Brilliant Songs #14: Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me”

Back in 1951, the publication of John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me” landed like a bomb on American culture. Griffin was a white man who had spent months working with his dermatologist to turn his skin black before setting out on a bold odyssey from his New Orleans home through the deep South. His intention was to experience first-hand what it would feel like to be a black person in Jim Crow America. The result was a stark, shattering testimony to the virulent racism still prevailing in American life nearly a century after the Emancipation Proclamation. The book’s power resonates to this day.

So much so that country singer Mickey Guyton, one of the few African Americans navigating the sometimes treacherous shoals of her genre with its predominantly white artists and audiences, had it very much in mind when releasing her song of the same title just weeks ago. The fact that it coincided with the nationwide paroxysm of protest and introspection following the murder of George Floyd was a mixture of intention and accident, but could not have been more conducive for furthering conversation about the song and its urgent message and messenger.

“I carried that book around with me forever,” Guyton told NPR in a recent interview in which she discussed her college studies in black history and the effect of reading Griffin’s and other works. Having written the song in collaboration with several others and planned it for a splashy release earlier this year via her Capitol Records label, that plan was scuttled in the face of the Covid pandemic, only to resurface with immediacy in the wake of recent events.

And then I saw Ahmaud,” Guyton told NPR. “And then I saw Breonna [Taylor]. And then I saw George. I just put ‘Black Like Me’ on my Instagram. No permission, no nothing. I just put it out there because people need to hear that. And then Spotify called and asked for it. I was like, ‘Here. Take it. No, there doesn’t need to be promotion, because that’s tacky.’ This is not about me. This is about the bigger spectrum of things and about humanity. And that’s why we did it.

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Arguably more bold and important than lyrically brilliant, Black Like Me” reads like plaintive autobiography. Guyton grew up in Texas, something of a nomad as the family moved around the state following her engineer father’s employment. She began singing in the church choir at age 5, and would eventually emerge with a powerful voice, movie star looks and a winning, accommodative personality.

But as a young girl, when everyone struggles to find a place, she was simply the wrong color, and she heard about it.

Little kid in a small town
I did my best just to fit in
Broke my heart on the playground, mmh
When they said I was different

Several decades (and two more stanzas) later, we hear that nothing has changed all that much:

Oh, now
Now, I’m all grown up and nothin’ has changed
Yeah, it’s still the same

It’s a hard life on easy street
Just white painted picket fences far as you can see
If you think we live in the land of the free
You should try to be black like me

Those last two lines are haymakers, directed at a strain of white cluelessness that raises the banner of freedom and flag and limitless opportunity, while remaining either hostile or simply oblivious to the reality of what being black in the U.S. entails. Country music has not been devoid of this cluelessness, but Guyton had not much stirred the pot with her previous work that mined familiar themes of lost love and renewal.

Having channeled Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in 2011 for the Obamas in the White House and then been signed by Capitol Records, she moved to Nashville that year with high hopes, but had achieved only middling success ever since. The tools were there; the full-blown artistic identity was not.

Just five years ago, she told Canadian magazine Maclean’s, “I am black, but sometimes I forget it. I’ve always grown up being the only black girl in the room. I’ve never grown up to see colour.”

That was then. In the wake of history since, and her own struggle to find her creative voice, Guyton finally faced the elephant in the room: that colour wasn’t going away, had always been a factor in her deliberations of honing her identity in the country world. And she had been too careful by half in not reflecting that identity in her music and lyrics.

Country owes a huge debt to African music, after all, and Guyton had watched in increasing dismay over the years as other, predominantly white male country singers incorporated R & B and hip hop elements into their songs while she had been tip-toeing around both that and any racially themed lyrics in her own work.

It was her attorney husband who laid it out to her a couple of years ago, according to Rolling Stone” magazine, when she asked him point blank during a particularly low time for her creatively, “Why do you think that this isn’t working for me?”

“Because you’re running away from everything that makes you different,” came the reply.

