Paper Bag Party

High yellow

Paper bag parties are African-American social events at which only individuals with complexions at least as light as the color of a brown paper bag were admitted.

Hosts at many churches, fraternities and nightclubs would take a brown paper bag and hold it against a person’s skin. People whose skin was not lighter than a brown paper bag were denied entry The term also refers to larger issues of class and caste within the African-American population.

African-American scholar Michael Eric Dyson wrote, ‘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.’

This is one of the ways that blacks with European ancestry (so called ‘High-Yellow Negroes’ or ‘Creoles’ in Louisiana) attempted to isolate and distinguish themselves from those who were mostly African. 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.

American historian Ira Berlin noted the emergence in the 16th and 17th centuries of Atlantic Creoles, people of color descended from the multinational peoples in African ports where Portuguese and Spanish traders, African women, and Arab traders congregated. Some were enslaved with their African mothers; others were freed. The men 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. Others were among the earliest slaves brought to the American colonies and the Chesapeake Bay area.

In the early Chesapeake Bay Colony, some Africans came as indentured servants and gained freedom. Others arrived as slaves, but in the early years could sometimes be freed from slavery through work. 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 origins of most of the free people of color before the American Revolution in the Upper South were in relationships between white women servants and African or African American men.

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.

As early as the 18th century, travelers remarked on the variety of color and features seen in slaves in Virginia, as European ancestry was obvious. Light-skinned slaves, some of whom were descendants of masters and their sons, 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 two decades after the American Revolution, when numerous slaves were freed in the Upper South. In that region, from the Revolution to 1810, the percentage of people of color who were free increased from 1 to more than 10 percent.

Newly imported Africans and darker-toned African Americans were used in hard field labor, where they were more likely to experience abuse. As tensions about slave uprisings rose in the 19th century, slave states imposed more restrictions, including prohibitions on educating slaves and on slaves’ movements. The slaves 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 under French and Spanish rule, becoming educated, taking the names of white fathers or lovers, and often receiving property from 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 in appearance, free people of color in New Orleans and the Deep South tended to be light-skinned, the children of more generations of European ancestry. 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.

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 free people of color, especially those who were called ‘old Issue’ for having been free long before the war, resisted being grouped with the freedmen. They created social organizations that excluded darker blacks, as they assumed that this group had just been released from slavery. The free people of color were proud of their education and property rights. This is an example of within-race colorism. These practices have remained somewhat common in modern society.


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