Black History Fun Fact Friday: The Brown Paper Bag Test

An Instagram video inspired today’s post, where a group of young black people engaged in a debate about whether light skin blacks are treated better than dark skin blacks. This debate spun out of control and eventually led to a full-blown argument that made it difficult for the viewer to comprehend what each party said. In the young people’s voice was a lot of hurt and pain. The caption on the video read: “Does Light-Skin Privilege Exist in America?”

Not to bestow to Willie Lynch any gift of prophecy, but when he said to “pitch the light-skin slave against the dark-skin slave and the dark-skin slave against the light skin-slave,” it was as if he c-sectioned the calendar and saw color bias in black people’s future.

Even if one does not wholly believe The Willie Lynch Letter is entirely accurate, one cannot ignore the Black community’s divisions based on skin color in a way that is strangely accurate to William’s letter. To add to this, Willie Lynch did not say these divisions will help for a few days, weeks, and months. In 1712, William Lynch said that if implemented “properly,” slave owners could expect these divisions to keep the blacks mentally enslaved and divided for generations.

It is 2021, but skin-tone is still an important physical characteristic among some black people that sometimes cause divisions in the black community. Historically, people immediately noticed a black person’s skin-tone and recognized it as a critical component in joining churches, fraternities and sororities, and other social interactions. Throughout history, variations in skin tone have reflected social status and hierarchies. The most notable social experiment was the paper bag test, used widely among African Americans to determine inclusion in certain activities and groups.

The Brown Paper Bag Test

The Brown Paper Bag Test, known widely as “The Paper bag Test,” was a form of racial discrimination practiced within the African-American community in the 20th century by comparing an individual’s skin tone to a brown color paper bag.

If a person’s skin tone matched or was lighter than the brown bag, they would be more likely to be accepted than a person whose skin tone was darker than the paper bag.

Many famous black clubs and social organizations used this test to determine membership, including churches and employers.

The Lighter the Skin, the Better the Chances

In Spike Lee’s movie, School Daze, two groups of black sorority women are at odds over which group’s hair and skin color are best. In the film, the Gamma Rays had to be “paper bag light.”

The Alpha Kappa Alpha Brown Paper Bag Test

A letter from 1928, written by sophomore Edward H. Taylor, at Howard University discusses the Alpha Kappa Alpha brown paper bag test and colorism. Watch the Yard details the statements made in the student newspaper “The Hilltop.” Watch the Yard said the article:

“accused fraternities of “splitting the various classes into groups of different shades — yellow, brown, and black.” According to Taylor, “The light-skinned students are sought after by the fraternities and sororities, particularly the latter, as members and the dark ones passed by. The darker brown students then form their own cliques while the blacks are left in the cold.”

Jack and Jill Brown Paper Bag Test

Jack and Jill of America was established in 1938 with a mission of “nurturing future African American leaders by strengthening children through leadership development, volunteer service, philanthropic giving, and civic duty.”

But an article from the Pittsburg Courier says Jack and Jill has seen its share of negative press from the Black community over the last 81 years. Similar to African-American sororities and fraternities, in the early years, Jack and Jill had a reputation of only being for elite “light-skinned Blacks”. The article says:

“some Blacks saw it as open only to those who had ‘good hair’ and were able to pass ‘the paper-bag test.’”

Resumes Used to Emphasize “Light Colored”

Nadra Kareen Little from ThoughtCo. discussed colorism in her article about skin tone discrimination. The article said:

“Colorism didn’t disappear after the institution of slavery ended in the U.S. In black America, those with light skin received employment opportunities off-limits to darker-skinned blacks. This is why upper-class families in black society were largely light-skinned.”

Her article mentions a writer Brent Staples who discovered this while searching newspaper archives near the Pennsylvania town where he grew up. She said:

“In the 1940s, he noticed, Black job seekers often identified themselves as light-skinned. Cooks, chauffeurs, and waitresses sometimes listed ‘light colored’ as the primary qualification—ahead of experience, references, and the other important data. They did it to improve their chances and to reassure white employers who…found dark skin unpleasant or believed that their customers would.”

