What Do They Call Me?

Photo of Ms Neemah Ahamed
This post critically compares Audre Lorde’s poetry to Nina Simone’s lyrics to ‘Four Women’ in order to underline the urgent need for the tales of black women to be heard and for intersectional oppression experienced in relation to race, gender, socioeconomic status and identity to be addressed. It is written by
Neemah Ahamed, a Doctoral Researcher at Sussex Law School currently investigating how the #MeToo Movement has influenced the ways in which black women who have been sexually harassed in the workplace seek access to justice in England and Wales.

 

I am not free while any woman is unfreeAudre Lorde

 

Audre Lorde, born in 1934, was a black writer, feminist and civil rights activist whose writings advocated what is now called intersectionality, a word coined by black feminist, Kimberle Crenshaw in the 1980s to recognise that social identities are multiple, and oppressions overlap. Lorde’s wordsbecause I am woman, because I am black, because I am a lesbian, because I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet…’ highlight this intersectionality and the different features that shape us as women. Lorde’s words can be contrasted with Nina Simone’s lyrics to ‘Four Women’, where the key message lies between the lines, and what remains unsaid about the women is a powerful portrayal of how much more women are, and their struggle to define themselves. Simone, just one year older than Lorde, was as a jazz singer-pianist celebrated as the ‘priestess of soul’ and famously known for ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’ from the 1968 musical, Hair. She used her gospel, blues and jazz to express her views about black feminism, love, self-reflection and intersectionality. Her lyrics vocalised the mistreatment and pain of her people and this was felt through her performances. Simone demonstrated that an artist’s duty was to ‘reflect the times’, and both she and Lorde achieved this. Their words underline the urgent need for the stories of black women to be heard and for the oppression experienced in relation to race, gender, socio-economic status and identity to be addressed.

 

Simone’s song, ‘Four Women’ not only articulated the history of black women in America during the civil rights movement but was also a potent emission of pent up breath, expressing the repressed and mounting anger which is currently being unleashed in the protests taking place in the US. As Professor Akwugo Emejulu writes in The Conversation, the protests are a gathering of ‘the ghosts of our past, present and future’ and what is being witnessed is an exhalation of fire. ‘Four Women’ was a form of civil rights protest and a feminist anthem. While Lorde wrote for ‘women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified’, Simone sang for the unheard wrath of women over their economic and sexual oppression.

 

The song is divided into four verses and compresses two centuries of black history. Each verse describes a black woman archetype of her period, telling the story of the women’s suffering and by naming them, humanising them. The first, Aunt Sarah, who has ‘black’ skin and ‘woolly’ hair and is ‘strong enough to take the pain inflicted again and again’, represents the loyal and resilient servant working in a white household. The second, Saffronia, has ‘yellow skin’ and is the daughter of a ‘rich and white’ man who ‘forces (her) mother late one night’, symbolising the history of rampant rape by white men of black women. The third, Sweet Thing, has skin the colour of ‘tan’ and ‘hips that invite’, and portrays the image of a sexually arousing jezebel which can be traced to slavery in the Southern states. This exploitation was further advanced by European colonisers who saw these women ‘not only as easy sexuality but laziness, bestiality, savagery and violence. The fourth woman, Peaches, whose parents were slaves, has ‘brown skin’ and would ‘kill the first mother (she) sees. Her fearlessness and rage represent the ‘sassy black woman’ who it seems, is the most similar to Simone herself.

 

The bold lyrics highlighted the struggles faced by women who had no control over their bodies, sexuality or fate, not because they were black or women but as Crenshaw suggests, because they were ‘black women’. Simone’s song conveys how black women were defined in conflicting terms. Aunt Sarah is the robust mammy. Saffronia’s ‘long hair’ differentiates her from Aunt Sarah, and she belongs to ‘two different worlds’ because of her white father. Sweet Thing’s ‘mouth like wine’ suggests her supposed promiscuity. And Peaches shocks with her ‘unremorseful honesty’.

 

The lyrics resonated with black women at the time, reflecting what they thought about themselves and in particular, as Simone points out, ‘their complexions, their hair and what other women thought of them. For Simone the purpose of the song was to emphasise that ‘black women didn’t know what the hell they wanted, because they were defined by things they didn’t control and until they had the confidence to define themselves, they’d be a mess forever’. Her words can be compared with those of Lorde who said that she had to ‘define myself for myself’, and for this reason Simone’s lyrics reverberated through the lives of black women as an exhortation to assert their entitlement to power.

 

When the song was released in 1966, it was wrongly interpreted by some black audiences as offensive to women and radio stations banned DJs from playing it. The song exposed a truth that many people including black men weren’t ready to accept at the time. The ban caused more outrage than the song had generated, and was eventually lifted. However, the controversy around the song did not stop Simone from performing it to other audiences, following the spirit of Lorde’s words, ‘I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood’. The poetry and music of these two 20th Century artists remains as relevant today as ever and reminds us of the on-going struggles of black women as reflected in the Black Lives Matter Movement.

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