Four women-Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches-after Nina Simone’s own heart, burst through her riveting 1966 ballad. The women are mere archetypes, yet Simone’s vibrant illustrations bring them to life. Then some three decades later Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches are reborn through Talib Kweli’s millennial interpretation of them. The pair indeed gives way to the unsung archetypes of black women. Nonetheless, Simone and Kweli approach these archetypes through significantly diverse methods; Simone’s exposé is broad, unapologetic, freedom-bred, while Kweli gives modern, sympathetic, real-life stories.
The opening verse of “Four Women” brings forth the mental image of “Mammy”-her skin is black, her arms are long, her hair is wooly, her back is strong. Mammy is docile, obedient, the consummate caregiver. Her subservient image now holds a negative connotation; several blacks, even during Simone’s era, consider it offensive and derogatory. Talib Kweli sheds light on Nina Simone’s personal rejection of the Mammy image, “She said if anybody ever called her Auntie she’d burn the whole goddamn place down.” Simone’s version of Aunt Sarah is faceless, while Kweli provides much more physical detail in his anecdotal verse. He alludes to the black woman’s generational change of identity and how other races identify her: “She lived from nigger to colored to Negro to black to Afro then African-American and right back to nigger.” Acceptable terms for describing black people have developed since Nina Simone’s era, yet, as Kweli points out, those unspoken words are still being used today. Simone’s arrangement presents an obvious focus on skin color, as the appreciation of African heritage was a fairly new practice in the mid 1960s. However, Kweli’s rendition of Aunt Sarah leans more closely to a focus on said heritage rather than skin color (i.e. the mentioning of dread locks, a head wrap, and comparison to Harriet Tubman). Nevertheless, both Kweli and Simone effectively portray this recurring archetype-Mammy, Aunt Jemima, Big Momma, Madea, Aunt Sarah.
Saffronia-a name as beautiful as the rain. The mixed girl archetype has maintained relevance from the slavery era into the Jim Crow era into modern-day society. She longs for acceptance, but that proves in vain for a woman stretched between two worlds, black and white. Simone’s description of Saffronia is geared more towards slavery and Jim Crow, in that it was legal and common for white men to rape and impregnate black women. The products of their union would often be so fair-skinned that he or she could often “pass” for white, hence the yellow-skinned Saffronia. Women of mixed race develop a complex wherein they feel displaced, not black enough, yet not white enough. Nonetheless, Simone’s Saffronia would likely prefer to “pass”…as a means of survival, security, or socioeconomic progression. By Kweli’s era, rape and sexual assault (white on black) no longer outnumbers miscegenation. Yes, rape prevails as a common and unfortunate occurrence throughout the country, but it is not, by any means, the “cause” of biracial children. Therefore in a millennial illustration of Saffronia, the original “between two worlds” dilemma should be preserved, but the injustice of her conception is not as feasible.
Sweet Thing, the seductive archetype, is the one for which Nina Simone gives the least amount of personal opinion; perhaps to her, prostitution is a fact of life. Simone’s pronunciation of Sweet Thing’s name is revealing enough to personify her hustle and her persona. Simone, like Kweli, portrays Sweet Thing as a daughter of the streets with a childlike mentality, “Whose little girl am I? Anyone who has money to buy.” However, Talib Kweli’s approach is far more detailed and sympathetic. He provides Sweet Thing with a back story-she is a second-hand victim of the crack and AIDS epidemics, she is a slave to her circumstances, selling her body is what she can control-not her oppression, not her conditions, not her education, not her blackness.
The mad black woman archetype, Peaches, is fed up with her conditions; she is broke, busted, and disgusted. The final verse of either song demonstrates the struggle for freedom, equality, and progression that black women have been at the forefront of since the slavery era. Kweli connects Peaches’s attitude directly to the horrors of slavery, but his Peaches is not as bitter, not as angry, not as bad as that of Simone. Simone’s Peaches is uncompromising, unwilling to endure anymore oppression or victimization-likely an image of Nina Simone herself. Both interpretations imply the image of slavery is hanging over the head of black women; will they ever escape its shadow and reach the socioeconomic or educational feats of white women? Peaches cannot answer that question-all she knows is her anger, her pain, her bitterness, her militancy, her blackness.
Both versions of “Four Women” expose the stereotypes of the black woman in America. Talib Kweli’s gets personal, modern, and compassionate in his adaptation. Simone-over a simple piano, bass guitar, and organ-provides the black woman a gateway into rejecting, questioning, or accepting negative stereotypes about herself. Listening to Simone’s “Four Women”, a black woman can look in the mirror and see Mammy, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, or Peaches. Simone articulates the complexities and layers of the black woman because she is living it-her account is personal, from the inside looking out. Talib Kweli’s present-day stories are touching, current, and plausible, but because the audience knows he is not and never will walk in the shoes of Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing or Peaches, his rendition triggers a less emotional response than Simone’s. Nevertheless, both artists manage to capture the essence of the black woman’s struggle with her hair, her skin tone, her attitude, her predicament, her blackness.