America loved Tina Turner. But it wasn’t good to her.
The star escaped from her abuser, but the conditions that created him remain
There is a difference between being visible and being seen.
Over the course of her 83 years, the megawatt star that was Tina Turner kept telling us who she was in the hopes that we would see her — all of her.
Through interviews, books, films, and a Tony-winning Broadway musical, the Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll, who died May 24 in Switzerland, continually refined the story of how a little girl named Anna Mae Bullock, born to cotton sharecroppers who then abandoned her, eventually made herself into Tina Turner.
By the time she published her 2018 autobiography, Tina Turner: My Love Story, Turner’s tale of her life boasts such clarity that it’s impossible not to see how she, her parents, her children, and her first husband were shaped by the white supremacy permeating American life. Indeed, My Love Story often shares the vocabulary and form of a first-person slave narrative.
Historian Danielle McGuire, examining the epidemics of sexual violence and lynching used to preserve a slave society after Reconstruction ended, asked a question that has stuck with me since I first spoke to her six years ago. It’s a question that pertains to Turner’s life and that of many modern Black women seeking liberation: “If you have a slave culture for hundreds of years, what happens when slavery ends? Does the culture change? … And the answer was of course it didn’t.”
What remains, in part, is indifference, a blindness to Black women’s suffering, their ability to feel pain, to be raped, to be regarded as something other than profit centers. Turner, of course, was too captivating to ignore. She had the greatest gams ever seen on a human being, a voice to match, style for days, and an indomitable stage presence. At first glance, she was the embodiment of American grit, a person many saw as proof of concept for the nation’s obsession with rugged individualism and bootstrapping.
However, it’s vital to remember what preceded Turner’s embodiment of lively, joyous liberty: a disassociation from the fear of losing her life. It lurks behind her eyes in many of the photographs with her notoriously abusive ex-husband and musical collaborator, Ike Turner. A disassociation born of the definition of Black womanhood in antebellum America.
As law professor Dorothy E. Roberts writes in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story: “The laws that invented race also created a regime intent on policing Black women’s sexuality and controlling Black women’s bodies. Many generations later, we are still living with the legacy of entangled racial injustice and sexual violence.”
That Turner attained wealth and fame does not exclude her from this legacy. Not only does My Love Story read like a slave narrative, but Turner deliberately courts the comparison in the language she employs to characterize her life and the people in it. Her father, Floyd Richard Bullock, Turner wrote, worked as an “overseer” when she was growing up in the tiny community of Nutbush, Tennessee. She talks about how Ike treated her like his “property,” and when she finally got away from him she referred to herself as a “fugitive.”
Yet this part of her story is often missing from many celebrations of her power, meaning, and celebrity. But to honestly examine Turner’s life is to see the ways our peculiar institution continued in the bodies and minds of Americans well beyond 1865. Turner was a human souvenir of our country’s greatest shame. When she got free, she made herself into an icon. How typical, how American, to focus our collective klieg lights on the infectious, feel-good parts of Turner’s story while turning away from the dark circumstances that haunted her to her grave.
Focusing on three major aspects of her life — sex, labor, and freedom — can help us to know Anna Mae Bullock, Tina Turner, and the country from which they sprang just a little bit better.
“[My mother] still didn’t like me. Even after I became Tina. … She didn’t want — she didn’t want me. She didn’t want to be around me, even though she wanted my success.” — Tina Turner, TINA, 2021
When Zelma Priscilla Currie Bullock finally escaped the blows of her husband, Floyd, she left behind two daughters: Alline, 13, and Anna Mae, 10.
By the time Anna Mae turned 13, Floyd had left, too, and she and Alline were shuffled around among various Tennessee households. For a time, Anna Mae lived with a white couple, Connie and Guy Henderson. “They showed me that a married couple could be loving to each other and live in harmony with their children,” Turner wrote. “This kind of behavior may seem normal, but it wasn’t my experience.”
