The following is an essay written by a highschool student in Póvoa de Varzim, Portugal and shared with us by his teacher who commented, "when we have students who write and think like this it is vital to share it with the world. I just think the text he has written couldn't go unnoticed and be read by only me.
Nina Simone in 1982. Photo by Roland Godefroy, available under the GNU Free Documentation License
Interpretation of Nina Simone's “Turning Point"
by Márcio Santos
Nina Simone's music was highly influential in the fight for equal rights in the US. Her song “Turning Point” is an especially powerful look at the impact of racism on children. What at first seems a child's song about making a new friend, later revels itself as a composition questioning the origins of racial discrimination.
In the song, the “character” played by Simone is a young white girl, who talks to her mother about “the little brown girl”, a black classmate that “sits next to me” in the classroom.
This is indicative of the song’s time of creation: in 1967 “Turning Point” was released, while north-American schools were theoretically desegregated in 1954, which would allow the girls to be in the same school and to sit next to one another.
However, at the time, contrary to what might be expected, not all African-Americans were happy. They felt that, by going to desegregated schools, black students would face segregation within those schools and suffer accordingly or that they would congregate together and not with white children. In other words, African-Americans feared that desegregation had ended only in theory but not in reality.
Indeed, that certainly happened in many schools. Seldom were white and black children “united”. Being children, they were not to blame for this. Adults, especially parents, were the guilty party, because they were the ones responsible for instilling bias and even hatred in their kids’ hearts towards people from a different ethnic group, a race other than the one they belong to. That’s exactly the idea the song conveys.
At first, Simone’s character gets along perfectly with the “little brown girl”. When she sees this black girl, she doesn’t see a “black” girl “per se”, which would relate to her race, but, instead, a “brown” girl, which is simply related to her actual skin color. She sees different colors, but she doesn’t think in terms of different races or kinds of people. We can understand she is not prejudiced and is not judging her classmate. She highlights her colleague’s skin color not owing to narrow-mindedness, bigotry or intolerance, but rather because that’s what children do: if they see something blue, they’ll say it’s blue. The portrayal of her friend made by the “narrator” of the song is, therefore, exempt from “hidden” or concealed derogatory meanings.
Besides, Simone’s character compliments the “little brown girl”, comparing her to chocolate – something positive, because chocolate is sweet and delicious, as well as, consequently, desirable– and even to herself: “She’s as old as me”; “We are both in first grade”. In addition to that, she says her friend “sang a song so pretty”.
As a result, it is obvious the narrator likes the “little brown girl”. This compels her to protect her friend from threats, such as bullies (Jimmy), and to take care of her injuries (a skinned knee), and makes her want her to “come over/To play dolls with me”.
She begs her mother for her approval in vain, since her “mummy can’t (…) see” that the “little brown girl” “looks just like chocolate”. She is blinded by her unsubstantiated and groundless prejudices and misconceptions.
Simone’s character then asks “Why not?... oh, why not?!” Her mother’s answer is left unstated, which is, as far as I’m concerned, quite effective, as it lets us imagine what she said – something against black people, without a doubt.
And it’s haunting to hear the narrator say “Oh! I see…”. She has been “converted” to intolerance. She is now biased, thanks to what she has been taught by someone she thrusts and relies on. It’s truly poignant.
As I see it, this is the «turning point» the title mentions. Like Rousseau, this song depicts people as inherently good beings, who are, however, subsequently corrupted by their surroundings, by the milieu, by society. This was what happened to Simone’s character. To her, the “little brown girl” was just a friend with whom she could have “such fun”. Yet, this has changed, and now what is brown is no longer “brown” but “black”.
This new generation, that both the white and the “brown” girl embody, represent and are a part of, seems to be wasting the opportunity to set itself apart from the previous ones, to end racism and to be united – to be a «turning point», to turn a new page in the book of mankind’s history.
The tone of the song is helpful in pinpointing and understanding the «turning point», because it is simple, cheerful, joyful, playful, even childlike, throughout the composition up until the moment Simone’s character says “Oh mum what’d you say”; at this point the musical instruments go silent for a short time span, emphasizing in that fashion a «turning point», and, when the instruments resurface, the melody, though similar, is not the same, as now it sounds sad, mirroring the vocals, which are not as “melodic” as they were before, this is, Simone is, so to say, closer to speaking than to singing, which is also underlining the transformation of the narrator.
Because of what I have stated before, “Turning point” is, in my opinion, a great song – featuring the unique voice of Nina Simone, always in full domain of her vocal abilities and in perfect unison with the lyrics –, that makes us reflect upon the roots of racism and prejudice, as well as is consequences. It makes us wonder about the [realities] of the Civil Rights Movement, reminding us that racism is an enrooted problem that can’t be eradicated instantly, especially if it is passed on from generation to generation. And it stirs up thoughts about the role and influence of music in society, about how and to what extent the former can change the latter – and vice-versa. To sum it up, “Turning point” is thought-provoking and heartbreaking: that’s always a powerful mix.