Original ABWs: Nina Simone
Note from nojojojo: One of the reasons I write for ABW is to get in touch with my inner angry black woman. This is because I’m not very angry outwardly — having grown up mostly in the South and being naturally mild-mannered, it takes a lot to flip my switches. I’m more inclined to do the Southern thing of smiling in the face of someone who’s pissed me off, and wish them a pleasant day even though I really mean, “Go to hell.” (There’s an art to this; I am still but a student.)
Still, anger can be healthy and effective, and I regard its other expressions as art too. So I’ve been studying other angry black women in history and the present, and the ways in which their anger has gotten things done. From time to time I’ll share my study of these Original ABWs — these sistas who’ve wielded their fury like a surgeon’s scalpel or swung it harder than John Henry’s hammer, and caused society to change as a result. So this is the first of a series.
I’m going to start with Nina Simone, one of my favorite jazz singers — not because she’s the angriest or most effective of the Original ABWs, but because I recently heard her song “Pirate Jenny” for the first time. Take a listen, if you haven’t heard it:
Still gives me chills. She means every word of it, too — you can hear that in her voice. The first time I listened to it, I thought, If I was white, I would sleep with one eye open. For the rest. Of. My. Life. Because it’s blatantly obvious from the barely-contained rage in this song that Simone is not singing about pirates, even though this song has relatively benign origins in the German musical The Threepenny Opera. Simone’s version has a whole other meaning when one considers the time in which she first sang it, as part of a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1964. The year before, activist Medgar Evers had been assassinated and four little black girls were murdered in a terrorist bombing. Nina, like most black people of the time, was pissed off. In this context the metaphors of the song become clear: the narrator is not merely a pirate spy; she’s a black Everywoman, oppressed and resentful and ready to strike back against her oppressors. “The black freighter” is the revolution to come — and the revolution Simone has in mind will not be a bloodless one, oh no. “I ain’t ’bout to be non-violent, honey!” she says in one recorded concert — and the whole audience laughs and claps with her.
This was not the first time Simone had sung “protest music”, note. She was well known as a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement; at concerts she did shout-outs to the Freedom Riders, and she hung out with fellow protest artists like Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright of “A Raisin in the Sun”. Her songs were part of the inspirational canon for the SNCC and other young activists of the time. Music was as much a part of the Civil Rights Movement as marches and sit-ins; this much everybody knows. But Simone’s music was a whole other thing from the vague goals of gospel hymns like “We Shall Overcome.” Her message was a much more specific one: we shall kick your ass. In the same year as “Pirate Jenny,” Simone debuted her other big protest song, “Mississippi Goddamn”, in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. “Mississippi Goddamn” is better known, in part because it got more attention — it was boycotted by radio stations all over the South ostensibly because of the profanity in its title, though the real reason was clear. In her autobiography Simone notes that one Southern dealer shipped back a whole crate of the singles with each copy snapped in half. (She thought this was hilarious.)
But what amazes me is that “Pirate Jenny”, a much more dangerous song, got no reaction. This woman is seriously advocating, albeit in metaphor, the wholesale slaughter of white people. That was the kind of thing that could get a black person lynched in those days — and yeah, black women got lynched too, usually with rape or some other form of sexual assault tossed in. The thing that saved her, I think, is that Simone didn’t perform the song often; she supposedly said that it took too much out of her, at one point joking that she had to recover for seven years after singing it. I know how hard it is to channel that much anger; I can totally imagine she might have needed some time afterwards to recharge. But I can’t help wondering if, in addition to recharge time, she was also motivated by a sense of self-preservation — if not her own, then fear for her daughter Lisa, a baby at the time.
Yet in this song Simone effectively captures the simmering rage of black America at that time, and she does it so powerfully that forty years later, we can understand what it was like to be there. We cannot help empathizing with the song’s narrator, nor sharing — maybe with a smidge of guilt, maybe not — her schadenfreude as the tables are turned on the oppressors. We, or at least I, hear this song and realize just how incredibly stupid it was for America to resist granting civil rights to blacks for as long as it did, because they were sitting on a fucking powder keg. It shifts my perspective on the events of the time from the benign, white-centered version taught to me in school; Kennedy was no visionary. He did nothing particularly brave. He was just yielding to the inevitable, hopefully before his country was torn to pieces by the kind of rage that Simone and millions of other blacks felt.
So I give props to you, Nina, for helping me understand.