A freedom song’s timeless power

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The Rev. Joseph Lowery wisely led with lyrics from “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” National Public Radio, in a story from February 2002, provides the backstory.

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  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    That was weird at the end, though:

    We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to give 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

    Kind of divisive, but I am not sure what it is implying in each case.

    I am thinking that “brown can stick around” means that he is against deportation of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Latin America.

    And I get that “red man can get ahead, man,” refers to the appalling poverty of some Native American tribes like n South Dakota. But not sure how that relates to all the gambling casinos in California, for example.

    I have no clue what the black one is about.

    And why is he implying Asians are not mellow? What is that about? He wants them to slack off and not succeed so much?

    And what a weird ending, implying white people are uniquely noticeable in their failure to “embrace what is right”. Pretty offensive.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    P.S. On another blog someone wrote that the first line was:
    “black will not be asked to get in back”.
    That would make sense, IF we were still in the days of the Montgomery bus boycott.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    OK, I did the research and discovered that Lowry’s poem is familiar to Black church goers and is based on a song by Big Bill Broonzy.

  • str1977

    of course it should be “black … get back” and not “give back”, which is nonsense. Give back what?

  • Jerry

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2009/01/rev_lowery_inauguration_benedi.html contains the transcript.

    I think some of the commentators here don’t realize how much of a 60′s flashback his benediction was. His reference to various races was especially classic 60′s. There’s a whole history to “mellow yellow”, for example, that many young “whippersnappers” undoubtedly miss.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Mellow Yellow the Donovan song from 1966?

  • Dave

    “Mellow Yellow” was also a rumor that went wild during the heyday of LSD. The rumor was that dried banana peels, when smoked, were hallucinogenic. Towns were barring anyone under 18 from buying bananas in the supermarket before it was over.

    Ah, those were the days…

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    My teenage daughter thinks it is a reference to being environmentally conscious when using the toilet.

  • FW Ken

    I remember being told that “mellow yellow” was a euphemism for homosexual, but don’t know if that’ true.

    Given the often tense relations between African-Americans and Asian-Americans, it arguable that the reference in the poem is a racial slur.

  • Dave

    Lowery was doing a riff on an old African-American ditty about their intramural color-coded caste system back in the day:

    If you’re white, you’re all right.
    If you’re brown, you can stick around.
    If you’re black, you get back.

    Lowery was saying those days are over, and he expanded it to include colors of other peoples’ skins.

    I don’t think it was divisive of him to talk about whites embracing what is right (and I’m white myself). A major goal of the Civil Rights Movement was to awaken white awareness and conscience in the North about what was happening in the South, and getting Southern whites to divest their racism without violence (a major religious undertaking).

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Hi Dave,
    It would have been nice if “Lowery was saying those days are over”. But that is NOT what he said. What he actually said was:

    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.

    Source AP (my bold added for emphasis)

  • Joe

    Perpetua, why would he say things he did not believe were true. This reminds me of the Wright controversy where so many people were coffomyed for the first time with what is preached in many Black churches. The days of discrimination are not over, even if a Black man is President.

    Lowery’s prayer reflected the perspective of non-whites and the prayers heard every Sunday in Black churches.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Hi Joe,

    The Benediction at the Inauguration is supposed to be a prayer that all the people of America watching the Inauguration could share in together. Certainly no one is asking that Rev. Lowery say things he didn’t believe are true. We did expect him to try to find shared, common ground. Instead, Rev Lowery was being deliberately racial divisive.

    Notice that Pastor Rick Warren didn’t take advantage of the situation to sneak in a part about abortion.

    Bishop Gene Robinson didn’t take advantage of the situation to … well, I guess he did.

    P.S. Joe, what does “coffomyed” mean?

  • Brian L

    I thought the end of Lowery’s prayer was intentionally divisive and offensive, marring an otherwise very enjoyable peaceful transfer of power. Can we start calling him the “controversial Rev. Joseph Lowery”?

  • Joe

    It should have been “confronted.”

    Lowery was not being racially divisive any more than Warren was being anti-Semitic by saying the Lord’s Prayer. Lowery was praying about the sin of racism, invoking the spirit of the civil rights movement, and acknowledging the shares sin of intolerance.

    That white folks are so baffled by the language and convinced it was devisive really proves his point.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    You wrtoe:

    That white folks are so baffled by the language and convinced it was devisive really proves his point.

    Actually, that the occasion was the Inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States really disproves his point and that is why white folks are baffled.

  • Brian L

    I am open to the charge that I just don’t “Get Black.”

    Joe, can you explain how Rev. Lowery’s words expressed that all races shared in the sins of racism and intolerance? All I heard was that that non-whites need “justice” and white people are bad.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua


    You clearly embrace the style of making personal offensive comments to those with whom you disagree. With that presupposition, I am not surprise you see nothing wrong with the Benediction.

