Paper Bag Tests Revisited

When I was young, relatives told me to stay out of the sun, because “you’ll get sunburned.” The message: You don’t want to be too black.

They told me only adults drink coffee, because if children drank it, it would make you BLACK.

I took a sip out of a coffee cup one day, just to see how “black” I would get. Kept passing by the mirror all day.

While they offered this advice came out of love and care, I don’t think anyone realized the psychological harm it could cause. It was just accepted.

Dr. Audrey Kerr found out a lot about that when she wrote and researched a book called The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Colorism and Rumor in the Case of Black Washington, D.C.

In a new episode of the local cable television program OneWorld’s Civic Engagement, Kerr talks about the hurt, anger, and slights African-Americans have felt for generations about how they’ve treated one another about the tone of their skin as a result of internalized “Jim Crowism.”

The segment, hosted by OneWorld board member Enola Aird, airs on cable systems throughout the region beginning this week, coinciding with the beginning of Black History Month. (Click on the video to watch a segment. All area PEG channels carry OneWorld programs.)

Kerr’s book explores the so-called paper bag test in which, if you weren’t as “light” in skin color as a brown paper bag, you weren’t allowed to join certain social organizations, fraternities and sororities, and whether it was a real test or urban myth.

Kerr, a professor of American-American Literature at Southern Connecticut State University, found most people didn’t want to discuss the issue of light-skinned versus dark-skinned blacks because it was too painful, even years later. Others felt she would be airing black folks’ dirty laundry,  Some said she was doing nothing but revealing negative information to the white community. She was hung up on while calling to ask about using pictures from a very well-known D.C. photography business, whose family was prominent in the black community. The family consisted of mostly dark-skinned black men. “There were still residuals from it, as this was a family of mostly dark-skinned black men.”

Program host Enola Aird heads up the organization Community Healing Network, which works with the African-American community to promote love and healing while recognizing the pain and anger that African-Americans still hold onto psychologically from slavery. (Click here for a recent interview with Mayor Toni Harp about her father’s experiences with paper bag tests.)

In the program with Aird, Kerr talked about how the traditional “Paper Bag Principle” still affects the African-American community.

Kerr’s journey with this issue began as a child, she recalled in the OneWorld discussion. She said her grandmother was a very fair-skinned West Indian woman, who had a “great transition into the American Dream”—in part, Kerr said, because she was “near-white.”  She realized her skin color was a passport to opportunity that a lot of her darker-skinned American friends didn’t have. “There were certain mentions of ‘marrying up,’” Kerr said, smiling. This meant marrying someone who was lighter than you, with the thought then each generation would “improve.” While her grandmother wasn’t “explicit,” she would comment on how people made a “poor decision” in selecting their spouse.

Kerr said she wrote the book in order to commit to paper the oral urban legends, myths, “tall tales,” and even blues music that “memorialized” color in the black community. She worried they would otherwise fade away. She knew of no repository to mine through the material if one wanted to do research. Started her research in 1993, she studied how complexion has mattered in black life, externally and internally, and especially how those externalities created the preoccupation with color.

She found that in certain cities, the so-called test had greater currency than in others, such as New Orleans, which had a true caste system . There would be “paper bag parties” where you had to be a certain complexion to attend. In other cities, darker-skinned blacks simply weren’t welcomed in certain social groups/circles.

Most African-American stories regarding skin color were born out of the tradition of oral storytelling, and came off the plantation ( such as the Uncle Remus stories). They often dealt with creation. Kerr told the story of how God told everyone to be back by 9 o-clock, and they (the humans) all fell asleep in the sun. While the others woke up and got back on time,  the ones who overslept became the darkest. This story perpetuates the stereotype of laziness and disinterestedness in blacks, who are not even engagable by God. It’s a double-edged sword: The story grants black bodies the ability to choose their own fate, but the story also suggests blackness is a punishment for their behavior.

Aird asked if most black people know about the paper bag test. Kerr said most know about the idea of it or at least the language.  She was personally surprised in college that her black classmates knew of the test, and how familiar people at Howard University, a historically black university were with it, as she conducted research there.

She chose D.C. as a case study because most of the prominent black families there descend from wealthy whites. The consequence of slavery, said Kerr, had a certain fate your life would follow. If you were a child of a slave owner, either you were sold, because you were an affront to the plantation mistress; or you would be favored, or not, in the context of the plantation. Or you would be sent “North” or to Europe to be educated. The lighter you were, the more of a chance you had of blending in with whites. These people became the black aristocrats. Proximity to whiteness was a proximity to power—“looking white” would give them access to that.

