Some Old Words

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Matt Yglesias yesterday:

After the end of the Civil War there were, for a time, various African-American members of congress elected from the Reconstruction-era South. But then came the "redeemer" governments using a combination of a terrorist violence and state coercion to institute an apartheid system and for a while black elected officials departed from the federal government. On January 21, 1901 George Henry White, the last of these Reconstruction-era members of congress, said:
This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress but let me say Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are on behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people. . . . The only apology I have for the earnestness with which I have spoken is that I am pleading for the life, the liberty, the future happiness, and manhood suffrage for one-eighth of the entire population of the United States.

No African-Americans served in the United States Congress for the next 28 years, until the Chicago South Side elected Oscar Stanton DePriest in 1928 (the Illinois 1st Congressional District has been represented by African-Americans ever since, and happens to be President Obama's home district as well. Incidentally, it was my home district for five years, too.) By contrast, no Southern state would elect an African-American to federal office until 1973.

Obviously we've now seen many African-Americans in the highest offices: many Congressional Representatives, a handful of Senators, and for one day now, President Obama.

To close the inauguration, civil rights leader and Reverend Joseph Lowery gave a moving benediction. Here's a transcript. The ending drew a few laughs from the crowd:

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. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.

But it also generated some confused and startled reactions, too, especially from younger and white listeners. Naturally, some of the usual conservative suspects have been clutching their pearls in outrage over the presence of such "inappropriate" and "divisive" language, but you can safely ignore them. More commonly there seems to have been a somewhat widespread "that was cool, that was weird, where in the world did that come from?" type of response. And actually, I didn't know offhand -- I'd definitely heard something similar before, probably in a civil rights context, but darned if I could remember where!

The internets settled pretty quickly on what was I guess the most readily Google-friendly answer, and it's not a bad one (see e.g. this Kos diary). They claim it derives from great Chicago Blues artist Big Bill Broonzy's Black, Brown, and White:

they says, "If you was white, should be all right,
if you was brown, stick around,
but as you's black, hmm brother, get back, get back, get back"

It's a deep little song, and while this was undoubtedly unpopular in the late 40s, it doesn't quite scan as the source Lowery is working from, though. Two extra colors, for one thing, and I feel like I remember hearing something close to those lines about red and yellow before. With a bit more digging, I turned up this mention of a much older rhyme, which led me to this blog post's links. Quoting from Lalita Amos:

Reverend Lowery deftly reworded a very old and very terrible rhyme that is widely-known in the Black community, which went:

“If you’re white, you’re alright
If you’re brown, stick around
If you’re yellow (a reference to light-complexioned Black people, generally of mixed race, who were percieved more favorably), you’re mellow
But if you’re black, get back."

One source even claims this goes all the way back to the plantation era, which sounds plausible. The rhyme alludes to the social heirarchy in many black communities, in some cases persisting to the present day, which assigns higher rank to fairer skinned families, privileging in effect those with white ancestors -- in practice, historically, the result of sexual abuse of slaves or native blacks respectively by slaveowners or colonial masters -- but also relevant to the larger world as lighter skinned blacks were nominally closer to being able to pass for white and join the social stratum of the masters. This particular stratification has broken down considerably or even reversed in some cases in America, as by now a couple of generations have grown up with no memory of Jim Crow, while legal and social bans on interracial families have steadily eroded. However, Lowery remembers this very well, and given the consternation from some quarters during the campaign about whether Obama is too African or maybe not black enough, it's actually quite relevant, and worthwhile to subtly reject that.

But that's only half of what he was talking about, I think. Because in his repurposing -- and I still could swear I've heard it used this way before -- much of his audience took yellow not to mean blacks who can almost pass for white, but to mean East Asians. (Which was the source of some of the cognitive dissonance; since nobody actually calls them "yellow" anymore, it sounds both offensive and anachronistic.) And so forth. Given the demographics of that crowd on the Mall, plenty of people there knew the old rhyme and class system it represented, but to a large segment listening it sounds instead like an oddly phrased but broadly inclusive call for justice among all the ethnicities in America, which aligns nicely with the post-racial rhetoric that has featured prominently this past year, and the big-tent tendencies of the Democratic party in general. I don't imagine that was unintentional, either.

2 Comments

Dubya spoke in christian evangelist code for eight years. You think it might make them think if they heard another group speak in a code that those who are "in" know but they are completely oblivious of.

Something to consider. On the mall that day as well as in restaurants, on buses, on cellphones, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, people were asking what that phrase (the denouement to Dr. Lowery's benediction) meant. Only a few, who were ripe for offense whether one existed or not, choose to be offended. I question the motives of some (Limbaugh, Hannity, Malkin) who excoriated Dr. Lowery, and by extension, President Obama.

The piece you quoted from my piece on the American Values Alliance blog was written, in part, to help friends and associates from as far away as London (a BBC news person) and Malaysia understand what it referred to. They knew that there was something else going on and trusted our friendship enough to want to talk about it.

What I loved about that was that curiosity trumped pettiness and fear--that so many people became even more aware of another aspect of the Black American culture (even some younger Black people who came of age after this phrase was no longer en vogue); that it caused a discussion of whether these hurtful terms still exist, were lost or have taken cover as something else (ie, what are we saying when we say "bi-racial" when only 15% of American Blacks are "pure" African; is "bi-racial" code for "yellow"?).

What I didn't love was how ready some where to insist that there was a slight and hector a Civil Rights hero in the process.

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