Lyrics for "Four Women"
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
My name is Aunt Sarah
My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
But my father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
And what do they call me?
My name is Saffronia
My name is Saffronia
My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
My mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me?
My name is Sweet Thing
My name is Sweet Thing
My skin is brown
My manner is tough
I'll kill the first mother I see!
My life has been rough
I'm awfully bitter these days
Because my parents were slaves
What do they call me?
My name is Peaches!
A user on the Genius website made the following annotation about Nina's song:
"Written by Nina Simone, 'Four Women' was released in 1966 on her album Wild is the Wind. In the song, she creates a genealogy of black women through slavery to the present. Four characters, Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches represent different types of black women and the lasting legacy of slavery.Though each woman speaks for herself, she describes her physical traits and the way she is seen and treated in society, and what 'they' call her."
In addition to seeing the four women as a genealogy, I want to also posit the idea that the four women are sisters because I think often we look at genealogy from a generational standpoint. Yes, the women can represent how black women in America and the lasting legacy of slavery, but I find that these four women all exist at the same linear time. Note how the fourth woman says, "Because my parents were slaves." Her anger and brown skin cannot, linearly, come last. For centuries, black American women have spanned the color spectrum and this song is showing that regardless of where we are on that spectrum, there are pitfalls. Black is black. It's not about skin or hair and creating hierarchies in our own communities does little but contribute to furthering the fragmentation of culture.
The Song: My Take on Her Music & Lyrics
“Music, it’s as close to God as I know.” - Nina Simone
In this song, Ms. Simone marvelously creates a deeply haunting emotional pull on the heart and soul of any careful or conscientious listener. With the measured control of her singing voice and the beautifully crafted musical accompaniment of her piano talents, she creates a powerful short story of four black American women. This story is packed with historical and cultural significance that catapult it beyond the confinement of 1960s America.
“Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music.” - Nina Simone
With no lyrical refrain or chorus, the musical chords between each verse are all that transition and prepare the listener for what Simone will say next. This type of wordless transition is not common in popular music - but, it is a component of classical music and we see how Simone is finding a unique way to build her own artistic style. Simone's purposefully silent voice can be seen as a commentary on the forced silence of black women's words for generations because of white supremacist notions that only value history in terms of written legacies. By leaving the listeners with naught but the suspenseful anticipation of what to expect next, Simone speaks - so powerfully - with her silence. Black history and culture is represented as the music - it is constant and continuously flowing. Written literacy of black people is represented with the lyrics - when present they are beautiful and poetic, but still of a code that may seem fragmented by Western standards of knowing. The code breakers are black women who know what she means and who know what is to come even in those silent breaks of the song. Simone performs all of these women with heart because to some degree or another, she is all of these women.
Aunt Sarah represents the objectification of black bodies as not feeling pain. Saffronia represents the desire of a black woman to pass between both worlds, not truly feeling she belongs in either. The rape of her mother is a commentary on the preoccupation of some black people with light skin, Simone is saying that "lightness" originated as large scale rapes of enslaved women, like Aunt Sarah, who "take the pain, again and again." In first light, I read that pain against her back to be whippings and beatings, but in conjunction with Saffronia's tale - the "pain" takes a double meaning. Continuing in the vein of sexual exploitation, Sweet Thing is perhaps the most obvious example of colonized mentality, as David Dabydeen would say, "The Pornography of Empire." Simone is referencing the sexualization of black female bodies even at very young ages. Black girls are denied childhood. (More on that concept here). Peaches, a culmination of these histories is fed-up and angry. She wishes to enact the violence that has been systematically heaped upon the black experience on "the first mother I see," as in short for "motherfucker," as in anyone who tries to get in her way.
As I think about "Four Women," black womanhood, America, and the resilient spirit of Imoinda, I was struck by how much the women in my immediate family came to mind.
Many interpret the song to be generational, each of the women representing a different era of sorts in American cultural identity of what it meant to be a black woman. I also agree with this reading of Simone's art because my own family embodies these varying arrays of difference in skin tone and hair and this affects our perceptions and performances of blackness. Joanna Goldstein Mills, my great-great grandmother, could have passed as white with her light skin and straight black hair. Her daughter, Elizabeth Temple, my great-grandmother was brown skinned and had fine curly hair. Her daughter, Mary Katherine McKenzie, my grandmother, was dark brown/black skinned in her youth and her hair was coarser than that of Granny's. My mother is yellow skinned with the coarsest hair of them all. So, I can see how quickly one family inhabits all four women.
