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Big things were going on back in the late 1960s. 1966 alone was the year that the Black Panther Party officially formed, demanding equality and justice in uncompromising terms. It was also the year that Stokely Carmichael embraced the idea of Black Power in a speech, and the year that the NAACP rejected those very ideas, cementing a growing rift in the Civil Rights Movement between older, established activists and more militant young people.
And, not coincidentally, it was the year that Nina Simone's "Four Women" came out, sparking a series of controversies that got it banned from several major radio stations.
But that was 1966. Why should you still care today? "Four Women" is a somewhat strange song, and it could perhaps be considered an acquired taste reserved for serious Nina Simone fans. Is her 1966 message about the experience of Black womanhood really still relevant today?
Don't ask us. Ask Talib Kweli. In 2000, as part of the respected hip-hop duo Reflection Eternal (with DJ Hi-Tek), Kweli released "For Women," an updated version of the song, a remake of the stories of Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches (the four archetypal women invented by Nina Simone).
Comparing Kweli's thoughtful new-millennium message to Simone's Black Power era lament tells us a lot about what has changed in the decades since the height of the civil rights struggle—and a lot about what has not changed, too.
The original song takes four stereotypes of Black women and sings about them as if they are real people. While it serves to criticize the stereotypes, "Four Women" is also a tribute to real women. In order to explore the relevance of Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches to today's world, we're going to compare Nina Simone's versions of the characters with Talib Kweli's. Stick with us, agree with us, or feel free to disagree bitterly—after all, we can't think of anything more fun than a little intellectual battle about the relevance of history.
Now that we know you're with us (are you with us?), let's get down to business. We'll get the verse-by-verse analysis started, but we leave the rest to you—this stuff is so interesting, we could go "On and On."
My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
Inflicted again and again
What do they call me?
My name is Aunt Sarah
Nina Simone's biographer, Nadine Cohodas, says that Aunt Sarah in "Four Women" fits the archetype of "the mammy" (Source, 179). Simone presents Aunt Sarah as an older dark-skinned woman who's strong and long-suffering. But the mammy archetype is now considered an offensive stereotype of a Black woman who's a cheerful, maternal type. The stereotype originated during slavery, and usually showed a servile woman focused on kitchen work who also played a maternal role with the white children in the house (think Aunt Jemima, still considered to be a racist image by many). Have you ever encountered that stereotype in the media or in your life?
We're not sure if Simone meant to address that issue or not, but Talib Kweli seemed to think so. He opens his song by showing Nina herself rejecting the auntie/mammy role:
In the south, they used to call her Mother, Auntie
She said no Mrs., just Auntie
She said if anybody ever called her Auntie she'd burn the whole goddamn place down
I'm over past that
Coming into the new millennium, we can't forget our elders
Kweli then moves into a description of an interaction with an older Black woman on a train in his home city of Brooklyn:
We got in a conversation she said she a hundred and seven
Just her presence was a blessing and her essence was a lesson
She had her head wrapped
And long dreads that peeked out the back
Like antennae to help her get a sense of where she was at, imagine that
Livin' a century, the strength of her memories
Felt like an angel had been sent to me
She lived from n----r to colored to N**** to black
To Afro then African-American and right back to n----r
Here, Kweli refers to the developments in language in the time between Simone's era and our own. Have you ever been surprised or offended at reading an article from the 1950s that uses the term "colored," or a book from the 1960s that uses the term "N****"? Although at the time, those were the generally accepted terms for African Americans, the terms are now considered to have negative overtones. "African American" was the term made popular by the movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s that Nina Simone was so involved in. Part of the significance of the terminology is that it describes African heritage rather than skin color. Of course, as Kweli's lyric points out, uses of the offensive slavery-era n-word are still not unheard of today. He continues:
Her skin was black (My skin is black) like it was packed with melanin
Back in the days of slaves she packin' like Harriet Tubman
Her arms are long (My arms are long) and she moves like song
Feet with corns, hand with calluses
But her heart is warm and her hair is wooly (My hair is wooly)
Both artists talk about dark skin and "wooly" hair. Simone introduces the issue matter-of-factly, almost defensively, simply saying, "My skin is black / my hair is wooly." In Kweli's lyrics, there are more explicit hints of Black/African pride, from the head wrap and long dreads worn by Aunt Sarah to comparisons with Harriet Tubman and an angel. In 1966, the form of Black pride that popularized Afros, dread locks, and public efforts at acknowledging African heritage was a new phenomenon. There was no Kwanzaa celebration, and famous Black singers didn't have names like Erykah Badu or Talib Kweli.
