Dr. Sarah Luschia
December 3, 2014
Grappling with Nina Simone in the contact zone of Civil Rights
The “contact zones” are a concept defined by Mary Louise Pratt, a Silver Professor of language and literature at New York University. Pratt gave a speech before the Modern Language Association in 1991 introducing a concept she coined as “the contact zones”. These “contact zones” Pratt has defined as "social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today." (Pratt) Over the centuries, there are countless instances of struggle among opposing cultures that play out in these spaces. My perception of this concept is that two differing cultures, one that is oppressive while the other is oppressed, will come together in a space where tension and conflict can run high. These groups must cross the lines of difference and lay groundwork for open lines of communication to occur. Both cultures need to feel valued and heard so real change can occur. This can only happen, however, if both sides are willing to participate within this contact zone.
Pratt’s speech included “Miscomprehension, incomprehension, dead letters, unread masterpieces, absolute heterogeneity of meaning-these are some of the perils of writing in the contact zone. They all live among us today in the transnational metropolis of the United States and are becoming more widely visible, more pressing… more decipherable to those who once would have ignored them in defense of a stable, centered sense of knowledge and reality.” (Pratt) I believe there is an awareness with both black and white American societies that … (still formulating the rest of this thought)
A simpler approach to viewing the contact zones is like 2 overlapping circles. Each circle represents a group with a similar level of power, and their own set of values, beliefs, language, customs, and culture. The space where the 2 circles come together and overlap is their contact zone. Within this overlap space, the 2 groups must decipher how to interact, communicate, and understand each other.
The ideas regarding collaboration, transculturation, and bilingualism from Pratt’s speech are pertinent to these contact zones as well. Pratt introduces Fernando Ortiz’ phenomenon of transculturation in the contact zones, meaning that the different cultures present within the contact zone must converge and cultural change can occur, typically to the oppressed or subordinate culture, so that they may co-exist in the mutual space of these contact zones. My further understanding of this concept of transculturation is that typically the minority group will choose and select which aspects of the dominant groups culture and language they will assume. An issue that arises is the subaltern and the commanding culture face the problem of making themselves understood to those who may not wish to comprehend. In these instances the ground rules go beyond civility while still remaining respectful. Despite the rules of the game being played the use of genuine and inclusive rhetoric must be incorporated in the dialogue of the contact zones for all the participants to feel valued and for complete understanding. By recognizing the power the subjacent group has to create a version of the domineering cultures and society thus a power shift occurs.
The United States has a long and tarnished history of inadequate communication with minority cultures in various contact zones. Specifically, black Americans have spent hundreds of years struggling to develop connections within the contact zones of dominant white American society. I believe within these contact zones Nina Simone spent the best part of her life committing to the conversation of equal rights between black and white Americans.
Nina Simone was an activist, a black woman in a white man’s society, paving an uncharted musical and communal road through our racially divided country. Simone knew that our world needed to change drastically. It was no longer acceptable to segregate and that no one had the right or power to discriminate against another human being for reasons beyond their control. There is no doubt she was a passionate, powerful, and driven woman. My impression is that Simone’s deep awareness of the injustices in her world could be portrayed in ways that could transcend the racial and gender borders held within my defined contact zone [feels awkward to mention my contact zone before stating what that zone is. Maybe try a way to have this flow smoother]. She could channel those messages in her unique musical style and in her gruff, piercing, and forthright demeanor.
Simone’s impact during the 1960’s through present day is felt in copious areas of both black and white societies. People of all ethnicities, genders, and stages of life can appreciate the messages contained in Simone’s songs and interviews. Simone’s musical art created spaces where the very raw issues between black and white Americans could no longer be ignored. The era that her music ignited the most attention was during the civil rights movement. My contact zone takes place throughout this time, beginning in 1958 when Simone’s first album was released into mainstream America. I feel this is an appropriate beginning to focus on. Even though Simone was well known throughout her life, in varying aspects, her acclaim and recognition really took notice after the release of her initial album. My focus is on Simone’s greatest impact to black American history and the key pivotal moments that occurred within the civil rights movement of this time. I continued through 1979 when Simone reemerged into the United States after a self-imposed exile to Barbados, Liberia, and eventually settling in France. I argue that Simone is still impacting not only black American culture, but also the youth culture of today. I chose to end my contact zone in the year 1979, after Simone’s return to the United States. The appeal in closing with this time frame is that I am allowed the perspective of the ambition that brought Nina Simone back to the United States and the change that occurred from her return.
Simone’s significance during my contact zone was the language choices she used to spark enthusiasm for the vehement conversations occurring within the newly integrated communities across the United States. Simone’s words and lyrics were fierce and biting regarding her opinions of the state the country was in. In watching films of her performances and interviews, Simone’s passion and candor emanate from every fiber of her being. By using her music to articulate the very real atrocities occurring in nearly every major city across the United States, Simone spoke to the heart of black and white Americans alike. Within my specific contact zone, Simone represents the faction of musicians who struggle with maintaining the concepts of their artistry and individuality while trying to gain fame and fortune. This group had to maintain their morality and integrity while grappling the predominate group of managers, recording label executives, producers, and industry critics. This is also why I have chosen to specifically focus my attention on the members of the music community as pivotal participants within this contact zone.
