In 2009: Translating Joseph Lowery’s Inaugural Benediction

I thought I was done with my look back at 2009 with this morning’s post, but a few minutes ago I saw something that simply demands response. Yesterday, the Boston Herald published an opinion piece from columnist Joe Fitzgerald called Looking at ’09 failures can make more perfect ’10. In this article, he scolds Rev. Joseph Lowery for his inaugural benediction in January. Fitzgerald does a fabulous job of missing the point, as you can see in this looooong post from January. (Of course, today Fitzgerald named John McCain his man of the year, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that he missed the point.)

As I was preparing my post on the inauguration, I found that there was one part that needed more room than the rest and decided to post it in the morning. But after seeing the venom being directed at Rev. Joseph Lowery for his benediction, I thought it better to put it up tonight. Here is the benediction that impressed me so much:

Now I’ve been in enough churches to know that a good preacher knows when to inject some humor, and it seemed to me that that’s all Rev. Lowery was doing when he ended the benediction with this:

…we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around [laughter] … when yellow will be mellow [laughter] … when the red man can get ahead, man [laughter] … and when white will embrace what is right.

Rev. Joseph Lowery: An American Visionary
Rev. Joseph Lowery: An American Visionary

Others didn’t see it that way.

It’s interesting to me that so many white folks found this offensive. We’ve certainly got a long enough history of being the oppressor, of not embracing what is right. We’ve demanded that someone who is black sit in back, we’ve told someone who is brown not to stick around. I mean seriously, this is recent recorded history. Is there no collective memory in this country?

But I knew it had to be more than Rev. Lowery just stringing together a few rhymes all on his own. His experience as the Dean of the Civil Rights Movement demands that I give him the benefit of that doubt, so I started digging.

The first thing I found was the song Black, Brown, and White (1951) by blues singer Big Bill Broonzy. This is verse four.

Me and a man was workin’ side by side
This is what it meant
They was paying him a dollar an hour,
and they was paying me fifty cent
They said, “If you was white, ‘t should be all right,
if you was brown, could stick around,
but as you black, hmm boy, get back, get back, get back”.

So yep, here we have a song from right before the Civil Rights movement went into full swing. But maybe there’s more still. Next I found the blog Diary of an Anxious Black Woman and her post from today. In it, she mentions the little rhyme.

For all those who did not get the cultural allusion, and believe that only white people were being chastised for failing to do what’s right, Reverend Lowery was referring to a childhood rhyme about racial hierarchy:

If you’re white, you’re all right
If you’re yellow, you’re mellow
If you’re brown, stick around
But if you’re black,
Get back!

In short, he specifically asked that, in this “new era,” we dismantle the system of white privilege and hierarchy and truly make room for a multiracial America based on racial equality. Unlike those who’ve been calling for a “Postracial” America, in the wake of President Obama, Reverend Lowery reminded us that our goal is really to move towards a “Postracist” America. I’d like to see our first African American and 44th President of the United States committed to the same goal.

YES! I knew there must be more to it! And here we have someone else who knows what it is! I love the internet!!!

(I know this post is getting long, but I think the next part’s worth it. Besides, brevity has never been my strong suit.)
But I still wanted to see more, and I found more in the book Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore, a collection exploring African American folklore edited by Alan Dundes and originally published in 1973.

The following is an excerpt from As Crinkly as Yours by Eldridge Cleaver. (Italics denotes commentary by the editor.)

There were deeply imbedded [sic] in the thinking and folklore of the race such adages and beliefs as: “If you’re white you’re all right; if you’re brown stick around; but if you’re black—GET BACK!” And some of these same old sayings are still current in the Negro community.*

Think on it: this was the era of the camera. Negroes saw photographs, paintings and portraits in which the beauty of the Caucasian was extolled saturatingly throughout the land. Negroes witnessed beauty contests in which Caucasian men and women were held up and proclaimed the most beautiful creatures that God had fashioned and placed upon the face of the earth (it never dawning on the Negroes that it was the Caucasians themselves who were pinning roses on their own lapels). Great numbers of Negroes were learning to read and write: and in the books which they read, the process took on a sweeping new dimension. When a Negro retired in solitude to relax and enjoy a great book, it was the Caucasian standard of beauty which was flaunted before him and held up for him to praise—and praise it he did, unable to resist or dispute, having no criterion by which to refute. In the novels, he met heroines with creamy white skin, sparkling blue eyes, and long flowing blonde tresses; and heroes with rugged Roman noses, wavy black hair and perhaps a gentle sun-tan. And then the motion-picture industry sprang into being, and with it, a constant deluge reiterating and indisputably establishing the Caucasian standard of beauty.

* This is invariably quoted as a prime example of “self-hate” folklore. Like all folklore, there is some textual variation. The version in William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage (New York, 1968), p. 66, is: “If you’re white, you’re right. If you’re brown, hang around. If you’re black, get back.” The version cited in the first pages of Philip Sterling, ed., Laughing on the Outside: The Intelligent White Reader’s Guide to Negro Tales and Humor (New York, 1965), is:

If you’re white, you’re right.
If you’re yellow, you’re mellow.
If you’re brown, stick aroun’.
If you’re black, brother, get back!

Mr. Dundes goes on to reference nine other instances of this rhyme in other books about African-American folklore.

Note that (at least the way I’m reading this) this little ditty isn’t about whites, blacks, Indians, Asians, and Hispanics. This is about the hierarchy within the black community once recognized by both whites and African-Americans. I’ve heard of the paper bag test before, and this bit of oral folklore is another artifact of that sad part of our history.

I guess I have two points here, both directed at the white folks in the crowd. First, think before you cry racism. Were you really that desperate for something to be angry about that you didn’t even consider that there might be a gap in your knowledge?

Second, there is a shamefully deep chasm that separates our understanding of African-American culture. It’s our job to at least attempt to fix that. Start today. Start with Rev. Lowery. You’ll find that their cultural history is rich and powerful. We could stand to learn a thing or two from their experience.

Let all who do justice and love mercy say Amen!