This was not because Zelma and Floyd were bad people harboring uniquely Black cultural pathologies. It is because the establishment of race in America is inextricably linked to the subjugation of Black women, and the most significant factor in that subjugation was and remains stripping them of the ability to determine if, when, and with whom they would bear children.
“Enslaved Black women gave birth to enslaveable children even if the fathers were white,” Roberts writes in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. “In disregarding English legal tradition, the colonists adopted the Roman principle of partus sequitur ventrem — ‘the offspring follows the belly’ — used to determine the ownership of animals. As a litter of pigs belonged to the owner of the sow, the children born to Black women were the property of the mother’s enslaver.” These are the foundational circumstances upon which American Black women’s relationship to sex, labor, motherhood, and their own bodies, is based.
“My mother was a woman who bore children but never really wanted them,” Turner wrote in My Love Story, acknowledging that the curse of unwanted pregnancies rumbled through at least two generations of Bullock women, and likely more.
Both Zelma and Tina found themselves unable to immediately leave men who beat them because pregnancy made it close to impossible. Turner relates one especially harrowing instance when Ike beat her with a shoe stretcher while she was pregnant and then raped her. With few resources of her own, Turner, like Zelma before her, was stuck.
“When he finished, I lay there with a swollen head, thinking, ‘You’re pregnant and you have no place to go. You really have gotten yourself into something now,’ ” she wrote. “Tina Turner was born that night, and ‘Little Ann’ disappeared forever.”
This particular flavor of violence cannot be pegged solely on Ike, not when his own history, alongside the methods and patterns of his actions, reveal the source of his inculcation. Full personhood in Mississippi, where he was born, was something reserved for white men.
Long before Ike Turner, the official position of his home state was that Black women and girls were little more than unrapeable mules. Americans socialized themselves to believe Black women were inherently inferior and therefore available for sexual and physical violation, not only from white men, but from members of any racial group. This was not simply a social more, it was codified in law, as Roberts details in The 1619 Project:
In the 1850s, a Mississippi jury convicted an enslaved man named George for raping an enslaved girl under the age of ten. Judge E.G. Henry of Madison County sentenced George to death by hanging. George’s enslaver appealed the decision to the state’s High Court of Errors and Appeals. John D. Freeman, the lawyer representing George, argued that because the victim was enslaved, George had committed no legally recognizable offense. “The crime of rape does not exist in the State between African slaves,” Freeman noted. “Our laws recognize no marital rights as between slaves; their sexual intercourse is left to be regulated by their owners. The regulations of law, as to the white race, on the subject of sexual intercourse, do not and cannot, for obvious reasons, apply to slaves.” The high court agreed and threw out the indictment.
With Ike and Tina, what began as a mutual admiration for each other’s musical talents, eventually became more like the relationship between owner and chattel. Ike would treat his “meal ticket” the way the master of a plantation might regard his favorite enslaved concubine, the way a pimp might see his prized bottom bitch. In 1966, Ike demanded $20,000 before a single note of “River Deep, Mountain High” was recorded, essentially leasing Turner out to producer Phil Spector.
Similarly, he paid Zelma a bride price when he whisked a teenage Turner away from her mother’s home in East St. Louis, Illinois, to tour with the Kings of Rhythm. The one person who barely saw a dime from Turner’s labor during this time was Turner herself. “In the early days of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, it was Ike who behaved like the star,” Turner wrote in My Love Story. “I was the Cinderella, the slave girl, really and truly.”
It is advantageous to the perpetuation of white supremacy to render Ike as exceptionally monstrous. But the truth is, he is not. The nation is full of such monsters, Black and white.
Even the carnality in Turner’s stage presence encompassed layers of meaning. For starters, it provided Ike with cultural cover for his own predations. “The lascivious Black temptress was a convenient icon: if Black women were inherently promiscuous, they could not be violated,” Roberts wrote in The 1619 Project.
