In 1964, Nina Simone sat at a piano in New York's Carnegie Hall to play what she called a show tune. Then she began to sing: "Alabama's got me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam!" Simone, and her song, became icons of the civil rights movement. But her confrontational style was not the only path taken by black women entertainers.
In How It Feels to Be Free, Ruth Feldstein examines celebrated black women performers, illuminating the risks they took, their roles at home and abroad, and the ways that they raised the issue of gender amid their demands for black liberation. Feldstein focuses on six women who made names for themselves in the music, film, and television industries: Simone, Lena Horne, Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, and Cicely Tyson. These women did not simply mirror black activism;
their performances helped constitute the era's political history. Makeba connected America's struggle for civil rights to the fight against apartheid in South Africa, while Simone sparked high-profile controversy with her incendiary lyrics. Yet Feldstein finds nuance in their careers. In 1968, Hollywood cast the
outspoken Lincoln as a maid to a white family in For Love of Ivy, adding a layer of complication to the film. That same year, Diahann Carroll took on the starring role in the television series Julia. Was Julia a landmark for casting a black woman or for treating her race as unimportant? The answer is not clear-cut. Yet audiences gave broader meaning to what sometimes seemed to be apolitical performances.
How It Feels to Be Free demonstrates that entertainment was not always just entertainment and that We Shall Overcome was not the only soundtrack to the civil rights movement. By putting black women performances at center stage, Feldstein sheds light on the meanings of black womanhood in a revolutionary time.
Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc
Number of pages: 304
Weight: 576 g
Dimensions: 236 x 164 x 26 mm
By placing black female musicians and actors at the center of Civil Rights history, Ruth Feldstein has written a tremendously important study that challenges readers to consider the imaginative activism of artists who performed progressive representations of black womanhood. Feldstein recuperates the crucial role that black women of music, film and television played in transforming our contemporary world. * Daphne Brooks, Princeton University *
In this meticulously researched and brilliantly argued study, Feldstein shows how black women entertainers expanded the very meaning of politics as they performed, contested, and reshaped race and gender at the dynamic intersection of the civil rights movement, culture industries, and global mass culture. This stunning reinterpretation of women, gender, and the civil rights movement is essential reading for anyone interested in feminism, black activism, and the
transnational cultural and political dimensions of 1950s and 1960s U.S history. * Penny M. Von Eschen, author of Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War *
How It Feels to Be Free stands out as an enormous act of historical recovery. Ruth Feldstein masterfully illuminates the way in which black women entertainers actively participated in the civil rights struggle and helped to transform American and international race relations. A powerful and thought provoking book that will change the way we look at gender, civil rights, and the black freedom movement. * Peniel E. Joseph, author of Stokely: A Life *
How It Feels to Be Free is a vital work of civil rights movement history and black performance scholarship. * Julie Burrell, Contemporary Theatre Review *