That NEW Adage

A pressure-relief valve about God, and just about everything else.

Niagra Without that First “A”

I was a nigra Saturday night. A good ol’ fashioned, 1932 model, down home, Jim Crow, Miss’sippi nigra. If that offends you, imagine how it offended ME to not just READ it, but to LIVE it.

I play a lot of wedding receptions in the “Band I Don’t Want to Be In.” I hate playing them. The music is cheesy, the clothes are uncomfortable, the stigma itches, and we usually are treated coldly.

Most of the functions we do are white (as a way of denotation…) because for some unknown reason, black folk usually don’t have enough money, generally speaking, to pay a fair wage. We are ALWAYS hired by white folk.

The bandleader books most of our gigs through an agency. There is, on their website, a long list (photos included) of acts available to do any type of function requiring entertainment. Prospective clients can choose who they want.

The gig in question was at a country club. Yes, I hate playing at country clubs, too. The pictures on the walls NEVER have any black faces, as all of the members over decades have always been white. (A young debutante named Cybil Shepard was in one of them) It makes one of my particular hue wonder why we are viewed as we are… The wait staff is ALWAYS all black. Always. Not good enough to join, but good enough to cook and clean. Still. Thank God that God values service over status! I know we’ll fit in in Heaven.

Here’s where the rub is: As soon as we began to play, the bandleader stopped us, “Hey, hey, hey, y’all! When we git through playing, don’t nobody go eat none of the weddin’ food! We been told they got a room for us around in the back, an’ they gone bring us some samwitches to eat. So when we git through playin’, less jus gone to the back.” It may not have been as Stepin Fetchit as that, but it was real close!

I have played hundreds of these things over the years, and when this happens, it is clear what is going on! It is usually offensive enough to me that we are totally ignored until we play some “Motown” or the dreaded “Mustang-doggone-Sally”! (Who made that song the Beethoven’s Fifth of this era!?!?) We don’t even exist. But even then, most folk have had the decency, the courtesy, to let the band partake of the buffet! It is almost understood.

I must tell you that in my younger days, I was what would be — and was — considered militant. Militant not in a racist sense, but in the sense that I didn’t overlook acts of injustice, racial or otherwise. I never disliked white people, but I disliked CERTAIN white people! I was always Christian.

I would be the victim of some mistreatment or another and would try to rally friends to rail out with me and I would only get the chirping of crickets… and a cough from somewhere in the back of the room.

So, now I was hot. I was already frustrated at having to be here, but now I was in Medgar Evers mode. (Keeping in mind that I was to work as though for the Lord, and that this was somebody’s wedding day)

“So they want us to play music for them,” I thought, “They want us to display our natural gifts of rhtyhm and daincin’, but we can’t eat their food, or even remain in their regal presences once we finish?!” I was sure it would have been better for them had we simply vanished through the bottom of the floor rather than walk through the crowd to our quarters!

I’ve done gigs with this band where we were told to eat in the kitchen! (You better believe I didn’t eat in nobody’s doggone kitchen!) And I have done country club gigs where Amos and Andy tapes were stacked on a tv on the stage behind the curtain. This stuff is more the norm than most would care to admit.

So I walked, fuming, past a wasteful embarrassment of victualage to a room around in the back of the building to water, cokes, and– fifteen minutes into our break– cold-cut sammitches a pickle spear, and some random ruffles in styrophoam containers.

That was the black eye. This was the dirty word: After all that, after all the specific warnings not to mingle or eat, while we were performing the second set, a waitress was sent to the stage to tell the band, “to be sure not to eat any of the cake” when they cut it!!

Didn’t we already know this? Weren’t we capable of taking a hint in the form of a brick to the head? Did we not see the disdain with which we were held? The upturned noses? The downturned mouths? Why did they even hire us? Why not hire some white guys to do all these black songs and not have to worry about us ogling the young girls? “Don’t eat the cake!” I knew where I wanted them to put the cake. Prob’ly wouldn’ta fit though… But I only thought it. This Christian bit in my mouth…

Here is what made it worse for me: I am no stranger to this kind of treatment. But there were at least two members of my church in attendance. The church I rave about. This is no indictment of the church or the people. I know that any human organization will have to get the oil changed or the head gaskets replaced from time to time.

I met one member who was very nice. I didn’t even recognize him since we are growing. He thanked me, and complimented the band.

But there was another guy whom I knew by name. I see him and his wife at church all the time. He works with the the kids sometimes and is crazy about Max. When he passed in front of the stage, I thought, “Hey, I know him!” and tried to make eye contact. He “didn’t see me.” And he kept right on not seeing me the rest of the night. Even though — aside from the newlyweds– we were the focal point of the whole deal. I am the tallest guy in the band, maybe in the room, but he didn’t notice me. Or seemed not to… I just wanted to wave.