The carnality in Turner’s performances remained once she divorced Ike in 1978, but it also evolved. It’s both mystifying and inspiring, because the pleasure she derived from performing that carnality often appears genuine and enthusiastic. Turner’s skimpy stagewear and high-octane choreography made it clear she was an endurance athlete as well as an artist. Her high-heeled pumps were just as much a professional tool for her as Air Jordans are for basketball players. Though hair, costuming, and choreography were arenas in which Turner could exact some agency while performing with the revue, her torturer, as Turner called Ike, spoiled that, too.
“Ike was just as controlling and abusive onstage as he was at the house,” Turner wrote in My Love Story. “He forced me to sing ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ in such a cheap and sexual way that it became my least favorite song. I was embarrassed by the gestures I had to make at the microphone. If I did something he didn’t want me to do, I’d hear about it, something as innocent as looking back at him while we were performing. If I did that, he’d say, ‘Turn around, motherf —er.’ I was practically in a trance, on automatic pilot, always thinking, Ike is watching — you’d better just dance and sing.”
This too, had roots in slavery. “The enslaved black body was made to dehumanize itself not only through the denial of pain but also through performances of pleasure,” Courtney R. Baker wrote in Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death. “Expressions of pain were either ignored or dismissed as deceptive simulacra by those who held the power to transform those conditions. If the slave is not human, the logic runs, he cannot experience pain as a human, thereby eliminating the need or responsibility of onlookers to recognize those bodies as like their own.”
“Ike always had a strategy. He actually registered a trademark on the name ‘Tina Turner’ so it belonged to him, not me. What’s in a name? Everything. With those two words, I became Ike’s property.” — Tina Turner, My Love Story, 2018
The Mississippi where Ike, born in 1931, grew up was not a place that prized kindness toward Black people or acknowledged their full humanity. It had been one of the dreaded end points where enslaved people sold “down the river” were routinely bred, worked, and tortured to death. Clarksdale, where Ike was born and raised, was a brutish, nasty place. This was a lesson Ike absorbed before his fifth birthday.
His father and namesake, a Baptist minister named Izear Luster Turner, was essentially beaten to death by white men for associating with a white woman. It took three miserable years following the attack for Izear to die, and during that period, he lived in a tent in the yard of the Turner house because he had one constant companion: the stench of his damaged, internal organs slowly rotting. And so one of Ike’s earliest lessons about the way the world worked was that freedom, especially white freedom, was characterized by the ability to dominate, to humiliate, and to maim at will without fear of negative consequences.
As an adult, Ike continually established his personhood by dominating others — not unlike Floyd Bullock, the sharecropping overseer whose blows drove his wife Zelma to abandon him and their two daughters. Much of what Ike internalized in his formative years was his own inferiority and the inferiority of Black people more broadly. When he became a bandleader, these ideas colored his relationship to labor.
When Ike finally got some power of his own, he assumed the role of slave driver, mirroring plantation dynamics that persisted in Mississippi long after the Civil War ended. He expected his bandmates to work until they dropped. When the revue began to book shows overseas, it was common for them to perform in European cities that they were too exhausted to explore.
“I never had time to be a tourist, to go sightseeing or to visit museums, because Ike worked us too hard to do anything like that,” Turner wrote.
On top of everything else, he was miserly to the point of sabotage, much like slaveholders who couldn’t be bothered to provide much more than cornmeal to the people they held in bondage.
“For someone who was so reckless and self-indulgent in his personal life, Ike insisted on controlling everything that had to do with the revue,” Turner wrote. “He fined the musicians and the dancers for the smallest infractions. A torn stocking, a late arrival to a rehearsal, or a defiant word would arouse his ire, and he’d slap the offender with a ten-dollar fine. One rebellious Ikette complained that she ended up owing Ike more money than she made. Someone asked me if I got fined for breaking a rule (meaning, did I get preferential treatment?). That was a joke. I didn’t get fined because I didn’t get paid. I just got shelter, food, and some pretty things on the rare occasion when Ike was feeling generous.”
