As a teenager, my world revolved around friends, music, and sports. From a music standpoint, my family raised me on folk music. My older brothers constantly played albums by Peter, Paul & Mary, and similar artists. I partly attribute (blame?) my interest in social justice to their music. And so, as I got older, it was a natural progression for me to become a fan of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash (and later Young), and similar artists.
One day, a friend picked me up to play basketball. He was playing a cassette tape from a group I hadn’t heard before. “Who’s this?” I asked, pointing to the tape deck. “It’s my favorite new group,” my friend said. “Sly and the Family Stone.” As I listened, I realized I loved both the beat and the lyrics, as Sly Stone sang, “There is the yellow one that won’t accept the black one, that won’t accept the red one, that won’t accept the white one. Different strokes for different folks.” Suddenly, my love of music expanded to Black American artists. And attending a concert by the Fifth Dimension remains one of my favorites to this day.
In high school, Woodstock became the rage. I was far too young (and chicken) to attend, but Joni Mitchell sang about it, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash played at it. I didn’t realize another concert occurred the same summer as Woodstock: The Harlem Cultural Festival. If you aren’t African American, you probably were not aware of it either. Like Woodstock, the festival was recorded, but the recordings remained hidden for 50 years until Hulu released The Summer of Soul.[i] Here is a clip from the film that describes what the festival was all about:
I like what Nikole Hannah-Jones said about music developed by Black American artists in her six-part documentary, The 1619 Project[ii]:
“Black Americans make up 13 percent of the population, yet account for an immeasurable amount of what moves us and how we move. Despite the centuries-long efforts of white Americans to warp, appropriate, and steal our music, and despite this country’s obsession with racial categorization that has tried to box our creativity in, Black Americans have continued to create, reshape, and transform American music…. American music is Black music.”
And she’s right. All music that we can consider to be American music stemmed from Black Americans. Black music has constantly evolved from spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, Motown, funk, disco, hip hop, and rap. And as each new genre emerged, so did white artists singing it.
One of the artists featured in Summer of Soul is Nina Simone. And after hearing her sing, I found a documentary about her life entitled What Happened, Miss Simone?[iii] Here is a trailer for that film:
Simone was an activist for civil rights, and her music reflected it. In one interview, she said:
“I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty, and at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so disparate, when everything is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved.”
Simone wrote what became an anthem for young African Americans entitled “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which inspired hope in young Black Americans with lyrics like these:
In the whole world you know
There are billions of boys and girls
Who are young, gifted, and black,
And that’s a fact!
Young, gifted, and black
We must begin to tell our young
There’s a world waiting for you
This is a quest that’s just begun.
Nina Simone earned 15 Grammy nominations and received the Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2000. In 2003 (two days before her death), she was awarded an honorary diploma from Curtis Institute, a music school that refused to admit her at age 19 because she was black.
Here’s another quote from Nina Simone:
“To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world, black people. So my job is to make them more curious about where they came from and their own identity and pride in that identity. That is why my songs—I try to make them as powerful as possible, mostly just to make them curious about themselves. We don’t know anything about ourselves. We don’t even have the pride and dignity of African people, but we can’t even talk about where we came from. We don’t know. It’s like a lost race.”
But as many white people began listening to Black American artists, the country continued discriminating against them. According to a survey done by the NAACP in 1947, only six percent of better hotels in America welcomed Blacks. I have discussed the film, The Green Book,[iv] in a previous blog post that illustrates that prejudice. But it wasn’t only in the Deep South. The movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,[v] shows how a Las Vegas hotel drained its swimming pool after Ms. Dandridge stepped in it. She could sing for the hotel’s patrons but couldn’t use the hotel’s facilities.
Growing up, when it came to sports, I lived and breathed basketball. I loved to play it, and I loved to watch it. The Boston Celtics was the dominant team of that era, and Bill Russell was their dominant player, leading them to eleven championships. And so, I became immediately interested when Netflix aired Bill Russell: Legend.[vi] Here is the trailer for that documentary:
Russell said this about his childhood:
“I’d go to the library and read. And I’d read this history book. And this one passage said, ‘The slaves in America were better off than they were as free people where they came from.’ And I found that astounding. I was ten years old, and I said, ‘That cannot be because every person on this planet wants to be free.’”
