Everybody Knows About Alabama

“You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi goddam, that’s it”

                                                   “Mississippi Goddamn” Nina Simone

The Arena Stage production of Nina Simone: Four Women

We saw the play with music, Nina Simone: Four Women, on the same day Simone was named as an inductee to Rock’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. That alone gave the play extra meaning. But the experience was made even richer by an unusual convergence of culture and politics: the day before, Doug Jones won a special election in Alabama to become that state’s first Democratic Senator in a long while. While Jones’s prosecution of two of the KKK members responsible for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham helped him win support in this year’s election, the bombing also influenced Simone. Along with the murder of Medgar Evans, it inspired her to begin writing protest songs, including what she called her first civil rights song, Mississippi Goddam, in which she angrily exposes the violations of human rights in Southern states and challenges the Civil Rights movement’s gradualism.

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.

But will we be able to do what Simone’s four women do at the end of Ham’s play: recognize the our common ground matters more than our particular wounds? Will we let fear and resentment obstruct solidarity? In December, culture and politics came together. What would it take for that to happen again in 2018?

Sherry Linkon and John Russo

A version of this commentary appeared on the American Prospect website.





This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Sherry Linkon, Working-Class Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Everybody Knows About Alabama

  1. Creative people are finding more ways to depict the absurdity of these current time. Is education failing us or are so many of us still racists and in need of so many others to look down on? When will we learn that those who voted for Moore have more in common with Jones supporters and his agenda? Maybe 2018 will see us all recognizing our commonalities and coming together. I hope. Thanks for an example and reminder of who we are. Wonderful article.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s