Article from the NY Times that gave an example of a job ad from the 1950s that specifically requested applicants with light-colored skin.

“The owner of Chock full o’ Nuts, a white man named William Black, advertised in the tabloids for ‘light colored counter help.’

Advertising jobs for people with lighter skin or “Eurocentric” features is no longer legal or acceptable when doing business, but research shows that these preferences still play a role in our society. The same NY Times article reported that:

“Researchers tell us that it affects how people vote; who appears in Hollywood movies and television news shows; who gets hired and promoted in corporate America; and even who gets executed for murder.”

https://blog.ongig.com/diversity-and-inclusion/brown-paper-bag-test/

Passing

“Passing is a deception that enables a person to adopt certain roles or identities from which prevailing social standards would bar him in the absence of his misleading conduct. The classic racial passer in the United States has been the “white Negro:” the individual whose physical appearance allows him to present himself as “white” but whose “black” lineage makes him a Negro according to dominant racial rules.”

– Randall Kennedy, Racial Passing

 

Racial passing was a common practice among lighter-skinned African Americans and is the focal point of book two of The Stella Trilogy, where Stella changes her name to Sidney McNair, marries a white man, and has biracial children whom she raises as white. This narrative is taken directly from historical accounts of light-skin blacks (mixed or not) passing and living their lives as Europeans.

As a child of a white mother and a light-skinned black man, Gregory Howard Williams was a person who assumed that he was white because his parents pretended to be white. Not until he was ten years old, when his parents divorced, did Williams and his brother learn that they were black.

Dr. Albert Johnston passed in order to practice medicine. After living as leading citizens in Keene, N.H., the Johnstons revealed their true racial identity, and became national news.

Many lighter-skinned blacks pretended or classified themselves as white in the US, which gave them access to the rights and opportunities that other blacks could not enjoy. In the image we see here, Dr. Albert Johnston passed to practice medicine. After living as leading citizens in Keene, N.H., the Johnstons revealed their true racial identity and became national news.

For Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs, a similar situation occurred where she discovered a cousin she had never met. This cousin lived in California as a white woman from her mother’s instruction, who sent her away from Chicago many years ago. The mother thought her daughter would have the best chance of success living as a white woman.

“She was black, but she looked white,” Hobbs said. “And her mother decided it was in her best interest to move far away from Chicago, to Los Angeles, and to assume the life of a white woman.”

This came around and bit the mother when her husband died and her daughter, now fully immersed in her life, said that she would not attend the funeral, saying, “I can’t. I’m a white woman now.”

The most famous instance is probably art imitating life in the 1934 film “Imitation of Life,” starring Fredi Washington playing a black woman who passes as white. They made this movie at a time where passing was a widespread practice for fair-skinned blacks. They remade this film in 1959.

Colorism

Colorism is prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group, where lighter-skin is treated more favorably than darker skin. The brown paper bag test was used to determine who was acceptable and not based on colorism or color bias. When darker-skinned blacks bleach their skins or attempt to look lighter for the special treatment given to lighter skin (such as to join an organization), it is like passing.

While this is fading as dark skin is becoming more and more appreciated, that video of those young people arguing is proof there is still some work to do.

Mixed-Ish

MIXED-ISH – ABC’s “mixed-ish” stars Mykal-Michelle Harris as Santamonica Johnson, Arica Himmel as Bow Johnson, and Ethan Childress as Johan Johnson. (ABC/Mitch Haaseth)

In the latest Mixed-Ish episode, Johan (pronounced Yohan) allowed his peers to think he was Mexican, thus passing for Mexican. Alicia’s sister Denise’s remark that Rainbow’s parents had indirectly caused this by living in a community where race, specifically blackness, was not discussed or considered has some truth to it. People think that by saying, “I don’t see race,” this is a compliment, but it is not. The one who does not see race also does not see racism.

“You all taught that poor boy of being ashamed of being black. You took him to that commune where…nobody talked about race, and that taught him not to be proud of his blackness.”

