Harlem Cultural Festival, 1969.
Thulani Davis writes of Nina Simone:
What Simone did for African American women was more liberating than the sweet elegance of her take on “I Love You, Porgy” (delivered without the fake dialect of all its predecessors), the thought-provoking militancy she added to spirituals like “Sinnerman,” or the wicked humor of “Old Jim Crow” and “Go Limp,” or the wonderfully ironic cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s kitsch hit, “I Put a Spell on You.”
First of all, her songs, whether covers or original compositions, always privileged the black woman’s point of view; they spoke for the dispossessed Sister Sadie who cleaned floors or raised children who would never in their lives again treat black women with respect.
Yes, you lied to me all these years/told me to wash and clean my ears/and talk real fine, just like a lady/and you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie.
“See Line Woman” viewed its exotic black female as an object of desire and admiration in a way unknown outside of the black poetry that was its source, or those raunchy blues songs that polite Negroes did not play, which nonetheless lauded the virtues of a full body and brown skin.
My skin is black/My arms are long/My hair is wooly/My back is strong/Strong enough to take the pain/Inflicted again and again/What do they call me?/My name is Aunt Sara. — “Four Women”
It was “Four Women,” an instantly accessible analysis of the damning legacy of slavery, that made iconographic the real women we knew and would become. For African American women it became an anthem affirming our existence, our sanity, and our struggle to survive a culture which regards us as anti-feminine. It acknowledged the loss of childhoods among African American women, our invisibility, exploitation, defiance, and even subtly reminded that in slavery and patriarchy, your name is what they call you. Simone’s final defiant scream of the name Peaches was our invitation to get over color and class difference and step with the sister who said:
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.
For African American women artists of my generation, “Four Women” became the core of works to come, notably Julie Dash’s film of the same name, and it should be regarded a direct ancestor of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. This Simone song was a call heard by Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and countless artists who come to mind as women who gave us a whole generation of the stories of Aunt Sara, Safronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches.
May the High Priestess’s cult widen to take in the unwise who made her as outrageous as she was.
Read the rest of this article over at The Village Voice.