“Choice of Colors” (The Impressions)

It’s 1969, and Curtis Mayfield queries the implied African American male listener regarding the status quo. How did you come to value African Americans over “black folks not of kin,” and family over your “brother’s woman friend”? Who taught or told you to strongly value a “black preacher” over a “white teacher”? And, in general, how did you get so race conscious? Mayfield is preaching a kind of colorblindness to his listeners (“if there was no day or night, which would you prefer to be right?”), and two things stand out: first, the singer knows full well that what social science called “insularism” is actually a portfolio of public sphere projects designed as a survival strategy in a world dominated by race. So, in order to change course, the winds must seem to be blowing a bit differently. One must feel the optimism that a “better society” is on the way. (If that’s not true, and if LBJ’s “New Society” is really cooptation of revolutionary energies, then perhaps the Black Panthers have got it right.) Second, and more complicating, is the line, “People must prove to the people a better day is coming for you and me.” Why do the “people” appear twice, and who’s proving what to whom? Mayfield, in essence, is calling for a self-work upon one’s own internal divisions. Since everyone can see both sides of the argument, everyone is necessarily two-faced on this question. You need to stand in a mirror, at twilight, and convince the other of color that the time is nigh.

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