The Color Complex - Politics Skin Color African Americans Reflection Paper

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The color complex

The politics of Skin Color among African Americans

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The Color Complex The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans Kathy Russell Midge Wilson, Ph.D. Ronald Hall, Ph.D. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers New York San Diego London ; '... . .., 8ECEr"':J rr - - .., :';V I 2 1992 - --- ,- 1 2. The Color Gap in Power and Privilege Whiter and whiter, every generation. The nearer white you are the more white people will respect you. Therefore all light Negroes marry light Negroes. Continue to do so generation after generation, and eventually white people will accept this racially bastard aristocracy, thus enabling those Negroes who really matter to escape the social and economic inferiority of the American Negro. - WALLACE THURMAN. The Blacker the Berry After the Civil War the mulatto elite no 10ngerJ!a~ !he distiill1i..on of freedom-"""' to' :..s~pa~ate~>irom ihedark-skinned masses.-~~Many --~_.~ ~ ,., ~_.~_.~' ~t.!.?~S, ~.senf~~nchisedby thl( war effort, suff~~d not only from the loss of property, business, and wealth but also from the backlash o~ite Soiith;mers:~ome ~f whom-h~dprevi.2u_s!liU'pP~~-;~ To preserve their status this colored elite began to ~~gg~ themselves intOa-s~rat:_c~mmunity. Intiie pro:.ess thex. ac!!.velydiscriminated.- _._'~. against brethren. In many ways, the _. -their darker-skinned -.' --..--mulatto eJite acted' no differently than any other upper-class group attempting to secure its status. Rich White people attend preppie schools, form exclusive business associations, and join fancy country clubs in order to mingle and mate with the "right" kind. Light-skinned Blacks were simply doing the same. In another sense, however, the mulattoes' behavior differed in that a single visible attribute, skin color, detennined who would be accepted. The elitism that had begun before the Civil War became further entrenched after it, and still remains evident today in the color gap in power and privilege that divides the Black community. Mulatto elite social clubs like the Bon Ton Society of Washing24 25 / The Color Gap in Power and Privilege ton, D.C., and the Blue Vein Society of Nashville were fonned during Reconstruction, when southern cities were flooded with the "sot-free," Negroes freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. The elite group of those who had been free before the war, in many case for generations, called themselves the "bona fide" free and reacted to the upheaval by fonning exclusive social clubs based on color and class, which provided an effective way to maintain the old hierarchy. Membership was considered an honor, and the "blue veiners" and "bon tonners" were thought to have the finest of bloodlines. In practice, however, admission to a blue vein society depended not on family background but on skin color. An applicant had to be fair enough for the spidery network of purplish veins at the wrist to be visible to a panel of expert judges. Access to certain vacation resorts, like Highland Beach on Chesapeake Bay, was even said to be restricted to blue-vein members. Many Negroes, mulatto and otherwise, thought the blue veiners ridiculous and called their clubs-blue "vain" societies. Others, like the writer Wallace Thunnan, were alarmed by the organizations' political agenda. The fictitious blue-vein-society credo quoted at the beginning of this chapter was an attempt by Thunnan. to call attention to the true nature of these clubs. Not until after.the Black Renaissance Qf the J920s did the influence and prevalence of the mulatto social clubs weaken, although snobbish attitudes about skin color and class persisted. To this day exclusive Black social clubs like Jack & Jill and Links have a significant majority of light-skinned members. Many churches, schools, sororities, fraternities, businesses, and even neighborhoods are also reputed to be p~ial to light-skinned Blacks. . Virtually every major urban center across the ~ountry has a section where predominantly light-skinned Blacks reside. In Philadelphia, mulattoes live in areas unofficially called "lighty ~righty" and "banana block." In Chicago, the Black bourgeoisie can be found in Chatham and East Hyde Park, and in New York, certain sections of Harlem remain reserved for descendants of the light-skinned mulatto elite. Although most Americans think of Harlem as a wastelandof drugs :1 , 26 / The Color Complex and crime, two small areas prevail as reminders of what the neighborhood once was. Strivers Row, located between West 138th and West 139th streets and Seventh and Eighth avenues, was originally occupied by wealthy White families who quickly vacated when Blacks began to "invade" Harlem in 1918. Light-skinned doctors, lawyers, ministers, journalists, teachers, and other professionals, haughtily known as the "Elite of African Descent," were only too happy to take up residence in the beautiful brownstonehouses the fleeing Whites left behind. During the roaring twenties Strivers Row was the place to live for New York's mulatto socialites. Harlem CongressmanAdam