Sunday, March 16, 2008

Women's History Month blog carnival

No house slaves allowed
written by Nicole Crawford of

While I was growing up, my mother had a ten-year relationship with a man named Gary; he was a divorced electrician with a son and daughter who lived in a neighboring city. Gary never attempted to act as a father figure in my life, but in many ways, he did treat me as his own. I always got the same Christmas gifts as his daughter, Persephone, and he showed as much concern over my academic success as he did his own children’s. Not surprisingly, his daughter and I got along well and liked to pretend we were sisters.

Persephone looked as exotic as her name sounds. Even at thirteen, she was on her way to being what many men would consider a “brick house.” She had longish hair and the kind of fair skin that we often refer to in Mississippi as “high yella.” I both loved and loathed Persephone’s monthly visits to see her dad. Only a year older than me, she was funny, shared many of my interests and had a great sense of adventure. Unfortunately, she was also always hogging the spotlight. Now it wasn’t hard to steal attention from me, I was quiet, shy, and lived primarily in my own imagination (as only children are known to do). But Persephone stole even the little attention that I did want and feel comfortable with. She did so unintentionally, yet she did it frequently and with ease. I was the “smart” one and she was the beauty and we were both imprisoned by our labels. Everywhere we went people would comment on how pretty she was, what “good” hair she had, and her light complexion – all inherited from her biracial maternal grandmother.

In time, Persephone and her brother moved in with their father and she and I attended the same junior high school. I was heartbroken when she became one of the more popular girls in school and left me behind. She drew the amorous attention of both black and white boys, while I went unnoticed. We’d been good friends, but now she moved in a different circle and we had little contact. I didn’t even come to her defense when I heard other girls talking bad about her. In the middle of ninth grade, my mother and I moved to another city and I’ve only seen Persephone maybe twice in the many years since. I didn’t realize it until recently, but for much of my life she was the beauty standard by which I compared myself.

Last October, my memories of Persephone were reignited as I was in the Atlanta airport heading to Mississippi on business. The airport was crowded (when isn’t the Atlanta airport crowded?) and when I got to my gate, I didn’t immediately see an open seat. Now, this would be a good time to say that, as complexions go, I am what would be called chocolate brown. A few feet away, two black (or rather, dark chocolate) women gave me a little wave and nodded at two seats near them that were holding their luggage. One of them – wearing the absolute biggest hoop earrings I’ve ever seen – cleared a spot for me.

During the next ten minutes, more people came to the gate and sat wherever they could or on the floor, but no one took the other seat occupied by the women’s luggage. Finally, a honey complexioned woman with light eyes and long braids walked towards the seat and pointed: “Is someone sitting here?” She was looking at me and I indicated that the luggage wasn’t mine. “That’s our friend’s seat,” Hoop Earrings lied. When the woman walked away, Hoop Earrings rolled her eyes and whispered to her friend, “House slaves act like they can’t sit on the floor.” It took entirely too long for my shock to wear off, at which point I decided to give up my seat instead of being a silent participant in their conspiracy. But by then, it was announced that my flight would begin boarding. I had lost another chance to defend a sister.

There’s a book by author Marita Golden entitled Don’t Play in the Sun; it is all about colorism in America. (Editors note: This is an excellent book. Read more about it here. --Tami) As the plane took off and I thought of what had happened, I was reminded of a passage in the book where Golden tells of a light-skinned friend who was regularly beat up by female classmates out of “a rage born of their fear that her beauty left no room for theirs.” On that day, I guess Hoop Earrings’ rage, or whatever she and her friend felt, had left no room in our row of seats for the House Slave. It made me sad to know that in a time when nooses are still used to intimidate blacks in America and at least one in every three women in the world will endure some form of violence in her lifetime, we’re still (as women and people of color) allowing ourselves to be divided by the irrelevant. I wonder how many shades lighter I’d have to be for Hoop Earrings to relegate me to sitting on the floor as well. And I hope that next time (God forbid), I won’t pass on a chance to defend a sister, whether she’s black, white, “high yella”, or something in between.

Incidentally, a friend and I noticed that many of the terms we use to describe skin color have to do with food: chocolate brown, dark chocolate, cafĂ© au lait, caramel, honey, almond, peaches and cream, vanilla, cinnamon, etc. I guess this is fitting since, in America, we’re as consumed by skin color as we are by food.

Nicole Crawford lives in Metro Atlanta where she works for a national non-profit, managing a self-esteem and health education program that targets adolescent girls. Born and raised in Mississippi, she is also an aspiring author, avid reader, and blog addict. You can visit her personal blog, A Woman Undeniable, at


Ferocious Kitty said...

Thanks for this, Nicole. Often when colorism is discussed, the line is drawn in the sand, dark vs. light, a lot of understandable defensiveness and war stories on both sides, and too little listening.

The maternal side of my family was plagued with colorism, at least three generations deep. And as a kid, I grew up in the shadow of my prettier, light-skinned best friend. I was "the smart one." Adults interacted with us in the same way they did with you and Persephone. Heavy stuff for a kid.


Nicole said...

Deesha, yes, it is very heavy stuff for a kid. And on some levels I think people thought they were doing us favors - I got the message to study hard and Persephone got the message that she should find a good man (even that because of her looks, she would find a good or better man).

I am still fighting to get out of that mindset and not think of "light as right." I also have to battle not to turn my hurt or anger on people, like Persephone, who really don't deserve it. Funny, because I would never have stood by and watched as a white person denied someone a seat based on skin color, but I did it for two black women. That says a lot about how far I have to go.

Thanks to Tami and Women's Space for hosting the blog carnival and allowing me to take part.

Tei Tetua said...

