Editor’s Note: Yoruba Richen is the director and Mehret Mandefro and Lacey Schwartz Delgado are the executive producers of American Masters: how we feel free, a documentary that examines the historical significance and neglected contributions of black artists. Focusing on Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier, the docu – also produced by Alicia Keys – airs tonight on PBS in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Richen, Mandefro, and Schwartz Delgado wrote this guest column for Deadline.
As we pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend and the nation prepares to inaugurate our 46th President, let us remember the black women our Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has described as “too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy. Specifically, consider the all too often overlooked black artists, who have long used their art to challenge portrayals of blacks at a time when America was awakening to a new awareness of what it means to be free. They sought to inspire Americans to see themselves beyond stereotypes and showed black audiences how to feel free from the burden of racism. We’ve made it the focal point of our work to help highlight the neglected contributions of artists like Lena Horne, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Bernice Johnson Reagon and Marian Anderson, who have advanced civil rights through roles. that they played, the songs that they sang. and the influence they exerted on the political process and leaders.
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These black women and others have stimulated citizen engagement and encouraged ordinary people to reinvent what is possible and have helped make arts and culture essential to the struggle for black freedom. As the late American hero John Lewis, Congressman, said: “Without the arts, without music, without drama, without photography, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.” Singer, songwriter and scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon, an original member of the Freedom Singers, whose tours were planned and funded by the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC), sang songs to politically awaken the masses and educate the black community about their rights. . One of their popular civil rights songs, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” inspires people to keep fighting for their freedoms. “I won’t let anyone turn me around. Turn me around, turn me around. I won’t let anyone turn me around. Keep walking, keep talking. I will build a whole new world. Reagon described how singing these kinds of songs “not only brought us together, but became our collective testimony articulated to all who stood in the sound.”
What people see in theaters, on television, and in movies is another unique and powerful cultural force that shapes how Americans view each other, themselves, and the world. When Lena Horne, the African American premiere signed a studio contract in Hollywood, insisted it had a clause saying she would not play a black housekeeper, she was using her art to reshape society’s expectations of black people. This groundbreaking act was as transformative for black audiences as it was for the general public who had grown accustomed to stereotypical depictions of blacks in films. Cicely Tyson took this one step further by forging an entire career made up of carefully selected roles like Rebecca Morgan in Sounder (1972), where she played a poor Depression-era black mother for which she was nominated for an Oscar and the title role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), where she plays a character who begins her life as a slave and lives to see the end of segregation as a 110-year-old woman. Tyson imbued these characters with unprecedented dignity and authenticity in his portrayal of humanity and described his work in Sounder as “the first positive noir film that shows us as human beings and says something about the unity of the black family.” Likewise, other artists like Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, and Pam Grier have done cultural work that deeply struggles with representational issues and communicates black hopes and dreams in ways that transform audiences.
For the black audience that has long existed largely outside of mainstream gaze, these artists performed for themselves and for them in a way that changed the way black people saw themselves. Nina Simone’s 1972 performance of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” to Four Black Children on Sesame Street, while wearing an African dress, was a clear expression of her desire to use the song as a way “to make black children around the world feel good about themselves forever”. Where Simone used her music to say something positive to black children, Diahann Carroll’s performance as a single mother of six assisted in the film Claudine (1974) was a criticism of the welfare system and told those in power that the way welfare administrators controlled black households was unfair. Both performances were equally important in filling in the gaps in the cultural landscape so that black people are represented in a more complicated and real way.
These black artists exerted an influence not only on their audiences, but also on important political figures. Mahalia Jackson, perhaps the greatest gospel singer of all time, often accompanied Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. at his lectures, opening for him, and preparing crowds to receive his words. Their relationship was so close that when Mahalia shouted during the 1963 march to Washington, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! this inspired Dr King to publish the most memorable section of this speech.
It was not the first time that Martin had climbed these steps inspired by a singer. Marian Anderson, the pioneering contralto, who after being barred by the Girls of the American Revolution from performing at Constitution Hall because of her skin color, then performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. in 1939. Among the 75,000 people in attendance for that day’s free concert was a 10-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., who heard Anderson perform his first moving rendition of “America (My Country Tis of Thee ) ”, An astonishing choice given the circumstances of his performance. The impression she left on young Martin Luther King would become clear when he cited his performance five years later in his first public speech at a high school lecturing competition he won. The speech was titled “The Negro and the Constitution” and a section was devoted to Anderson’s performance. “She sang like never before, with tears in her eyes. When the words “ America ” and “ No one knows of a problem that I have seen ” sounded during this great gathering, there was silence over the sea of raised faces, Black and white, and a new baptism of freedom, equality and fraternity. Singing to a nation that had literally denied him the stage, Anderson created an all-new one that became hallowed ground for the civil rights movement and inspired one of its main architects.
All of these examples show how culture helps us create new possibilities for practicing freedom beyond what our individual horizons and collective circumstances allow us to see. In the words of writer-filmmaker Toni Cade Bambera, cultural work “makes the revolution irresistible”, and we believe that this work is vital in our current precarious times. Let us turn to culture to heal the wounds of our nation and do the daily healing work.