osa Atoe, and Robert Martinez.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!