The name of this tune is Sha’Carri Goddam.
Sha’Carri Richardson, Nina Simone. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The most profound comparison by which to contemplate the current life and times of disgraced Olympic sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson is to think of the life of disgraced American soul vocalist Nina Simone.
Some five-plus decades after Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” inflamed America’s manic realities with difficult truths, Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for marijuana use — though it’s legal where and how she used it, but not in the private industry in which she was working — after qualifying for the 2021 United States Summer Olympic Team. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The best way to contextualize my realization that literally, nothing at all has changed in how America addresses the savage inequalities in how Black women’s freedom in the United States are addressed in the space between America’s old laws and new realities can be best done by appropriating Nina Simone’s lyrics to the previously mentioned “Mississippi Goddam.”
The name of this tune is Sha’carri Goddam
And I mean every word of it
COVID’s gotten me so upset
Prejudice made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Sha’carri Goddam
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air
I can’t take the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer
America’s navigation to civil rights, gender equity, and modernized freedom is at a soul-crushing impasse. The forces of history aligned against progress have morphed into a soul-crushing succubus. Even if you’re able to run 100 meters in 10.86 seconds in 2021 as a 21-year old Black lesbian femme carrying the weight of your recently deceased mother’s spirit on your soul, it still stalks, captures, and extinguishes your life force with swift, near-perilous efficiency.
Even if you aim to be a gold-medal-bearing heroine, shining like a beacon of hope and light upon having your superheroic existence destroyed by this fiend, you’re left with only a three-word tweet as a sad, much less than heroic response: “I am human.”
Discussing Simone and Richardson deeper in this regard reveals more.
For as much as Nina Simone was an American singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist, she also sang songs that spoke so directly to the power of people’s emotional extremes amid America’s perpetual crisis of social injustice that her records — like the previously alluded to 1963 classic “Mississippi Goddam” — were eventually deemed boycott-worthy by the American music industry. As a result, an artist once called “The High Priestess of Soul” later relocated out of the United States.
Of the many issues that have imperiled America throughout its nearly quarter millennium of existence, the nation’s inability to successfully allow Black women the space to grieve without fear of reprisal is possibly the most recurrent and damning.
Historically having your children and partners conscripted into physically mangling labor, then being sexually demonized and socially stigmatized for generations, is mind-cripplingly astonishing to consider. Moreover, imagine having to fight four times as hard to be often only treated as second-class professionals in America’s workforce. Then consider attempting to achieve a manner of mental health and emotional strength amidst this, while feeling — because there is no track record of persistent protections of your freedoms and sanity as a race and gender being valued — free and safe. It’s a harrowing reality.
Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in response to a stultifying trio of murderous racial criminality: Emmett Till and Medgar Evers’ murders in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black children. The song is sung less as a call for help but a stark, jagged, angry cry of despair.
Because of its tenor, perspective, and language, the song was deemed unplayable by radio, banned in several states, and reportedly, boxes of the records would return from radio stations around the country cracked in half. Even deeper, in the 2015 Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, activist and comedian Dick Gregory notes, regarding the single, “If you look at all the suffering black folks went through, not one black man would dare say ‘Mississippi Goddam.’ We all wanted to say it. She said it.” Simone’s career, stateside, as a mainstream popular musician never recovered.
Comparatively, Sha’Carri Richardson — an adopted child — was told that her biological mother died during a media appearance before the 2021 Olympic trials. The “emotional panic” of learning such harrowing news is what caused her to decide to use marijuana, which the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Travis T. Tygart, noted was against testing regulations during a competition cycle. About her decision, Richardson told NBC’s Today Show, “…to hear that information coming from a complete stranger, it was definitely triggering, it was definitely nerve-shocking. I know I can’t hide myself, so… in some type of way, I was trying to hide my pain.”
These two narratives highlight that laws regarding decency and permissible behavior have stunted Black women’s humanity in America for minimally 60 years.
However, in the same breath, staring at who is free and how they define freedom and Black people — especially women’s — heartbreaking relationship to it must be noted.
On September 23, 1955, Emmett Till’s murderers — about which Simone sang — were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury (both women and blacks had been banned) after a 67-minute deliberation; as one juror noted, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.” As well, though Sha’Carri Richardson could appeal her suspension, President Joe Biden weighed in approving of the United States Olympic Committee’s handling of the situation noting, “The rules are the rules,” he said, adding, “I was really proud of the way she responded.”
Given their 250 years of perplexingly tantalizing proximity to achieving both freedom and sanity, African-American women from Nina Simone to Sha’Carri Richardson — and more — have every right to deserve superheroic status in the United States. Alas, because this nation is clearly built upon a standard that values Black women’s pain as equitable to the persistence of the white male hegemonic system upon which the nation was founded, we’re left amid a disturbing and distasteful reality.
Again, all that’s left to say is one thing: “The name of this tune is Sha’carri Goddam. And I mean every word of it.”