The civil rights movement of the 1960s is having a bit of a moment.
The 50th anniversaries of the March on Washington in August was a major media event. The PBS documentary Freedom Summer (which aired on Tuesday and is available afterward at pbs.org) takes a look at the summer of 1964, and the CNN documentary A Long March to Freedom (airing today), a part of CNN’s hit series The Sixties, is an overview of the entire movement.
Several recent books have explored the civil rights movement in the 1960s, including Todd Purdum’s An Idea Whose Time Has Come and James Risen’s The Bill of the Century on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Peniel E. Joseph’s biography Stokely: A Life about controversial black power figure Stokely Carmichael, and Charles E. Cobb Jr.’s The Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed about the influence of guns in the civil rights movement.
Ruth Feldstein, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, looks at another aspect of the civil rights movement in the 1960s in How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement, a series of interconnected profiles of six black entertainers—Lena Horne, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson—and their careers in film, music, television.
Feldstein recently talked to Kirkus Reviews about New York, jazz, media and the women she covers in her book.
Did you get to this topic more from civil rights or from popular culture?
I wanted to write a book that told the stories that we don't always hear from the civil rights movement and to listen to the voices that haven't always been heard. It's a little ironic to talk about stories that haven't always been heard when the subject is amazing vocalists like Lena Horne and Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln.
When we think about civil rights, we tend to think about male leaders. When we think about culture and civil rights, we think about “We Shall Overcome.” As a result, a lot gets left out. I wanted to expand the parameters in which we get to see people acting politically. A lot of people never marched, they never boycotted, they never joined an organization, they never pushed to have a specific person elected, but they still engaged with the civil rights movement. I wanted to capture and speak to the ways women entertainers were also forging politics and what that meant for Americans and non-Americans around the world.
There were other performers involved in the civil rights movement. Did you pick these six in particular to write about because they were focused in and around New York?
I made the decisions about who to include based on the fact that the cohort I write about all came of age both professionally and politically in these interracial subcultures of activist entertainers based in New York City in the 1950s. Lena Horne was a generation older, and I include her because she had such an impact on this younger generation and in some ways created the template for what it meant to be a modern, politicized, black female performer.
I also wanted to tell a story about women entertainers that was not limited to a particular cultural history. It's not just about jazz. It's not just about television. It's not just about film. I really wanted to think about the ways that women entertainers moved between different culture industries. Fans were watching TV and listening to music, and I didn't want to narrow myself to one type of popular culture.
Coming into the book, I was least familiar with Miriam Makeba. Was she someone you knew much about before you started researching the book?
I didn't know a lot about the South African side of the story. It's easy to think of the civil rights movement as American, but there was so much circulation of politics across national boundaries. Miriam Makeba’s activism was very much influenced by her earlier years in South Africa. At the same time, her popularity in the U.S. and her experiences with civil rights activism affected what she did abroad. There was an import/export model with all of the women I write about—this circulation across national boundaries through popular culture was what interested me.
I always assumed since Nina Simone had an exotic name and sang in French that she wasn't from the United States, but she was from rural North Carolina. That was pretty surprising.
You're not alone. A lot of people in the '60s when she was popular made some of those same assumptions. Some people assumed she was French. Part of her public persona was as a classically trained musician, very cultivated, talented and cosmopolitan. One of the things that made her a celebrity was that her fans and critics across the lines of race reacted to her in different ways. She was this very cosmopolitan figure who spoke French and who many people thought was French. And at the same time, she was also regarded within African-American communities as “authentically” African-American because she did grow up in the South and grew up in her mother's church. She was able to bridge these different worlds.
There's great, glamorous photography throughout the book—in particular Abbey Lincoln and Diahann Carroll.
I knew that I wanted as many visuals as I could have. I regret there's not an accompanying CD that comes with the book, though I did make a playlist that's available on the Oxford website so people can listen to the music and watch film clips while they're reading.
Not to suggest that any of these women didn’t experience racism, but New York seemed a better place to be for a black woman in the 1960s than Hollywood or New Orleans. Do you think that's right?
That's what attracted people to New York and has attracted people to New York across race and gender, and before and after the period I write about. I would also emphasize that the women I write about took serious risks when they made the choices they did to mesh politics and culture in their creative work. And they suffered serious consequences as a result. Miriam Makeba, when she married Stokely Carmichael in 1968, her American career basically ended. She was effectively blacklisted in the entertainment industry.
And that’s at a time when black power and black nationalism are very visible.
What I hope the book shows is that the women I write about were also making black power politics in the late '50s and early ‘60s. Black power and black nationalism didn't just happen in the late '60s. Miriam Makeba wasn't just affirming black power. She was affirming the power of Africa. She was affirming the power of blackness. She was performing black power before she married Stokely Carmichael—even in South Africa before she came to the United States.
Scott Porch is an attorney and writer in Savannah, Georgia. He writes frequently about books for Kirkus Reviews, Salon.com, and Huffington Post, and he is writing a book about social upheaval in the 1960s and '70s.