An unparalleled intelligence and restless force of African-American culture’s finest minds...this is a compilation of James Baldwins Black Lives Matter speeches entwined with 3 of the most powerful songs by Nina Simone...
James Baldwins 'Black Lives Matter' or 'Pin-drop' earth shattering speech with Harlem as his starting point in talking about all black folks at Cambridge University during a debate with William F. Buckley in 1965
Nina Simone ~ Mississipi Goddam
James Baldwin's ~ American's Racial Problem Speech
Nina Simone ~ Old Jim Crow
James Baldwin on The Black Experience In America
Nina Simone ~ Four Women
The way William F. Buckley Jr. remembered it later, he never had a chance.
Within weeks of losing a formal debate against writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, Buckley said that no matter what he had done, it would have been impossible for him to win that night. The student audience at the Cambridge Union was “an orgy of anti-Americanism,” he said, who gave Baldwin “a standing ovation” before “he had uttered a single word.”
But that isn’t what happened. The students were mostly British conservatives, and they gave Baldwin the same polite applause, with no standing, before his speech that they gave Buckley. We know this because the debate was recorded and broadcast repeatedly in the United Kingdom and the United States in 1965, and now has an everlasting life on YouTube, where it has received more than a million views.
Baldwin and Buckley were almost too perfect as sparring partners. They were about the same age and grew up in large families less than 100 miles from one another — Baldwin in the “ghetto” of New York’s Harlem neighborhood and Buckley in a mansion with dozens of rooms in Sharon, Ct. Both hit success as writers in their 20s and were regarded as the most erudite thinkers in their respective milieus.
By 1965, Buckley was the editor in chief of the conservative magazine he had founded, National Review. And Baldwin was a highly praised writer of novels, plays and essays with a new book, “Another Country,” soon to be released in paperback in the U.K. He was at the height of his stardom.
But that January, Baldwin was also recovering from a serious viral infection in the South of France. As a U.K. book tour was being planned for the next month, his agent warned the publisher’s press guy not to plan too much, for the already slight man was still weak.
The publicist ignored him, Buccola wrote, filling nearly every minute of the tour with events. And he had a very big idea — a debate at the famed Cambridge Union. Malcolm X had spoken at Oxford weeks before to much ado, and the publicist hoped to repeat that success.
The student organizers set about finding a worthy speaker to challenge Baldwin, and began inviting segregationist senators. All turned them down.
Then they asked Buckley, who was conveniently already in Europe. His wife had broken her leg in a skiing accident, and Buckley was tending to her bedside in Switzerland. But, perhaps tempted by the prospect of exercising his college-debate skills, he decided he could leave her briefly for an evening of argument.
A week before the debate, Baldwin’s agent caught wind of the idea and sent a blunt cable to the publicist: “Have advised Baldwin strongly against participating in debate with Buckley. Please cancel it.”
It’s unclear why or how, Buccola wrote, but that order was ignored, and the show simply went on.
‘I built the railroads’
Baldwin arrived in London on Feb. 16 and dined that night with the student organizers, who explained to him the rules of formal debate. First, two students would speak briefly for and against the motion, and then Baldwin would give a lengthier argument, followed by Buckley’s rebuttal. Students in the audience could rise to ask a question at any time. At the end, they would vote for or against the motion.
The student organizers had also come up with the motion, a provocative one they thought represented a theme in Baldwin’s work: “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.”
Two nights later, the union hall was packed as tightly as a fire marshal’s worst nightmare. Students crammed onto the benches, sat on the stairs, and even tucked themselves around the lecterns from which the men would argue their cases.
When Baldwin rose to speak, he pulled out his notes and tensely sipped a glass of water.
First, he dispatched with the notion that the American Dream was available to African Americans. He described what it was like to be a black child in the “glittering republic,” and since every face of success and happiness you see is white, you assume you are white, too.
“It comes as a great shock around the age of 5 or 6 or 7 to discover the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”
He described the painful demoralization black citizens feel “by the time you are 30,″ when they realize that not only could they not escape the trap of white supremacy, but that their children wouldn’t be able to, either.
I devoured James Baldwin’s ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ when I was 13. It changed my life.