Now as the night played out, I thought: this is the world he REALLY lives in. Not the one where races are forced to live out the Gospel. Not the one where issues are lain on the table, splayed open for autopsy.

In this world, the only faces that matter are the paler ones, unless tanned to brownness from a trip to Cabo or Greece. He would probably not have recognized the waiter serving him who manicured his grass either. In this world we don’t exist unless we are on the news or approaching down a dark street or booming bass in the adjacent Crown Vic at the red light.

Maybe now I know how God feels… to not be there until and unless there is a problem…

Whether my church member ignored me or not, the problem was that he was, by appearances, friends with these people. Or a business associate. But he was in lockstep with the behavior that had us in the band — including my friend Marc who is white– feeling so less-than. This may sound unfair, but it seems that lately people are being held accountable for their associations, so… 

So here is where my activism kicked in. On the second set, we played “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and during my solo, I shoved my horn way up into the mic and played boldly, “Weee Shaaall Overco-o-ome”! Dadgummit! On somebody’s wedding day. Guys in the band were howling! “He crazy, man!” The bandleader wasn’t laughing, though… Only a tight nervous slash of a grin/grimace. Even if I swing and only hit air, at least I swung.

On the second break, I noticed that the guys were huddled together outside, and when I approached them to see what “revolution they were cookin’ up,” I found that they were only telling a dirty joke about… well… a dirty joke.

Once again in the face of injustice, we were content to just let it slide. Once again when presented with the opportunity to strike a blow against racism, we found stuff to laugh about instead.

That, I think, is what has lead to the mistaken assumption that black folk aren’t hurt by things like being slaves or being poor and uneducated. “They are so resilient,” they say, letting themselves off the hook, “Look. After a whole day of whippins and work, they jus’ huddle under the sycamo tree an’ sing Spirituals. See, they’re po as dirt, but they still tell jokes and jus’ laffff! They don’t care what you do to ’em, they jus’ shake it off! Our nigras are happy.”

Maybe I should just let it go, too. But I rock these kinds of boats.

 I told them that I had to do something. So when we went back for the third set, we were told by the coordinator to announce the departure of the bride and groom. As they were leaving, I got on the mic and said, “Save me some cake! Is it okay to git some chicken fangers now? Can I have a couple of wings?” No reply. A small gesture to be sure, but they heard me, and they were exposed. I know it was a little bit unprofessional, but I had to let it be known, as I always say. It was kind of like dealing with a roomful of hecklers. Sometimes real life gets in the way of the minstrelry.

The bandleader was not happy that I did that, but the guys were.

As was said by Marc, the bandleader could have put a stop to that kind of thing a long time ago. All he had to do was tell the booking agents that if those kinds of requests were made, book another band. I don’t need your money. I don’t need the kind of money that comes with cork smeared all over it.

Yeah, I was a nigra Saturday night. According to them. I can live with what they think. But can they live with their secret shame knowing God, and now we, know?



May 19, 2008 - Posted by | Arrogance, Christ, Christian Life, Christianity, Music, Race, Racial Reconciliation, Racism, Weddings, Work


  1. Hey Derrick, I feel your pain. I am not even sure what to say, other than to encourage you to stand firm for that that is holy and pleasant to God… I bet it is not easy on this kind of situations…

    Thanx, Rafael.

    Comment by Rafael | May 20, 2008 | Reply

  2. OMG, I remember my hubby telling me about those one or two types of gigs that he did. I’m just glad I didn’t have to see him on the news that night! The solo thing was too funny…it seems as if they (main stream) want to make most Black entertainers “nigra minstrels”; even the ones that are true to the arts and serious about their crafts and gifts. It’s sad!

    Comment by Mrs. Rych | May 21, 2008 | Reply

  3. I don’t even know where to begin … wow …

    That’s disgusting. I do wonder how your supposed brethren feel about this. It’s one thing to live a dirty little secret life … it’s another to know that people know about it.

    Comment by wickle | May 22, 2008 | Reply

  4. OK, now you’ve got me re-evaluating how I interact with the people I hire – regardless of race. For example: We had a dishwasher delivered today. Were the deliverymen insulted because I asked them to bring it in the backdoor which leads to the kitchen? To make sure they understood that it was just a matter of convenience I made sure to say something like, “You can go out the front if it’s easier for you.” I’m such a dweeb. I’m already riddled with apprehension about whom to tip and now this… 😉

    Comment by sara | May 22, 2008 | Reply

  5. Thanks, Wickle.

    Sara, I’m sorry! I don’t want to make it seem as tho it is hard to co-exist! Some things are natural, like your situation. I don’t want to make people think that it is too hard to do life with people of different ethnicities. Don’t second-guess yourself!
    Some situations are common sense, though.

