Testing Blackness

February 10, 2014

As if the life of both slaves and free blacks wasn’t hard enough, division of light and dark-skinned blacks caused even more resentment and hatred… between blacks.  It seemed that having the ‘right’ color skin and the ‘better’ textured hair was more important than living as free and equal.  Why does it sometimes seem that not much has changed in the black community today?  The focus is often turned in the wrong direction – not towards bringing our community together to make us a better people – but towards constantly dividing ourselves by insignificant characteristics, unimportant qualifiers, and shameful stereotypes.  We may not use paper bags and flashlights to test our shades today, but we do test our blackness in other ways.  Like hair type; which is just as rooted as our shackled past.

Don’t get me wrong – slaves and free blacks were treated HORRIBLY (for lack of a better word) by Whites; but blacks did not make it easy for each other.

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Free “Mulatto elite” communities, in an attempt to retain their status, now labeled themselves “bona fide” [authentic; genuine; real] free blacks.  Newly freed slaves were called ‘sot[set]’ free.

free people of color with their servants

These “Bona fide” blacks would not integrate their schools, churches, or organizations with dark-skinned kinky-haired blacks.  And to be allowed entry, blacks ould have to pass the comb test and the paper bag test, among others.  While Whites discriminated against all blacks, blacks discriminated against each other based on shade of skin and texture of hair.

Testing Blackness Collage

the paper bag test.  For entry into “bona fide” churches, schools, or organizations one’s skin tone must be lighter than a paper bag.

the comb test.  For entry into “bona fide” churches, schools, or organizations a fine-tooth comb must not snag in the hair.  If the comb ran through it easily, then that person could be classified as white.  Sometimes, in the same family, a child would be declared white while his brother or sister was not.

Meanwhile, Whites used the rule of hypo-descent, or the one-drop rule, to keep blacks in their own circles.  Even the smallest amount of African ancestry (or drop of African blood) legally defined a person as black.  They didn’t need tests, although they tended to favor lighter-skinned blacks over their darker-skinned brothers and sisters; but they did have terms to describe a mixed-race black by how much white ancestry they had:

mulatto was used to designate a person who was biracial, with one black parent and one white parent.

quadroon was used to designate a person of one-quarter African/Aboriginal ancestry, that is one biracial parent (African/Aboriginal and Caucasian) and one Caucasian parent; in other words, one African/Aboriginal grandparent and three Caucasian grandparents.

octoroon referred to a person with one-eighth African ancestry; that is, someone with family heritage of one biracial grandparent, in other words, one African great-grandparent and seven Caucasian great-grandparents.

griffe or sambo has been used for someone of three-quarters African heritage, or the child of a biracial parent and a fully black parent.

This bias within the black community was based on the understanding that Blacks with lighter skin and straighter hair were often more accepted by Whites.  Black men sought to imitate the style of white men by wearing longer hair with a beard, much like Frederick Douglass.  These blacks were often seen as snooty.  And black women who mimicked the styles of white women were more accepted by Whites – they were considered “well-adjusted” for straighter hair and ‘cleaner’ appearances.

Frantz Fanon, the French psychologist and theorist of colonialism and Third World liberation, observed that members of an oppressed group will frequently internalize the attitudes of their oppressors and then direct that aggression at each other.

Now the division was deeper than being lighter or darker-skinned; there was the idea that having a certain look was an investment that one should make in order to have a better quality of life as a black in America.  Free blacks in the North were free while those in the South were still treated as slaves.

free blacks 1800-1900

elite schools

french creole inhabitants of louisiana

Female Quadroon (Quadroon, a name given to the offspring of a mulatto and a white.)

Metal hot combs, invented in 1845 by the French, are readily available in the United States. The comb is heated and used to press and temporarily straighten kinky hair.

hot combs

Both white and black product advertisers marketed to blacks in the North who had time to consider their hair and looks.  Arsenic wafers were sold to lighten skin, and lye was sold to straighten hair; both failing to give the desired result and even at times deadly to the user.  Some salons even offered to do the hair daily for a ‘decent’ style, but for a costly price.

1800 ads

The majority of blacks still in the South, however, could only afford poor products for their hair and continued to cover it 6 out of 7 days of the week.

I know it seems as if I have skipped monumental black history figures and events like Martin Luther King, Jr., Ida B Wells, Malcolm X, The National Association for Colored Women, Jim Crow Laws, and even Willie Lynch… but this particular timeline focuses on the history of black hair from slavery, to now.

Come back tomorrow for developments in black hair during the early 1900’s.


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  • Reply Zinnada Hodges June 25, 2016 at 4:15 am

    Thanks for writing this.

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