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A courageous, humane, and provocative examination of how differences in color and features among African Americans have played and continue to play a role in their professional lives, friendships, romances, and families.
— Chapter 1 —
The Emergence of Modern Colorism in the Americas
We begin in Europe in the late 1400s, when seafaring countries such as England, Spain, and Portugal were financing merchant voyages to find new trade routes to the Far East. The men returned instead with exciting tales of faraway places that were rich with gold, spices, and silks. The very notion that there existed unknown lands beyond the horizon set off a frenzy of empire building on the part of many European nations. This would later be known as the Age of Discovery, and it lasted well into the seventeenth century. After Christopher Columbus reached what he mistakenly believed were the Indies, and it was realized that vast new lands were available for plunder and colonization, European nations began financing more ship captains for even more expeditions with orders to stake claim to as many territories as they could find. It mattered little to the Europeans if indigenous peoples already were living in these “discovered” places. Europeans believed they were the superior race. As such, they saw it as their Christian duty to tame the “savage” natives and bring them civilization, a self-serving rationale that would persist for centuries—Rudyard Kipling would call it “the White man’s burden” as late as 1899.
During the early 1500s, the islands of the Caribbean—or “West Indies,” as they were mistakenly named by Columbus—were popular destinations for Portuguese and Spanish explorers, and other areas of Central and South America soon followed. While the hoped-for gold rarely materialized, it was recognized that the warm climates and rich soil in these new lands had the potential for growing cash crops like sugar and coffee. The crops were labor intensive, however, and for them to be profitable, a source of cheap labor was needed. At first, local indigenous people were captured and forced to work in the colonists’ fields, but there were not enough of them. Some White indentured servants from Europe ventured over, but again, not enough. The Portuguese, who already had explored the east coast of Africa, found the solution by bringing over the first slaves to the New World. This nation would continue to be the largest importer of slaves during the era of Atlantic slave trading.
African slaves poured in to work in the Americas during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Throughout the Caribbean, the British, French, and Dutch had also claimed islands of their own, and they, too, needed slaves to work the sugar plantations. Conditions were ideal for race mixing to take place. Large numbers of individuals from different racial backgrounds were living and working side by side, and doing so under the rule of White plantation owners who were greatly outnumbered. In fact, it has been estimated that throughout the Caribbean, there was an average ratio of one White to ten Blacks and/or mulattoes, and in some of the most remote rural areas there could be as many as fifty slaves and/or mulattoes for every one White male. Finally, there was a significant gender imbalance. During the early years of slave trading, far more African males, with their greater upper-body strength (relative to that of females), were brought to the New World to clear the fields, but females were valued as well, and albeit in smaller numbers, they came too. Predictably, under the extreme conditions in many of these settlement outposts, the White men in charge raped the women who worked for them. But, to be fair, we should note that many romantic relationships and successful unions also came into existence during this time.
Racially mixed individuals, called “mulattoes” (a term considered derogatory by many today), began to make up significant segments of the population throughout Central and South America. They were people of every conceivable variety: those of mixed European and African blood, those of mixed European and indigenous blood, those of mixed African and indigenous blood, and subsequently every combination and permutation created by the mixed-race offspring of the first unions.
In Central and South America, many of the mulattoes lived free and enjoyed a certain status in the society, one that was certainly lower than that of Whites but also much above that of the darker-skinned slaves. Many mulattoes acquired their free legal status from being the direct descents of wealthy White plantation owners, some of whom openly accepted responsibility for their mulatto offspring and made provisions for their future, including an education and land of their own. And when the White owner had no other progeny, his mulatto offspring inherited the family wealth and were expected to continue the family line. These racially mixed islanders enjoyed what American historian Carl Neumann Degler has called “the mulatto escape-hatch.” Though not as fully privileged as Whites, most mulattoes were not subject to the restrictions of slavery. It is interesting to note that later, when revolution rocked many of the Caribbean islands, it was the more recently arriving slaves who tended to be the most rebellious; the better-situated mulattoes were often quite satisfied with the status quo. When it became clear to the rebel slaves that the old mulatto families were not joining in the fight for freedom, they too came under attack along with White owners. As a result, many Caribbean mulattoes fled for safety elsewhere, with a majority going to New Orleans, where they would generate their own brand of colorism, a topic that will be discussed later.