Clayton Powell, Sr., wrote of living there in the 1940s, when the neighborhood was still very much in vogue. . . . in Strivers Row. . . were the dowagers of Harlem's society. These queenly, sometimesportly, and nearly always lightskinned Czarinas presided over the Harlem upper class. . . . There was an open door for all who were light-skinned and for most of those of the professional group. The entire pattern of society was white. . . . [And] if invited Harlemites brought with them [to a social function] their dark-skinned friends, they were shunned and sometimes pointedly asked to leave. Another exclusive neighbo~hood is nearby Sugar Hill, so-called because the people who live there are said to lead such a "sweet" life. The "Hill" slopes from West 145th to West 155th streets between Edgecombe and Amsterdam avenues and overlooks the "Valley," where, with the exception of Strivers Row,. the less-fortunate Harlemites reside. In the 1920s light-skinned Blacks with money, talent, social prominence, and intellectual distinction migrated to the high-rent white stone apartment houses of the "Hill." The fourteenstory building at 409 Edgecombebecame a particularaddressof choice. It remains tony today, and one past occupant who does not speak for others in the building believes that "unless you are of light skin color, you are not welcome" as a tenant. According to this source, when the tenants of 409 are called on their color classism, as they often are, they tend to respond in a tone of innocent sarcasm, "Not 409!' - -- 27 / The Color Gap in Power and Privilege Historical~?__t!terehave been c~I!ain B~£~_~~urchesJ!!~':.Vere highly color c0!l!.cio~ as~~l. Churches have generally played a ,--------more vital role in the lives of Blacks than in those of Whites. The sociologist W. E. B. DuBois once referred to the church as "the social center of Negro life." Thus, like members of social clubs, churchgoers have tended to congregate by color and class. The earliest church in America established exclusively for Negroes was the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), founded in 1793 in Philadelphia. By 1870, with color increasingly dividing the Black community, the lighter-skinned worshipers split off to form their own denomination, called the Colored Methodist Episcopal (the "C" in CME was changed in 1954 to stand for Christian). Fairskinned bishops were the rule in the CME, a pattern that prompted a prominent Black newspaper editor to write, in 1910, "there is now but one of the dark hue, all the others being mulattoes, quadroons or octoroons. " At the congregation turn of the century,~~k a colorconscious might rst-befamilies requiredwishing to pass to thejoin paper-bag, the door, or the comb test. The paper-bag test involved placing art arm inside a brown paper bag, and only if the skin on the arm was lighter than the color of the bag would a prospective member be invited to attend church serv;ces. Other churches painted their doors a light shade of brown, and anyone whose skin was darker than the door was politely invited to seek religious services elsewhere. And in still other "houses of worship" throughout Virginia and in such cities as Philadelphia and New Orleans, a fine-toothed comb was hung on a rope near the front entrance. If one's hair was too nappy and snagged in the comb, entry was deniedJ Although such qualifying tests for church membership have long since disappeared, the congregations of certain Black society churches continue to be noticeably lighter than others. Inside these churches one hears none of the loud gospel singing, hand clapping, or foot stomping stereotypically associated with Black churches. In Atlanta, the locals joke that no one can join the First Congregational Church unless his or her skin is as light as the lightest faces in the stainedglass windows. Like St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Savannah, ---- 2 8 / The Color Complex First Congregational was often referred to as a blue vein, or b.v., church. Perhaps the most insidious form of color discriminationwas found at the Black preparatory schools and colleges established by and for the mulatto elite. Dark-skinned Blacks were often denied admission regardless of their academic qualifications. At the Palmer Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, in the early years of the twentieth century, one of the more prestigious Black preparatory schools in the country, headmistress Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown even avoided using the terms Black or Colored in discussions with her mostly light-skinned, fine-featured students. Instead she said "one of us" or "our kind." And although White features might signal illegitimacy, Dr. Brown apparently thought it was not a bad thing to have a White ancestor or two somewhere back in the family tree. A similar attitude prevailed in New Orleans at the St. Mary's Academy for Young Ladies of Color, a finishingschool for the daughtersof well-to-doCreoles. Darkskinned students who managed to get accepted at these schools were often ostracized. At the legendary M Street High School (later renamed Dunbar) in Washington, D.C., a graduate of 1905 claimed that while a dark-skinned youth might receive a good education there, the children of the old mulatto families would never accept him as a social equal. These schoolday social patterns were extremely important, since friendships formed early in life were often the basis for useful political and business contacts later on. Cliquish social circles and biased admissions policies were also common at many of the historic Black colleges and universities established in the nineteegth century, including Wilberforce in Ohio (1856), Howard in Washington, D.C. (1867), Fisk University in Nashville (1866), Atlanta University in Georgia (l8()5), Morgan (today Morgan State) in Baltimore (1867), Hampton institute (today Hampton University) in Virginia (1868), and Spelman Women's College in Atlanta (1881). At some of the most pre~tigiousof the schools, including Spelman, applicants were allegedly required to pass a color (:;-.t test before being admitted. . A' ~IJ... A..£ri"-cipalmission_~!!'1e~c:.schools was~~oom mulattoes in t;: ~", >. ..:fhe genteel mores students received a primarily - of the bourgeoisie; # .' ..,t.,\ \.-' ~.. ~. / . "'" " -t' ~ - -- --- 29 / The Color Gap in Power and Privilege liberal arts.edu~ation: Ma~c~demic .~ ministrat~.!1~id e~ed it a _ill waste of tlme-1Q tnJln dark-<;kJnnecL1ie..grnes for paths m. hfe that ~ . ~uld be closed t2-thel!!.Land as recent!L!s 191tLit was ~si!mated j that 80 [!ercent of t~~y:dent"-8f .thi;?e_.Blacl),..c.qlleges~~.Jight skinned and of mixed ancestry. --rG'nie"'d ~libe;al "7irtsed~~ation,dark-skinned students began turning to schools like Tuskegee Institute of Alabama, founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington.Tuskegeeoffered all Black studentsa ~tric~ vocational curriculum of "industrial education" because Washmgton thought that Negroes, particularly those who were not members of the aristocracy, should concentrate their energies on becoming skilled workers. 7 Another college president who rejected a liberal arts education in favor of vocational training was Mary McLeod Bethune, a woman of blue-black coloring who established the Bethune-Cookman College of Daytona, Florida, in 192i)Her institution, originally called the Daytona School for Girls, was founded expressly for "Black girls," not the fair-skinned daughters of doctors, lawyers, and clergymen who attended Palmer. Bethune students took a curriculum of basic skills, including home economics, cooking, and even housekeeping, so that upon graduation they would be fully prepared to do real work in the real world. Although Washington was himself a mulatto, advocates of industrial education were often darker-skinned while proponents of liberal arts studies tended to be members of the mulatto elite. (When Washington died in 1915, a dark-skinned Black man, Robert Russa Moten, was named to succeed him as president of Tuskegee.) The separate educational paths taken by light-skinned mulattoes and dark-skinned Negroes at the turn of the century fl!rther divided the Black community. Evidence began to mount that an industrial education did nothing more than channel dark-skinned Blacks into low-paying menial work. I Does skin color still affect educational and occupational opportunities for African-American college students today? In the late 1980s, Ronald Hall questioned Black students from comparable social and educational backgrounds attending a predominantly Black university --- ---- L 30 / The Color Complex l in the South about their career plans. He found a strong correlation between skin color and occupational goals: the light-skinned students aimed for far more prestigious jobs than their darker-skinned peers. Students on Black college campuses also claim that skin color affects their social opportunities, especially within the Greek system. Some maintain that membership in the more exclusive organizations still depends largely on having the right hair texture and skin color. However, many "Greeks" dispute this claim, arguing that skin color has never been a factor distinguishing Black fraternities and sororities, since most were founded at the turn of the century when the vast majority of students were mulatto. Others confess that when students from more varied backgrounds started attending college, color did start to become a factor in the hierarchy of Greek organizations: the more elite the fraternity or sorority, the lighter-skinned its members. The highly regarded Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternitymust still contend with reputationsfor being partial toward Blacks with light skin and "good" hair. In the past, even guests of student members at color elite organizations were subject to the paper-bag tests. From the 1920s well into the 1960s "color tax" parties were common in Black fraternitiesthe darker a brother's date, the higher the tax he had to pay at the door. While most students deny that there is any such outright color prejudice today, nonetheless those of similar shading and features do seem to gravitate together, as Spike Lee showed in his film School Daze. Historically,Black businessorganizationsdiscriminatedon the basis of skin color as well, particularly in cities like C~arleston and New Orleans where relatively large populations of mulattoes lived free before emancipation. In Charleston, the