“Be a credit to your race.” That was a phrase I heard often growing up. Most black people that lived in the 50s and 60s have heard that phrase and knows what it means. It meant don’t act up, don’t bring bad attention to your family and community, make your family and your community proud of your actions. Be sure your actions contribute to the community’s push for acceptance by the majority. Be a credit to your race.
I don’t know if other people outside the “black race” ever use this type of phase. I’m black. I can only speak from my experience and I heard it often.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned that “be a credit to your race” was a phrase that blacks could use with each other, but it was frowned on when a white person told a black person they should be a “credit to their race.” It was sort of like the use of the “N-word”.
The phrase may have had its origins in the desire of formerly enslaved people to be accepted. It may have been used by Booker T. Washington at his Tuskegee Institute, urging his black students to be their best. It may have come from W.E.B.DuBois imploring the Talented Tenth to rise up and help the black race. It may have been at the foundation of the many fraternities, sororities, business groups, academic clubs, etc. that were born out of the separate but equal actions of the Jim Crow era.
In the 50s and 60s you could see the black people that were a credit to the race. They would be the people in Ebony and Jet magazines. They would be the blacks we all rushed to see when they showed up on TV or in sports.
It would be rare to hear that phrase today. Black people are not all alike so they show up in all kinds of ways. There is no set way to be a “credit to the race.” Most importantly, few black people have that old feeling of wanting to impress or please white people.
But that idea of being your best is a good one to me. Making my family and community proud is still one of my desires. But now that I’m older and a little wiser I think the phrase needs to be updated.
First the idea that there is a black race, a white race, a yellow race, etc. is something I’ve learned is false. If you study history you will learn that we referred to people by their geographical location and not their color until the 1600s and 1700s. If you ever notice, there are no people of any color in the Bible.
In 1619 when Africans first arrived at Jamestown, Va. until the 1670s people were classified as African or Negro and English and Christian.
75% of those early immigrants from England to America were indentured servants. Being indentured meant they had a contract to use their labor to pay off a debt. Many of those debts were for the cost to come to the country.
In those early years a few people were landowners. The majority of people were indentured. We usually think of freedom and bondage as opposites. But in America they were both birthed from the same egg, caused by the first revolution.
Many historians point to an event known as Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 as a turning point, the first revolution. Nathaniel Bacon was a wealthy white property owner and relative of Virginia’s governor, William Berkeley. But Bacon and Berkeley did not like each other, and they disagreed over issues pertaining to how the colony should be governed, including the colony’s policy toward Native Americans. Bacon wanted the colony to retaliate for raids by Native Americans on frontier settlements and to remove all Native Americans from the colony so landowners like himself could expand their property. Berkeley feared that doing so would unite all of the nearby tribes in a costly and destructive war against the colony. In defiance of the governor, Bacon organized his own militia, consisting of white and black indentured servants and enslaved black people, who joined in exchange for freedom, and attacked nearby tribes. A power struggle ensued with Bacon and his militia on one side and Berkeley, the Virginia House of Burgesses, and the rest of the colony’s elite on the other. Months of conflict followed, including armed skirmishes between militias. In September 1676, Bacon’s militia captured Jamestown and burned it to the ground.
In the end the rebellion was unsuccessful and a month after Jamestown was burned Bacon died of fever. But the rebellion alerted the landowners to the joint power of the white and black indentured servants and the slaves. They began giving more freedoms to the white indentured servants and placed more limitations on the indentured black servants and the slaves. They increased importation of Africans and decreased the number of indentured servants.
The landowners worked to draw a wedge between the black and white servants. According to the Oxford dictionary in 1671 the term white was first used to describe indentured English servants. Anyone not classified as white was destined to be a slave for life.
The wealthy landowners (slaveholders) had two reasons for their actions. One was to make sure any offspring from the slave owners and enslaved women would follow the status of their mother. And any Christian fathering a child with a black slave would be subject to a small fine. But this did little to stop the practice. The other reason to keep the people divided was to stop insurrections of indentured blacks and indentured whites. There was no way the landowners who were in the minority, could maintain their dominance if the whites and blacks who provided the labor united.
Virginia began to pass a series of laws in the 1670s that would separate white people from black people and make black people perpetual servants/slaves. Instead of their labor being contracted, now blacks were the property of the landowner. The laws would say a master could kill a slave during the act of discipline and it would be okay. With these laws white people didn’t have to value black people’s lives. White people and black people were deemed separate by their labor and class. White supremacy was born.
From then on the lowest white could always consider themselves above the highest black. We suffer from this thinking still today. That is why we say Black Lives Matter!
But really the terms black and white people were made up. Made up to keep people divided. Both white freedom and black bondage came from the same source, a decision/grant by the wealthy landowners.
Black people and white people really both come from the same race, the human race. Which brings me back to my original point about being a credit to your race.
I wish people would want to be a credit to the human race. I wish they carried that weight of always wanting to do their best for the human race, the human community. I wish they would be embarrassed to be caught not acting as an outstanding human being.
If that were the case we would be embarrassed to have so much and not share with those who have so little. We would look out for each other. We would see how we are all in this world together.
Are you a credit to your race, our race, the human race? Are you bringing more value, are you increasing the investment, are you making the world better? If so, I’d say you are a credit to the race. I’d say thank you.
I challenge you, don’t believe the lie. We are not separate. We are all here doing our best to survive. It is not to our benefit to be separate.
Rise up. Be a credit to your race. The human race.