There was no half-stepping in the revue. When actor Adrienne Warren played Turner on Broadway, a role for which she won the Tony, Warren did it for six performances a week, as opposed to the customary eight, because being Tina Turner was so physically taxing.
Ike, musical overseer though he might have been, was not unique in this regard. Zoom out, and a commonality reveals itself in the obsessive perfectionism of many of the 20th century’s biggest Black artists trying to make it in a world shaped by white supremacy. The work of Michael Jackson, James Brown, and actress Viola Davis, for instance, share an intense rigor and discipline. They each experienced and witnessed almost inconceivable levels of violence as children, and their careers doubled as escape hatches from poverty. Their audiences reap the creative rewards from this kind of striving, but it came at a steep price.
Turner understood that, too, when she identified Beyoncé as the inheritor of her creative legacy in My Love Story. “At the time, there were no women who sang and danced like me — women who could be sexy without making it sexual,” Turner wrote. “I went out in high-heeled shoes and a short dress, and there was good dancing and laughter and fun, without making the women in the audience feel like I was after their men. There was never anything coming from the stage that was negative. Beyoncé has that same kind of energy today, but I was the only one back then.”
Like Turner, Beyoncé’s talent and mystique have reached mythic proportions. Like Turner, she is a southern Black woman with a rich, commanding voice and a dynamic stage presence. And like Turner, Beyoncé prides herself on letting you see the work in her performances. She’s not trying to make being Beyoncé look effortless; she wants you to respect the many layers of her labor.
Ike could see that Turner had the ability to go further creatively than he could. And so, in true Mississippi fashion, he made her his property by trademarking the name “Tina Turner.” To get free, she had to relinquish everything she owned — publishing rights, real estate, furs, residuals, vehicles. Everything — except the price of canceling the slew of professional obligations for which Ike had booked the revue, and the name “Tina Turner” — went to Ike.
The price for her manumission, and her name, was a massive pile of debt.
“I knew when to run away from snakes. Throughout my life, there have been lots of times when they’d ask me, ‘How did you get out of that one?’ I did dangerous things and dangerous things were done to me. But in the eleventh hour, something always told me when to run.” — Tina Turner, My Love Story, 2018
Turner tried multiple times to escape from Ike. It would have been challenging enough had she been childless. But she was raising two sons of her own, Craig and Ronnie, and two sons of Ike’s from a previous relationship. She grew so hopeless that she tried to take her own life.
“My suicide attempt wasn’t a classic cry for attention, or help,” Turner wrote in My Love Story. “When I took those pills, I chose death, and I chose it honestly. I was unhappy when I woke up. But I never tried it again because I made an important realization, one that changed the course of my life. I came out of the darkness believing that I was meant to survive.
“I knew now that there was only one way out of this nightmare, and it was through the door.”
When Turner finally got away in 1978, she’d been with Ike for 16 years. And like so much of her story, the circumstances of her escape also read like scenes from a slave narrative.
In Dallas to perform with the revue, Turner fled when Ike finally went to sleep after beating her. Her face was bruised and bloodied, staining the white suit she was wearing. She had nothing of her own except a Mobil gas card and 36 cents, and took off running across a freeway where she was nearly hit by a tractor-trailer. Her sanctuary was a Ramada Inn, where she explained her situation to the manager and promised to pay for a room as soon as she was able. She spent the next few days bouncing around various locales lest Ike find her, eventually ending up in Las Vegas when her divorce was finalized.
The advent of no-fault divorce (1969) and the national legalization of abortion in 1973 meant that there was a huge, previously unseen population of American women who could — and did — leave their abusers. They could identify with Turner. Her fight. Her flight. But it was the way she lived her freedom — as a spark plug of fearless joy — that made her the nation’s most famous survivor and escapee of domestic violence. Once she left, Turner’s life transformed. She looked fantastic, too — sexy and audacious — kitted out in fishnet stockings, leather and a blunt-cut blonde wig. Turner was an inspiration, an avatar of survival and a reminder that life was meant to be enjoyed.