Then, he said, he must turn to this notion of “expense.” “The harbors and the ports and the railroads of the country,” especially the South, could not have been built, he said, without “cheap labor.”
And here, he changed to first person, an odd but effective choice, looked out at the young audience and boomed:
“I am stating very seriously, and this is not an overstatement, I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroads, under someone else’s whip, for nothing. For nothing.”
Baldwin spoke for 24 minutes. He wasn’t interrupted by a student’s question a single time; to do so “would have been profane,” Buccola said. When he finished, the crowd applauded politely before bursting into an extended standing ovation...
“My skin is black,” the first woman’s story begins, “my arms are long.” And, to a slow and steady beat, “my hair is woolly, my back is strong.” Singing in a club in Holland, in 1965, Nina Simone introduced a song she had written about what she called “four Negro women” to a young, homogeneously white, and transfixed crowd. “And one of the women’s hair,” she instructed, brushing her hand lightly across her own woolly Afro, “is like mine.” Every performance of “Four Women” caught on film or disc is different. Sometimes Simone coolly chants the first three women’s parts—the effect is of resigned weariness—and at other times, as on this particular night, she gives each woman an individual, sharply dramatized voice. All four have names. Aunt Sarah is old, and her strong back has allowed her only “to take the pain inflicted again and again.” Sephronia’s yellow skin and long hair are the result of her rich white father having raped her mother—“Between two worlds I do belong”—and Sweet Thing, a prostitute, has tan skin and a smiling bravado that seduced at least some of the eager Dutch listeners into the mistake of smiling, too. And then Simone hit them with the last and most resolutely up to date of the women, improbably named Peaches. “My skin is brown,” she growled ferociously, “my manner is tough. I’ll kill the first mother I see. ’Cause my life has been rough.” If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger.
Ironically, “Four Women” was charged with being insulting to black women and was banned on a couple of radio stations in New York and Philadelphia soon after the recording was released, in 1966. The ban was lifted, however, when it produced more outrage than the song. Simone’s husband, Andrew Stroud, who was also her manager, worried about the dangers that the controversy might have for her career, although this was hardly a new problem. Simone had been singing out loud and clear about civil rights since 1963—well after the heroic stand of figures like Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr., but still at a time when many black performers felt trapped between the rules of commercial success and the increasing pressure for racial confrontation. At Motown, in the early sixties, the wildly popular performers of a stream of crossover hits became models of black achievement but had virtually no contact with the movement at all.
In her twenties, she attracted some of African-American culture’s finest minds. Both Langston Hughes and James Baldwin elected themselves mentors: Simone, appearing on the scene just as Holiday died, seemed to evoke their most exuberant hopes and most protective instincts. But Hansberry offered her a special bond. A young woman also dealing with a startling early success—Hansberry was twenty-eight when “A Raisin in the Sun” won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, in 1959—she had a strongly cultivated black pride and a pedagogical bent. “We never talked about men or clothes,” Simone wrote in her memoir, decades later. “It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk.” A milestone in Simone’s career was a solo concert at Carnegie Hall—a happy chance to show off her pianism—on April 12, 1963, which happened also to be the day that Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested with other protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, and locked up in the local jail. The discrepancy between the events was pointed out by Hansberry, who telephoned Simone after the concert, although not to offer praise.
Two months later, Simone played a benefit for the N.A.A.C.P. In early August, she sang “Brown Baby” before a crowd gathered in the football stadium of a black college outside Birmingham—the first integrated concert ever given in the area—while guards with guns and dogs prowled the field. But Hansberry only started a process that events in America quickly accelerated. Simone watched the March on Washington, later that August, on television, while she was preparing for a club date. She was still rehearsing when, on September 15th, news came of the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young African-American girls who had just got out of Bible class. Simone’s first impulsive act, she recalled, was to try to make a zip gun with tools from her garage. “I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone,” she wrote. “I didn’t yet know who, but someone I could identify as being in the way of my people.”
