Friday, January 23, 2009

"Black, Brown & White"

This one goes out to Rev. Joseph Lowery for a fine benediction at the Obama inaugural. Many wondered about the end of the prayer, when Rev. Lowrey said,

"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 in 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. Now let all those who do justice and love mercy, say Amen. And Amen. Amen."

Not suprisingly, a slew of white folks, including the usual round of conservative media blowhards, have gotten themselves in a tizzy, claiming Lowrey's words were "racist" and "divisive." That is nonsense...

... Lowrey, a lifelong freedom fighter who is well-known to have a hearty sense of humor, was commenting on the achievement of the day, and the struggle to get there, by riffing on a classic Big Bill Broonzy tune, "Black, White & Brown." Here is the original tune:

Here are the lyrics:

This little song that I'm singin' about
People you know it's true
If you're black and gotta work for a living
This is what they will say to you

They says if you're white, you're all right
If you're brown, stick around
But as you's black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

I was in a place one night
They was all having fun
They was all byin' beer and wine
But they would not sell me none

They said if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, stick around
But if you black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

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, m-mm boy, git back git back git back

I went to an employment office
Got a number 'n' I got in line
They called everybody's number
But they never did call mine

They said if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, could stick around
But as you black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

I hope when sweet victory
With my plough and hoe
Now I want you to tell me brother
What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow?

Now if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, could stick around
But if you black, whoa brother, git back git back git back

And here is a nice diary from DailyKos that details the history of the song and the meaning behind it.

Since I am at it, here is an interesting music track by Steinski which mixes Lowery's benediction with a vigorous rhythm and then a gospel groove...

Oh! And here is Rev. Lowery's benediction, in case you missed it:


  1. I wanted to let it be known that I, and many others, took offense at this racial jab in the inaugural prayer: "when white will embrace what is right." I believe it was a good benediction until it relight a racial past that we all wish to move beyond. The issue of race in Obama's election emerged alright but not amidst our white brothers;Obama carried a decent majority of white votes, but Obama carried roughly 95% of black votes. Did race come to play here? A large section of the US population is facing race-baiting-fatigue. Slurs or put-downs at the inaugural only further alienate the races. I oppose racism in all forms, including cutting remarks against white people or our European-Americans friends as I am now fondly calling them. Wherever we are from let's just all be and call ourselves "Americans" and get along in peace.

  2. Rev Lowry's benediction offended me greatly. As a Christian- I am saddened that a Reverand would use a prayer to God as a way of communicating their political viewpoints. When Rev Lowry made those ending comments- he was no longer speaking to God, he was talking and grandstanding to the people watching the inaguration. I can only call it blasphemous. He did no service for the people of this country or the God he professes to serve.

  3. Why post anonymously, if you believe in your viewpoints? Seems cowardly.

    Stop being such defensive white people, too. Stop your culture of complaint and victimization. From your comments, it appears that you do not have a full grasp of our nation's racial past or how racism and white supremacy continue to play out today. It seems obvious you have no idea about the struggle for racial justice, what was achieved through the civil rights era, or what remains undone in terms of racial justice.

    This episode w/ Lowery reveals more about white people's misperceptions of our racial past and present, as well as their insecurities, then it does about Lowery's so-called racism. Your comments seem to suggest our nation is "beyond race," despite all kinds of actual evidence that race and gender are still determinative in our society, meaning women and people of color continue to be limited in their opportunities in U.S. society. This is not debatable. In fact, did you know that since the civil rights era the racial wealth gap between white and black has actually GROWN? The average black family's wealth is 1/8 that of the average white family in the U.S. This is the continuing power of white supremacy and racial inequality. And it is WEALTH, more than any other indicator, that determines a person's prospects and opportunities in life. Why does this not "offend you greatly"? Or, look at the racial imbalance in education, health care, criminal justice, environmental policy and on and on and on... What kind of a society ignores a 60% poverty rate among black children in Omaha, Nebraska? Why does this not "offend you greatly"? What kind of "christians" ignore these injustices and refuse to acknowledge them, let alone act together to overcome them?

    Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said it well: "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take a full account of race." The goal is not to ignore race, or pretend we don't see race. We do. You do. The goal is to understand clearly and genuinely our nation's tragic racial history, including the ways white supremacy and racial discrimination/inequality continue to play out today. The goal is to acknowledge this past and present and to work together for new solutions to overcome the persistent inequalities in our society. We did not make the world we were born into, but we are responsible for it.

