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R.I.P. 2018: Black Lives That Changed the World

Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives

Considering the legacies of Aretha, Winnie, Ntozake, and Linda

There are no insignificant deaths.  

Why, then, do we look back at the year and speak of some lives as “most notable?”  

There is a good reason. Certain people’s life stories and connections illustrate especially clearly how we’re all tied to the greater world around us. 

Look at 2018. Of the many deaths this year, so many of them were lives that subscribed to the mission of civil rights. Activists Wyatt Tee Walker and Dorothy Cotton. Tuskegee Airman Wilfred DeFour. Wisconsin Secretary of State Vel Phillips.  

Even the deaths of football’s barrier-smashing George Taliaferro and children’s author Julius Lester seemed to nod at the long and winding struggle of black people in America and beyond.  

The other thread tying together the lives that ended in 2018 is music. Consider how many people have felt the legacies of the musicians who passed this year. Otis Rush (blues), Hugh Masekela (South African jazz), Roy Hargrove (American jazz), Lovebug Starski (hip hop). 

Aretha

Reflecting on the year’s losses reminds me of Nina Simone’s song “Four Women.” In each of the four verses, Simone sings in character as a different black woman persona: Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches. Each of those voices speaks on their experience with racism, colorism and misogyny, with a knowing resilience.  

“Four Women,” as I hear it in 2018, asks that we consider a year of departed queens: activists Linda Brown and Winnie Mandela, poet and playwright Ntozake Shange, and musical icon Aretha Franklin. Saying goodbye to this particular handful of black women reminds us of where we have been as a society, where we stand, and how much work we have left to do to in the name of leaving the world a better place then we found it.  

Linda Brown (1943–2018)

In the 1950s, Linda Brown, an elementary school student forced to walk several blocks and then catch a bus to attend a black school when a white school was closer, was centered as part of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case that challenged “separate but equal” measures in public schools.  

After several years of legal hoops and a decision rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1955, public schools abolished the practice of legal segregation, laying the groundwork for desegregation in other quarters of society where the abhorrent practice remained.  

That was 60 years ago — which only seems distant until you consider the fact that it is less than a single lifetime. Linda Brown died at the age of 75. My mother is older than that, still driving to stores and answering phones and taking art classes in her retirement.  

Brown reminds us that the black-and-white photos of seemingly ancient racism captured American moments that were not so long ago in practice. People who perpetuated and suffered under segregation still walk amongst us, and nothing can become ancient that still functions. 

Winnie Mandela (1936–2018)

Speaking of segregation, South Africa’s apartheid system was rightly held aloft for decades as one of the modern world’s great sociopolitical travesties. As America began to pat itself on the back for abolishing segregation in the late 1960s (piecemeal, mind you), South Africa carried a similarly brutal regime well into the 1990s.  

While its most famous opponent, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned for nearly three decades, his wife Winnie Mandela stepped up to become one of the leading figures in the fight against the inhumane system, eventually coming to be known as the “Mother of the Nation.”  

Though she was plagued throughout her political and activist career by accusations of corruption and violence, there was no denying her importance or will in the fight against injustice. While Americans flew to the moon, entered and exited the Cold War, and launched MTV, Winnie Mandela was helping lead a movement to obtain the most taken-for-granted right — the right to vote — for all South Africans.  

In both her public and personal struggles, we should always bear in mind that those who fight against oppression and injustice are people first — and the closer you are to the fight, the more damage you may incur. People who sign up to fight in such quarters deserve more than our support; they require our love to keep fresh in their minds what all the fighting is for. 

Aretha Franklin (1942–2018)

All you really need to know about the Queen of Soul in this context that hasn’t been said by literally a thousand writers (myself included) is that she respected Nina Simone, and asked her permission to cover her civil rights anthem, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Aretha even named the 1972 album it appears on after the song. By all accounts the admiration was mutual: Simone had covered Franklin’s “Save Me” a handful of years before, and both were active participants in the civil rights movement on and off the stage.  

If you know anything about the personalities of either of these women, you know what a momentous feat such mutual respect was. What could have been a battle of diva-large wills was instead a meeting of the minds over, say, a vacation in Barbados.  

Aretha conferred that level of openness and respect to few other singers. In their relationship, it bears remembering that there is always someone paving the way before you — someone you owe even when your success outstrips theirs, regardless of what god has been doing the gift-giving on your behalf.  

Aretha will never be legitimately unseated as the Queen of Soul, but even such accolades must make room for the humanity of others. Because true greatness does.  

(She also reminds us: Whatever you may be outstanding at doing, make sure you get our money. Preferably in cash.) 

Ntozake Shange (1948–2018)

If Shange had never written another thing after 1976’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, that theater piece alone would have been enough to cement her place in not only dramatic history, but feminist history as well. If there is a work by anyone in this group that most aligns with “Four Women,” it is for colored girls.  

Performed in 20 poems by 7 characters — all women, all distinguished by primary colors — the choreopoem sends the gamut of the black experience shining through the prism of the interior lives of black women. It is the rare theatrical work as famous on the page as on the stage, and its influence extends well beyond drama.  

Shange created a cultural launching pad from which to begin engaging the world as black women see and experience it. She did this while fending off criticism from male artists within the then-popular Black Arts Movement, whose purportedly aesthetic concerns about her work mostly boiled down to rank chauvinism and the tension that comes from challenging a society barely a decade out of segregation. Shange’s art sought to dismantle such considerations, challenging generations of women to define themselves for themselves, on their own terms.  

It is a lesson in self-determination so tightly wrought that it manages to be accessible to anyone at any time almost anywhere, while remaining unassailable as an indictment of the hell wrought on half of our society at all times. In the #MeToo era, there may be no work that resonates more soundly, even forty years after its creation. 

2018 and Beyond

In exploring the collective passing of these four powerful women, we find ways not only to maintain their legacies, but to brandish them anew into a future which sorely needs such examples.  

There are many takeaways to be had from Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” but perhaps the most resilient interpretation is how, once one peels back the surface caprice of its stories, we are left with the knowledge that all who struggle under oppression exist in one movement.  

While aspects of injustice like misogyny, racism, and sexism may reinvent themselves over time, they remain masks covering the same face. The leer of the slave master is not so far removed from the sexist hiss of a domineering boss. And yet examples abound of people who uncovered ways to navigate and, better, defeat the effects of such systems of oppression both without and within.  

And when no such tool presented itself, some of us walked, fought, sang and created those tools from nothing, and those nothing tools still changed the world.   


Scott Woods is a librarian, writer, poet, and critic who runs one of the most successful poetry open mics in the Midwest. You can buy his books, Urban Contemporary History Month (2016) andPrince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods  (2017), in all major online retail outlets.