MONTEREY, Calif — The lady sitting in front of us folded up her newspaper and tucked it away in her bag as we chatted about some of the acts we had seen over the past couple of days at the Monterey Jazz Festival — Wynton Marsalis, Regina Carter, Joe Lovano, the Piety Street Band, Esperanza Spalding, Susan Tedeschi and even Pete Seeger. We were looking forward to Dave Brubeck and Chick Corea that night.
Then my wife asked her what she thought of Dee Dee Bridgewater’s performance the previous night. The woman said it made her a little uncomfortable.
Bridgewater, who lives in Las Vegas, had filled the stage with her booming voice and chatty conversation and jokes between numbers. She talked about getting back to her African roots and her visit to Mali and how the set would borrow from the music of Mali and blend it with her traditional jazz.
Her final song of the evening was a rendition of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” a song that was banned on many radio stations when it first came out in 1966 because of its racial theme that some thought stereotyped black women with lyrics like “My skin is black/ My arms are long/ My hair is wooly/ My back is strong.” It was the sound of an angry black woman. It was as subtle as a lash across the back.
The lady in front doubted Bridgewater had experienced the Southern Jim Crowism that Simone had. Then she started talking about the advice her grandfather had given her about property and work and not being anyone’s slave, because your labor is your property. She said nations that do not value property and achievement fare poorly. She said she is worried about the direction in which our country is headed.
I asked her where her grandfather was from.
Sea Island, Ga., she replied.
I remarked that his advice sounded similar to that given to Justice Clarence Thomas by his grandfather in Pinpoint, Ga., just south of Savannah.
In his autobiography Thomas wrote, “Despite the hardships he had faced, there was no bitterness or self-pity in his heart. As for bad luck, he didn’t believe in it. Instead he put his faith in his own unaided effort — the one factor in life that he could control — and he taught Myers and me to do the same. Unable to do anything about the racial bigotry and lack of education that had narrowed his own horizons, he put his hope for the future in ‘my two boys,’ as he always called us. ‘I am going to send you boys to school and teach you how to work so you can have a better chance than I did,’ he said. We were his second chance to live, to take part in America’s opportunities, and he was willing to sacrifice his own comfort so that they would be fully open to us.”
Thomas said he once got up the nerve to complain to his grandfather about how hard he was being worked, and said to him that slavery was over. His grandfather replied, "Not in my house."
I could tell by the typography and the column widths that the lady in front of us had been reading the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. There are angry black women and purposeful black women.
Here is a video of Simone singing “Four Women.”