Today, the persistence of a mulatto-based color-caste hierarchy is perhaps most evident in Brazil, a country that prides itself on being free of racism. Brazilians proudly refer to themselves as “café con leche,” and they have close to forty different racial names and categories with which citizens may identify. But in reality, social stratification follows color: the lighter the skin, the wealthier one is likely to be, and conversely, the darker, the poorer. Lighter skin, and in some cases the socially constructed label of light skin, is preferred for what it signifies. Two commonly heard expressions in Brazil are “Anyone who escapes being an evident Negro is White” and “Money whitens,” meaning that the wealthier a Black man or woman becomes, the lighter his or her racial category becomes. Today, lighter skin is so preferred that there are those who fear Black features will eventually disappear altogether from the Brazilian population. In short, one might say that there is a consciousness about—even a preoccupation with—skin color in Brazil, but to the Brazilians’ credit, their country never developed the kinds of exclusionary laws and blatant racist practices that plagued and continue to influence race relations in the United States. According to social historian George Fredrickson, race in Brazil became more “biologized” than socially constructed, meaning that a difference between actual ancestry and observable phenotype came to be recognized. That is, a Brazilian child would never be automatically identified with the racial status of one or both parents, but instead how the child looked physically would become the determining marker of his or her racial identity. Interestingly, a plausible hypothesis regarding why Brazil and other South and Central American countries never adopted the rigid rules of racial classification that developed in the United States is that the somewhat darker skinned Portuguese and Spanish people who settled these areas were more comfortable with living among those of varying skin color, as a consequence of their homelands’ having been invaded by Moors from northern Africa centuries earlier. Those Moors who stayed behind mixed racially with the local population, which over the years became on average somewhat darker skinned than their neighbors to the north. In contrast, the British tended to be more homogenously pale and certainly more supremacist in their attitudes regarding the value and meaning of white skin.
We now turn to the United States to explore its history and the events that led to a significantly different societal structure based on skin color. In particular, we will examine how economic and social concerns resulted in the passage of certain laws that produced the seemingly intractable discrimination we still see to this day.
In 1607, three small ships, financed by the venture capital of the Virginia Company of London, sailed into Chesapeake Bay to set up camp in an area that would be named Jamestown. The settlement would become the first English colony in the New World that would continuously flourish. As local inhabitants watched, pale-skinned strangers cleared the wilderness, built a fort, planted crops, and settled down for the duration. But the colony struggled mightily, especially during the winter of 1609–1610, known as “the starving time,” when natives surrounded the fort and the settlers had to barricade themselves inside without food or supplies for months. Deep despair set in. The hoped-for gold was nowhere to be found and the Indians—as the confused Englishmen called them—who initially had presented themselves as friendly trading partners had suddenly become murderous foes, with the help of firearms obtained earlier in exchange for food. Of the original 500 settlers, an estimated 440 died during that terrible winter. The remaining 60 or so were barely alive but in May of 1610, two new ships, loaded with fresh supplies, arrived and soon were followed by others. The weakened settlers who had decided to sail back in defeat to England were made to try again. It was a smart decision, as from that point on the colony successfully grew, both in population and in claimed land.
Attacks by natives—American Indians or Native Americans, in present-day terms—continued, but the colonists improved the defenses of their forts and began to expand their territory. However, they did have a problem common to all colonial settlements, and that was the lack of young women with whom the men could marry and settle down. Not that there hadn’t been any women in the Jamestown fort. We now know from newly discovered settlement graves that there were at least two Englishwomen who lived in Jamestown as early as 1608. A few other women, already married to newly arriving colonists, followed. But it was evident that if the tiny new settlement was to thrive and become a permanent outpost, a shipment of unmarried women needed to arrive soon.
Thus it was that, in 1619, the Virginia Company of London ordered that “a fit hundredth might be sent of women, maids young and uncorrupt, to make wives to the inhabitants and by that means to make the men there more settled and less movable.” In 1620, ninety women, some of whom had been living as prostitutes on the streets of London, were rounded up and given a choice between prison and free passage to a strange New World. During the long transatlantic journey, those who had chosen the latter must have questioned their own sanity. But once they arrived, they no doubt quickly realized that the gamble had paid off. The women had barely stepped ashore when eager bachelors surrounded them and proposed marriage on the spot. Old street identities were shed and new respectable ones were assumed. Soon there were families with children and a growing sense of optimism that the colony would make it after all.
Not every man was lucky enough to secure a wife, however, and the resulting gender imbalance led many Englishmen to turn to indigenous women for sex and marriage. While some White colonists and Native American women, most notably John Rolfe and Pocahontas, formed true romantic relationships, other local women bore the brunt of violent rape and forced marriages. In either case, the first generation of blue-eyed children of Indians and Whites began appearing in the local population.
Little is known about how the offspring were received by either indigenous relatives or colonial settlers, except that these mixed-race individuals were never as frowned upon as were the children born of African and European parents. Sadly, we do know that over successive generations, attitudes of color prejudice spread among Native Americans. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Cherokee Nation, for example, displayed a clear preference for those among them with a mixture of Cherokee and European blood—and lighter skin color.
The English, like the Spanish and Portuguese much farther south, never found a wealth of gold and silver for the taking; instead, they turned to planting cash crops. In Virginia, the tobacco plant, having gained popularity in Europe, promised to be the most profitable. But like the sugar and coffee crops of the Caribbean and South America, tobacco was labor intensive and therefore an expensive crop to grow. Labor needs—for the work of planting and harvesting—were generally met by what seemed like an endless supply of lower-class white male and, increasingly, female Europeans who came to the New World as indentured servants. Some had prior arrests and a few were court ordered to go to America, but for most others, the exchange of free passage (and sometimes land, too) for a mere seven years of indentured servitude was a deal worth taking. It is estimated that prior to the American Revolution up to 80 percent of all immigrants to America arrived as indentured servants.
In early seventeenth-century Virginia, English immigrants were not the only ones who arrived under contracts of indentured servitude. There were also an estimated forty to fifty Africans, men and some women, who did so as well. In light of newly discovered legal documents, scholars now have a different understanding of what happened to the first Africans to arrive in the Virginia colony. Before this discovery, and for close to four hundred years, it was commonly believed that “20 and odd” slaves were transported to Virginia on a Dutch warship that had sailed from the West Indies. It is now known that this account, written by John Rolfe, was not accurate. In fact, the first Africans to land in Virginia came directly from Angola in 1619, having been kidnapped in their homeland by Portuguese slave traders intent on selling their human bounty for profit in Mexico. The Portuguese ship, carrying an estimated 350 slaves, was itself captured by pirates from two English vessels, the Treasurer and the White Lion (which flew a Dutch flag). The English vessels each took on twenty to thirty slaves stolen from the Portuguese and found their way up the coast to Jamestown. The pirates needed food and other provisions, and the colonists needed labor, so deals were struck and the Angolans were released to come ashore.
Unlike the many thousands of slaves to come who tended to be from more remote areas of Africa, at least some of the Angolan men and women who were aboard the pirate ships were urban, literate, and Christian, their homeland having been converted to Christianity during the late fifteenth century. The fact that some of the Angolans were Christian and literate impressed neither the Portuguese slave traders nor the pirates, but to the English settlers, the Africans’ Christianity did make a difference. After some discussion as to what to do with the unexpected visitors, a decision was made to treat the Angolans no differently than White indentured servants were treated. So it was that after seven years of labor, these first-arriving Africans were granted their freedom in the strange new land.