My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
Inflicted again and again
Right away, Nina Simone invokes an archetype—in this case, the archetype of the strong Black woman.
The archetype of the strong, proud Black woman is so dominant in U.S. culture that at least one whole book has been written about it. Fierce Angels, by Sheri Parks, critically examines this archetype, considering the ways that Black women have been stereotyped as invincibly strong and how that stereotype may actually hurt them.
There is a fine line between an archetype—which is a relatively neutral term that can mean "a symbol, usually an image, which recurs often enough in literature [or culture in general] to be recognizable as an element of one's literary experience as a whole"—and a stereotype, which Merriam-Webster calls "a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment."
Although Parks (a Black woman) wants to give credit where it's due—to the Black women in her life who have had to survive hard times—she also wants to break down the history behind this stereotype.
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
Simone's second verse about a woman named Saffronia shocked some listeners by directly confronting the sexual abuse of Black women.
As one historian explains, Black women under U.S. slavery had no way to protect themselves from rape:
Indians and Blacks, as well as their children, were prohibited by law from defending themselves against abuse, sexual and otherwise, at the hands of Whites. A slave who defended herself against the attack of a White person was subject to cruel beatings by either the master or mistress. [...] The plight of Black and Indian girls sexually abused by their White Masters was a known 'secret' of slavery. (Source)
One of the many awful things about this set-up was that any children conceived through non-consensual sex with a slaveowner became slaves themselves, which meant that slave-owning men might even be motivated by profit to sexually assault Black women (they could legally sell any children that resulted). Regardless of its basic historical accuracy, this verse led some white radio stations to ban the entire song in the late 1960s.
Whose girl am I?
Well yours if you have some money to buy
Simone's third verse, sung from the first-person perspective of a young prostitute, courted further controversy for its sexual frankness.
Another timeworn archetype in Anglo-American culture is that of the fallen woman, the innocent girl who leaves her boring, safe life in the country to move to the city, where the harsh realities of urban life soon leave her ruined, with nothing left to sell but sex.
That archetype, as old as Moll Flanders, later fueled the original American media firestorm (when the newfangled penny press provided breathless coverage of the 1836 murder of a fashionable New York prostitute named Helen Jewett) and can be found all over Hollywood movies.
In his 1999 response to "Four Women," hip-hop emcee Talib Kweli fleshed out the story of the girl called Sweet Thing to reflect the modern-day realities of the streets:
How will I survive, how will this baby shine?
Daddy dead from crack in '85, mommy dead from AIDS in '89
At 14 the baby hit the same streets, they became her master
The children of the enslaved, they grow a little faster
My skin is brown
My manner is tough
I'll kill the first mother I see
Here Simone grapples with a different stereotype, the stereotype of the "angry Black woman."
This stereotype is a tricky one to talk about, because, of course, there isn't inherently anything wrong with getting angry about injustice. Plus, plenty of people get pissed off in public—including, of course, Nina Simone herself.
She actually had quite a reputation for laying into reporters, audiences, and even all of America during her days living in self-imposed exile (she left the U.S. in 1973 and only returned a handful of times before her death in 2003). Some are very proud of the anger displayed by Nina Simone, but others were a little shocked by stories like the time she pulled a gun on a record company exec who owed her money.
This stereotype of the angry Black woman is still sometimes used to dismiss certain Black women—for example, in 2008 Fox News pundits openly discussed whether First Lady Michelle Obama fit the profile of the "angry Black woman" (one of them had trouble thinking of any other profile that she might fit as a Black woman in mainstream politics). Nina Simone plays both sides here, making space for anger without making space for belittling dismissals.