Updated: Jul 21, 2022
“...Both nonwhite and woman/ What did i see to be except myself/ i made it up/ here on this bridge between/ starshine and clay”
-Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me” (1933)
Nina Simone's "Four Women": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdM5gGHCT5g
Erykah Badu's "Bag Lady": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqN0jsSeqPo
Starshine and Clay: An Artistic Criticism of Nina Simone’s “Four Women” (1966) and Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” (2000)
Feminity is typically understood through its relationship with masculinity. In Simone de Beauvoir’s famous 1949 work, The Second Sex, de Beauvoir founds her exploration of defining “what is woman”, by establishing that in the status quo men typically define women. With de Beauvoir being one of the most highly regarded feminist theorists, this understanding has been the dominant thought of many feminist writers who strive to understand how the concept of “woman” or rather, femininity, has been fashioned. By giving men the role of the Subject and women the role of the Other, de Beauvoir writes how “it is not the Other, who defining itself as Other, defines the one; the Other is posited as Other by the One positing itself as One” (de Beauvoir). We see with de Beauvoir that women as “Other” are not given the tools to fashion themselves autonomously, yet humanity has the ability to define themselves. It is this model of men fashioning women that is commonly accepted, expanded, or in some cases entirely rejected by modern feminists. The problem here is that women have not been given exclusive control on constructing their identity — even amongst modern feminist thought. However, there is one community of women who have taken on the project of fashioning themselves — black women. Specifically in America, black women have taken on the role of self-fashioning their feminity due to decades of “ungendering” and negative controlling images. These terms are derived from literary critic Hortense J. Spillers, who in her 1987 essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” strove to theorize how the specific African-American female gender was constructed. In doing so, she speaks to how the institution of slavery and its subsequent brutality and vulnerability has caused black women to be “ungendered”, or separated from their own body and mind through internal violations and external acts of torture (Spillers). To Spillers, this ungendering forces black women to gender themselves and allows them an opportunity to rewrite the narratives of commonly held, controlling, stereotypical images. They can reinvent and self-fashion. Hortense Spillers is among many black female artists who have taken on what I call the “womanist project” of self-fashioning. Championed by author Alice Walker, to be womanist is to represent the feminism of black women that may not be consistent with that of feminists like Simone de Beauvoir. In Alice Walker’s essay “In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens”, she challenges the reader, as well as herself, to answer the question “what did it mean for a black woman to be an artist is our grandmothers’ time?”(Walker 233). As a self-proclaimed womanist, Walker’s main objective was to shed light on the lived experiences of black women. To Walker, there is inherent artistry sown in the fabric of black women. Therefore, for Walker to ask what does it mean for a black woman to be an artist, she is essentially asking what does it mean for a black woman to be herself. Therefore, this paper is about how black women have self-fashioned through art that goes against the grain of feminist thought and represents how women can self-fashion their own identity. In no way will I be proposing an answer to Walker’s question directly, but rather, I will argue in favor of a specific framework that one should take in their exploration of the womanist project. To do this I will first analyze the form, impact, and performance of Nina Simone’s “Four Women” and Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” which are both songs that strive to elucidate the experience of a black woman and their femininity. From there I will apply Eve’s Sedgwick's formulations of “paranoid readings” and “reparative readings” and argue how “Four Women” is more paranoid, whereas “Bag Lady” is more reparative. Overall, I will conclude my argument by claiming that together these two songs are both needed for a complete example of the “womanist self-fashioning” that is more nuanced than the commonly held standard of representation.
Nina Simone’s jazz hit “Four Women” is regarded as a tribute to honor the tragic deaths of the four black girlsthat died during the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing of 1963 (Northlight). Simone was a black artist whose talents were in singing, songwriting, composing, and civil rights activism. “Four Women” is as narrative as it is lyrical. The beat relies solely on a simple chord progression which allows for a listener to focus on the story that she is telling. During the 1968 performance of the song in Juan-les-Pins, Simone explicitly challenges the audience to understand her picture of four different black women. She is sure to use “picture” singularly as a way to allude to a certain singularity and cohesion of the woman from the onset of the piece. Each woman is given their section of the song, with the audience only hearing the name of the woman in the last stanza of the corresponding verse. The story of the four women is a characterization of the struggle of black women but with more foundation and depth. When Nina sings about Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Things, and Peaches, she is invoking the ungendered images and stereotypes— which Spillers also speaks to—and reorients them. In the song, Nina Simone utilizes the controlling images that are often used in disservice to black women and turning them on their head. For example, the first verse introduces the audience to “Aunt Sarah”, who is described more generally as a way to be more relatable and familiar. Aunt Sarah is not given much of a narrative but she is described in a way that utilizes language that is often used to stereotype African-Americans. With the other three characters like Saffronia, Sweet Things, and Peaches, we are given images with background, inner conflicts, and motivations, plus a deeper understanding of their social location. One instance where Nina Simone reframes the stereotype very directly is with Peaches. Nina Simone sings how “[Peaches is] awfully bitter these days/ because my parents were slaves” (Simone). Here Simone does the work of taking the stereotype of the angry black woman and giving her bitterness context. However with this, “Four Women” is a more paranoid reading of the black feminine experience. Although it gives a more in-depth and substantive understanding of the struggle of black women, it revolves exclusively around oppression without a mention of liberation or how a black woman can transcend their oppressors. “Four Women” works to provide a new example of how a woman can self-fashion because it represents a black woman manipulating stereotypes and putting them into her own voice. Nonetheless, this song alone is not a sufficient example of the womanist project because the song does not mention any tools for how a woman can self-fashion. From this lack, one can look to other black artists of different generations to fill in this void: artists like Erykah Badu.