An African-American who was so fair-skinned as to look white would apply for, and get, jobs and homes usually reserved for whites. And the majority of the time, they were never questioned by their white employers or neighbors because they blended in; some even married whites. (An excellent family history on this time period is Ansonia native Shirlee Taylor Haizlip’s book, The Sweeter The Juice.) However, the majority of the time this meant the person could never return to the African-American community without risking being identified as black.

Kerr said “passing” posed a dilemma to the white community because those blacks were now going to have access to what the oppressor had, and that needed to be protected. This gave way to what has been called a color complex. In D.C., businesses began to hire “spotters”—other blacks in the community who knew their neighbors and could easily identify to white businesses owners, who was black.

Traditionally, D.C. “upper-class” blacks were masters of mimicry, Kerr said. They often imitated the lifestyle and mannerisms of the upper-class whites. You can see the difference through pictures of that time period. Almost always, she said, the pictures show how well off the fair-skinned so-called middle class were in comparison to their brown skinned, impoverished neighbors, who also imitated them.

As it turned out, it was difficult research; most people wouldn’t talk about it, because they said it didn’t exist. Or some just wouldn’t talk about it. Families and organizations wouldn’t give pictures. Kerr ended up getting information from one of the main institutions that she thought helped keep the myth going: the church. Most churches were willing to share their photos and history.

Black churches were very much into having a “proper presentation” as a group. Lighter-skinned blacks sat in the front, As the pews start to go back, the rows of parishioners got “darker and darker.” Probably the most famous example of this, Kerr said, was the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. Its pictures, still in the church lobby, show this.  There were news article about that same church not accepting darker-skinned members, but there never seemed to be a conversation about why people were segregated in the same way as they would be in the white community.  An older male churchgoer couldn’t answer the question when Kerr asked about it. “It’s just what we do,” he said with a shrug.

Did it change? In the late 1960s I was 10 years old. James Brown’s “Say it Loud, (I’m Black and Proud)” was a huge hit. My Uncle Phil came to my house and cut my hair into an Afro, he picked my hair out with a fork. Everyone I knew was wearing an Afro. When I went to Newark, the black Muslims were selling papers on the streets, calling each other brother and sister. They had their own restaurants; when we came to New Haven, the Panthers were selling papers on the sidewalks. No longer could you get someone mad by calling him “blackie.” here was a sense of pride in wearing this new badge of honor:  your brown skin, no matter what the hue. But according to Aird and Kerr, this was all cosmetic and reactionary. The notion of the black woman’s beauty is a reaction to what white beauty is; it wasn’t any more thoughtful than the so-called black beauty, who is “light-skinned” with straight hair.

Kerr said in the conversations about race in her class, she is surprised that most white students end up telling the black students why they shouldn’t use the “N” word, how female students felt they were treated based on the color of their skin in high school. She said what bothers her are the students who roll their eyes and don’t take the issue seriously. “The white students roll their eyes as if to say, ‘not that again.’ The black students feel it [skin color] is not an issue any more; things may be a little more complicated now than back then. But I still think it’s a real issue for people.” She still sees students who are considered exotic because they are “biracial,“or their color isn’t obvious, get a different kind of message from the press or music videos.

Is there a post-racial America? Kerr said if you have your eyes open, you’ll see that things haven’t changed for black folks. Little has changed in terms of the incarceration rate or poverty; she said things have gotten worse, even though the world recognizes racial anomalies, such as Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. And while there may have been changes for other statistical groups, there’s been no changes for blacks, especially those who live in poverty in D.C.

I am a black woman in America who has been called/considered light-skinned.“She’s your complexion,” I had a friend in college say. I responded in shock, “But she’s light skinned(!)”  I ran to call my mother to disprove this.

I attended high school in an environment that was racially hostile; attended a college where activism and pride walked hand in hand, and now have a daughter who doesn’t pay attention to color at all. But she has had experiences that make her very aware of her brown skin.  There are friends and colleagues who have been affected by the external affects of colorism.  Until we start to dialogue about it, blacks can’t have a true sense of who they are and cure “what ails us.”

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posted by: webblog on February 3, 2014  1:41pm

Dr. Audrey Kerr:

I think I’ll just pass on this one, a little tough to digest.

posted by: robn on February 3, 2014  4:10pm

As the tumbleweeds blow loudly across this barren comment thread, somewhere else in the NHI landscape are 50 or more blood curdling screaming screams regarding the “Garth Harries benefits from white affirmative action” narrative.

Is this awkward New Haven?

posted by: Jones Gore on February 3, 2014  6:09pm

Really New Haven Independent?

Although I have faced racism, I never felt it was something that held me back. Maybe I was excluded because I my complexion…SO WHAT. If someone doesn’t want me because I’m too dark, too light, or too white that is one less person I have to deal with.

posted by: robn on February 4, 2014  10:05am

JG makes a good point. If you’re picky about forming friendships, racism is an extremely helpful @$$h0!# filter.