Blacks had to struggle to reclaim their history and create positive cultural images of African heroes, religions, and even names. Enslaved Africans were forced to adopt white customs, thus losing their own African traditions, and descendants of slaves ended up with Christian names taken from slave masters (hence Malcolm X's rejection of his given last name, "Little," in favor of "X"). Talib Kweli's own name is a combination of an Arabic word (talib) meaning "student" and a Swahili word (kweli) meaning "truth." For Kweli's generation, pride in African origins is much more a part of the backdrop than for Simone's.
Kweli goes on to reflect back the same historical story about slavery told by Simone:
And it attract a lot of energy even negative
She gotta dead that, the head wrap is her remedy
Her back is strong and she far from a vagabond
This is the back of the masters' whip used to crack upon
Strong enough to take all the pain, that's been
Inflicted again and again and again and again and flipped
It to the love for her children nothing else matters
What do they call her? They call her Aunt Sarah.
Kweli and Simone show how close slavery is to some older African Americans, but in this verse they mostly talk about it as history. How does the history of slavery affects our society today?
My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me?
Saffronia's story is also probably a slavery-era story, although it could also be about the sexual dynamics of the Jim Crow era, the historical period between abolition and the Civil Rights Movement when segregation and racial discrimination were still legal.
Saffronia's story alludes to the sad reality that it was not illegal or uncommon for white men to rape enslaved Black women (look no further than Uncle Tom's Cabin for a vivid fictionalized description of these awful conditions). Talib Kweli responds with his own modern-day story:
I know a girl with a name as beautiful as the rain
Her face is the same but she suffers an unusual pain
Seems she only deals with losers who be usin' them games
Chasin' the real brothers away like she confused in the brain
She tried to get it where she fit in
On that American Dream mission paid tuition
For the receipt to find out her history was missing and started flippin
Seeing the world through very different eyes
People askin' her what she'll do when it come time to chose sides
Yo, her skin is yellow, it's like her face is blond word is bond
And her hair is long and straight just like sleeping beauty
See, she truly feels like she belong in two worlds
And that she can't relate to other girls
Her father was rich and white still livin' with his wife
But he forced himself on her mother late one night
They call it rape that's right and now she take flight
This intense verse makes a pointed connection between the Saffronia of the past and the experience of some young women today. In 1966 and before, the term "rape" wasn't even in common use. People had an idea of what rape was, but it was considered shameful to even talk about. Women's rights activists worked hard in the late 1960s and 1970s to create the first rape crisis clinics and raise awareness about sexual assault. If you've ever heard the phrase "no means no," you have the Women's Rights Movement to thank.
But today, one in six women are still likely to be sexually assaulted during their lifetimes. And Kweli's story about a modern young woman who's a product of rape is unfortunately not as unlikely as it could be. To add to her troubles, Saffronia feels stuck between two worlds because her mother is Black but she passes as white.
Through life with hate and spite inside her mind
That keep her up to the break of light a lot of times
(I gotta find myself) (3X)
She had to remind herself
They called her Saffronia the unwanted seed
Blood still blue in her vein and still red when she bleeds
(Don't, don't, don't hurt me again) (8X)
Even in examples that aren't as intense as Saffronia, tons of people struggle with skin color and self-image. Do you know anyone who struggles with their identity?
My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
My mouth is like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me?
My name is Sweet Thing
"Sweet Thing," a prostitute, was the most controversial character in the song when it first came out. Several radio stations didn't want to play a song about a sex worker, however non-explicit Simone's lyrics may be.
Simone does not show whether she thinks prostitution is wrong, or just a fact of life. Kweli takes a stronger position with his own modern story about a young woman who trades sex for money in Harlem. He starts by setting the scene:
Teenage lovers sit on the stoops up in Harlem
Holdin' hands under the Apollo marquis dreamin' of stardom
Since they was born the streets is watchin' and schemin'
And now it got them generations facin' deseases
That don't kill you they just got problems
And complications that get you first
Yo, it's getting worse, when children hide the fact that they pregnant
Cuz they scared of giving birth
How will I feed this baby?