Why is there truth to this? Because one cannot be proud of what one does not know exists. If Johan does not know what it means to be black and all his people’s rich experiences, how can he see the shame in not telling his peers who he really is? Johan allowed his peers to think he was Mexican because he does not fully understand who he is as a black boy.

[Side Note: Can someone explain to me why they chose The Color Purple as the movie to help a black boy understand blackness? I can think of tons of movies from the 80s that are better suited to teach blackness to black children. The Color Purple ain’t one of them. They could have put on Cornbread, Earl, and Me.]

It turned out the kid who called Johan the racist Mexican slur was also black. This is another example of color bias within the African American community. Now, whether the child understood Johan to be black reflects the school system and the lack of representation of black people and black history. Contrary to the popular myth, not all light-skinned black people are mixed. Blacks produce a variety of skin-tones within the race, but that is a topic for a different day.

All Black is Beautiful

Today, “Blackness” (black skin) is promoted in pop culture. I hate to say it this way, but “dark-skin is in.”

With actresses like Daniel Kaluuya and Lupita Amondi Nyong’o, people once looked down on for being “ugly” for their dark skin tone (“too dark”) are now looked upon as being sexy, beautiful, and exotic. Dark skin is now socially acceptable, highly praised, and elevated, among many now seeing the beauty of brown skin.

While this is not a bad thing, the hope is that it has not become some fad in which dark-skin is fetishized. We would not want a reversal of the paper bag test in which light-skinned blacks are looked down on in the way dark-skinned blacks have always been. Blackness is not a trend that goes in and out of style and should not be treated as such.

The message here should be that all black is beautiful, no matter the shade.


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Yecheilyah’s Book Reviews – Daisy by Pat Backley

Title: Daisy
Author: Pat Backley
Print Length: 190 Pages
Publisher: Pat Backley
Publication Date: October 8, 2020


I have not read a book I could not wait to get back to in a while. Daisy is one of those books.

Daisy is a Historical Fiction story from 1887 to 1974. The prologue is short but expertly ties the entire story together. A white hand is on top of a little black hand in a field of flowers. The woman and the little girl are making daisy chains.

“Mum, why am I called Daisy?”

Set in Alabama, Harlem, and London, the author takes us through time, starting in 1887 and ending in 1974 in that field of Daisy’s with the same question from the little black girl. Only now, we understand why her name is Daisy and why the hand on top of hers is white.

The author’s strength here is her character development. Although there were many sudden tragedies, the author did such an excellent job with their backgrounds and personalities that the reader is genuinely interested in them and grieve their loss.

This is a family story, and I loved most how the author tied everyone together with the historical backdrop. There are descendants of the enslaved whose lives weave with descendants of slaveowners and poor white Londoners the author interweaves with poor black Americans’ lives. The exciting part about books (and movies) like this is all the tension built up between the families and wondering when everyone will meet up with one another!

As the author detailed their lives, I knew they would intersect at some point, and I was eager to see how it would all play out. It was like reading about a generation of people all connected in a six-degrees of separation kind of way – that all people on average are six or fewer, social connections away from each other.

An example of this in the book is when Samuel, Winifred, and Jeremey Davis, the black family from Harlem, moved to London in 1952. Leading up to this, we have already met the white family in London (because the author starts in 1887 and moves time forward). Thus, the anticipation is already there as to which of Polly’s descendants will meet one of the Davis’s. Little Jeremy was five years old in 1952, but by the time he is an adult, he meets one of the great-great-great granddaughters of the London family, and they marry, giving birth to the little girl from the prologue.

It’s juicy ya’ll!

The author does a good job of recounting the family’s past throughout, so it continually reminds the reader of how it all started and how everyone is connected. The overall message of the book seems to be that it does not matter if you are rich or poor, slave or free, black or white; we are all part of the human family, a family that would flourish much more smoothly if biases like racism, sexism, and classism did not exist.

“Being born poor was a scar that never faded.”

“She had never experienced racial hatred first hand, so had no real idea of how it could erode a person’s whole life.”

Plot Movement / Strength: 5/5

Entertainment Factor: 4/5

Characterization: 5/5

Authenticity / Believable: 5/5

Thought Provoking: 5/5

Daisy is Available Now on Amazon


My book review registry is CLOSED. Be sure to visit the Blog Book Review Policy page here to learn how to RSVP your book for 2021.

