IV. Colorism in America
In America, skin color is an important signifier of beauty and social status. African-Americans' preference for light complexions and European features dates back to the antebellum era when skin color determined an enslaved person's work assignments. Dark-skinned slaves worked in the fields, while light-complexioned slaves worked in the slave owner's home. James Stirling, a British writer who visited the American South in 1857, observed conditions on Southern plantations and wrote:
In judging of the welfare of the slaves, it is necessary to distinguish the different conditions of slavery. The most important distinction, both as regards numbers and its influence on the wellbeing of the slave, is that between houseservants and farm or fieldhands. The houseservant is comparatively well off. He is frequently born and bred in the family he belongs to; and even when this is not the case, the constant association of the slave and his master, *91 and master's family, naturally leads to such an attachment as ensures good treatment. There are not wanting instances of devoted attachment on both sides in such cases. . . . The position of the fieldhands is very different; of those, especially, who labour on large plantations. Here there are none of those humanizing influences at work which temper the rigour of the system, nor is there the same check of public opinion to control abuse. The ‘force' is worked en masse, as a great human mechanism; or, if you will, as a drove of human cattle.
The Hemingses of Monticello provides an example of how slaves with familial ties to their owners lived and worked during the antebellum period. Elizabeth Hemings was the daughter of an African woman and a White sea captain. She had 12 children, half of them by her owner, John Wayles whose legitimate daughter, Martha Wayles Skelton, married President Thomas Jefferson in 1772. After her father's death, Martha inherited Elizabeth Hemings and her children and brought them to serve at Monticello. The Hemings were treated differently than other slaves at Monticello plantation. None of them worked in the fields. The women were considered a relatively privileged caste compared to others, and worked as house servants performing chores like sewing, mending clothes, looking after children, and baking cakes. The men served as valets, coach drivers, and butlers. Jefferson paid some of the men wages and gratuities, and others were allowed to hire themselves out to other employers of their choice. Sally Hemings, the young daughter of Elizabeth Hemings and John Wayles, was Martha's half-sister and it was *92 said that the two bore a physical resemblance. Most historians now agree that Sally Hemings became Jefferson's mistress and bore six of his children.
Lalita Tademy's novel, Cane River, describes the intimate relationships among slave owners and female slaves that produced racially-mixed offspring. The characters are based on Tademy's ancestors who she discovered after years of researching her family's history. It is a narrative about four generations of women born into slavery along the Cane River in Louisiana. One character, Great-grandmother Elisabeth, had a daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter who bore the offspring of the French planters. In many cases, the children's paternity was widely known and acknowledged by their fathers; but, since Louisiana's laws did not allow slaves to be legally entitled to any property or money, these children were not allowed to inherit anything.
Prior to the Civil War, mixed-race Creoles in Louisiana had a social status that set them above enslaved persons. After the War, they were subjected to the "one-drop" rule, but they maintained family and community ties that distanced them from darker-skinned African-Americans. They were, as a Creole documentary put it, "too white to be black and too black to be white."
After emancipation, the dark/light division was perpetuated by African-Americans who constructed social classes based on skin color. Blacks created "blue vein societies," social clubs to which individuals were admitted only if their skin tone was light enough to make their veins visible on the underside of their arms. Color differences continued to *93 play an important role in the Black community. Mixed race individuals attempted to maintain the privileged status they had acquired during slavery. Separate communities were established in which access was based on skin color. Examples include Chatham and East Hyde Park in Chicago, and the Striver's Row and Sugar Hill neighborhoods of New York.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt's 1899 short story, The Wife of His Youth, satirized the pretensions of light-skinned African-Americans at the end of the nineteenth century. The protagonist of the story, Mr. Ryder, was the leader of the local "Blue Vein Society" who was dating a fair-skinned female member of the organization. Ryder claimed that he was free born and the product of a respected family, as this was a requirement for Blue Vein membership. He was confronted with a dilemma when a woman appeared in the community. She was an illiterate, dark-complexioned former slave who had spent years looking for her husband. Ryder initially denied knowing the woman. Eventually, his guilty conscious forced him to admit that he had lied about his background. Ryder acknowledged his marriage and reunited with the dark-skinned woman who was "the wife of his youth."
Researchers have documented the ways in which many Black teachers in segregated schools during the pre-Brown v. Board of Education era were infected with the attitudes that preferred lighter-skinned children over darker-skinned students. Light-skinned students were selected as leads in plays and pageants, called on first in classroom discussions, and visibly favored by teachers. An example of this can be found in a recollection published by J. Saunders Redding, a writer and literary critic who was the first African-American to hold a faculty position at an Ivy League *94 university. Redding was the product of an influential Black family in Wilmington, Delaware. His brother, Louis L. Redding, was the attorney who represented the Delaware students in the consolidated cases remembered as Brown. In No Day of Triumph, Saunders Redding describes his experiences with colorism during his childhood. Wilmington's Black population grew rapidly during and after the World War I years. A large number of Black families were moving from the rural South to work in factory jobs that were available in rapidly industrializing northern communities. The recent arrivals were poorer, less educated and often darker-complexioned than Wilmington's Black middle class. To Saunders' mother and grandmother, the new neighbors were perceived as a threat.