Brown Fellowship Society was established in 1790 by free people of color to facilitate business contacts among Negroes, but membership was restricted to those whose skin was light to medium brown. (Ambitious darker-skinned Black men were left to form their own business organization. the Society of Free Dark Men.) Clubs and organizations like these kept mulattoes a distinct class apart from the rest of the Black community. By socializing only with each other, they produced generations of light- -- - --- 3 1 / The C%r Gap in Power and Privilege skin~.edBlacks-an aristocracy whose money and ancestral portraits often went back to great-great-grandparents who were free before the Civil War. By the turn of the century, this mulatto elite had clearly emerged as the intellectual and political leaders of the Black community. The visibility and power of this select group was never more clear than when a volume of essays devoted to various aspects of the "American Negro problem" was published by the Pott Company in 1903. Contemporary Black intellectuals were invited to make scholarly contributions; all but one of the seven were mulatto. An essay by W. E. B. DuBois called on the Negro community to "produce a college-educated class whose mission would be to serve and guide the progress of the masses." Among those DuBois designated to help lead the way were twenty-one men and two women, all but one of whom were mulatto. This list of leaders, popularly known as the "Talented Tenth" (a reference to the "top" 10 percent of the Negro population), included: Ira Aldridge Benjamin Banneker B. K. Bruce Paul Cuffe Frederick Douglass James Durham R. B. Elliot H. H. Garnett R. T. Greener Lemuel Haynes John Langston D. A. Payne J. W. C. Pennington Phyllis Wheatley Peters Robert Purvis J. B. Russworm McCune Smith Sojourner Truth Negro actor Invented clock Politician Activist Antislavery activist Practiced medicine Politician Preacher Politician Preacher Politician Bishop of A.M. church Underground railroad Writer Underground railroad Governor of Liberia Physician/druggist Underground Railroad - -- mulatto mulatto mulatto mulatto mulatto mulatto mulatto mulatto mulatto mulatto mulatto mulatto mulatto black mulatto mulatto mulatto mulatto ---- 32 / The Color Complex David Walker B. T. Washington Bert Williams Agitator Principal at Tuskegee Comedian mulatto mulatto mulatto Despite being named as one of the "upper tens," the educator Booker T. Washington was among those who rejected DuBois's premise that a few shining examplesof successful,well-educatedBlacks at the top would in any way help the average Black person at the bottom. DuBois and Washingtonmay have differed in their political views, but they both had light skin and Caucasian features. Washington had reddish hair and gray eyes; DuBois, with his mixtureof French, Dutch, and African blood, was so light that some said he could easily have passed as White. As DuBois's "Talented Tenth" list made abundantly clear, possessing a degree of mixed ancestry was a definite asset when it came to being considered a voice for the Negro race. Frederick Douglass, for example, was one of the earliest Negro leaders in the United States. Born in 1817, the son of a White Maryland slaveholder and a slave woman, Douglass was raised as a slave. In 1838, however, he escaped north to freedom, and within two years . he had become known as a stunning lecturer as well as a leading abolitionist. By the end of his life Douglass had been a newspaper editor, the president of the Freedman's Bank, the U.S. minister to Haiti, and a U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia. Robert Purvis, the son of a free mulatto woman and a wealthy Charleston merchant, was another important early Black leader. Sent north to be educated at Amherst College in Massachusetts, he later became one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society. And James Augustine Healy, the son of a mulatto slave and an Irish planter, was also educated in the North and then went abroad, where he was eventually ordained as a priest at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. When he returned to the United States he served in Portland, Maine, as this country's first Black bishop. From 1873 to 1882 he was president of Georgetown University, and is considered its second founder. Healy must have felt very much at home in the District of Colum- --- --- 33 / The Color Gap in Power and Privilege bia, one of the hubs of mulatto society. During Reconstruct ...
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Jesca
School: University of Maryland

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Running head: REFLECTION

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In my opinion discrimination and segregation occurs as a result to secure status quo,
power, and privilege to specific positions. Discrimination and segregation result in social classes.
For instance in the case of Molatto elites, after the civil war, freedom was no more, and they
began segregating the dark skin brethren. In the social clubs and classes, hierarchic...

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Anonymous
Good stuff. Would use again.

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