Thursday, January 22, 2009

Becoming a Post-Racial America? Part 2

The day before President Obama took the oath of office I acknowledged in my blog the magnitude of the historical moment and that it was, truly, evidence we have made great advancement as a country when it comes to race. However, I also wrote, “The question remains as to how much farther we must yet travel to truly be “one people” and ‘one America’”.

At least some of the pundits would have us to think that the trip is not that far, proclaiming we are already in a “post-racial” America. Certainly the President did not say or do anything that might lead us to believe otherwise. Yet, the reminder of darker times was still there as evidenced in the Inaugural’s closing prayer by Rev Joseph Lowery, which he concluded with:

“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.

Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.” [Endquote]

To this there was a resounding Amen from the audience, which Rev. Lowery had them repeat two more times for emphasis.

As I heard the last line of his prayer and noted the laughter of the crowd as he spoke this refrain, I could not help but think that we may still be bogged down too much in the past; and, that such old-school rhetoric is not helpful as we move forward. It appeared the President agrees with this as he seemed to visibly wince as these lines were delivered.

The thoughts expressed by Rev Lowery are not new. They are found in songs and choruses of the past. Some of which became part of the history of the civil rights effort. One is the song Black, Brown, and White written by, blues singer, Big Bill Broonzy in 1949 as an attack on racism:

This little song that I'm singin' about,
People, you all know that it's true,
If you're black and gotta work for livin',
Now, this is what they will say to you,
They says: "If you was white, You's alright,
If you was brown, Stick around,
But if you's black, oh, brother, Get back, get back, get back."

I was in a place one night,
They was all havin' fun,
They was all buyin' beer and wine,
But they would not sell me none.
They said: "If you was white, You's alright,
If you was brown, You could stick around,
But as you's black, hmm, hmm, brother, Get back, get back, get back."

I went to an employment office,
I got a number and I got in line,
They called everybody's number,
But they never did call mine.
They said: "If you was white, You's alright,
If you was brown, You could stick around,
But as you's black, hmm, hmm, brother, Get back, get back, get back."

Me and a man was workin' side by side,
Now, this is what it meant:
They was payin' him a dollar an hour,
And they was payin' me fifty cent.
They said: "If you was white, You'd be alright,
If you was brown, You could stick around,
But as you's black, oh, brother, Get back, get back, get back."

I helped win sweet victories,
With my plow and hoe,
Now, I want you to tell me, brother,
What you gonna do 'bout the old Jim Crow?
Now, if you is white, You's alright,
If you's brown, Stick around,
But if you's black, oh, brother, Get back, get back, get back.

A website dedicated to Bill Broonzy researched these lyrics and offers that its roots go even further back (the following is from

“It was an old rhyme in black oral culture before Bill and others changed the subject from intra-racial to inter-racial color caste, by editing it. To quote from a review of mine in Blues & Rhythm:

Big Bill abridges an old rhyme, which John Cowley suggests he may have got from Zora Neale Hurston via Alan Lomax. In Hurston's Story In Harlem Slang (American Mercury, July 1942), one pimp says to another: Man, I don't deal in no coal. Know what I tell 'em? If they's white, they's right! If they's yellow, they's mellow! If they's brown, they can stick around. But if they come black, they better git way back! (Im indebted to Konrad Nowakowski for this reference.)

Personally, I suspect that the first line originally started 'If they's bright...' (light-skinned black) rather than 'white.' In other words, it originally expressed internalized racism, as Brenda Dixon Gottschild notes in Dancing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era¹ (New York, Palgrave, 2000; p. 135):

Internalized racism ensures that the values encapsulated in this vernacular rhyme serve as an insidious, self-fulfilling prophecy:

If you're white, you're right.If you're yellow, you're mellow.If you're brown, stay down [sometimes changed to 'stick around']But if you're black, stay back.

Her endnote is interesting:

According to folklorist Roger Abrahams, the words to this refrain, as sung by the Almanac Singers in the 1940s, did not include the second line, 'If you're yellow, you're mellow,' but the group was responsible for spreading the 3-line version of the rhyme in a song frequently performed in northern, leftist labor movement concerts. (Telephone conversation, 1 December 1999) The origin of the saying is unclear, but it seems probable that it is African American.” [Endquote]

The Civil Rights movement owes much to Rev Lowery and others who, early on in the movement, joined with Dr. King and helped define and establish the course that has lead us to the election of an African-American President. Without question, much of the progress we have made as a nation was built on their labors.

It is also true that history is not something we should ignore or forget. It reminds us where we came from and where we have been. It can also remind us of the roads that must not be taken again and point us toward a better way and better days. However, it is not always something to be clung to.

If we are going to truly become post-racial then we have much to do and the rhetoric of old must be done away with. Perhaps, to move forward, we may need to quit singing the songs of the past. This is particularly true in the Church and among those who would take the mantle of Reverend, Pastor, Church leader, Christian – no matter what the pigmentation of one’s skin.

No comments: