COLUMN: Nina Simone, feminist and civil rights advocate

Ian+Palacios

Ian Palacios

Ian Palacios, Columnist

Nina Simone is an important Black musician and political activist of the 20th century. Born February 1933, Simone excelled at music, learning piano at three years old. As an adult, she was a singer, pianist, and songwriter, playing blues, gospel, and classical music.  

Her music is relevant because of its contribution to political activism, which focuses on sexism and racism. Simone is distinct for her far left-leaning views, which were uncommon as they were unpersuasive towards moderate audiences: she notes in her autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You,” that “[we] never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin, and revolution—real girls’ talk” (p.86-7). 

Simone expresses this urge for revolution in her two most influential songs, “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women.” 

Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” as a response to the 1963 bombing of Birmingham Church in Alabama that killed four African-American girls. In it, she demands immediate change. She sings, “They keep on saying, ‘Go slow!’ / But that’s just the trouble / ‘Do it slow.’” Simone argues that clear inequalities exist, equalities that have even caused her to “stop believing in prayer,” and yet people are demanding change be made incrementally.  

This incremental shift, however, just “bring[s] more tragedy,” whose sluggish progress allows for continued oppression. And yet, Simone doesn’t ask for much: “You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality,” she sings.  

Simone claims that civil rights progress is made out to seem anti-American. When protestors use “picket lines, school boycotts” they are labeled as advocating “a communist plot.”  

This critique is particularly pertinent because, as professor Lerone Martin from Washington University notes in a Gazette article, “You can claim someone is a communist and that means they are anti-America and you can completely write off their claims as anti-American.” This is present in MLK’s being falsely identified as a communist, despite publicly denouncing it. 

Simone takes an intersectional approach in “Four Women,” showing the interplay between race and gender for women of color. Each of the four song sections begins by asserting a person’s race, which shows that a person’s foremost identifying feature is their skin color.

Following race, Simone points out a kind of “male gaze,” where women are objectified as sexual objects: “My hips invite you / My mouth like wine / Whose little girl am I?/ … My name is Sweet Thing.” Simone characterizes a view where women are seen as being created for men, whose body parts do the talking – not the actual person.  

Furthermore, Simone’s diction of “wine,” “girl,” and “Sweet Thing” establish women’s perception as being a kind of naïve, but intoxicating treat.  

For more information on Simone, Ruth Feldstein, professor at Rutgers University, has a great essay as an introduction to Simone’s work entitled, “‘I Don’t Trust You Anymore”: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s,” which can be accessed freely through Booth Library. 

Ian Palacios is an English and philosophy major. He can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected]