Did Skin Color Matter to Slaves?
Perspective 7 of 13 | The Slavery Project
Breathe In…Breathe Out…Breathe In…Breathe Out…Breathe In…Breathe Out
Ok…here we go…We’re all in this together…
Sentiment around American slaves often exclusively focuses on weakness. And is rather one-note, namely, people either worked in the field picking cotton or they worked in the house. No other jobs. It paints this picture that they were nothing but miserable slaves. The End. There are no relationship nuances, no room for emotions for family and friends, ingenuity of ideas, variety of perspectives of the slaves or even variety in how slave masters treated their slaves. The story is often exclusively told, colloquially, without the details of normal life at that time. Normal Human Life. Normal Human Life, Even for Slaves, At that Time. The many colors of the human soul experience are often lacking when the stories of slaves are told. But no slave was ever just a slave, just like no poor person is just a “poor”. That individual – that human being – had a life and feelings and desires, likes and dislikes, passions and disappointments and adeptness and creativity and opportunities, albeit limited, they were still there. They were people just like us, trying their best to get along in the world in which they were born. Slave narratives are a good way to peek into the lives of former slaves.
History reveals that those PEOPLE, who were slaves, held many different roles both inside of and outside of agriculture. Cotton was one of the most flourishing commodities at the time, so was indigo, tobacco, peanuts and sugar cane. And slaves were used in every aspect, yes as housemaids and cooks, but also construction workers, farmers, horsemen, hunters, fisherman, musicians, singers, sailors and the like. They were an integral part of society that performed valuable roles and contributed significantly to the wealth of the south. They were the “wheels” making everything go ’round as the economy of the south was centered around and depended heavily on their slaves. What little time they had left over for themselves they used to enhance their life as best they could. When it comes to human nature, slave society was about as complex as our society is today.
In her autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, Harriet Jacobs recounts her experience as a slave and housemaid. She cited the tension and backlash from both white women for being targeted by their husbands and from white men for targeting them: Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master’s footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child. If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave. … I cannot tell how much I suffered in the presence of these wrongs, nor how I am still pained by the retrospect. My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air, after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell over me even there. The light heart which nature had given me became heavy with sad forebodings.
[Does this explain where much of the contention between these two cultures of women and men came from when it comes to interracial relationships? Food for thought…]
This doesn’t sound like she was living the Suite Life just because she worked in the house. This excerpt is important because the underlying beliefs that are held today, that slave housemaids did not work as hard as the field hands, that all the maids who worked in the house were light- skinned and that they had the easy life while all the dark skinned people worked in the field, is not supported by source documents, the people who lived that life, nor by pictures in later years of those working in the fields. Enslaved people worked all kinds of jobs, whichever they were most suited for, regardless of their color, each aspect of slave society having its own set of challenges. This does not mean that colorism played no part in society, but colorism was not the definitive ranking that some believe it was, not during slave society. Even those in seeming favor of their white master-family member-father did not mean they were exempt from unspeakable toils. For many, social standards and stigmas were far greater than any kinship (sometimes this was not true, where the master of the house would take care of his slave children better, providing them a few more comforts in terms of clothing or food, but they remained separate and slaves nonetheless). It boiled down to whether or not you had a nice master or a harsh master and there were different levels of harshness ascribed to them. Just like today, sometimes bosses are pleasant and sometimes not so much. Today we have laws for a measure of protection against such things.
Colorism is not exclusive to black Americans and is practiced in asian cultures, in hispanic cultures, especially in south America, in Indian cultures and in white cultures. Yes, white cultures discriminate against each other on various levels of “whiteness” very similar to how blacks discriminate against each other on various levels of “blackness”. This appears to be very much an international and intercultural practice but this perspective will only speak to the afro American experience, mainly because this slavery series is on the afro american experience J
Of note is that within these different cultures colorism is more tolerated and acceptable as a fact of life. No one speaks as loudly on this topic as black Americans, so since our culture is also affected by this very riveting topic it warrants exploration.
At the root of colorism is the planned separation of those conquered that came along with colonization. In an attempt to deflect attention away from the rapings and the children that ensued in a slave society, the ideas that bubbled forth was that different shaded children could help keep slaves in their slave position if they were divided. The plan was to separate the blacks by color and to treat the lighter ones differently than the darker ones, the darker ones would get jealous, the slaves would be divided and then they would be so busy hating each other they wouldn’t turn on whites. Tear them apart from the inside out. Did their plan work?
We are having this conversation 157 years later because to some extent they succeeded in laying a foundation for separation. Disempowering beliefs are generational. And despite what you personally believe to be true, not all of the slaves were happy to be free. Some didn’t feel smart enough/powerful enough/worthy enough. And those feelings of unworthiness have trickled down into what we today refer to as ‘colorism’.
Post slavery colorism has taken different forms in parts of black America where black people within the same culture would either discriminate against darker skinned blacks so they could appear more superior (the ever-referenced brown paper bag test practiced in Louisiana) and nowadays discrimination against lighter skinned blacks citing the belief that opportunities are no longer available for other blacks and lighter skinned blacks are given a free ride, everything comes easier in life and they do not have to work as hard as other blacks.