    Again, stop being so defensive and stop playing the victim card. Of course, there are many white people who have been a part of the struggle for racial justice and who are trying hard to do the right thing today. In fact, I have written a book about one of these white anti-racist heroes, Fr. James Groppi:

    And, of course, many whites CLAIM attitudes that are racially just. But, sadly, the evidence makes clear that opinion polls and attitudinal surveys among whites diverge sharply from the way white people ACTUALLY BEHAVE AND ACT when it comes to race. Look around your own world, I suspect you live in mostly white neighborhoods and attend almost all white churches. Why is that? Why is it that every major American city repeats the same pattern: concentrated racialized poverty inside the central city and lily-white affluent suburbs outside of the central city? It ain't no accident! Did you know that when more than a token few black residents move into a previously all-white neighborhood that the vast majority of white people MOVE OUT to get away from black people, causing property values to decline. Yes, this is true in 2008! It is white people who make those values decline, NOT black people. Why does this not "offend you greatly"? Did you know that political data is clear that - notwithstanding Obama's victory with about 45% of the white vote - most white people refuse to vote for a black person to represent them in public office, although black folks have been voting for white people to represent them for a looooong time? Why does this not "offend you greatly"? Did you know that when we remove the paltry mechanisms we have to encourage white, male business owners to seek out and hire women and people of color that they revert to the same old pattern of behavior and overwhelmingly hire people who look like them - men and white people - regardless of qualifications? Did you know the biggest affirmative action program on college campuses does not privilege women or people of color over white people, but privileges and unfairly advantages white men of affluence over all others? It is called being a "legacy" or the child of a wealthy alum. Why does this not "offend you greatly"? Did you know that for 400+ years our nation has had a breathtakingly expansive system of affirmative action... FOR WHITE PEOPLE... that continues today? Why does this not "offend you greatly"?

    I hope you might be open to learning something more about race. Have you ever taken a class on African American History? How many books have you read about African American history and black experience today? Go to your local library and order "Race: The Power of An Illusion," a fantastic 3-part documentary on this topic. I think it will open your eyes, if you are willing to see...

    Or, go read, Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society or Racism Without Racists and genuinely consider the evidence presented there about how race works today.

    Go read this short essay, titled, White Whine, by a white anti-racist activist, Tim Wise:

    Here is another on the politics of race in the election of Obama:

    Yes, our nation has come a way on race relations, but there are still miles to go. White privilege reigns, even today with a black president.

    As for the pious claims about christianity, I'll simply offer this quote from Gandhi: "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. ... Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

    I look forward to reading your next comments, with names attached, and with some actual evidence presented, not just your feelings and misperceptions based on false premises.

    Come out of your closet, white conservative people. I await your return...

  4. Mr. Jones, In your comment response, you state that what many white people say their attitudes are towards black people "diverges sharply" from the way they "actually behave and act". You then follow up with some examples having to do with our segregated lives. I think your criticism has some truth to it, but there are many white people whose attitudes are what you would hope. However, they get up, feed and clothe their children, get the kids to school, go to work, work all day, pick up the kids, get dinner ready, worry about money, get some laundry done, help with the homework, go to bed, every day. And they (I should say we) ended up living in a segregated neighborhood almost as happenstance. I moved to this town (Buffalo, NY); didn't know the different neighborhoods; looked for an apartment within my price range, near my work, with OK schools in the community, and here I am. I grew up in a (not legally, but casually) segregated community in which the schools had (again, informal, but certain) black tables and white tables in the cafeteria, etc. I spent my late teens and twenties in a very mixed community. I would like for my daughter to grow up in a mixed community, but find that mixed communities with good schools (limited urban and suburban pockets around the country) tend to be out of my price range. Of course, schools with a majority black population are underfunded for the most part. I hope that will change with time (my child is two and maybe my earnings will increase to the point that I can live in a nice mixed urban area with good schools or maybe schools with majority black populations will be better funded or (maybe?) white and black working class communities will desegregate). Do you have suggestions in the meantime for increasing my daughter's casual interactions with the black members of her community? The segregation, as you point out, runs pretty deep, so we don't just sweep past opportunities.

    Beyond that, I hope that it was not "a slew" but just a few, noisy, bitter white folks who had problems with Dr. Lowery's benediction. I thought it was hopeful and positive, loving and embracing, and it made me laugh. I hope that great men like Dr. Lowery can see that their efforts have achieved some results.

  5. And, by the way, that's a perfect quote from Gandhi. I'd never seen it before. Thank you. And thanks for your blog.

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