Top Row: Joanna Goldstein Mills
Middle Row: Elizabeth Temple and Clara Denman (sisters, Joanna Mills their mother)
Bottom Row: Dorothy Jones and Mary K. McKenzie (sisters, Elizabeth Temple their mother)
Responses & Reactions: Four Sisters
Daughters of Mary K. McKenzie
"I heard a few of our women there. Joanne. Clara. Granny was probably the 2nd generation after slavery, born in 1899. Being half Jewish, she would have been too pretty for some people to accept."
"I hadn't heard it before. It made me think about how black women are different and going through different struggles. Like me and my 3 sisters. We had different lives in the same household."
"I think that Granny would have understood it (the song) best. Aunt Dorothy would have sang it best. Mama would have known about Nina best. They were all brought up with the confusion of skin tone as an asset and or a curse. We still fall victim to it and will probably still all be untangling the web for years to come. It's like a bullet wound that may be better left alone sometimes because it is so deep that trying to remove it does more damage. The surgeon may not fully know how to best treat it because there hasn't been a proven method of cure."
"It was good! It reminded me of how Aunt Dorothy believed being light-skinned was better growing up. She liked that about Marcus. It [was] strange how Mama thought that Clara was so much darker than the rest of us when she's not that dark! Now, I wished that I were African dark. Thinking about who set the standard society looked of looks up to. Thank God that people seem to be using the brain in their heads and seeing history for the mess (influence...) it's been allowed to inflict on the generations. It's coming around!!"
My Mama (Kathy)
"Nina Simone had a way of stirring up emotions that were feelings one didn't want to feel. Sometimes you would just like to be you. I remember hearing Granny and Mama talk about Nina with a slight twinge of: We wish she'd leave well enough alone. But I got the idea that they were proud of Nina Simone. Nina was a rough, no sugar-coating protestor. She made us very proud and we understood that she understood our suffering. Lena Horne was more mainstream, entertaining and easier on the psyche. P.S. Those skin tones, and names she used would have been common in the black community then."
"Yes, I had heard the song before. I researched her a few years ago after looking for the Banana Dancer Josephine Baker who adopted a diverse set of kids. I like the song; I admire the courageous way she performed it and her clear-cut, single-minded purpose that enabled Nina to give her gift. it wasn't easy to live, let alone be Black and in the entertainment business."
How do you think your family would react to this song?
In this poem, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers gives another type of voice to “Peaches,” the last character of Nina Simone’s song, Four Women. Jeffers says, “or the last of the line, broken-Peaches- dueling the air with her fist.” Peaches is the last of the line of four women that Simone sings about and some have interpreted these women to all be related to each other, and Peaches is the most audibly angry. Jeffers ends this short poem with the lines, “Here, one of your four women, Nina./ What marks her mocked, mocking horizon?/ Stilled, she sighs over a small,/ freed something./ Quickened, that woman bends, rises, bends:/ another row.” Freedom comes in small batches and gives these women the life and strength to carry on, ploughing the terrain for those who are to come after. What do you think of Jeffers poem? Leave your own in the comments if you'd like!
On the blog-site, shine.forharriet.com, editor Kimberly Foster posted a video clip from the 2011 Black Girls Rock Awards. Foster captioned it, "four of our favorite songstresses performed a striking rendition of Nina Simone's 'Four Women.' The women offered mind-blowing dynamics, and Ledisi's ending was the perfect punctuation." When I visited the site, the video of their performance wasn't working, so, above, I have linked to an audio of it on Youtube. Foster did, however, include this screenshot.
The choice of having four different black women sing each of the verses is an example of performance of performance. Simone, performed the four women all by herself - giving us the sense that she embodies all of those stories because black women, regardless of our skin tone or hair textures, are the descendants and amalgamation of all these traits. We range internally against the spectrum of being human, just as our hair and skin colors range from the richest blacks and browns to that of porcelain white. Nina's voice brought that to life, and now these fabulous divas pay homage and add a new dimension to the performance of blackness by soulfully sharing their interpretations.
In this series of blog posts you will find a lot of information about and interpretation of Nina Simone's song, "Four Women." What is important to keep in mind, is that I see these women in Nina's song within the context of Black Atlantic studies on the issue of Modernity and Enlightenment thinking as a by-product of chattel slavery that is too often overlooked. After the slave rebellion, Imoinda dies with her progeny, but she opts to have a noble death at the hands of her beloved rather than be relegated back into the slave system of Suriname. Yet, her story is told through the eyes of a white narrator and I think her spirit gets flattened. It is our job as responsible scholars to bring the complexity and richness of her spirit to life. Looking at black women in American society, we see the colorful, energetic, and lively spirits of a people who have overcome so much and still fight to reach that mountaintop. I want to say that Nina Simone certainly possessed this unapologetic spirit and has offered her talents as a means of social justice work.