Paper Bag Party

Paper Bag Party

Paper bag parties were 20th century African-American social events at which only individuals with complexions at least as light as the color of a paper bag were admitted. The term also refers to larger issues of class and caste within the African-American community.

Free African Americans

The historian Ira Berlin noted the development of Atlantic Creoles in the 16th and 17th centuries, people of color descended from the multinational peoples in African ports where there were Portuguese and Spanish traders, African women and Arab traders. Some were enslaved with their mothers; others were freed. They tended to learn multiple languages and found work at the trading posts on the edges of African settlements, especially at the places where Europeans bought slaves. Sometimes the multiracial Creoles would work as overseers or translators. They started sailing with the Portuguese and some went to Europe before any came to North America. Others were among the earliest slaves brought to the American colonies and the Chesapeake Bay area. [Ira Berlin, "Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America", Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998, p.17-25]

In the early Chesapeake Bay Colony, some Africans came as indentured servants. Others arrived as slaves, but in the early years, they could sometimes work out of slavery. Most Europeans arrived as indentured servants, agreeing to work for a period to pay off their passage. Some Native Americans learned to speak English and adopted English customs. All these groups lived and worked together; boundaries were more fluid than after slavery became institutionalized as a racial caste. Colonial records show that some African slaves were freed as early as the 17th century. More significantly, researchers have found that the origin of most of the free people of color before the American Revolution were from relationships or marriages between white women servants and African or African American men. [ [] Paul Heinegg, "Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware", 2005, accessed 15 Feb 2008]

These free families became well-established with descendants moving to frontier regions of Virginia, North Carolina and west as areas opened up. Free Indians who lived in English communities also married into these communities. There they were free of the strictures of plantation areas and were often well-accepted by white neighbors. Many became property owners. Some multiracial communities married within their common group; other free African Americans consistently married out into the European American community and their descendants assimilated as white. Some prominent Americans have been descended from these early free families, for instance, Ralph Bunche, who served as ambassador to the United Nations. [ [] Paul Heinegg, "Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware", 2005, accessed 15 Feb 2008]

As early as the 18th century, travelers remarked on the variety of color and features seen in slaves in Virginia, including those in households of prominent men like Thomas Jefferson and his father-in-law, both of whom had relationships with enslaved women that resulted in several children, who mostly worked in the household. Even when purchased separately, light-skinned slaves were sometimes given better treatment on plantations, with domestic jobs inside the master’s house, including as companions or maids to his legal children. Some of them were educated or at least allowed to learn to read. Sometimes the master might arrange for an apprenticeship for his mulatto son and free him upon its completion, especially in the first decade after the American Revolution, when numerous slaves were freed in the Upper South. From before the Revolution to 1810, the percentage of free people of color in the Upper South went from 1 to more than 10 percent. By 1810 75% of blacks in Delaware were free. [Peter Kolchin, "American Slavery: 1619-1877", New York: Hill and Wang, 1994 Pbk, pp.78 and 81]

Newly imported Africans and darker-toned African Americans were used in hard field labor. There tended to be more abuse in the fields. As tensions about slaver uprisings rose in the 19th century, slave states imposed more restrictions, including prohibitions on educating slaves and on slaves' movements. The slaves themselves could be punished for trying to learn to read and write.

In Louisiana, especially, Creoles of color had long formed a third class during the years of slavery. They had achieved a high level of literacy and sophistication. Creoles of color developed during the years of French and Spanish rule in the territory. There were numerous free people of color in New Orleans who often became educated, took the names of white fathers and lovers, and often were given property by the white men involved with their families. Many became artisans, property owners and sometimes slaveholders themselves. Unlike in the Upper South, where free African Americans varied widely, free people of color in New Orleans and the Deep South tended to be light-skinned. The privileges of Creoles of color began to be curtailed after the Louisiana Purchase, when American slaveholders arrived who tended to view all people of color as of one class - black, or, not white.. [Peter Kolchin, "American Slavery: 1619-1877", New York: Hill and Wang, 1994 Pbk, p. 83 ]

After the Civil War

When four million slaves were emancipated and granted citizenship in the South, new issues arose both for whites and for free people of color. When slavery ended, some light-skinned blacks, especially those who were called "old Issue" for having been free long before the war, resisted being grouped with freedmen. They created social organizations that excluded darker blacks, as they assumed they were just out of slavery. The free people of color were proud of their education and property rights.

Twentieth Century

From 1900 until about 1950 in the larger Black neighborhoods of major American cities, "paper bag parties" are said to have taken place. Some organizations used the “brown paper bag” principle as a test for entrance. People at many churches, fraternities and nightclubs would take a brown paper bag and hold it against a person's skin. If a person was lighter or the same color as the bag, he or she was admitted. People whose skin was not lighter than a brown paper bag were denied entry. [ [ Did Hurricane Katrina reveal a historic reality? Excerpt from Michael Eric Dyson's (2006) "Come Hell or High Water"] ]

There is, too, a curious color dynamic that sadly persists in our culture. In fact, New Orleans invented the brown paper bag party— usually at a gathering in a home — where anyone darker than the bag attached to the door was denied entrance. The brown bag criterion survives as a metaphor for how the black cultural elite quite literally establishes caste along color lines within black life. On my many trips to New Orleans, whether to lecture at one of its universities or colleges, to preach from one of its pulpits, or to speak at an empowerment seminar during the annual Essence Music Festival, I have observed color politics at work among black folk. The cruel color code has to be defeated by our love for one another.
Michael Eric Dyson, excerpt from "Come Hell or High Water".

This is one of the ways that light-skinned black people (so called 'High-Yellow Negroes' or Creoles in Louisiana) attempted to isolate and distinguish themselves from darker-skinned blacks.

Even in contemporary American society, psychological studies have shown African-American and white participants both demonstrate colorism, in which they perceive light-skinned blacks to be smarter, wealthier, and happier than those of darker skin.Fact|date=May 2008

Brown Paper Bag reflected in culture

In her 1983 novel, "The Color Purple", Alice Walker wrote about the effects of skin color.

In his 1987 film "School Daze", Spike Lee satirized colorism and the paper bag test at elite historically black colleges. He created a scene in which light-skinned and dark-skinned young women face off using names like “tar baby,” “Barbie Doll,” “wannabe white” and "jigaboo."

Paul Mooney, legendary comedian, uses colorism and the paper bag test in some of his comedy. For example, in one routine he says, "At home where I come from, Louisiana, we have the saying for it: 'If you brown, hang around. If you yellow, you mellow. If you white, you all right. If you black, get back."

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chairman of the Afro-American Studies department at Harvard, wrote about personal "brown paper bag" experiences in his book "The Future of the Race".

Other authors who have written about the brown paper bag test are Wendy Raquel Robinson, Zora Neale Hurston, Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, Marita Golden, Toni Morrison, Kola Boof, Audrey Elisa Kerr, and Wallace Thurman.

[] =See also=

* Black is Beautiful
* Colorism
* Passing (racial identity)
* Pencil test
* Venus Mason Theus

In her novel entitled, "Brown Paper Bag" E3 Publications 2006, Venus Mason Theus sheds light on the nuanced social ills that have plagued American society from as far back as the days of slavery, which still exist in present time.-- () 12:58, 22 August 2008 (UTC)ramiyahbooks


cite book
title=The Color Complex
coauthors= [ Midge Wilson] , Ronald Hall
location=New York
isbn=978 0 385 47161 9

title=The Many Shades of Bigotry
publisher=New York Times

External links

* [ THE PAPER BAG TEST] , an editorial by Bill Maxwell about blacks discriminating against blacks, "St. Petersburg Times", August 31 2003, discusses the history of the test.

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