I Married a Black Man
As a white college student in the 1960’s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. In Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which we wrote together and published in 2009, he used examples from his own life to display the effect of racism. He arrived in America in 1950 and was befriended by the black community. One of those experiences was that many blacks themselves favored lighter skin.
“If you’re light, you’re alright.
If you’re brown, you’re down.
If you’re black, get back.”
My Husband’s Tan
Ben found it amusing that whites worked very hard for a dark tan and yet discriminated against dark-skinned people. Once when he was swimming in a pool at a hotel in Miami, a white woman in the pool lamented loudly, “I’m having such a problem getting a tan.”
When Ben replied, “My tan is nature made,” she looked at him, blushed, and said, “Oh, excuse me!”
At one point, having a tan implied status because it meant a life of leisure. Nowadays, with the caution of skin cancer, perhaps things have changed.
However, in the 1959s, skin color mattered and still does to some extent. Here are some excerpts from our book in his words:
Barber Shop Talk
Miscegenation made Negroes “all the shades of black.” Mulattos were the Negro elite in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. They could get jobs “inside” while dark-skinned Negroes could only get jobs “outside.” To maintain their status, mulattos rigidly intermarried. In large cities in the North, they nurtured their status by social excluding dark-skinned Negroes. To be feted in a cotillion, a girl had to have light skin and soft hair. If she was dark-skinned, her parents were from the professional class. In the “brown paper bag” test in Negro sororities and fraternities, those who were darker couldn’t join.
For the most part, Negroes criticized each other about racial attributes, not personal qualities. In the Negro barber shop, I heard someone say after a man left. “He looks like Sambo. Musta come from the Congo.”
Everyone laughed. Someone else said, “He shore looks like a nigger! Look at his eyes, all sittin’ up there like a bull frog, shinin’ like an Eastern star.”
In Topeka, Kansas, everyone called a dark-skinned football star, “Pretty.” One day, as he walked into the barber shop, someone said, “Here comes Pretty lookin’ like midnight.”
Pretty laughed and said, “Only niggers can have that kinda feelin’.”
Sometimes the men said with pride, “Pretty’s playin’ today.”
Light-Skinned vs. Dark-Skinned
Negroes compensated for being put down by criticizing mulattos. In St. Louis, when a well-dress mulatto came into the barber shop, everyone gave him a friendly greeting. After he left, the barber said, “Sure can tell someone messed with his mother or grandmother. He don’t belong to us. He sure ain’t a nigger. That’s the thing about this country. Somethin’s missin’. I’m sorry for him. You can have everything in the world but if you don’t know who your daddy is, you can never define yourself. That’s why fathers are so important. I’d rather be a nigger and know my parents. I may be dark but I know who my daddy is.”
I heard a barber say good-naturedly to a cultured, well-dressed mulatto, “You may look good and get all those good things and go to places I can’t. But you and I are in the same boat. You’re scared to death someone may recognize you, but I’m free. No one’ll mistake me for anything else but a nigger. And when you come down to it, you’re just a nigger like me.”
Everyone laughed and said, “Ain’t that right!”
To be continued in a later blog……
All of my husband’s stories fascinated me and at the same time, saddened me. As a naive Ohio farm girl, I knew nothing about the tragedies of slavery and racism. After his death in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief to carry on his memory.