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
These lyrics describe the era of Kweli's own childhood, the 1980s, when economic recession, backlash against civil rights, and the spread of both crack cocaine addiction and HIV/AIDS combined to create increasingly devastating conditions in U.S. inner cities. The situation was exacerbated in some ways by the high expectations that some Blacks held onto from the 1960s and 1970s—some people remembered the dream of living in integrated communities with enough resources for all.
But persistently awful conditions in mostly-Black urban areas like Kweli's Brooklyn are probably what leads him to call street kids "the children of the enslaved" even though he's technically talking about the 1980s, not the 1890s. The implication is that Sweet Thing is still enslaved by the conditions she lives in, so "the streets…became her master." Kweli finishes out the verse with a long quote from Sweet Thing herself, who offers her body to anyone who will pay:
They bodies become adult
While they keepin' the thoughts of a child her arrival
Into womanhood was hemmed up by her survival
Now she 25, barely grown out her own
Doin' whatever it takes strippin', workin' out on the block
Up on the phone, talkin' about
(My skin is tan like the front of your hand
And my hair…well my hair's alright whatever way I want to fix it, it's alright it's fine
But my hips, these sweet hips of mine invite you daddy
And when I fix my lips my mouth is like wine)
(From Harlem is where I came, don't worry about my name,
Up on one-two-five they call me Sweet Thing)
Does Kweli do a good job explaining the position Sweet Thing finds herself in? Is this story "reality"?
My skin is brown
my manner is tough
I'll kill the first mother I see
my life has to been too rough
I'm awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me?
My name is Peaches
Nina's fourth woman, Peaches, has been described as a "surly street tough," bitter and angry at the conditions she's grown up in (Source, 179). But she could also be understood as an image of Simone herself—a woman finally reaching the boiling point, fed up and unwilling to take any more victimization.
Kweli interprets this verse more literally, taking it back to the slavery era:
A daughter come up in Georgia, ripe and ready to plant seeds,
Left the plantation when she saw a sign even though she can't read
It came from God and when life get hard she always speak to him,
She'd rather kill her babies than let the master get to 'em
This last line is a direct reference to a famous scene in Toni Morrison's 1987 book about a former slave, Beloved. After surviving horrifying torture and sexual abuse, one of the main characters actually kills her own infant daughter to keep her old slave-master from abusing her daughter. (The murdered daughter comes back as a ghost, and for the record, if the idea of this gives you the creeps, prepare yourself before watching the film. Even the love of Oprah will not get you through that.)
She on the run up north to get across that Mason-Dixon
In church she learned how to be patient and keep wishin',
The promise of eternal life after death for those that God bless
She swears the next baby she'll have will breathe a free breath
and get milk from a free breast,
And love being alive,
Otherwise they'll have to give up being themselves to survive,
Being maids, cleaning ladies, maybe teachers or college graduates, nurses, housewives, prostitutes, and drug addicts
Again, Kweli connects the history of slavery and the image of an escaping slave to the current situation for African-American women, who are still less likely than their white counterparts to receive access higher education or economic advancement.
In conclusion, Kweli paints a picture of a woman who feels the shadow of slavery over her head all her life:
Freedom is the ultimate goal,
life and death is small on the whole, in many ways
I'm awfully bitter these days
'cuz the only parents God gave me, they were slaves,
And it crippled me, I got the destiny of a casualty,
But I live through my babies and I change my reality
Maybe one day I'll ride back to Georgia on a train,
Folks 'round there call me Peaches, I guess that's my name.)
So, what do you think?
(1) Did Kweli's lyrics change your understanding of the relevance of the original version of "Four Women"?
(2) Does Kweli effectively connect modern stories of African-American women to Nina Simone's broad archetypes?
(3) Do the songs do a good job of unpacking the stereotypes surrounding Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches?
(4) Even more broadly, what did the two songs make you think about the impact of the history of slavery on African Americans today?
At least for Simone, the issue of skin color itself was a big focus of "Four Women." By presenting four women of four different skin tones, she wanted not so much to educate people about stereotypes as to give other Black women a framework to question or reject negative ideas about themselves: "All the song did was to tell what entered the minds of most black women in America when they thought about themselves: their complexions, their hair—straight, kinky, natural, which? And what other women thought of them. black women didn't know what the hell they wanted because they were defined by things they didn't control" (Source, 186).