|Credit Courtesy New York Public Library.|
My skin is black,” the first woman’s story begins, “my arms are long.” And, to a slow and steady beat, “my hair is woolly, my back is strong.” Singing in a club in Holland, in 1965, Nina Simone introduced a song she had written about what she called “four Negro women” to a young, homogeneously white, and transfixed crowd. “And one of the women’s hair,” she instructed, brushing her hand lightly across her own woolly Afro, “is like mine.” Every performance of “Four Women” caught on film (as here) or disk is different. Sometimes Simone coolly chants the first three women’s parts—the effect is of resigned weariness—and at other times, as on this particular night, she gives each woman an individual, sharply dramatized voice. All four have names. Aunt Sarah is old, and her strong back has allowed her only “to take the pain inflicted again and again.” Sephronia’s yellow skin and long hair are the result of her rich white father having raped her mother—“Between two worlds I do belong”—and Sweet Thing, a prostitute, has tan skin and a smiling bravado that seduced at least some of the eager Dutch listeners into the mistake of smiling, too. And then Simone hit them with the last and most resolutely up to date of the women, improbably named Peaches. “My skin is brown,” she growled ferociously, “my manner is tough. I’ll kill the first mother I see. ’Cause my life has been rough.” (One has to wonder what the Dutch made of killing that “mother.”) If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger.
A lot of black women have been openly angry these days over a new movie about Simone’s life, and it hasn’t even been released. The issue is color, and what it meant to Simone to be not only categorically African-American but specifically African in her features and her very dark skin. Is it possible to separate Simone’s physical characteristics, and what they cost her in this country, from the woman she became? Can she be played by an actress with less distinctively African features, or a lighter skin tone? Should she be played by such an actress? The casting of Zoe Saldana, a movie star of Dominican descent and a light-skinned beauty along European lines, has caused these questions—rarely phrased as questions—to dog the production of “Nina,” from the moment Saldana’s casting was announced to the completed film’s début, at Cannes, in May, at a screening confined to possible distributors. No reviewers have seen it. The film’s director, Cynthia Mort, has been stalwart in her defense of Saldana’s rightness for the role, citing not only the obvious relevance of acting skills but Simone’s inclusion of a range of colors among her own “Four Women”—which is a fair point. None of the women in Simone’s most personal and searing song escape the damage and degradation accorded to their race.
Ironically, “Four Women” was charged with being insulting to black women and was banned on a couple of radio stations in New York and Philadelphia soon after the recording was released, in 1966. The ban was lifted, however, when it produced more outrage than the song. Simone’s husband, Andrew Stroud, who was also her manager, worried about the dangers that the controversy might have for her career, although this was hardly a new problem. Simone had been singing out loud and clear about civil rights since 1963—well after the heroic stand of figures like Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr., but still at a time when many black performers felt trapped between the rules of commercial success and the increasing pressure for racial confrontation. At Motown, in the early sixties, the wildly popular performers of a stream of crossover hits became models of black achievement but had virtually no contact with the movement at all.
Read the rest at The New Yorker