There’s an old saying that includes this phrase:
If you’re black, …
Ever heard it? It’s been around for decades.
It’s actually the last part of this:
If you’re white, you’re all right.
If you’re brown, stick around.
But, if you’re black, get back.
Many sources connect the origins of this “saying” to lyrics written by Big Bill Broonzy, a famous blues man who recorded over 250 songs. One of his best known was “Black, Brown, and White,” composed in the 1940s. Mr. Broonzy wrote the song to protest the way African-American soldiers were treated when they returned home from war. Despite risking their lives for and giving service to their country, they often had difficulty getting jobs merely because of the color of their skin.
In his song, Mr, Broonzy wrote:
They say if you’s white, should be all right;
If you’s brown, stick around;
But if you’s black, well, brothers, get back, get back, get back.
Through the years Mr. Broonzy’s words have sadly become almost prophecy. They reflect a pitiful reality about how people of color are often viewed and treated. Even worse, they have influenced a way that people of color often think about themselves!
My family on my mother’s side was one of many in the black community who revered light skin color. I often wonder if Dr. B., the youngest of my grandmother’s sisters, seemed to be the most loved and admired—in addition to being considered the most beautiful and smartest—was because she had the fairest skin, along with blond hair and blue eyes.
|Can you spot Dr. B. among the great aunts?|
Sometimes I wonder how my mother really saw me. Once she sent me a card designed with a photo she said strongly reminded her of me. Perhaps it was the setting, which is reminiscent of West Virginia. Or perhaps it was the picture of a girl alone, seeming to be lost in her thoughts, which was reminiscent of me. Or perhaps it reflected a look she had hoped I would have had, for indeed the photo reflected a physical appearance she always praised as beautiful. In any case, the photo of the tall, fair girl with long straight hair being tossed in the breeze is as far away from the truth of me as one can get.
As a kid, I frequently overheard some of the judgments:
“Drinking coffee makes you black.”
“She’s really a pretty girl to be so black.”
“Now, that’s a lot of yellow wasted.”
(This last one was sometimes said of a relatively unattractive fair-skinned person.)
One of my dear childhood friends was a very lovely girl both physically and in character. Throughout much of her young years she had little realization of this fact and was, I’m certain, deeply scarred by taunts directed to her deep chocolate skin color. It was she who most inspired the story of McKendree—a book first published in 2000 and now available as ebook and paperback editions from Amazon.
If you’re white…
Yes, it’s an old saying, but it’s still around.
A leftover illusion from the times when all of the seats at the table of power were of only one color.
Sadly, the essence of its ridiculous message still hangs over us.
Perhaps Reverend Joseph Lowery, the esteemed Civil Rights leader, used the saying most effectively in the benediction he delivered at the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. Use the link at the end of this post to hear for yourself what he said.
As we continue to deal in a world that struggles still to embrace the true magnificence and genius of diverse possibilities, perhaps someone will come up with a new saying. One that celebrates all and
marginalizes none. It might begin:
If you’re human…
See you next time!