Singer/songwriter Nina Simone recorded the song “Four Women” in 1966, and it quickly became one of the most popular numbers that the woman dubbed the “high priestess of soul” played at concerts around the world. With a slow and haunting melody Simone assumed the voices of four African American women, each burdened in her own way by both gender and by skin color. She sings of Aunt Sarah—a hard-working woman with black skin and “wooly hair”; of the young and “yellow” Saffronia, born as the result of a white man raping her mother; of Sweet Thing, a “tan” prostitute with “hair fine”; and of Peaches, whose “skin is brown” and “manner tough.” Simone brilliantly tells each woman’s painful story, infusing her account with dignity and realism.
A half century later, award-winning actress Gabourey Sidibe—who made her acting debut and was nominated for Oscar and Golden Globe awards for her performance in the 2009 film, Precious—used “Four Women” as a foundation for her first foray into film directing. The Tale of Four, an independently produced short film, follows four black women in our own moment over the course of a single day, as they grapple with issues of sexual violence, police brutality, mass incarceration, and colorism in African American communities.
As March draws to a close, let’s reflect together on the intersections between women’s history Month and February’s black history month. Come watch Sidibe’s Tale of Four and listen to Simone’s “Four Women” and participate in a discussion about black women telling their own stories—on film and in music—across decades. The conversation will be moderated by Ruth Feldstein, professor of History and American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark and Naomi Extra, freelance writer, poet, and doctoral candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.