Its Not Just Because Your Black

You were pulled over because your taillight is out, your license is suspended, and you were speeding.

The reason you’re in the condition that you’re in is not because of the white man and its not just because your black. We are in these conditions as a people largely because of our own  lack of accountability for our actions.

A nine year old boy is murdered on the south side of Chicago because of his father’s dealings. Where are the marches at Jesse Jackson? Where is the protest Al Sharpton? Where’s the movement against black people killing black people?

John Singleton said that he will never put another movie out like Rosewood again because black people don’t support it. Rosewood for those who don’t already know is a movie based on a true story, a dramatization of the 1923 horrific lynch mob attack on an African American community.

The Tragedy of Rosewood

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In an article written in The Baltimore Sun, Stephen Hunter lists some reasons why the movie Rosewood did not excel calling it “a fundamentally immature, undisciplined work.” He goes on to say “Singleton probably over-romanticizes Rosewood.” Another major criticism was the cowboy theme, something we also see in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained but if you understand history you would know that blacks were the first cow-boys. The term comes from the plantation where black boys were in charge of tending to the cattle. They were quite literally “cow boys”. So not only do I disagree with Hunter, but critics are missing a key element that contributed to why the movie did not do well.

The conversation always comes back to the Rosewood-Booty Call debate. Rosewood came out a week before Booty-Call and almost destroyed Singleton’s career. Booty-Call on the other hand did extremely well, putting leverage to Jamie Foxx’s career.

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The truth is that the black community must start taking responsibility for its actions. You are not pulled over just because your black, sometimes its because your illegal. If you know the system is biased, why would you behave recklessly? Even the bible says to give unto Caesar what is Caesars. So if I know its against the law to speed why would I risk getting caught? Likewise, a lack of black identity in film is not just because Hollywood does not want to see conscious movies about black people, but black people don’t even wanna see conscious movies about black people! As strangers in a foreign land we have been taught to hate ourselves and we tend to operate accordingly. If I hate myself I’m going to hate everything about myself. Yes, some of you hate yourselves but you can’t even take responsibility for that simple truth. Your afraid of your own people and you think dark skin a big nose, thick lips and kinky hair is the ugliest thing in the world.

Part of Rosewood’s failure is the fact that many blacks would much rather watch Tyler Perry’s, Medea Goes to Jail. You go to bed wearing a wig and you wake up with a wig. You go to bed with make-up on and you wake up with it on both literally and figuratively speaking. You put on elaborate personas because you hate who you are.

Cypher Matrix Quote

When you hate yourself but you don’t know that you hate yourself, this is a dangerous position to be in because a lack of love turns you into a monster. The stories of Jason and Michael Myers are not horror stories about supernatural beings. They were stories of children who were teased and abused and have consequently learned to hate themselves and it turned them into monsters. Michael Jackson is a real life example of childhood abuse turned horrific. This man was talented and has made great music but he also turned himself into a monster because he hated himself. He hated himself so much that he changed his physical appearance. That’s because when you hate your inside you hate everything outside and millions of dollars ain’t gonna solve it. Money can’t solve hatred only love can. The only way you can conquer self-hate is love, starting with self-love but to love yourself you have to first know yourself and knowing yourself begins with admitting your faults. Take some responsibility for the part you play in how you are treated. It doesn’t exempt anyone for their wrong but it helps you to move forward in yours.

When you know yourself only then can you love yourself and only then can you be yourself.

“This week marks the anniversary of the Rosewood massacre. Hundreds of black people were murdered and lynched and run off their own land and homes. We must never forget the domestic terrorism survived by our people. In 1997 I released a movie on the incident. It wasn’t one of my more successful pictures box office wise but I think it one of the best I’ve done. The same weekend it was released Booty Call came out. I think more black folks were comfortable watching Booty Call that weekend than Rosewood… Which is a shame…. I feel the more we embrace our history the better we can defend against being oppressed in our present. Just my thoughts this morning.”

– John Singleton