She gave an interview to People in 1981, in which, for the first time, she revealed publicly how Ike had been her captor. Hoping she could finally escape persistent questions about him, Turner released her first book, I, Tina: My Life Story, written with music journalist Kurt Loder, in 1986, two years after the release of her first solo album, Private Dancer, in which the former R&B and soul singer reinvented herself as a rock star. But the public’s fascination with Ike deepened, cresting with the 1993 release of What’s Love Got To Do With It?, the film adapted from her book by screenwriter Kate Lanier and directed by Brian Gibson. The film, which starred Angela Bassett as Tina and Laurence Fishburne as Ike, included a harrowing scene in which Ike rapes Tina in the recording studio he had built in their house. And it was shot in the very location where this abuse had taken place. But the movie’s dramatic climax was Turner’s escape.
It’s no wonder that Americans were so fascinated by the sordid details of Ike’s depravity. The preferences of American media consumers, and the way they would understand Turner’s story, reflect the reception of another epic tale of freedom-seeking, first published in 1852: Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The scene of Bassett sprinting through the Dallas Hilton and across a multi-lane highway was a modern version of one of Uncle Tom’s Cabin most famous passages, in which the enslaved Eliza takes off with her son after learning that her debt-ridden owners plan to sell him. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s prose was full of drama, action and suspense:
A thousand lives seemed to be concentrated in that one moment to Eliza. Her room opened by a side door to the river. She caught her child, and sprang down the steps towards it. The trader caught a full glimpse of her just as she was disappearing down the bank; and throwing himself from his horse, and calling loudly on Sam and Andy, he was after her like a hound after a deer. In that dizzy moment her feet to her scarce seemed to touch the ground, and a moment brought her to the water’s edge. Right on behind they came; and, nerved with strength such as God gives only to the desperate, with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore, on to the raft of ice beyond. It was a desperate leap — impossible to anything but madness and despair; and Haley, Sam, and Andy, instinctively cried out, and lifted up their hands, as she did it.
The huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she staid there not a moment. With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake; stumbling — leaping — slipping — springing upwards again! Her shoes are gone — her stockings cut from her feet — while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank.
There was a reason for the florid prose. Slave narratives, as a literary form, had a specific function in antebellum America: proselytizing literate white people to take up the abolitionist cause. In telling Turner’s story a century later, Gibson used a visual approach similar to the literary style Stowe employed.
What’s Love Got To Do With It bears other similarities to slave narratives, mainly in the details it highlights and the ones it smudges to extract maximum, uncomplicated investment from its audience — like the fact that the father of Turner’s first child, Craig, was not Ike, but saxophonist Raymond Hill. Rather than explaining his presence and then disappearance from her life, or invite possible shaming of Turner’s status as an unwed mother, What’s Love makes Craig into Ike’s kid. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it was true-ish.
Nine years after Uncle Tom’s initial printing, a North Carolina woman named Harriet Jacobs published one of the few surviving first-person slave narratives written by a woman. Where Stowe employed melodrama, Jacobs relayed the facts of her life in a restrained, matter-of-fact fashion that I can only describe as ladylike. When Turner published My Love Story in 2018, her voice bore that same ladylike quality. Yet, like Jacobs’ story, it was undeniable how much of Ike’s abuse had been informed by the brainwashing power of slavery and white supremacy.
The public understood Turner as having escaped domestic violence. What was less appreciated was the extent to which her suffering was tied to her identity as a Black daughter of cotton sharecroppers from Tennessee.
Some might argue that these circumstances created one of the greatest rock artists in American history. Certainly, they shaped her. But white supremacy did not make Anna Mae Bullock into Tina Turner.
