COLUMBIA — The Rev. Joseph Lowery’s benediction at President Barack Obama’s inauguration last week sparked intense online debates about whether his closing comments were racist.
But his words were a paraphrase of an old saying that evolved through black oral culture and has found a place in folk and blues music.
Lowery closed his benediction last Tuesday with a rhyme about looking toward a 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 … and when white will embrace what is right.”
Lowery's closing was met with laughter from those in attendance and a grin from Obama.
When news organizations such as the The Washington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times published the transcript of the benediction online, tempers flared. Discussion boards began to fill with accusations of racism, and many online readers called Lowery’s comments offensive and hurtful.
The line Lowery used is a paraphrase of a saying that likely evolved through black oral culture: “If you’re white, you’re right. If you’re yellow, you’re mellow. If you’re brown, stick around. But if you’re black, stay back.”
The saying has made its way into black literature and music through the years. Zora Neale Hurston used a version of it in her short story "Story in Harlem Slang," which was published July 1942 in American Mercury magazine.
The Almanac Singers, a folk group of the 1940s, used part of the saying in a song it often performed at concerts, according to Brenda Dixon Gottschild and Robert Ludlum, authors of “Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era.”
In the 1950s, William Lee Conley “Big Bill” Broonzy recorded the song “Black, Brown and White Blues,” which offered a commentary on black Americans’ struggles to find work during the Depression.
The lyrics in the song’s chorus were: "If you was White, you'd be all right/ If you was Brown, stick around/ But if you's Black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back."
In an arts piece published March 2000 in The Washington Post, columnist Buzz McClain called Broonzy a “bold spokesman against racial injustice.”
According to McClain, Broonzy introduced the track with the following spoken statement: “This song is written about my life, and a lot of people don't like it because of the words 'get back.' Well, there's a lot of people in the world who never had to get back, but I wrote it because I had to get back.”
Both blacks and whites objected to the chorus at the time of its recording, McClain wrote.
The relative obscurity and age of the music today might have precluded casual blues listeners from recognizing the reference in Lowery's benediction.
Michael Budds, coordinator of music history and literature at MU, said he was not familiar with Broonzy’s song or its lyrics.
K.C. Morrison, a political science professor and an affiliate of the black studies program at MU, said he did not recognize Broonzy’s song, either.
But Morrison said that he thought Lowery was trying to “show that we are beyond that kind of reasoning.”