A Reflection on “Black Myself”
There is one particular song these days, that grabs the attention of the entire household, including my two-year-old son, Emmett. “Black Myself” by Our Native Daughters is blasted on our television, accompanied by a video of their performance at the Americana 18th Annual Honors ceremony. My husband, Troy is a music fan of all genres, and I have him to thank for bringing a diverse selection of music into our home. It is an intentional effort on both of our parts, to expose Emmett to a diverse genre of music by racially and ethnically diverse artists.
When we find a song we love, it’s usually played throughout the house a handful of times every single day. Even Emmett can’t help but move and bounce to the catchy beat, and watch the beautiful and talented Black and brown women on the screen playing their instruments and feeling the lyrics with every inch, as they sing to a crowd of a primarily White audience. What’s so powerful, in my opinion, is the juxtaposition of four Black and brown women, being accompanied by mostly White male musicians, singing lyrics of the Black struggle to a predominately White audience. Do they understand the power of the lyrics they are hearing? Do they recognize the struggle? Are they moved in the same way as our family when they hear those lyrics?
So, what are the lyrics? And, what do they mean? I asked my brother, a writer to reflect on his interpretation of the lyrics below.
From Mac Clover:
The alienation that comes with skin color is a regular part of Black and brown people’s experience in the U.S. and abroad. Whether or not the person is actually valued by the community around them, they can still feel the pressure (some levels are more extreme than others) that comes with a particular racial or ethnic background.
‘Our Native Daughters’, an Americana collective, comments on this common experience with their song, “Black Myself.” It feels like a call-out to any black and brown person of any complexion to hear and take part in this unifyer that is blackness.
Structurally, this is a simple Americana jam. There is really nothing advanced going on here because the focus is to meditate on the message. So to take a look at the lyrics, some of it seems a bit cryptic as any emotional work of lyricism is. However, most of the message seems to be laid bare. The opening verse is as follows:
“I wanna jump the fence and wash my face in the creek But I’m black myself I wanna sweep that gal right off her feet But I’m black myself Tired of walkin’ ’round with no shoes on But I’m black myself Your precious God ain’t gonna bless me ‘Cause I’m black myself”
This “black myself” call and response is the essence of the whole piece but here in the opening verse we are thrown into the previously mentioned alienation.
The message of the verses undergoes a sort of transformation from the start to the finish of the tune. But starting out with this first verse we are told the desires and the displeasures of a persecuted individual. Wishing to love someone they are not allowed, not having the things they need in life, and maybe not even being valued by the creator (or the individuals that follow the creator) in the same way as other people, all because of their complexion. The second verse says:
“I don’t pass the test of the paper bag ‘Cause I’m black myself I pick the banjo up and they stare at me ‘Cause I’m black myself You better lock your doors when I walk by ‘Cause I’m black myself You look me in my eyes but you don’t see me ‘Cause I’m black myself”
The second verse seems an evolution of the first in that after recognizing the reality of what complexion means in the world, the individual begins to embrace their found identity. “So no, I don’t pass the ‘test of the paper bag,’ and yes, I play the banjo because I know its roots in black history,” shout the alienated. They then seem to say “Fear me like you fear all Black people. Look through me and my character as you would with any other.”
The final verse seals this evolution as the individual is liberated by their identity. It seems in an ironic twist, their persecution leads to their acceptance in the black community. As if to say “I can show myself, go where I please, and be embraced, because I am not alone.”:
“I don’t creep around, I stand proud and free ‘Cause I’m black myself I go anywhere that I wanna go ‘Cause I’m black myself I’m surrounded by many lovin’ arms ‘Cause I’m black myself And I’ll stand my ground and smile in your face ‘Cause I’m black myself”
There is a chorus present between each verse that is pretty much the same with each iteration:
“They’re washed in the blood of the chattel ‘Cause the lamb’s rotted away When they stopped shipping work horses They bred their own anyway”
To abstract this accurately is likely impossible but in essence this chorus seems to point out that there is still blood on the hands of people for the persecution of an entire race. Even though slave trade ended at one point, the continued breeding of human life continued. The one change in the chorus comes with the last, stating:
“I washed away my blood and tears I’ve been born brand new There’s no more work horses But there’s still work to do”
Signalling that we are in a completely different society than the one where chattel slavery was acceptable in the U.S. and yet we still have work to do because of the ramifications of that action.
After reflecting on the progression of the verses, a double meaning is revealed from the call and response. Perhaps the writer intended “Black myself” to be used as a stand-in for “by myself.” The message could be that with the proper knowledge, one can join with others in being alone together. Perhaps in constant alienation, the black individual is granted the opportunity to find liberation.