Written by Azizi Powell
Note: I first wrote this essay in 2006 & posted it on this thread that I started on the Blues & Folk music forum http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=90660 "Skin color in songs & singers' names". The essay is presented here with minor revisions.
In the 1950s when I was in elementary school in Atlantic City, New Jersey, there was no school busing. Students went to public schools near where they lived, and walked to & from school. There was also a Catholic school not too far from the neighborhood where I lived, but few kids I knew went there because it cost a lot of money. The public school that I attended (Indiana Avenue School) was "all Black". By "all Black" I meant that all the students and the male principal, the clerks, and the janitors were African American. However, almost all of the teachers in my elementary school were White women. Indiana Avenue School served the students who lived in or nearby a particular part of a multi-block residential area in Atlantic City known as "the village" or "the projects". "The village" was and still is a public housing project of two story brick units connected together with small patches of lawn in the front and back of each unit. All of the students who attended that school were probably poor or working class. But I didn't think of myself as being poor. In my mind -and maybe in reality - the village was certainly a couple of steps up both in its in living conditions and in its social status from Black folks who lived in the run down houses in the uptown section of that city.
Some memories stand out about my childhood school years. One of them actually didn't happen in school, but occurred during one of my walks home from school. As was usually the case, I walked home with my sisters and a few other female students of various ages who lived in our block. Other students walked usually in bunches ahead of us or behind us. The brief scene that I vividly recall happened as we approached part of the project that was located very near that school. Some older girls who were in front of us passed by a house and noticed a Black girl about my age who was standing on the porch. The girl's skin was very pale, her straightened hair was a reddish color, and so was her eyebrows. Although the red haired girl was about my age, she didn't go to the neighborhood school. Maybe she was Catholic and went to a Catholic school. Anyway, as a bunch of other kids walked past that girl's house, I heard a couple of them shout out "Hey, burnt rice!" The girl quickly put her head down and ran into her house.
I remember asking one of the older girls I was walking home with "Why did those kids called that girl "burnt rice"? The girl replied that it was because of the color of that girl's hair. Since we lived in an all Black neighborhood, all the kids we knew had either black or dark brown hair so a Black girl with red hair was different. I remember asking that older girl "Why is her hair that color?" That older girl said something like "That was the way she was born". I don't recall asking why the phrase "burnt rice" was used to refer to red hair. Since then, I figured out that we were used to rice being one color: "white" though I'm now familiar with brown rice. But back then- for me and I guess the other project kids- we thought that rice that is burned would be a brownish or maybe even a reddish color. I figured this out now, but way back then my focus was on how hurt that little girl looked when those other kids taunted her because her hair was red, and her eyebrows were red because (I realized many years later) she was an albino. None of this should have been a big deal. But the girl's physical appearance was different than that of other folks we saw. And unfortunately, children back then had a very low tolerance for anyone who was different. I don’t think it’s improved all that much nowadays.
I seldom saw that girl again, but when I did I made a point of waving and saying "Hi!" to her. Although many years have passed, I never forgot that red haired girl, and I never forgot that second hand lesson that words can hurt.
The following three videos are presented for their educational, folkoric, aesthetic value, and entertainment values.
Tampa Red - Love Her With A Feeling
Uploaded by ianlee73 on Jul 17, 2011
Bluesman Hudson Woodbridge (January 8, 1904 - March 19, 1981),was raised by his aunt and grandmother after his parents died, and adopted their surname, Whittaker. He adopted the name 'Tampa Red' from his childhood home and light colored skin & reddish hair.
Interview With Nina Simone (I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free)
Uploaded by DomHilly on Nov 4, 2008
Nina Simone - I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free
Uploaded by tungbgs on Nov 24, 2008
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