Saturday, October 1, 2011

Black On Black Taunting - "Burnt Rice"

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 "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

Montreux 1976

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  1. Here is an excerpt from about albinism and Black people:

    Ask A Geneticist by Erin Cline, Stanford University

    How is it that red hair shows up in people of African descent?

    "A redhead of African descent is about as common as a Caucasian with red eyes. And there's a good reason for this -- being an albino causes them both.

    Except when people are of mixed ancestry, red hair in Africans is usually caused by a kind of albinism. When people think of albinos, they tend to think of white hair, pale skin and red eyes. While this is true for Caucasians, albinism works differently in people of African descent.

    There are a few different kinds of albinism in people of African descent, but the one that gives red hair is called rufous albinism. People with this condition have a red-bronze skin color, ginger-red hair, and blue or brown eyes.

    How is someone an albino? All of our coloring -- our skin, hair, and eye colors -- comes from melanin. Melanin is just a pigment, or colored chemical substance, like the ones that are used to dye your clothes or maybe even your hair! Melanin comes in two different forms -- pheomelanin (the red kind) and eumelanin (the brown kind).

    Being an albino just means that your body doesn't make melanin the right way. There are lots of different genes that can be mutated to cause albinism...

    The red hair in African people is caused by a mutation in a gene called TYRP1. The protein made by this gene is thought to be involved in bringing together all the enzymes needed to make brown melanin. So redheads of African descent completely lack brown melanin and are therefore albino.

    But what about red haired Caucasians? Are they albinos too?

    Well, no. The red hair in Caucasian people is caused by a mutation in a gene called MC1R that is involved in determining the balance of two variations of melanin in the body. They end up with more of what can be thought of as "the red kind" than "the brown kind." They are not albinos because they still make some of both kinds of melanin".

  2. Purely by coincidence, a small clip of a Pittsburgh singer performing Tampa Red's song "Love Her With A Feeling" is featured at the end of the video of Barbara Ray that is included with this pancocojams post:

  3. A number of Black people have skin color nicknames. Those nicknames might be descriptive rather than putdowns.

    Boogie Woogie singer Speckled Red and his brother Piano Red received their nicknames because both men were albinos. (See

    King Yellowman is a reggae artist who is albino.

    Malcolm X (Detroit Red) and Redd Fox (John Elroy Sanford) are two other famous African Americans who received nicknames because of the reddish tinge of their complexion and their reddish brown hair.

    And I recall reading a book whose title I can't remember that a family member gave R&B singer Smokey Robinson that nickname because his skin color was so light.

  4. In re-reading this post, I feel that I didn't say enough about how cruel it was to taunt that little girl.

    When I a child, I was taught that we should treat others as we would like to be treated. As a coping strategy for prejudice, I was also taught the saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." And as a teenager, I came across the quote which is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt that "No one can make you inferior without your consent".

    Although those sayings have some truth in them, I now believe that words can hurt and also that people can be made to feel inferior without their consent.

    Here are two links from a website I just found on African American albinism:

    Here's a quote from that second linked page:

    "School age children and teenagers with albinism often find themselves left out of extracurricular activities and social events by other black youth. Children with albinism may learn to avoid rejection by withdrawing. The child's peers then may see him or her as unfriendly or even hostile, and a cycle of isolation is set up."


    If you happen to meet someone with albinism, or someone who is otherwise physically different from you, treat that person the way you would wish to be treated.