  • 1AmericanPatriot

    Just to clarify what Rev. Lowery meant by Black, Brown, Yellow, Red, and White, he was not referring to African-Americans as only Black; Latin-Americans, Mexicans, Dominicans, etc. as Brown, Asians as Yellow, nor Native-Americans as Red. The terms black, brown, yellow, and red are all referring to African-Americans, but is distinguishing between the different pigmentation levels in some. Obviously White is for all Caucasians. This goes back to ’1930s Harlem Slang such gradations were described by a tonescale of “high yaller [yellow], yaller, high brown, vaseline brown, seal brown, low brown, dark brown”. These terms were sometimes referred to in blues music, both in the words of songs and in the names of performers. In 1920s Georgia, Willie Perryman followed his older brother Rufus in becoming a blues piano player: both were albino Negroes with pale skin, reddish hair and poor eyesight. Rufus was already well established as “Speckled Red”, Willie became “Piano Red”. The piano player and guitarist Tampa Red from the same state developed his career in Chicago, Illinois, at that time: his name may have come from his light skin tone, or possibly reddish hair.’ Quote from “Color Terminology For Race” under “Tone Gradations” on wikipedia.

    So no Dave, he was not stating those days were over, since obviously he posed the statement in the future. Also he was not including other races in this, he only referred to Blacks and Whites. No other race was apparently on his mind.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Hi 1AmericanPatriot,

    That is really interesting. I could certainly believe that Big Bill Broonzy’s song may have been referring to brown and black as African-American skin colors.

    Is there a tradition of thinking that African-Americans with yellow toned skin are not mellow? Or, how would you explain that phrase in Rev. Lowery’s rhyme?

  • paco

    Here is your answer:

    However even though there is a direct correlation in his speech between the color and social gradations in the afican american communities, especially during the Jim Crow times and before it, i think he purposefully blurred that and current realities.

    I was somewhat disappointed with his yellow reference, especially as it refers to contemporary realities. I was somewhat disappointed to the white reference but it is understandable if you take it in context of the race/power dynamic.

    Having said that, post 16 by Perpetua doesn’t get it. Just because an african american is elected president (or a woman, latino, native american, etc.) does not mean that the effects of racism in the states have been eradicated. They need to be recognized confronted and stamped out.

    We are better, soo much better than where we came from when it comes to racism. However we, as a society, have a long way to go.

  • 1AmericanPatriot

    Hi Perpetua,
    I would explain the rhyme with yellow being more mellow as staying confined to the rhyme more than labeling all “yellows” as not being mellow. If you look at the overall theme of the rhyme, it essentially states that African-Americans at that time were being asked to get back, couldn’t stick around, couldn’t get ahead, and due to all this weren’t too mellow about it. How could anyone expect them to be at THAT time? So in the rhyme, it simply was used to show how all African-Americans were treated at the time. And of course how Whites weren’t embracing what was right.
    As far as do I personally think today this rhyme fits the general attitude of the American population? No, I don’t. On several points. First, there were only two races even mentioned in this rhyme. Certainly not the complexity of the United States today. Second, if the overall attitude of the Whites in America were to keep the Black man down, I doubt a Black man would’ve been elected to the highest office of the land. Especially considering the voter demographics for this election. According to exit polls, of the 131,237,603 total votes cast in this election 74% were White, 13% Black, 9% Hispanic, 3% Other, and 2% Asian. 95% of the Black vote went for Obama, 4% to McCain, and 1% for Other. Of the White vote 43% went for Obama, 55% for McCain, and 2% for Other. If you run the math on those numbers it turns out 16,207,843 Black people voted for Obama. In comparison 41,759,805 White people voted for Obama. That means 25,551,962 MORE White people voted for Obama than Black people voted for Obama. Obama won the election by a total of 9,522,083 votes. So if Rev Lowery believes getting behind Obama is right, clearly White America did just that.
    I would write more, but just had some company stop over. Thanks for allowing me to share my opinion.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Hi Paco,

    Thank you for your Urban Dictionary link. I take it that you think that in his mellow/ yellow rhyme, Rev. Lowery was making a slam at the snobbery of light yellow skinned African-Americans toward darker skinned African-Americans.

    Regarding your comment on my post 16 that I don’t get it:

    Imagine if a child had been doing very poorly in school but had just brought home a report card with all A’s and B’s. Good parents would congratulate the child and celebrate the successful report card. Bad parents would congratulate the child but be sure to finish the congratulations with a reminder of how poorly the child had done in the past and that the child had better work harder to get more A’s next time.

    I hope you can recognize that in the example I gave that the bad parents are driven by their own residual bitterness over the past poor grades and desire for perfection on the part of the child so that their parenting behavior is counter-productive. The child will feel that he or she can never be good enough and the parent does not appreciate the hard work they have done and the parent is too hard to please. The child will feel anger and rebellion instead of satisfaction in a job well done. The child may be less motivated to work hard for the next report card.

    In the same way, I think that because Rev. Lowery was unable to get over his resentments from the past and unrealistic expectations for perfection, he wound up giving a Benediction that was counter-productive.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Hi Paco,

    On the link you provided, I noticed the example:

    “Damn, if Obama ain’t a High Yella (High Yellow) I don’t know who is!”

    So, it could be that Rev. Lowery was taking a backhanded slap at the man who invited him, our new President, in his rhyme about yellow/ mellow at the end of the Inaugural Benediction.