Everybody Knows About Alabama

AP Photo

Nina Simone in London in 1968

You don't have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi goddam, that's it

                                                   —“Mississippi Goddam,” Nina Simone

We saw Nina Simone: Four Women, a play with music, on the same day Simone was named as an inductee to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That alone gave the play extra meaning. But the experience was made even richer by an unusual convergence of culture and politics: The day before, Doug Jones won a special election in Alabama to become that state’s first Democratic senator in several decades. While Jones’s prosecution of two of the KKK members responsible for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham helped him win support in this year’s election, the bombing also had a profound effect on Simone. Along with the murder of Medgar Evers, it inspired her to begin writing protest songs, including what she called her first civil rights song, “Mississippi Goddam,” in which she angrily sang of the routine violations of human rights in Southern states and challenged the civil rights movement’s gradualism.

Playwright Christina Ham sets her play in the bombed-out church in the days after four adolescent girls were killed there. Drawing on Simone’s 1966 song “Four Women,” Ham dramatizes the fear and anger of four black women in the bombing’s wake, who come to the event with different stories and perspectives, different class backgrounds, and different experiences with political activism. The play explores how the women might have responded to the bombing, using dialogue as well as Simone’s songs, including “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” “Sinnerman,” and “Four Women,” as well as “Mississippi Goddam.”

The play presents a diverse quartet: the dark-skinned struggling Aunt Sarah; “high yellow” Saffronia, caught between the worlds of her rich white father and her less-privileged African American mother; the prostitute Sweet Thing; and—in place of Peaches, the last of the four women in the song—Nina Simone herself, who rages as she writes the song and argues with the other three characters. Their responses to the bombing and to the battles of the civil rights movement generally reflect their different experiences. Aunt Sarah is cautious about resisting, Saffronia supports Dr. King’s nonviolent and reasoned approach, while Sweet Thing doesn’t think the movement has much to do with her. Through it all, Nina Simone argues for more active, even violent resistance.

The memory of the civil rights era was one factor that drove opposition to Republican candidate Roy Moore, who told a supporter that the last time America was “great” was during the period of slavery. Many younger Alabama voters, especially African Americans, found comments like this—perhaps even more than Moore’s reported pedophilia—frightening. As Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, said, “There’s no state in America where black people recognize the horrors of turning back the clock more than the State of Alabama.” Richard Fausset and Campbell Robertson reported in The New York Times that black voters especially were motivated by concerns about specific policies that Moore might support, but “they also voted out of a more general concern that the country, in the Trump era, was going back to a place best left in the past.”

Those concerns were evident in the strong turnout among African American women in Alabama, 98 percent of whom voted for Jones, as did 92 percent of African American men. While more than 60 percent of younger voters between 18 and 44 chose Jones, three-quarters of white men and women without college degrees—the poll data often used as a stand-in for the white working class—voted for Moore. Among all white voters, only 34 percent of white women and 26 percent of white men voted for the Democrat.

Commentators have made much of black women’s strong opposition to Moore, but lest we think of them as a monolithic bloc, we would do well to attend to Nina Simone and to Ham’s version of Four Women. In the play, the four women fight among themselves about their own identities and choices. Simone dismisses Saffronia by calling her “good hair,” while Simone and Saffronia both goad Aunt Sara to take a more activist stand. The characters’ respective class, education, sexuality, experience, and ideas create tensions among people whom others might see as part of a single, well-defined group. That they stand together at the end of the play is not a given. It reflects a hard-won and tenuous solidarity.

What lessons can we take from the Alabama election and Ham’s play about the centrality of race and gender in American politics? The election reminds us that Democratic candidates will not attract the votes they need solely through campaigns focused on economics. They must attend to racist and sexist injustice. Yet as the play reminds us, discussions of race and gender cannot ignore class. While the conflicts among the women in the play are rooted in multiple sources, education, colorism, and social class are central points of tension.

At the same time, the play suggests the power of a shared sense of injustice and frustration to foster solidarity across differences. In that sense, it dramatizes the challenge that faces us in 2018: Will we be able to do what Simone’s four women do at the end of Ham’s play? Recognize that our common ground matters more than our particular wounds? Will we let fear and resentment obstruct solidarity? What would it take for solidarity to triumph in 2018?

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