The 1963 KKK bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham resulting in the death of four adolescent girls inspired Nina Simone to write protest songs. Decades later, Doug Jones made the successful prosecution of two of the bombers part of his Alabama U.S. Senate campaign against Roy Moore. In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, Sherry Linkon and John Russo discuss how history, politics, and culture are woven together in Christina Ham’s play with music, Nina Simone: Four Women.
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 imagines the fear and anger of four Black women with different stories and perspectives, including different class backgrounds and 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 Goddamn.”
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 also drove opposition to Republican candidate Roy Moore, who told a supporter who asked him when America was last “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 most visible in the strong turnout among African-American women in Alabama, 98% of whom voted for Jones, as did 92% of African-American men. While more than 60% of younger voters between 18 and 44 chose Jones, white men and women without college degrees – the poll data often used as a stand-in for working class — voted for Moore by over 75%. Among all white voters, only 34% of white women and 26% of white men voted for the Democrat.
While commentators have made much of Black women’s strong opposition to Moore, we would also 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. For example, Simone dismisses Saffronia by calling her “good hair,” while Simone and Saffronia both goad Aunt Sara to take a more activist stand. These battles emphasize the way class, education, sexuality, experience, and ideas create points of tension even 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 racial injustice and, perhaps more now than ever before, to sexism. 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. As 2017 nears its end, many Americans but perhaps especially women, poor and working-class people, LGBTQ people, and people of color are angry about the injustice of the Republicans’ tax bill and their promises to cut Social Security and other programs that so many people rely on for survival. Many of us are worried about the current Administration’s non-legislative actions – cutting regulations, stacking the courts, backing out of the Paris climate change accords, and more. And we are frustrated that, so far, Trump does not seem to be paying any cost for his racist, sexist, xenophobic attitudes, much less for his persistent lies.
The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-18 academic years, John Russo, and English Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 43 posts that were read over 131,000 times by readers in 178 countries. The blog is cited by journalists from around the world, and discussed in courses in high schools and colleges worldwide.