Shades of Blackness – Is Appearance It All?


This rendition of Nina Simone’s Four Women by singers Kelly Price, Marsha Ambrosius, Jill Scott, and Ledisi at BET’s Black Girls Rock show attests to the uniqueness, variability, and depth of women.

Black Girls Rock – Four Women

This video opens up with four singers standing on a stage. Each singer is wearing a classy outfit and the color black on some portion of the body. Each singer is a different shade of black and has a different hairstyle than the other. There are pictures of various women including one of Nina Simone, the original writer and singer of the song, flashing on a screen above the singers’ heads. The performers sing a particular verse of the song and end in a powerful stance under one of four colored lights.

Nina Simone’s Four Women was released in 1966 on the jazz singer’s album Wild is the Wild. It tells the story of four unlike African American women who are defined by their hair, skin color, and life experiences but still experiencing the same oppressions. Each woman represents a specific stereotype in society despite the parallels between their race and gender.  Upon reading the lyrics of Four Women, the diverse archetypes of the African-American women become apparent and the stereotypes associated with these representations are all the more observable.

The first woman, Aunt Sarah, represents the appearance and life of an enslaved African American woman. The description of Aunt Sarah emphasizes the strength and resilience of her character as she is, “strong enough to take the pain, inflicted again and again.” This captivating line tells of a woman’s ability to overcome and resist oppression habitually. The second woman, Saffronia, represents the life of a beautiful bi-racial woman who is forced to exist in two diverse worlds. Saffronia’s beauty is characterized by her appearance and her name. Her mother was a slave who was assaulted by her father who was “rich and white,” thus rendering her unable to belong in society. Saffronia’s tale describes the legal nature of the rape of black women by white men and her ability to pass as a means of survival or socioeconomic advancement.

The third woman, Sweet Thing, represents the life of a prostitute. Sweet Thing is a woman who is acknowledged by both races because she offers sexual gratification for acceptance. This is evident by her declaration of, “Whose little girl am I/Anyone who has money to buy,” line within the song. Sweet Thing is willing to belong as “property” to anyone who can afford to buy her. The final woman, Peaches, represents a bitter African American woman who has a tough exterior as a means of survival in this harsh world.  Peaches is bitter about the treatment her ancestors received as slaves and continues to see the continuation of slavery contemporarily. She sees that she is relegated to the same position as her ancestors by virtue of history and the color of her skin. Four Women touches on the issues of oppression and shows how appearances can be deceiving.

Much like Yoruba’s mother, a light-skinned black woman like Saffronia, uses appearance as a means to characterize and assume the personality and life of individual characters in The Cotillion. What she fails to see is that all the characters are in some form oppressed.


Killens, John. The Cotillion. St.Paul: Coffeehouse Press, 2002. Print.

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