If Bob Dylan can be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, then surely there is no disputing that the lyrics of Nina Simone are pure poetry. Resonating just as much now as said poésie did when she was at one of her heights of activism in the 1960s. While her “hit making” period was largely confined to the late 50s and early 60s, it was when she started speaking out “too openly” on behalf of her people that the radio stations began to turn their back on her. What’s more, Simone never profited from any of the royalties generated by her biggest hit, “I Loves You, Porgy” (from the oft controversial Porgy and Bess).
A shift from the American Colpix Records to the Dutch Philips Records in 1964 led to greater freedom of output, prompting her to record what would become her first protest song, her first all-out act of musically documented defiance: “Mississippi Goddam.” A response to the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was shot by Klansman/white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith on June 12, 1963–ironically just after John F. Kennedy had delivered his Civil Rights Address in which he remarked, “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” Clearly, the likes of De La Beckwith (and so many of his nature who have since been spawned throughout the not so fair nation) do not agree.
As is usually the case with a domino effect, the tragedy of Evers was not a standalone incident as, just a few months later on September 15, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama occurred, killing four girls all under the age of fifteen inside of it. Yet another act of white supremacist terrorism committed by KKK members Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss and Bobby Frank Cherry. Birmingham a.k.a. Bombingham was notably called by Martin Luther King Jr., “The most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” With Mississippi and Alabama being among the original “cotton states” to secede from the Union. Tennessee, too, soon joined the Confederate States in opposition to Abraham Lincoln’s platform to abolish slavery, which Southern states were entirely economically dependent upon. As a state also referenced in Simone’s song, it bears noting that numerous acts of domestic terrorism in response to desegregation occurred there as well, particularly in Nashville. One of the most illustrious instances being the 1957 bombing of Hattie Cotton Elementary School after one black student, a six-year-old girl, was admitted. While a man named John Kasper (yet another KKK member) was suspected, he was never charged. He was credited with once saying, “Blood will run in the streets of Nashville before Negro children go to school with white.” And he wasn’t wrong, being himself responsible for some of that blood.
Bearing in mind all of these extreme instances of hatred toward black people merely for demanding the same rights promised to all in the original U.S. Declaration of Independence (later counteracted entirely by the Dred Scott decision, denying any person of “African ancestry” the right to U.S. citizenship), grasping the depth and pain of “Mississippi Goddam” takes on a new level of meaning in the present. Sardonically commenting, “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it, yet,” Simone implies that white Americans are not yet ready to hear or accept what black people have to say in order to shift the country toward the just direction. Even still, they are not, as the last gasp of white patriarchy simply won’t unplug itself from life support. Clings with every last breath to the notion that there is some sort of “master race.” A method of thinking that formed the early backbone of the country despite being in direct contrast to what the nation was founded on: freedom from oppression. Least of all based on one’s beliefs or skin tone. Yet perhaps, like communism, that was a manifesto that could only exist in all of its beauty on paper.
As Simone’s tone grows more frenzied and frenetic throughout the song, one gets the sense that she can no longer “be calm,” can no longer stand it. To sit back and be patient, waiting for the white man to decide when, if ever, it might be black people’s “time.” She sings, “Hound dogs on my trail [recalling Trump saying he’ll sick “vicious dogs” on anyone who tries to scale the White House gates]/School children sitting in jail/Black cat cross my path/I think every day’s gonna be my last,” elsewhere adding, “My country is full of lies/We all gonna die and die like flies/I don’t trust you anymore/You keep on saying, ‘Go slow! Go slow!’” Well, black people have been biding their time for literally centuries in the United States (which stands out most glaringly for its injustice because of how overtly false its claims about liberty for all are). Left no choice but to make their feelings known on the streets when all else seems to fail, even voting, as it has been iterated to make the most difference. Yet time and time again, we have seen that it does not (George W. Bush and Donald Trump being key twenty-first century examples), and that those with so-called “progressive” stances are ousted either through a rigged system or full-tilt assassination (e.g. both the Kennedys Jack and Bobby).
Speaking to the hypocrisy of Jim Crow laws, Simone offers, “You don’t have to live next to me/Just give me my equality.” Isn’t that what America claims to be all about? The reason so many people are still tricked into immigrating there only to end up as perhaps an even more defiled pawn on the white supremacist’s chess board? Simone’s stream of consciousness escalates as she reconciles, “I don’t belong there/I’ve even stopped believing in prayer/Don’t tell me, I’ll tell you/Me and my people just about due/I’ve been there so I know/They keep on saying, ‘Go slow!’/But that’s just the trouble/‘Do it slow’/Washing the windows/‘Do it slow’/Picking the cotton/‘Do it slow’/You’re just plain rotten/‘Do it slow’/You’re too damn lazy/‘Do it slow’/The thinking’s crazy/‘Do it slow.’” It was the same story then that it is now, only in the present it’s even more shocking to see that it has taken this long for the rage to bubble so violently to the surface again. Seeing that until there is genuine systemic change in laws that stem from all the way back to the Reconstruction era, it can come as no “gasp!” to politicians that this has “mysteriously” cropped up again as a major issue. Because it has never gone away.
Incidentally, Simone once said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of our painters, sculptors, poets, musicians… it’s their choice. 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 desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white, know this–that’s why they’re so involved in politics. We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore. So I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That, to me, is the definition of an artist.” The times she was reflecting then persist in a new and more insidious way now, as black people are gaslit into believing they have the same freedoms as everyone else when it’s pretty goddamn evident that they don’t. That from day one of their lives, they are not given even remotely the same choices as their fellow white Americans. Or even their fellow Asian Americans, constantly held up as the “model minority”–a placating scam crafted by whites in the post-WWII era when the U.S. had a vested interest in potential trade relations with Asia, or, better still, the possibility of “imperial expansion.”
So it is that Simone wails, “For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam!” The audience, at this point, has grown awkward and uncomfortable (as blancos often do when race is brought up), so she throws them the “jocular” bone they want with, “(I bet you thought I was kidding, didn’t you?).” Like Leonard Cohen after her, the “everybody knows” sentiment addresses a rigged game that can’t be won by those who have been subjugated by the lying and cheating “winners.” Simone makes an angered and grudging acknowledgement that an alarming majority of the U.S. did not–and does not–want all people to be equal. Because it’s profitable for some (too many, rather) to keep the system the way it is. And that’s how you either conjure an eventual violent overthrow of the government or the boot keeps pressing down on your neck as fascism takes hold. Right now, in America, it looks like it’s at the tipping point of going either way, and has been since 2016. Whatever happens, “Mississippi Goddam” is probably a better poem for the revolution than Ludacris’ “Move Bitch.” But perhaps that’s an old-fashioned take.