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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Writing about Passing: Jessie Redmon Fauset

jessie-redmon-fauset-1882-1961-grangerJessie Redmon Fauset was born on April 27, 1882, in Camden County in New Jersey, and grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She attended Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she was likely the sole African American in her class. Because Bryn Mawr College was reluctant to accept its first black student, they instead chose to help Fauset to get a scholarship to attend Cornell University. Fauset did well at Cornell and after graduating in 1905, Fauset’s race kept her from being hired as a teacher in Philadelphia. Instead, she taught in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

During the Harlem Renaissance, two papers were in circulation among black people that helped to greatly influence the movement: The Crisis, headed by W.E.B. Dubois, and The Opportunity, headed by Charles S. Johnson. While there seemed to be quite a competition from the two, stemming from the position of the two men, the writers also reflected the same. While Zora Neale Hurston wrote for The Opportunity, Fauset wrote for The Crisis and eventually became editor in 1919.

 

2657593132_8b9365f0a5While researching and studying for Stella Book #2, which launches tomorrow and deals with the subject of passing, I noticed that Fauset wrote a lot about passing; all of Fauset’s novels were the stories of black middle class passing for white. Her first novel “There is Confusion” is the love story of a wealthy black woman who falls in love with a medical student and dreams of being a dancer but is held back because of her race. Published in 1923, her second novel “Plum Bun” is about a black woman who desires to be an artist; and decides to do so by passing as white and rejecting her family and friends. The story ends with her embracing her race and finding true love with a black man. In 1931 she published her third novel “Chinaberry Tree”. Her last novel “Comedy”, a study of the tension between drama and narration, was published in 1933. Inspired by a Greek tragedy, it is another story studying the dynamics of passing by giving voice to a black woman who can be seen as white. She passes for white in her everyday life and convinces her oldest children to do the same. The youngest child was too dark to pass which eventually leads him to commit suicide.

Movie Night Friday – Imitation of Life (1959)

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For today’s segment of Movie Night Friday, where I present some of my favorite movies and why I love them, I present a special feature in honor of my upcoming book, which deals with the concept of racial passing.

In this 1959 classic, which originally comes from a book of the same name and is a remake of the 1934 version, a struggling young actress with a six-year-old daughter sets up housekeeping with a homeless black widow and her light-skinned eight-year-old daughter who rejects her mother by trying to pass for white.

Imitation Of Life 1959“Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) dreams of becoming a famous Broadway actress. Losing track of her young daughter Susie at the beach (portrayed as a child by Terry Burnham), she asks a stranger named Steve Archer (John Gavin) to help her find the girl. Susie is found and looked after by Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black single mother who also has a daughter, Sarah Jane (portrayed as a child by Karin Dicker), who is about Susie’s age. Sarah Jane inherited her father’s fair skin and can pass for white. She does this with fierce zeal and fervor, taking advantage of her European heritage and features. In return for Annie’s kindness, Lora temporarily takes in Annie and her daughter. Annie persuades Lora to let her stay and look after the household, so that the widow can pursue an acting career.”

– Wikipedia

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Though Imitation of Life was the fourth-most successful motion picture of 1959, grossing $6.4 million and Universal-International’s top-grossing film that year, there are mixed feelings among critics as to the social messages of the film in that time. Critic Molly Haskell once described ‘Imitation’s’ double-vision: “The black girl’s agonizing quest for her identity is not seen from her point of view as much as it is mockingly reflected in the fun house mirrors of the culture from which she is hopelessly alienated.”

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For me, I am about to watch it again, my first time in a long time, as study material. I am 28 years old in 2015, and as I cozy up on the sofa, pen, pad (and snacks) in hand, it is fascinating to ponder how those who lived in this time, black and white, saw the films message and how they viewed the influence of the film in the Jim Crow Era. What was America’s attempt in showing a movie like this? Was it to expose the practice of Passing as practiced by many African Americans of the time? Was it for a genuine concern of the many Americans of mixed ancestry and their search for identity? Was it, as many deem it, to further degrade the African American community? Or was it to seek change in the current societal perceptions of what it means to be black and what it means to be white in America?

Trailer:

The House Behind The Cedars

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Good evening beautiful people,

I just wanted to share with you a book I read awhile ago as I began to first organize and research for “Beyond The Colored Line”. As many of you know, I prepare to release a short story soon that deals with the concept of passing: when a member of one ethnic group passes as a member of another ethnic group. Most notably, when an African American who appears European passes, or pretends, to belong to that race. So far this has been an amazing experience exploring history and I’ve had the opportunity to come across some decent reading material. One of the books I read is “The House Behind The Cedars” by Charles W. Chesnutt who was, interestingly enough, light enough himself to pass and did on occasion. (Chesnutt’s paternal Grandfather, Waddell Cade, was a white slaveholder and his Grandmother, Ann Chesnutt, Cade’s mistress, was a free woman of color).

The book is about brother and sister John and Rena Walden, two African Americans, who decide to cross the colored line by pretending to be white to claim and maintain their portion of the American dream. And it gets deep too. The book was first published back in 1900 and reveals how deep self hatred can be for a people lost to true identity. It shows the extent some are willing to go to keep secrets hidden and what they are willing to endure to be part of the American fabric in which they too believe they are entitled to. It also showcases how the depth of childhood exposure and teachings play a part in one’s perception, not just of the world, but of one’s own self. Without revealing too much, I like how Chesnutt surpassed just race in general but included also status. No one would choose to be poor or hungry, black or white, and I find this is the basis of which many of my ancestors who did pass built their logic. However, at what price is one willing to pay in order to live the American dream?

Since I am on my phone I cannot link to it, but this book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Just search:

The House Behind The Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt. Its among the Penguin Classics. (In case you’re not obsessed with books, here’s a secret: look under used books and see if your books are available for as cheap as possible. I find lots of Amazon classics for like a penny, if not free altogether, and just pay for shipping.)