In How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement, Feldstein examines the ways in which a loosely-connected group of black women mingled celebrity, art, and activism in the 1960s and ‘70s.
What stirred your interest in this topic?
Two things happened at around the same time, and that convergence—a perfect storm, so to speak—got me into the initial research. First, I got a grant to develop a new course in U.S. Cultural History at Harvard. I was trying to figure out what I’d assign for a unit of the course that was about culture and civil rights activism, but I wanted those readings to include issues of gender and I wanted them to learn about women performers. At that time, there was much less to choose from then there is now, and I thought that this was a subject worth looking into further.
Meanwhile, around that same period, I started listening to Nina Simone more—specifically, the album, In Concert. As I listened, I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t more central to U.S. women’s history and to civil rights history, more a part of the “cannon” of texts that were important to teach and study. It’s worth noting, she was not the icon that she’s become since her death. It was as if she’d fallen between the cracks. She just didn’t “fit” the way stories about women’s liberation or stories about civil rights tended to get told. But the more I listened and then read and researched, the more I learned that Simone, as well as the other women performers I write about, were critical to arguably the two most significant and transformative social movements of the 20th century.
Do you have a favorite artist among the group that you write about? Why?
That’s a great question, and the short answer is no. When I first started working on this book, I read and researched widely and moved between different women performers. But as I got more indepth writing particular deeper into writing particular chapters—each with one (or sometimes two) women artists at its center—that person and her work became my favorite. Each time I finished a chapter and moved onto the next, I was sad and thought that the next person – her music, films, or television work; the nature of her contribution to black activism—couldn’t possibly be as interesting as what I’d just completed. And each time I got immersed in that next person and that next chapter, I found a new favorite. So at some point, each of the women I write about has been my favorite, and as I finished the book and returned to the initial idea of all these women as loosely connected despite the remarkable diversity of their work and politics—idea with which I started-- of them as a loosely connected cohort despite the remarkable diversity of their work and politics—that cohort became my favorite instead of any one individual.
Are there artists you wish you could have included that you weren’t able to?
Yes! And everyone I talk to about this book has their own favorites who they think should have been included too. I’d have loved to include Odetta, or Lorraine Hansberry, or Diana Sands, or Ruby Dee, or Melba Liston, to name just a few. It would also be great to think about women athletes and the political contributions that they’ve made.
Do you think that artists are effective advocates in politics? Or was it something specific about the ‘60s that made it an important time for political art?
There were particular reasons that many people in the late 1950s and ‘60s came to believe that progressive politics and creative cultural work could reinforce each other. The simultaneous growth in the post-war decades of mass culture industries, venues where independent subcultures could develop, and political organizing, contributed to this sense this sense of intertwined political and cultural vibrancy.
But I also think that more generally, it’s important to think about what “politics” can mean beyond legislation, marches, elections, and boycotts. In the era I write about, many, many people—Americans and non-Americans—never marched, never boycotted, never sat-in; but they engaged with black activism when they listened to certain music, viewed certain films, and watched certain television shows. When we expand the realm in which we see people acting politically and don’t just think of “politics with a capital P,” we can more readily see how artists may express political demands imaginatively in different eras.
You write about Abby Lincoln’s acting career that her “prior connections to black power and the claims she made on behalf of working-class black women were contained by the commodity culture.” Similarly, when it comes to Cicely Tyson’s performances, you write about how she was accepted as “politically relevant” and subversive, but only in certain, societally acceptable ways—by suffering “nobly but quietly,” “not join[ing] organizations,” and living “in the past and in the rural south.” Is it possible, in our market-driven system, to make art that doesn’t end up contained in this manner?
I certainly don’t believe that there was some “pure” space in the period that I write about in which black women performers were free from or “untainted” by commodity culture. But I do think that they had different kinds of relationships with a market-driven system, and that in some instances, women performers could use that market-driven system more effectively than in others. For example, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the South African singer Miriam Makeba performed regularly on The Steve Allen Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. She got live audiences and the huge numbers of people who watched from home interested in her; most of them weren’t activists and didn’t think much about apartheid or anti-apartheid activism or about the relationships between apartheid in South Africa and domestic race relations. But Makeba’s popularity on television helped to reinforce the ways that Americans across lines of race became more aware of these issues. So Makeba, who mostly avoided confrontational public statements and tended not to sing songs with overt political content, was able to use her popularity in mass culture industries in two ways: to build her career as an international celebrity, and to educate Americans about apartheid.
With regard to Tyson, it’s worth noting that she chose her roles very carefully in the early 1970s. She felt that her roles in Sounder, in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and in Roots, for example--where the characters she portrayed did tend to live in the past, suffer “nobly but quietly”, and did not join organizations-- countered long-entrenched stereotypes of black women as desexualized “Mammy” figures, as sexualized “Jezebels,” and as damaging “matriarchs.” And she was right.
So in both of these examples, black women’s cultural work could be subversive and contained at the same time.
Critics play a role in the story you tell—often functioning to affirm the status quo. Miriam Makeba was sometimes stripped of personal agency by critics, and after a negative review of one of her albums, the singer Abby Lincoln didn’t put out another album for 13 years. Can critics have the inverse impact?
Absolutely, and that’s an important point. In fact, How It Feels to Be Free shows how black women performers worked to control the ways that they were represented in the media—much as like Beyonce does so brilliantly today. Abbey Lincoln, for example, didn’t record another album for thirteen 13 years after jazz critic Ira Gitler’s negative review of the album Straight Ahead appeared in Down Beat in 1961, but she was hardly passive. Lincoln spoke up and was visible in many different venues, including a panel discussion in Down Beat in which she directly challenged Gitler and the ways he evaluated her, and in the way he wrote about jazz, race, and black women singers.
But How It Feels to Be Free also suggests that when critics and fans reacted to women performers and turned them into celebrities, they contributed to the political impact that these artists had. The women I write about were not just significant because of what they did; what they did mattered because of how critics made sense of their work. There was a complicated interplay between women artists and critics, and the political significance of their artistry came out of that interplay.