She cites that as a turning point, lighting a fire under her that picked up additional fuel with each heart-breaking headline leading up to George Floyd. There would not appear to be any turning back now, the gauntlet having been thrown down across her musical identity in the still rarefied white world of country music.

How that world responds to her and the far larger and louder roilings of the “national conversation” on race that Barack Obama urged upon Americans back in 2008 and which finally seems to be upon us now, will tell us much about the state of our union in 2020, and any indications that we are ready, at long last, to embrace and practice the lofty ideals that created this nation.

Black Like Me

Little kid in a small town
I did my best just to fit in
Broke my heart on the playground, mmh
When they said I was different

Oh, now
Now, I’m all grown up and nothin’ has changed
Yeah, it’s still the same

It’s a hard life on easy street
Just white painted picket fences far as you can see
If you think we live in the land of the free
You should try to be black like me

My daddy worked day and night
For an old house and a used car
Just to live that good life, mmh
It shouldn’t be twice as hard

Oh, now
Now, I’m all grown up and nothin’ has changed
Yeah, it’s still the same

It’s a hard life on easy street (CHORUS)…

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh

Oh, I know
I’m not
The only one
Oh, yeah
Who feels
Like I
I don’t belong

(CHORUS)

Oh, and some day we’ll all be free
And I’m proud to be, oh, black like me
And I’m proud to be black like me
Proud to be black like me
Black like me

Songwriters: Mickey Guyton/Emma Davidson-Dillon / Fraser James Eliot Churchill /  Nathan Paul Chapman

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

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Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Guyton photo by Rahoul Ghose/PBS

4 comments to Brilliant Songs #14: Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me”

  • kmalin68  says:

    Andy, I listened to this just after having a conversation with someone who doesn’t understand why black people are so mad at HER! She hasn’t done anything. She asked why do they burn things down? And then she said that black people in other cities aren’t like they are here, they are way scarier. I don’t even think she knows how racist that sounds! Then I clicked on this song. All the pain and anguish and frustration that it conveys is heartbreaking! Thanks, once again, for introducing me to art that is so important and necessary!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Karen, in between the president and your friend—and countless others, unfortunately—I am tempted to introduce a new psychological affliction to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD). After all that has happened in the recent past, it’s getting increasingly difficult to “get” how so many people still don’t get it, I must say. Sometimes I think it is only by the good grace of blacks that they haven’t burned the whole country down, as would be a natural, vengeful inclination of any people subjected to what they were for so long, the vestiges of which still linger so powerfully today. Thanks for sharing this, glad to help you discover the song.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Years ago I read “Black Like Me.” As I recall, it was my father who recommended it to me. I also remember how a well-known writer (maybe Tagore) traveled throughout the South and because of his dark skin he felt the sting of Jim Crow. Progress in issues of race will be a slow, incremental march, whereby seemingly insignificant steps can fundamentally change how people see color. When Don Haskin’s all-black Texas Western (now UTEP) basketball team defeated Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky squad in the 1966 NCAA championship game, athletic conferences like the SEC and ACC took notice. Within three years segregated Alabama integrated its athletic program. While most people are familiar with the name Jackie Robinson, Don Haskins remains an answer to a difficult trivia question. However, he did yeoman’s work, even if it was merely basketball, to move our nation forward.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Years ago I read “Black Like Me.” As I recall, it was my father who recommended it to me. I also remember how a well-known writer (maybe Tagore) traveled throughout the South and because of his dark skin he felt the sting of Jim Crow. Progress in issues of race will be a slow, incremental march, whereby seemingly insignificant steps can fundamentally change how people see color. When Don Haskin’s all-black Texas Western (now UTEP) basketball team defeated Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky squad in the 1966 NCAA championship game, athletic conference like the SEC and ACC took notice. Within three years segregated Alabama integrated its athletic program. While most people are familiar with the name Jackie Robinson, Don Haskins remains an answer to a difficult trivia question. However, he did yeoman’s work, even if it was merely basketball, to move our nation forward.

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