This urge to violence was not a wholly aberrant impulse but something that had been brewing on a national scale, however tamped down by cooler heads and political pragmatists. At the Washington march, John Lewis, then a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was forced to cut the word “revolution” from his speech and to omit the threat that, absent immediate progress, the marchers would go through the South “the way Sherman did” and “burn Jim Crow to the ground.” James Baldwin, in a televised discussion after the bombing, noted that, throughout American history, “the only time that nonviolence has been admired is when the Negroes practice it.” But the center held. Simone’s husband, a smart businessman, told her to forget the gun and put her rage into her music.
It took her an hour to write “Mississippi Goddam.” A freewheeling cri de coeur based on the place names of oppression, the song has a jaunty tune that makes an ironic contrast with words—“Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee made me lose my rest”—that arose from injustices so familiar they hardly needed to be stated: “And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddam!” Still, Simone spelled them out. She mocked stereotypical insults (“Too damn lazy!”), government promises (“Desegregation / Mass participation”), and, above all, the continuing admonition of public leaders to “Go slow,” a line that prompted her backup musicians to call out repeatedly, as punctuation, “Too slow!” It wasn’t “We Shall Overcome” or “Blowin’ in the Wind”: Simone had little feeling for the Biblically inflected uplift that defined the anthems of the era. It’s a song about a movement nearly out of patience by a woman who never had very much to begin with, and who had little hope for the American future: “Oh but this whole country is full of lies,” she sang. “You’re all gonna die and die like flies.”
She introduced the song in a set at the Village Gate a few days later. And she sang it at a very different concert at Carnegie Hall, in March, 1964—brazenly flinging “You’re all gonna die” at a mostly white audience—along with other protest songs she had taken a hand in writing, including the defiantly jazzy ditty “Old Jim Crow.” She also performed a quietly haunting song titled “Images,” about a black woman’s inability to see her own beauty (“She thinks her brown body has no glory”)—a wistful predecessor to “Four Women” that she had composed to words by the Harlem Renaissance poet Waring Cuney. At the time, Simone herself was still wearing her hair in a harshly straightened fifties-style bob—sometimes the small personal freedoms are harder to speak up for than the larger political ones—and, clearly, it wasn’t time yet for such specifically female injuries to take their place in the racial picture. “Mississippi Goddam” was the song of the moment: bold and urgent and easy to sing, it was adopted by embattled protesters in the cursed state itself just months after Simone’s concert, during what they called the Mississippi Summer Project, or Freedom Summer, and what President Johnson called “the summer of our discontent.”
There was no looking back by the time she performed the song outside Montgomery, Alabama, in March, 1965, when some three thousand marchers were making their way along the fifty-four-mile route from Selma; two weeks earlier, protesters making the same attempt had been driven back by state troopers with clubs, whips, and tear gas. The triumphant concert, on the fourth night of the march, was organized by the indefatigable Belafonte, at the request of King, and took place on a makeshift stage built atop stacks of empty coffins lent by local funeral homes, and in front of an audience that had swelled with twenty-five thousand additional people, drawn either by the cause or by a lineup of stars that ranged from Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis to Joan Baez. Simone, accompanied only by her longtime guitarist, Al Schackman, drew cheers on the interpolated line “Selma made me lose my rest.” In the course of events that night, she was introduced to King, and Schackman remembered that she stuck her hand out and warned him, “I’m not nonviolent!” It was only when King replied, gently, “Not to worry, sister,” that she calmed down.
Simone’s explosiveness was well known. In concert, she was quick to call out anyone she noticed talking, to stop and glare or hurl a few insults or even leave the stage. Yet her performances, richly improvised, were also confidingly intimate—she needed the connection with her audience—and often riveting. Even in her best years, Simone never put many records on the charts, but people flocked to her shows. In 1966, the critic for the Philadelphia Tribune, an African-American newspaper, explained that to hear Simone sing “is to be brought into abrasive contact with the black heart and to feel the power and beauty which for centuries have beat there.” She was proclaimed the voice of the movement not by Martin Luther King but by Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, whose Black Power philosophy answered to her own experience and inclinations. As the sixties progressed, the feelings she displayed—pain, lacerating anger, the desire to burn down whole cities in revenge—made her seem at times emotionally disturbed and at other times simply the most honest black woman in America...
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