Color Heirarchy

Here’s what I wrote this morning to radio station Q103:

My kids listen to your station.  This morning your two hosts were discussing Rev. Joseph Lowery’s benediction yesterday at President Obama’s inauguration.  They said that the rhyme with which he closed his invocation (“If you’re black … If you’re brown…”) was the third verse of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the “Black National Anthem.”  NO!

Rev. Lowery had BEGUN with that verse: “God of our weary years, God of our hopes and fears…”  and quoted the whole thing.  As your hosts said, they’re too young, they didn’t recognize it.  Apparently they’ve never been to a Martin Luther King commemoration, either, because it is still sung every year here in Troy, and I imagine everywhere.

That bit of rhyme Rev. Lowery said at the end was based on a saying that, fortunately, your hosts had also never heard: “If you’re white (or: light), you’re all right; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re black, get back.”  It was incorporated into a song in the 1930’s by Big Bill Broonzy — lyrics here:

Rev. Lowery re-worked this bit of “color heirachy” into a promise that everybody would have a place at the table.  Some people found it weird, others offensive; personally, knowing where it came from, I though it was a very powerful way to speak directly to everyone who has been pushed to the back by reason of their skin color.  But this was NOT the third verse of the Black National Anthem!

I think your hosts should apologize on air, of course, for getting it wrong; but why not play both Big Bill Broonzy’s song and a recording of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”?  That would be a class act.

Maybe you’ll send them to cover the New York State Martin Luther King commemoration next January, too, to get themselves a little educated and uplifted.

Rabbi Debora S. Gordon
Congregation Berith Sholom
Troy, NY

Take a look at the summary of this 2002 article about how lighter skin translates into “social capital” for African-American women and Mexican-American women; it looks at outcomes in terms of education, income, and “spousal status.”   And here’s one woman’s thoughtful post on “colorism” from just this week, sparked by an ad for “Fair and Lovely” skin-whitening cream.