Back in the Day

Three women with different skin tones. — Stock Photo

When I started writing this column, it was not on the subject that appears today. Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle changed it. The concern expressed by royal family members for the color of baby Archie’s skin may have puzzled some of you. It is an issue that is too familiar to those that grew up in the past. I recall when my family members came home after visiting the family of a new born, one of the first questions they were asked was, “What is the baby’s complexion?”

Skin color was a significant issue in the past and “quiet as it’s kept,” remains an issue in some circles today, just as it was, back in the day.

When I told a friend about today’s column, he indicated that he would not read it. I recognize that some may not want to read about the era when, “If you are white, you are alright; brown you can stick around; yellow you are mellow; but if Black you must get back.”

Like my friend, a number of you had issues with regard to complexion impacting your lifestyle. In my neighborhood, those of the lighter hue, saw themselves as superior to dark brothers and sisters. You know what occurred in the past: light complexioned parents pushed their kids to play and interact with light complexioned kids. Clubs and activities for children often denied admission to darker complexioned children. In some churches here in Philadelphia, membership was impacted by complexion. In a South Philadelphia church, light complexioned members sat on one side while members of a darker hue sat on the other side.

Today, whenever I attend affairs sponsored by certain social organizations and observe their members, I am reminded of the restrictions of membership based on skin tone that existed in the past. A friend told me that he was going on a bus trip, sponsored by a West Philadelphia church with his mother and was told that he could board the bus, but his mother could not. She was too dark! While no one told me the rules, I did not gravitate to what was then known as the, “light brights,” “redbones” or “high yellows.” It may have been coincidental, but me nor my dark-complexioned friends felt welcomed in gatherings of lighter complexioned Blacks.

You may recall going to dances and the light complexioned party goers mingled on one side of the room with the dark-complexioned boys and girls on the other side. If you remember this, you will recall that skin complexion determined your dancing partner. If you are my age, back in the day, you were made to feel inferior; the light Black folks were treated better. Back then, whites as well as Blacks, embraced, accepted, and preferred light-skinned articulate Blacks over dark, inarticulate, slang or southern dialect speaking Blacks. They were even preferred over articulate dark skinned Blacks.

Back in the day, light complexioned Blacks were as hard on their dark brothers and sisters as were whites. Some people viewed “color struck” to be extremely vicious. If you were a “Blue Black,” a term assigned to real dark Blacks, or “Purple,” you were really ostracized. Even under the horrific conditions of slavery, where Blacks had no standing, skin color was a factor.

Light-skinned slaves typically worked in the “big house.” Where do you think dark-skinned brothers and sisters worked? In the fields, of course! In Philadelphia, there were department stores where one of the prerequisites for employment was being light-skinned. If you can get your hands on an old “Ebony” or “Tan,” you will find ads featuring bleaching creams that purported to make the skin lighter. Perhaps you have heard of parents bathing their children in milk, lemons and liquid bleach. There are other stories of children being required to wear modified bonnets or large hats to shade their faces while outside playing in the sun. Some of you were told not to drink coffee as it would make you Black. Believe me, Black was not beautiful until James Brown cried out, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” No one wanted to be black, or what some called a “darkie,” back in the day.

As you matured, the importance of skin color became more apparent. Perhaps some recall having to send a photograph with your college admission package when applying to some of our Black colleges and universities. It is reported that you could not get into some Black colleges unless you were the right color. Regardless of what college you attended, if your color did not pass the “paper bag test” you did not gain admission to pledge certain national, Black sororities and fraternities. The paper bag test you ask? Well, you had to be lighter than a paper bag to meet the color standard. I know of several Black colleges where the student body selected a dark-skinned person as Homecoming Queen only to have the decision reversed by the administration because of the student’s dark complexion. These are things that White folk did not do to us but things we did to one another, back in the day.

Skin color was a major issue among Black folks in the past. It divided schoolmates, playmates, churches, and communities. Skin tones even divided families. While there are some exceptions, for the most part, those days have passed. You can thank the royal family and little Archie for this column. But I pray that we will never see this practice again. It is important to know one’s history as those who do not know their past tend to relive it. For you millennials, who find all of this new, you may want to pick up the book, “Our Kind of People,” by Lawrence Otis Graham. Let us hope that this small glimpse into the lives of Black in the past will result in a serious review and understanding of this dark side of our history, a way of life that we hope never to experience again; we hope it remains a period from, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at backintheday@phillytrib.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 South 16th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19146

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