The modern woman walks into a time machine, does she go backwards?
Perhaps the story of Nina Simone can answer that question. I find it ironic that Nina Simone is known for her upbeat tunes, delve into her catalogue and you find an open diary, full of anger. Today she is celebrated for her perseverance as a woman in a man’s world. I’d argue that Nina Simone (Eunice Waymon was her real name) was a prototype for our modern woman. We cannot forget that the world of the past gave her no quarter; it broke her.
The issues Nina railed against still continue today in their own forms. Yet the calling out of oppression, the solidarity between oppressed and the public scrutiny (once enough people pay attention) of those who abuse their power in society all came about very recently, and are yet to mature into something we can call commonplace. Nina took a contemporary approach in calling out her oppressors, yet her society shunned her for it and used its resources against her.
“My baby just cares for me” is a jazz standard today, warm and rose-tinted. Undoubtedly there was a lot of love in Nina’s relationship with her husband Andrew Stroud, yet the abuse she suffered by his hands caused irreversible damage to Nina and their daughter Lisa, who had to witness it all. She witnessed her father belt her mother black and blue; she witnessed her father ram her mother’s face into concrete walls, she witnessed her father tell her mother that she’d be better off dead. Nina actively spoke out against her husband: in her song “Blues for Mama” she challenges women in her position, to call out the partners that beat them.
“Get your nerves together,
And set the record straight.
Let the whole damn world know
That it wasn’t you that caused this bit of fate”
Nina’s society had no room for these challenges, alluded to throughout the song where she states how women ‘acting like a man’ are dismissed. Her public figure had no power over a society that deemed it okay to suppress the wife and the mother.
Famously, Nina was a prominent figure in the Civil Rights movement, songs like ‘Why?(The King Of Love Is Dead)’ and ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ channel the political energy and are tied to the events in history. After releasing Mississippi Goddamn, a response to the Bombing of a black church in Alabama (Only 3 years ago Dylann Roof opened fire on a black church in Charleston, killing 9 people, all black), and in particular the assassination of civil rights figure and Veteran Medgar Evers by Byron De La Beckwith.
Interestingly, Beckwith was a member of the White Citizen’s Council, which now goes under the name of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Dylann Roof references the council’s website in his manifesto as crucial to his actions: “There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief.” (taken from The Last Rhodesian, Roof’s website).Journalist Anne Coulter, Fox News regular and author of “In Trump We Trust” openly defended the site which claims to “oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people” (taken from the CoCC statement of values) and sells bumper stickers that say “BAN MUSLIMS NOT GUNS.” Mississippi still has representatives that are members, and many testimonies featured on the website are from former senators and congressmen, goddamn.
Australia has its fair share of racists, yet our brand of conservative politics is yet to parallel the States. For one we never introduced systemic slavery, and never had Klansmen down under (I have no doubts the ghosts of our traditional custodians would have stories against these words), James Cook wrote of his admiration for Aboriginal culture, and Arthur Phillip famously declared the first law of Australia: “there shall be no slavery in a free land.” Yet our history is filled with shameful moments. Had Nina Simone attempted to flee to Australia, she’d have been told to go home, for the White Australia Policy which declined non-white immigrants entry was not fully dismantled till 1973. Had she made it she’d have a whole new set of racial anxieties to deal with in seeing the forced separation and relocation of the stolen generations.
Last year our Conservative politics took a bad turn. Pauline Hanson’s party had hitherto been the only right populist party, yet now with the introduction of the Australian Conservatives, we must contend with an uglier, silent, more American style of politics. One Nation’s party manifesto is surprisingly soft, despite its open hate for Muslims and its call for a right to firearms. Bernardi’s Conservative Party is Anti-United Nations (an institution which, out of the chaos of WW2, we were instrumental in building), it is Anti-government and rejects any structural assistance to those in need, it is Anti-Human Rights. It believes in the supremacy of Christianity and its values (reflect on how American ‘Christians’ are all too murky on what these values really are) it believes in the supremacy of Western Culture, and it is gaining traction in Australia very quickly.
What is the antithesis of oppression? What happens when the boot is forced off the neck? Nina sings for it, she dreams of it: a new way of seeing, with no fear. Freedom. The other side of her catalogue is filled with songs of longing for freedom, and persevering through a bitter struggle to reach it. In ‘I Ain’t Got No – I Got Life’ this is exemplified. After we hear a list of things that were taken away, or never given (ain’t got no culture, ain’t got no faith, ain’t got no money, ain’t got no love), we’re invited to ask what the point of it is. The answer provides one of the best twists in music history (seriously, check out this live version, listen out for the two-minute mark):
“I’ve got my life, I’ve got Freedom,
I’ve got my life, and I’m gonna keep it.
I’ve got life, and nobody can take it away from me”
The cries today against those who speak out echo Nina’s opponents of the period. These were opponents of the rights of women, the rights of black people and the rights of the poor. These opponents held power in Nina’s society, their advantage over her was not personal; it was systemic.
Each of the conservative parties in Australia propose policies that rail against ‘alternative lifestyles’, yet we must remember that for Nina’s time, to live free from brutal violence at the hands of your Husband, to escape poverty, and to live free as a black person in America, or an Aboriginal in Australia were demands considered ‘alternative’. This begs the question: how many Ninas are here amongst us? How many of us fight for the freedom of ourselves and others, against systemic odds stacked against us?
Each of us here presents a node within this system that determines how the Nina’s of our time will have their questions answered. Blues for Mama calls us to action, not only to call out wife beaters but to call for something much more. She says it perfectly:
“Ain’t nobody perfect, cause ain’t nobody free,
Hey Mama, tell me, what you gonna do?”