They spoke to listeners across generations from the early 1940s through the 1980s. They were influential women who faced tremendous risks both personally and professionally. They sang and performed for gender equality and racial liberation. They had names such as Lena Horne, Nina Simone, and Gladys Knight. They were the most powerful black female entertainers of the Civil Rights era. Turn up the music and enjoy the sound of justice in a specially-curated playlist from Ruth Feldstein, author of the upcoming How It Feels to Be Free.
It became common knowledge that this scene of Lena Horne as Georgia Brown, with bare shoulders showing and singing “Ain’t It the Truth” in a bubble bath, never appeared in the 1943 film Cabin in the Sky; it was considered to risqué. Many critics took care to distinguish between Horne and the seductive Brown: Horne “never has had a bubble bath in her life, except for movie purposes,” wrote one.
Miriam Makeba singing “Intoyam” in the film, Come Back, Africa
Miriam Makeba sings “Intoyam” at an illegal drinking spot called a shebeen in the anti-apartheid film, Come Back, Africa (1958). She appeared for just 4 minutes in the film, but helped to convey the message that despite apartheid, blacks in South Africa were forging a vital cosmopolitan community. Come Back, Africa catapulted Makeba to international stardom.
Nina Simone sings “Four Women” at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, taking on the voices and perspectives of four African American women, each from a different period in history and each burdened in her own way by gender and by skin color. In what became one of her most requested numbers from the time she first recorded it in 1965, Simone infused centuries-old stereotypes of black women with realism, dignity, pain, and anger.
In the opening minutes of For Love of Ivy (1968), Ivy (Abbey Lincoln) tells her white employers of nine years that she plans to leave her job as a domestic. Doris (Nan Martin) is panic-stricken, and the audience is invited to laugh with Ivy at her white boss. As the straight-haired Ivy (Lincoln in a wig), Lincoln seemed to be a considerable distance from her wordless singing on the album We Insist!, vocals that contemporary critics had compared to primal screams and an explosion of rage. Palomar pictures marketed For Love of Ivy by emphasizing this contrast between the on-screen Ivy and the off-screen Lincoln.
Diahann Carroll, critiquing welfare in Claudine
In the film Claudine (1974), Claudine (Diahann Carroll) explains to boyfriend Rupert (James Earl Jones) how the welfare system policed black women and was like the worst kind of sexist marriage. Carroll received an Oscar nomination for her role as a working class single mother of six; critics, however, were divided about how believable a “deglamorized Diahann Carroll” might be.
In the climactic scene of the television special, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), the wrinkled and hunched 110-year-old former slave (Cicely Tyson) walks to a “whites only” water fountain in Bayonne, Louisiana. She does so before white authorities wielding nightsticks and guns, and as members of the black community look on. An awestruck white reporter who had interviewed Jane but left the region to cover John Glenn’s space landing, returns as a witness; he realizes that Jane Pittman is, as he tells his editor, far more than “just another human interest story.” The special earned a record-breaking nine Emmys, including a best actress award for Cicely Tyson, and cemented her reputation as an actress who could portray black women with dignity.
Listen to these women and many other influential black female performers in Ruth Feldstein’s How It Feels to Be Free Spotify playlist.
Ruth Feldstein is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University-Newark. She is the author of How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement and Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930-1965.