Lift Every Voice: “Four Women” and Me

Photo: Jati Lindsay

When I was fourteen, my mother caught me lumbering down the hallway toward my room cradling a turntable. The turntable was hers and had been in the family for decades, stored in the basement of our house. I’d never heard any sound come from it. Not at the parties my parents threw or even during holidays. It had been relegated to a decoration no different than the imitation Rodin sculptures and the Black angel figurines my mother had perched on every mantle and side table.

“Where you going with that?” she asked.

“My room.”

“I don’t think it works, and even if it does, you have to attach the receiver and the speakers to hear anything,” she explained to my back, and I could almost hear her head shaking because once again her youngest son was up to something. Tinkering and exploring, trying to figure out how to know more, feel more, about a pastime.

After lugging the rest of the equipment on trips two and three — the receiver and speakers and a box of my mother’s records — I rigged the wires, plugged everything in, flipped the power switch. A yellow glow lit the dial face. A fly buzz came through the speaker foam. I thumbed through the records before finding one with a name I recognized. Nina Simone. I hadn’t heard her music. My parents played all sorts of sounds in our house, from all things Soul, to all things Rock and Roll, but for some reason, never Nina. I’d heard Lauryn Hill reference her in a rap song, and that was enough to make me curious.

I slid the record from its sleeve, set it on the turntable. Then realized I had no idea how to make it spin. I turned every knob, pushed every button, but the sound saucer wouldn’t move.

So, of course, I called my mother for help.

“You got it rigged up right, but the thing is, this is an old belt-drive turntable, son. Meaning, there’s a rubber band attached to a mechanism that moves it. But if the rubber band is worn out, well…I don’t know what to tell you.” She shrugged.

But I wasn’t discouraged. I figured spinning was spinning, and that it didn’t matter if it was automatic or manual. So I placed the needle on the record and spun it with my finger, the sound coming alive like the undead. Like a resurrection, but just for a moment before slowing down, dragging into distortion, only for me to spin it again. And again. And eventually, I heard a sometimes fast, sometimes slow version of a song called “Four Women.” And it was this song, the lyrics to it, that mesmerized me. So much so, that I opened the record sleeve and read the liner notes. Read about Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches, and wondered if my grandmother was any of them. My mother. Wondered about the women who existed in between the four sung about. Learned that song could be more than the songs I’d known, and therefore stories could be more than the ones I’d avoided. It made me think about the Black sliver and the Black whole in a way that required more conversations with my mother. And that — those conversations, about Blackness and worn-out rubber bands attached to mechanisms that help us spin, help us be heard — is all I’ve ever written about since.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynolds, the 2020–2021 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, is the author of Long Way Down, a 2018 Newbery, Coretta Scott King, and Printz honoree; Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, 2021 winner of Britain's CILIP Carnegie Medal; the Track series (all Dlouhy/Atheneum); When I Was the Greatest (Atheneum), for which he won the 2015 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award; and more.

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