In the early days of the NBA, it was an almost all-white league. The unwritten rule was that a team could have two blacks on the team to room together, but no more. But the coach of the Celtics, Red Auerbach, didn’t care about that; he cared about winning championships, so he started his five best players, regardless of their race—and took a lot of heat for starting five Black Americans, violating the unwritten quota rule.
Russell lived in the Boston suburb of Reading. After Russell led the Boston Celtics to five championships in six years, the city celebrated Russell. But a month later, he and his wife, Rose, decided to move to a larger house on the west side of town.
“A rumor got out that I wanted to buy a house in another part of this town. And the neighbors objected like hell. As an athlete, a celebrity even, you’re a great guy to have in town as long as you don’t stay close to me.
“My wife, Rose, came home in tears as she watched residents sign a petition against the sale. ‘We better forget that house,’ Rose said to me. ‘They don’t want us here.’
“I bought that house, and I’m the one making the mortgage payments. I don’t care what anyone else thinks,’ I said.
“’What about our children? Who will play with them,’ Rose said.
“I am thinking about our kids. I couldn’t look them in the face if I put up with that kind of behavior. I wouldn’t let anyone tell me where I’m going to live.’”
President Obama said this about Russell: “More than any athlete of his era, Bill Russell came to define the word, ‘winner.’ Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men.” In 1963, Russell led a civil rights march in Boston and participated in the March on Washington. In 1964, he conducted basketball clinics in Jackson, Mississippi, despite threats made on his life.
We often criticize athletes and entertainers who use their fame as a platform for civil rights. We tell them to “Shut up and play” or “Just sing.” But I am not one of them. I respect those that have a voice for using it. I honor John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who defiantly raised their black-gloved fists in protest against racial injustice in the 1968 Olympics. I will fight for Colin Kaepernick’s and others’ right to kneel during the National Anthem. I agreed with the Milwaukee Bucks for refusing to play a game immediately following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as a protest against the systemic racism experienced by Black Americans in this country. And I admire players who wear messages on their helmets or warm-up jerseys that preach love over hate.
In his book, A Road Trip Through the Living History of Black Resistance, [vii] Alvin Hall interviews Frank Figures of Jackson, Mississippi, who said, “I’m going to do what I can, with what I have, where I am, in order to make a better life and a fair deal for people.”
Shouldn’t each of us do the same?
[i] Summer of Soul:
- Production Companies: Mass Distraction Media, RadicalMedia, and Vulcan Productions
- Director: Questlove
- Starring: Dorinda Drake, Barbara Bland-Acosta, and Darryl Lewis
- Release Date: July 2, 2021
- Currently streaming on Hulu
[ii] The 1619 Project:
- Production Companies: Harpo Films, Lionsgate Television, and One Story Up Productions
- Starring: Nikole Hannah-Jones
- Release Date: January 16, 2023
- Currently streaming on Hulu
[iii] What Happened, Miss Simone?:
- Production Companies: Moxie Firecracker Films, Netflix, RadicalMedia
- Director: Liz Garbus
- Starring: Nina Simone, Lisa Simone Kelly, and Roger Nupie
- Release Date: June 24, 2015
- Currently streaming on Netflix
[iv] The Green Book:
- Production Companies: Participant, Dreamworks Pictures, and Inisfree Pictures
- Director: Peter Farrelly
- Screenwriters: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly
- Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, and Linda Cardellini
- Release Date: November 16, 2018
- Currently streaming on Hulu
[v] Introducing Dorothy Dandridge:
- Production Companies: HBO Films, Esparza/Katz Productions, and Vincent Cirrincione Associates
- Director: Martha Coolidge
- Screenwriters: Shonda Rhimes and Scott Abbott (based on the book, Dorothy Dandridge by Earl Mills)
- Starring: Halle Berry, Brent Spiner, and Kaus Maria Brandauer
- Release Date: August 21, 1999
- Currently streaming on HBO Max
[vi] Bill Russell: Legend:
- Production Company: High Five Productions
- Starring: Larry Bird, Satch Sanders, and Jeannine Russell
- Release Date: February 8, 2023
- Currently streaming on Netflix
[vii] Driving the Green Book: A Road Trip Through the Living History of Black Resistance by Alvin Hall with Karl Weber, Harper One, Copyrighted 2023.