    What happened to us was blatantly obvious and disrespectful. My friend played a similar function and they were made to eat in a MOP CLOSET!!! There is no mystery in what was going on there.

    The tipping thing gets me too. But because I’m kind of cheap! I tip waiters twenty or thirty percent. But I don’t see the need to tip a barber or a hairdresser for something I just PAID them to do! I don’t know WHO to tip! It’s intimidating.

    Comment by maxdaddy | May 22, 2008 | Reply

  6. Derrick, don’t apologize for making me think. Yeah, I see the difference, but sometimes I feel like I want my motives to be understood and I’d really hate for someone to be thinking, “If I were a white deliveryman she’d let me in the front door” or even “I guess deliverymen are second-class citizens.”

    I’ve just not been exposed to those kinds of subtleties. (I know it was not that subtle but I can’t quite find the right word.) When I’ve seen prejudice it has usually been blatant hatred. Think Howard Beach, Crown Heights, etc. (I know you’re not from NYC, but you can probably google those if you’re not familiar.)

    BTW, in my circles, most people are thrilled to be able to say they know the band. Then again, we’re usually the waitstaff in the country clubs rather than members of them.

    Comment by sara | May 22, 2008 | Reply

  7. Hmmm…life is tough.
    I’m in the wedding business — I’m a bridal consultant and wedding planner. It’s not uncommon for clients to not seat “the help” with the rest of the guests — regardless of the skin tone of “the help”. Especially “country clubbers”. They can be very snobbish and “elitist”. That’s the flavor.
    However, I’m your experience was indicative of something deeper, obviously. I’m just adding another viewpoint.

    At a wedding I did recently (99% of my clients are white), I sat with the rest of the guests. During the initial planning stages, it was discussed where the rest of the vendors would sit. A room was set aside, with sandwiches, chips and beverages. My clients paid $100/head for food/liquor, and I guess they didn’t feel that the photographer, for instance (who was paid $8000 to take pics), needed a free $85 meal. I can understand that, and I would have felt the same way had I been sent to the “back room” to eat. Sometimes they don’t even FEED you. Now, would I eat in a “broom closet”? No, I wouldn’t. I may not be a “guest”, but I’m definately not a dog, either.

    My best friend (she’s a Univ of Mich graduate, with a masters degree in harp performance, and black) played at a Jewish/Italian wedding, on Mackinac Island, some years back. I went with her, as a traveling companion, because her husband wasn’t available. We were the only black faces in the mix. I got asked if I was the “governess” of two random white children, and my friend was asked “Who plays the harp?”, while she was tuning the instrument. Lord help me, but it took all of me not to say,
    “Who do you think plays the harp, SHERLOCK????”.


    Thanks, Tracie, for that perspective. That would take some of the edge off my feelings if it weren’t for the fact that,
    A: I live in Memphis!
    B: I have talked to other people who know that this, and a few other country clubs here, are KNOWN to be overtly discriminatory. Even some of the employees talk about how bad it STILL is.

    I don’t cry “WITCH” at every case of being treated badly by somebody white, but sometimes you just know, you know?

    That’s really messed up about the harpist! But not too much of a shock…
    Good to see you around. And glad you’re writing again.

    Comment by anappygirl | May 28, 2008 | Reply

  8. I hope I didn’t make you think I was trying discount your feelings. I know your experience was what it was. I don’t know if I could live in your part of the country.

    Like I said, life is tough — I was dead serious, when I said that. I have to fight with wedding vendors, as a wedding planner, to get them to respect and honor my wishes. Is it because I’m black? Not always, but too many times it is. How do I know? I just know, because I’m black and I know what it looks like.

    But you know what? It helps keep me on my knees, with my arms outstretched to my Maker, totally dependent on His power, grace and mercy.

    No no no no! I knew what you meant. I took no offense!

    Now that I think about it… part of what makes life tough for us is that we have to weed through all of this mess and figure out what somebody’s motives are rather than just have the luxury of simply being insulted like any other American! There is an added dimension of life to be negotiated. I think that is partly what was meant when our folks told us that we had to be twice as good to get half as far… Life IS tough enough as it is. And then, there is that extra.
    My friend!

    Comment by anappygirl | May 28, 2008 | Reply

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