What’s also interesting about colorism stereotypes today is that “dark skin” ranges on a very broad scale, when you look at worldwide colorism and also within black American culture, there is no general consensus on where exactly “dark” begins since it is relative to the community a person grows up in. This means you could believe your whole life you are dark, because people have told you such, then you move to a different community, where you are now categorized as “red boned” and you are not dark any longer. You are now the light one.
This kind of thing happens when you allow other people to define you, when you allow other people to tell you who you are. There is a lot of confusion about who “you” “should be” and you’ll find yourself ping-ponging all over the place trying to fit into another person’s idea of who you are.
Most of the anger and separation surrounding colorism today is post-slavery. Today’s colorism in black America is largely promoted by black americans. And it serves one purpose – to further the divide. And that was its Original purpose. White people do not go around referring to blacks as octoroon and red-boned. These are white concepts that were studied and practiced internalized and regurgitated by blacks – post slavery – because there is not enough love of self to combat these stereotypes. Granted those who promote these concepts have been convinced that this is appropriate because all they see on the news is negative statistics surrounding their black culture and arguments back and forth around why black people cannot succeed in life. Colorism just adds one more reason why people cannot achieve what they want or be happy with their appearance. With such negativity hurled almost exclusively at black Americans, what conclusion and outlook do many of them come to? A powerful one or a disempowering one?
The arguments surrounding personal preference today involve many factors that go into why a person is chosen for something and why another is not. Any of these reasons could cause people to prefer one person over another:
Curly hair/Straight hair
Brown eyed/blue eyed
And there are many more reasons than this why one person would be chosen over another. There are many components that make up just one individual person, not just color, and for any of the reasons above a person might have a preference for another. None of them should make or break you, define you or cause you to feel unworthy.
This speaks to embracing the Truth of who you are, your own Beautiful Divinity.
And Expressing it in Only the Way You Can
There is only ONE YOU on this planet.
But if you trivialize your own value
By assuming you are worthless and that others have all the power
Then you will never realize your truest value.
You did not come here to be small.
And when you decide to let in more of YOUR light
It will become more Apparent to you
How great you are.
And then you will know
The only one holding you back…
Unless you are willing to love yourself and allow the truth of who you are to float to the surface, there will never ever be an end to the colorism debate.
Unless you decide to end it.
It is up to a mature society to decide to let this go. It is time to let it go. You cannot control what color you are and neither can anyone else. There is far too much focus – by black Americans – on the color of a person’s skin. And how others view us should be irrelevant. The larger, much, much larger issue is what black people think of themselves.
In other words, have you allowed the white perspective about who you are and the separation caused by it to seep into your heart and mind? Have you embraced that as your truth? Because when it comes to colorism, one belief puts the power in your hands. The other belief puts the power in the hands of others.
For American Blacks, the colorism topic is harder than the racisim topic because we are united on the racism topic, But separate on the topic of colorism.
If we are ready for a New Earth, we cannot look at others and ask them not to judge us by the color of our skin, when we ourselves actively practice judging others by the color of theirs.
The Road To Healing
Did the color of skin matter to slaves? Research does not suggest there was as much regard for color during slavery as there is post-slavery. The reason for that being white society at that time was extremely racist toward all blacks and skin color was not a major factor in terms of the horrors and degradation experienced and they all saw that happening to each other, despite complexion. White passing or “white niggers” were not excluded from that. In fact, if a white nigger tried to pass themselves off as a white person they could lose their lives; it was punishable by death. Even after slavery ended when new laws surrounding blackness were being defined by whites, any black lineage in the past 10 generations automatically regulated a white person to black (inferior) status and subject to all of the black oppression codes as any other black. This is where the “one drop makes you whole” phrase comes from. White culture was not giving an inch on that because that would mess with their superiority complex. Their racism was a strongly held belief, especially at that time, since it was used to excuse a lot of behavior that would otherwise be questionable, unchristian and immoral, to say the very least.
We come into this life with a set of tools – qualities, that will help us on our journey, and we can pick up new tools along the way. For example, if I’m not a good communicator but I notice that other people seem to always get what they want AND I also notice that they use certain kinds of language that I do not use, I MIGHT be inspired to improve my communication skills, thereby giving me a new skill, or new tool, to help navigate how I relate to others. There are so many wonderful tools that we can pick up or learn in our life, along our path, but there is not one more valuable than Self-Love, because from Self-Love comes the Practice of learning and retaining the Essence of who you are, Pulling Away From Social Beliefs That Do Not Serve You, learning that Appreciation of what you already have increases your emotional state, not concerning yourself with things that are out of your control and certainly not allowing others to define who you are. Self Love means you recognize there is only One of You so you can never be compared to any other….
“Sure. I had been hurt by the looks and the words of people that have told me I am not beautiful. But what had really been hurting is that I didn’t think I was beautiful myself. So I can finally stand here today and say that I’m done looking through other people’s eyes for my beauty and I know where I need to look.” – Devan Sandiford/Moth Radio