Speaking as a white person here, my first reaction is to think this stuff is just plain bizarre. I suppose it's always that way, when you're told about a form of prejudice which it would never occur to you to participate in. I want to say, "What's the point in _that_?" And yet, what's the point in any kind of prejudice? I suppose that for just about every one of us, there's some category of people that we'd be willing to hurt.

Tei Tetua said...

Speaking as a white person here, my first reaction is to think this stuff is just plain bizarre. I suppose it's always that way, when you're told about a form of prejudice which it would never occur to you to participate in. I want to say, "What's the point in _that_?" And yet, what's the point in any kind of prejudice? I suppose that for just about every one of us, there's some category of people that we'd be willing to hurt.

Tami said...

Tei Tatua,

There is not point to colorism. It has roots in slavery when lighter blacks, sometimes the children of their very owners, were seen as better and given preferential treatment. And it festered even after slavery, as Eurocentric physical characteristics (light skin, straight hair, narrow nose, etc.) continued (and still continue) to be seen as preferred.

I might post a link to the doll test study for those who are curious about Nicole's submission.

Anonymous said...

Nicole...that was awesome.

I'm biracial. I look like a white woman. I've had that type of hateful stuff aimed at me. Please hear me out...I'm not a mean, obnoxious person. I do become annoyed if a darker-skinned woman is catty towards me because of her own insecurities about her color, hair, etc.

No one can help what color they turn out to be. Not all light-skinned children are treated kindly by adults. It is noteworthy that you realize this and you have developed the wisdom to know better. Unfortunately, the two women you met that afternoon still have not matured in that respect. The fact that they would describe another black woman as a "house slave" based on her skin color, after denying her a seat, is shameful.

I personally would have called them both out. There is NO excuse for that behavior towards another human being. I would never tell somebody they couldn't sit beside me because they're dark-skinned, or because they're ugly, or some other nonsense. You are to be commended because you realized that their actions were petty and low. I don't believe you let it slide out of not were shocked that grown women would behave that way. I would have been, too. Only I would've told Hoop Earrings what I thought of her. ;)

What those women (and others like them) don't realize is that through their behavior, they deepen the problem of colorism/racism. When we mistreat one another, when we make assumptions, when we act in hurtful and spiteful ways...we only hurt ourselves. My ex's mother was the bitch from hell and it was because of my color. I was polite and nice to her but all she could see was my color. She was nice to other folks but if a pretty light-skinned or mixed woman (or white woman) were around, she would be mean. It is terrible, isn't it?

We should learn to respect, accept, and cherish one another as individuals.

alicia banks said...


love your blog!

see more on colorism at


alicia banks

alicia banks said...


love your blog!

see more on colorism at


alicia banks

APGifts said...


Great Posting !!!

And -- since you made mention of the issue of
the 'house' and 'field' slave -- I just wanted to
add that the false concept that so many people
have -- that the lighter-complexioned chattel
slaves “had it easier” or “thought they were
better” than the darker-complexioned slaves
–- and / or “relaxed in the big house” while the darker-complexioned slaves “suffered
in the fields” -- is (very much like the
infamous ‘Willie Lynch Letter’ Hoax)
(in nearly every way that’s possible) simply
defies the true historical recorded account.

The historical record shows that
those enslaved people who were
of a lighter-complexion skin tone
(i.e. mulatto-lineage) and that were
also found on the continental United
States during the antebellum (chattel
slavery) era were actually treated MUCH,
MUCH WORSE than were those enslaved
people who were of a darker-complexion.

In fact, record shows that most of the White
people (specially the White women) tended
to look upon the lighter-complexioned slaves
as being mere 'mongrels of miscegenation'
(resulting largely from the rapes caused by
overseers); in their disgust at the sight
of these slaves -- insisted that they be
"banished to the fields"; and also then
purposefully reserved most of the 'big
house' positions (ex. mammy, cook, driver,
etc) for the darker-complexioned slaves ---
who most of the White people perceived as
being "more loyal, docile, less competitive" --
and, equally important, of a skin tone which
could never cause them to be mistaken
for 'white' or a possible member of
the plantation owners' own family.

And this maltreatment was generally
even much more so the case if the
lighter-complexioned enslaved person
was even remotely suspected (by a
wife, sister or daughter -- who ran
“the big house”, while a ‘male’ family
member would run “the plantation”) of
possibly being the offspring of a plantation
owner (or his son, father or brother, etc.).

In addition, the few lighter-complexioned
enslaved people that were actually permitted
to do any work within the house were –
as punishment for having the status of
“mongrel” and in order to make sure they
did not become “too uppity” -- kept under
much more severe supervision (by both
the White women who ran the plantation
household and also under the much
darker-complexioned enslaved people)
and under much more severe work detail
than were most of the (more trusted)
darker-complexioned enslaved people.

Books by Deborah Gray White; Paula Giddings;
J. California Cooper; bell hooks’, etc. expose
the truth about the urban-myth and show
that the lighter slaves received NO special
treatment and were (as mere "mongrels of
miscegenation") usually treated much worse
than were darker-complexioned slaves.

Hope this information is helpful
& that everyone has a great day. :D

-- AP (

Related Links:;_ylt=Ag4UceOKYaro21HdnN8w.mgjzKIX;_ylv=3?qid=20071103085813AAolWV5

(see ‘best answer’);_ylt=AtORF66bLNbNEjhIPDWC_6MjzKIX;_ylv=3?qid=20071031122504AArGj8B

(see ‘best answer’)


Tami said...


Thanks for your comment. I just want to point out that in your comment you associate light skin with mixed heritage. Skin color is not necessarily a good indicator of whether or not one is of mixed heritage. Most black people in the US are of mixed heritage yet to our society's eye do not appear so. There are biracial people who appear monoracial. We are, as the original poster illustrated, too hung up on skin color when it determines nothing.


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