Redding recalled a public speaking contest in which he competed with a dark-skinned student. He was so nervous that he mumbled a few words before bursting into tears. In contrast, the dark-complexioned student's performance was outstanding. Redding, who was lighter-complexioned and socially connected, was awarded first prize despite his dismal performance. A few years later, when Redding was in high school, the light-skinned, female principal discouraged him from maintaining a romantic relationship because the girl was poor and dark-skinned.
Wallace Thurman's Harlem Renaissance novel, The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life, is a satire in which the theme is colorism in the 1920s New York. The novel's dark-skinned protagonist, Emma Lou Morgan, internalized biases against dark-complexioned people. She grew up in Boise, Idaho, where she experienced discrimination by the lighter- *95 complexioned African-Americans throughout her childhood. She left Boise to attend to college in Los Angeles. From there, Emma Lou moved to Harlem where she worked as a maid and later as a teacher. Throughout the novel, Emma Lou is plagued by anxieties about her dark complexion. Her obsession with color prevented her from enjoying Harlem's excitement. In New York, Emma Lou encountered discrimination from Blacks and Whites. At a Harlem party, a character explained intra-racial discrimination, stating, "people have to feel superior to something," and expounded that light-complexioned African-Americans who look down on darker-skinned African-Americans were perpetuating a hierarchy of discrimination imposed by the White majority. After some romantic disappointments with light-complexioned men, Emma Lou finally accepted her appearance. The book's title is derived from an old saying: "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice."
In the early decades of the twentieth century, colorism fueled conflicts among African-American leaders, including Marcus Garvey, who was the head of the Universal Negro Improvement Organization. The organization attracted at least a half-million members, and it competed for a time with the NAACP for the position of the premier African-American advocacy group. Many of the NAACP's members were educated and middle class. Garvey's group appealed to the masses. Unlike the NAACP, which fought for integration, Garvey proposed *96 migration to Africa as the answer to the "Negro problem." In 1931, Garvey, who had a very dark complexion and African features, claimed that W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP practiced colorism:
It is no wonder that Du Bois seeks the company of white people, because he hates black as being ugly . . . Yet this professor, who sees ugliness in being black, essays to be a leader of the Negro people and has been trying for over fourteen years to deceive them through his connection with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Now what does he mean by advancing colored people if he hates black so much? In what direction must we expect his advancement? We can conclude in no other way than that it is in the direction of losing our black identity and becoming, as nearly as possible, the lowest whites by assimilation and miscegenation.
Du Bois fervently denied Garvey's claim, but there was some truth to it. Walter White was the head of the NAACP from the mid-1930s until his death in 1955. White's light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes did not display a hint of his African ancestry. He took advantage of his appearance to pass for White while conducting undercover investigations of lynchings and other hate crimes in the South. White's colorism was reflected in the image of African-American women he actively promoted in Crisis, a periodical published by the NAACP. In the 1940s, Crisis was the most important magazine of opinion among African-Americans. The editors used photographs of predominantly light-skinned, college-educated women in an effort to displace entrenched notions of Black women as "Jezebels" or sexual victims. The editors wanted to refashion the image of Black women, but in doing so they promoted colorism. During the World War II years, the light-skinned, African-American actress Lena Horne was featured on two Crisis covers to promote a new *97 image of Black women. As one scholar explained:
The magazine preferred headshots of well-dressed, light-skinned African American women who were college-educated ladies, beauty-contest winners, soldiers' wives, or celebrated entertainers, over photographs of dark-skinned women engaged in war-production work. Jane Cooke Wright (August 1942), Barbara Gonzales (March 1944), and Katheryn M. Davenport (August 1944) represent the Crisis's typical war era cover girl. All three women avert their eyes from the photographer; the photograph showcases their upper torsos, shoulders, and faces, highlighting their light skin and carefully coiffed hair.
Alluding to the organization's perceived elitism, some Blacks joked that the letters "NAACP" actually stood for the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People.
Colorism lives on. Today, African-American entertainers and actors are far more likely to have light coloring than dark complexions. With the exception of an occasional dark-skinned exotic, most Black models can easily pass the "paper bag" test, and many have racially ambiguous coloring and features. African-American news anchors and reporters rarely have dark complexions. Female entertainers, in particular, tend to have light skin and hair that is dyed blonde and made longer with hair extensions. Consider Halle Berry, Rihanna, and Alicia Keys. In her hit song, "Creole," Beyonce Knowles sings about her Creole heritage and being an attractive combination of "red bone" and "yellow bone" (terms that refer to light-skinned Black women).
Pop singer Fantasia Barrino rose to fame as the 2004 winner on the popular television show, American Idol. She was the object of a barrage *98 of negative publicity surrounding her affair with a married man and the lawsuit his wife filed against her. Barinno attempted suicide and later told reporters that the media criticism was based on her dark skin and ethnic features. She said: "[w]hen I did [American] Idol, it seemed like everybody there was Barbied out. Slim, long hair, light eyes, light-skinned. And here I come with my dark skin, full nose, short hair and full lips-it was hard." "Barbied out" referred to the appearance represented by the Barbie doll, one of the most successful toys of the twentieth century. Barbies are grown-up looking dolls that allow girls to reflect their personality and dreams in the roles imagined for them. Their appearance is an icon of female beauty and the American dream. The classic thin figure, blonde hair, and blue eyes reflect the Eurocentric ideal, a look that a dark-skinned person with African features could never achieve. Interestingly, when Barbies were introduced at the 1959 Toy Fair, blonde dolls outnumbered brunettes two to one.