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?