by Leslie Fields-Cruz

January 19, 2021

Freedom to Define Ourselves

I wish I knew how

It would feel to be free

I wish I could break

All the chains holdin' me

I wish I could say

All the things that I should say

Say 'em loud, say 'em clear

For the whole round world to hear


Nina Simone

So begins Nina Simone’s chart-topping recording of a song written by Billy Taylor back in 1952. Taylor completed the lyrics to I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free, with writer Dick Dallas years later and recorded it in November of 1963 — three months after the March on Washington and only a couple of weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination. The song was released the following year and became a staple of the civil rights movement soundtrack.

These events occurred before I was born, but Taylor’s song about the 20th century civil rights struggle still resonates. Its message is echoed in a documentary that premiered this past Monday on American Masters and articulates what many Black creatives in my generation are still pursuing in the 21st century. How it Feels to Be Free, is directed by Yoruba Richen and tells the story of how Simone and several other Black female icons of the 20th century helped to transform their respective wings of the performing arts industry, while also inspiring broader socio-economic change for African Americans.

Good storytelling leaves an impression. It can move people to act, guide public opinion, raise public awareness, and inspire public policy. Yoruba’s documentary is that kind of film and supporting Black storytellers like her is BPM’s raison d’être. It is why we were among the early supporters of this project.

Our American experience has never been easy, but last year was especially difficult. Once again, Black folks found ourselves disproportionately on the suffering end of every crisis that emerged — whether it was the health and economic pain brought on by the pandemic, the ongoing struggle against police brutality, or the attempts at voter suppression. These situations are persistent reminders of the liberation work that remains. But 2020 also showcased Black determination. And like the women in Yoruba’s film, Black women are no longer in the shadows, we’re among those leading the way: Kamala Harris is now vice president of the U.S.; Rashida Jones is president of MSNBC; Tabitha Jackson is director of Sundance; the sisters who launched Black Lives Matter — Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi — made Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” list; and Stacey Abrams is a political power player, to name a few.

By having our hands on the levers of power and growing our community of allies, African Americans are closing in on the liberation our predecessors could only write, sing and dream about.


Kamala Harris


So this week, as Americans commemorate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and install Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the 46th president of the United States and Harris as the first woman/BIPOC vice president, Black people remain focused on realizing a liberated future. Black Public Media’s role in pursuing that future is to continue advocating for, nurturing and supporting Black storytellers. It is work we are honored to perform. I, for one, can’t wait to see the films, soundtracks and emerging media projects of freedom yet to come.

P.S. How it Feels to Be Free is streaming now on the PBS website.