Thirty-four years later, the tradition of telling the story of black women through art was continued with Erykah Badu’s single “Bag Lady” from her 2000 neo-soul album Mama’s Gun. The song coupled with its music video are introduced to us by Badu as a poemeography. With this framing, and with the depictions of a group of women in different colors of the rainbow, Badu strives to pay homage to Ntozake Shange’s 1976 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. Just like in the play, Badu features women of many different backgrounds and motivations that come together to form a coherent group. The play was revolutionary due to how it gave context to the struggles that the characters place, yet also spoke to how they heal from those experiences. “Bag Lady” is a cautionary extended metaphor about a woman who carries many bags with her. Badu begins her song with a warning, “Bag Lady,” she sings, “you gon hurt your back” (Badu). She tells her that the pain is from the way she is dragging her bags, with “bags” or “baggage” being a common symbol of lingering pain or past struggle and oppression. She then sings how “all of them bags” will get in her way and that she should “pack light” (Badu). The term “pack light” can be interpreted in two ways. First, it can be seen to mean that the “Bag Lady” must shed some of her baggage. Yet also, this could relate to portrayals of “light” like how Audre Lorde uses it in her book Poetry Is Not A Luxury (1977). To Lorde, “the quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has a direct bearing upon the product by which we live. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized” (Lorde). On one hand, Badu puts the burden on the lady to change how she navigates and gives her ownership of her struggle. On the other, Badu is telling the audience that the bag lady can pack with her the necessary tools to scrutinize life and form independent ideas. Badu focuses on the liberation of black women and connects them with the tools of their self-fashioning. Not only is this done through the lyricism but also the visuals of the music video. In the music video alone, Badu provides many examples of how a black woman can self-fashion. In the video, the troupe of women in different colors are shown educating themselves, taking care of themselves, and eating “soul food”. There are also images of them leading their own paths after being rejected and passing down empty bags to their children. These scenes give a sense of new laws of living that speak to more autonomy and control of identity. Here the women create routines that allow them to have ownership of their baggage and in turn let it go. In this way “Bag Lady” is more reparative than it is paranoid because it serves to undertake a different range of effects, ambitions, and risks (Sedgwick). “Bag Lady” speaks to a way out of the status quo that empowers women, not just shedding light on their oppression. However, where the song lacks in completing the womanist project is that it blatantly calls for a rejection of the past. It is this quality in the song that doesn’t exclusively uphold the womanist tradition. Walker’s challenge includes answers that help women understand their past lineage, past art, and past struggles, while also hoping to take that knowledge for a developed self-fashioning. Erykah Badu characterizes the past as something that a woman should let go of. In this way a paranoid reading like Nina Simone’s helps to provide a more holistic example of the womanist project in tandem with the reparative. A nuanced understanding of the past is important for adding depth and substance to the process of constructing identity, but it is also important to include reparative tools in the discussion for the definition to effectively be owned/utilized by the community that strives to construct it.
The womanist project of identifying a definition for a black woman is very important for the progression of the black community and reimagining the controlling images that have previously been damaging. It is also important as a way to heighten the predominant feminist thought by showing a way in which women can fashion themselves. The risk of not satisfying this standard is the perpetuation of images of black women like how they are identified by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his infamous study on the black family, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” dubbed the “Moynihan Report”. Reports like his have Therefore, a womanist must first deconstruct the controlling image and provide new ways of being to self-fashion themselves. This is part of the beauty of black women artists. Through art, they can create a platform of resistance to an oppressive power structure that strives to take away their power of narrative. Although theorists like de Beauvoir are revolutionary in their contributions to feminist theory, her work lacks the representation of a black feminine narrative. In this way, representation provides for solutions to the gendering problems that may have historically been seen as given, or even inevitable. Through the incorporation of different lived experiences, feminist epistemology is given new perspectives that contribute of knowledge of women. Concurrently, this representation cannot just be white feminist, but intersectional, which gives the womanist a seat at the table to speak the truth. This is what representation allows for — a challenge to the notion that femininity is understood through its relationship with masculinity.
Badu , Erykah. “Erykah Badu – Bag Lady.” Genius, 21 Nov. 2000, genius.com/Erykah-badu-bag-lady-lyrics.
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Sedgwick, Eve. “Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity.” Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You | Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity | Books Gateway | Duke University Press, Duke University Press, 2002, read.dukeupress.edu/books/book/799/chapter-abstract/137442/Paranoid-Reading-and-Reparative-Reading-or-You-re?redirectedFrom=fulltext.
Simone , Nina. “Nina Simone – Four Women.” Genius, 1 Jan. 1966, genius.com/Nina-simone-four-women-lyrics.
Spillers , Hortense J. “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/464747.pdf.
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Notes  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50974/wont-you-celebrate-with-me  Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley  “I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name. “Peaches” and “Brown Sugar”, “Sapphire” and “Earth Mother”, “Aunty”, “Granny”” (Spillers)  In reference to the Moynihan Report, “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so far out of line with the rest of American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male, and in consequence, on a great number of Negro women as well” (Spillers)