Simone’s musical art created spaces where the very raw issues of racial separation could no longer be ignored. The internalized anger Simone had bottled up for years suddenly exploded into emotional protest songs that rocked the musical world. The extraordinary hit “Mississippi Goddam” had lyrical composition that included verses speaking to change the direction America is heading, that our future hasn’t been written yet, and it’s not too late to do what’s right. “Just try to do your very best, stand up be counted like all the rest, for everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam. Picket lines, School boycotts. They try to say it’s a communist plot. All I want is equality, for my sister, my brother, my people, and me” (Mississippi)
I found that the music critics of this time had mixed reviews and mixed approaches to manipulating their publications. While there were not direct insults of Simone’s work, it was easy to find very short curt phrases analyzing her performances and albums. The deeper that time lapsed into the contact zone, the reviews significantly changed from either great praise to minimal bland wording. Some publications, with a target audience of predominantly white “middle Americans”, would reference Simone and other black artists with minimal wording and a lack of visual depiction in comparison to white artists of comparable stature. The title of one such article was even worded as “…and Nina Simone, a colored vocalist…” (The Age) None of this appeared to enervate Simone’s drive to be the change for equal rights for all. Simone pushed the musical boundaries by ensuring she was not categorized into just one genre of music, but proved she could cover a broad range of musical stylings. White middle-aged critics took notice and drafted reviews that spoke of an appreciation for Simone’s talent. One of those men, Bob Rolontz from the Billboard publication, inserted words like “pert thrush” in his article to equate Simone to a female songbird. Rolontz also stated, “ She [Simone] is able to handle many sorts of tunes, from pop thru folk and blues, and her skills on the piano shows a classical influence”. (Rolontz) I would characterize this last statement as highly powerful and compelling by the fact it regards Simone as significant and accomplished to knot only the black American community but the white American community as well. I further hypothesize that for an influential white male to consciously choose esteemed language, in regards to a black female artist during such a time of civil unrest, was highly impactful to the intended audience during the 1960s.
Nina Simone impacted black American history by composing and performing music that pushed the boundaries and increased pressure for racial confrontation during the Civil Rights movement. Throughout her life, she devoted herself to the cause of racial and gender equality. Simone was outspoken and candid about her perception of the struggles among black Americans battling for parity. A question was posed to Simone during an interview from Ebony magazine in1969 asking if she felt the spirit of the rebellion and a demand for change among black and white youth alike could lead to alter white attitudes and influence change for the better. Simone responded simply with “I have no idea, because, I’m going to tell you the truth. I distrust the establishment so much and so deeply that I don’t even think in terms of their giving us our rights. I don’t even THINK about that. All I think about is this…Brothers, brothers everywhere…and not a one for sale. And I think that says the whole thing.”(Garland) The brilliance of Simone’s honesty and eloquent locution proves she did not hesitate to push the confines of the dominant white societal ideals.
I found the most impactful piece of research to be from the French documentary film “Nina Simone: The Legend”. The film captured the essence of Nina Simone through footage of Simone, her friends, family, colleagues, and admirers. It regarded significant events throughout her life and legacy. The documentary is alluring as it provides an exterior perspective of events as they unfolded in the United States. I value the foreign context provided by this film, specifically to the moments portrayed during the Civil Rights movement and the etic viewpoint from the French film crew, without the feeling of interloping.
Simone’s music came from an ethereal place inside of her. While she spent most of her early life educated in classical music, she strayed from her passions to fill the seats of nightclubs. This is where she collected her following of admirers from all cultures and colors. Simone blended her own style of jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop. She solidified her place in music history with so many genres of music conquered. With such a broad expanse of musical skills, Simone was able to draw in a large fan base. As she shot to stardom and gained notoriety as a strident performer that commanded respect while she was on stage it became apparent that she had a presence worthy of undivided attention. Simone began to realize there was a bigger purpose for her life than limiting herself to nightclub performances.
Lorraine Hansberry, Simone’s good friend, insisted that Nina take her place in the equality movement. It was not until the murder of Medger Evers and then the bombing deaths of 4 young black girls attending Sunday school that Simone became a vocal advocate for the Civil Rights revolution. Simone began turning out rebellion tunes that fueled the outrage throughout the black American and civil rights alliance communities. Instead of internalizing her anger, Simone was driven to bring forth the change other activists like Martin Luther King Jr, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X preached towards. She attended rallies and protest movements, belting out her infamous songs to fervent crowds of supporters.
Songs like the above Mississippi Goddam, Four Women, and To Be Young Gifted and Black were rally anthems that empowered the previously oppressed to believe that change was more than a distant dream, it was a near possibility. Marches, rallies, sit-ins, and boycotts took place across major cities in not only the South, but at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. There were Freedom Rides and numerous acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience in the name of freedom for all ethnicities. The lyrics of Simone’s songs could be heard all around these events.
I imagine that the feelings brought forth from the change transpiring in this country were completely overwhelming and empowering all at once. The momentous decision that launched the Civil Rights movement; the ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, and then other steps towards a better future for all like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Immigration reform in 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 offered hope and faith that the United States really had a chance of being just that…united.
From the film “Nina Simone: the Legend”, an unidentified member of Simone’s entourage remarks that “Her music was just more than powerful and it was more than music. It was a philosophy and a belief…that despite all of these problems we will get through this and not only will we get through this but we will survive and triumph through this!” (Nina Simone: the Legend)
I accept that as a country there are still major hurdles to overcome in the fight for equality, but I can’t help but feel hopeful for the future that no matter the size of the steps, they will somehow be moving forward. With each new controversy, altercation, or riot language is occurring between the contact zones of those who feel oppressed and those who seemingly hold the bulk of the power. Through this language, new allies come forward with a deeper understanding of how each of us struggles to be heard and perhaps ideas and innovations regarding what needs to materialize to secure a brighter future, equally, for each and every human being.
I assimilate Simone’s profound awareness that the injustices in her world could be portrayed in ways that could transcend the confines of ethnological disengagement. Music is one of few communal traits established in nearly every culture worldwide and through time. In moments of conflict, finding commonality can diffuse the vexation. I believe that Nina Simone could use her music as the universal device able to produce that commonality within my contact zone.
I need a better ending…[insert the better ending here if I ever think of it]
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