Tina Turner made Tina Turner.
And yet the state of her birth does not appear to have learned much from her decades of openness. Rather than living up to spirit of possibility exemplified by one of its most famous and beloved daughters, Tennessee today is one of many states embroiled in a project of disenfranchisement and revanchism, finding ways to reengineer the miseries and hardships that kept Turner and her mother Zelma shackled to the violence Turner is so admired for overcoming.
The Tennessee that saw Anna Mae Bullock emerge from its cotton fields to become an international star is the same Tennessee that continued to honor a Klan leader in the halls of its state capitol until 2021. It is the Tennessee expelling Black lawmakers for their lack of “decorum” in objecting to the slaughter of innocent children when it could not gerrymander those lawmakers’ constituents into silence. It’s the same Tennessee whose Memphis police officers are accused of beating Tyre Nichols to death, a brutal beating not unlike the one that left a terrorized Ike without a father by the time he was 5.
Why return to a Tennessee, to an America, of 1939, when we know the effect it had on a Black woman it purports to love, when she insists that she is not special, but just like everyone else, and then shows us all of the ways that is true? Using the law to yoke people to their abusers by eliminating their reproductive agency is abusive too, not only to them, but to the resulting children as well.
Tina Turner decamped to Europe in 1997 and relinquished her American citizenship after her 2013 marriage to Erwin Bach (the two were a couple for 37 years). She died in Switzerland, in a home she shared with a husband so devoted to her he gave her a kidney. She chose to go where she was loved, and that place was not her motherland. As much as America has proclaimed its love for Tuner in the wake of her death, it continues to fail to fully see her. And until it does, this place cannot truthfully claim to love Turner any more than her first husband could.
Speaking to Loder in 1985, she said, “I have had not one love affair that was genuine and sustained itself…. I’ve been through f—ing tons of heartbreak. I’ve analyzed it. I said, ‘what’s wrong with me?’ I looked in the mirror at myself stripped of makeup and without hair. Why can’t someone see the beauty in the woman I am? [There’s] not a goddamn person that’s found it.” Mind you, this was after Turner’s debut solo album sold 20 million copies.
Turner ascended to an echelon of stardom that is exceedingly rare. But commercial success, no matter how vast, is not the same as love.
TINA, a documentary released in 2021 and currently streaming on Max, opens with a sober declaration from the woman so many came to adore because of her vivacious talent and spirit, and the American-made violence she overcame to share it.
“It wasn’t a good life,” Turner tells an unseen interviewer. “It was in some areas, but the goodness did not balance the bad.”
For decades, Turner faced a public and a press corps that was all too happy to make Ike solely responsible for the bad. It was evident in the questions she fielded. These questions were not meant to edify so much as blame and titillate, to individualize a problem with roots codified in hundreds of years of American law. And so Turner spent too much of her life finding ways to politely respond to inquiries like, “Why do women stay with bad men?” or “Will you ever work with Ike again?” and “What’s the worst memory you have of Ike?”
But Ike did not materialize, fearsome and furious, from a pool of ooze that only spits out sadists. He, like Anna Mae, was molded in the ashes of a failed slave society sustained by the Black Codes, convict leasing, systematized rape and Jim Crow. A society simultaneously fascinated with and repulsed by Black women. That is the echo chamber of mixed messages in which Turner spent years attempting to make herself heard.
So hear this: We don’t need another hero. We need a present and a future that doesn’t make one like Tina Turner necessary.
Further reading: The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, created by Nikole Hannah-Jones | Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy E. Roberts | At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McGuire | Walk With Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer by Kate Clifford Larson | Tina Turner: My Love Story by Tina Turner | The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk | All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks | Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America by Saidiya Hartman | Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death by Courtney R. Baker | How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor | The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family by Kerri Greenidge | Neglected Stories: The Constitution and Family Values by Peggy Cooper Davis | A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s by Stephanie Coontz