Family  /  First Person

Not White But Not (Entirely) Black

On the complex history of “passing” in America.

I knew that my grandparents were the grandchildren of enslaved people who were blood relatives of their owners. Having white relations sometimes came with significant privileges on the plantation that often continued after emancipation. During the Reconstruction, a light complexion might come with opportunities for advancement, preferential treatment by whites, and educational opportunities.

Having a fair complexion was a conspicuous marker of privilege and status. There was great diversity within this community, but light skin was the most salient feature among the elite of Black Washington. By my grandparents’ generation, complexion had taken on a life of its own. Light skin was no longer just a proxy for privilege; it had become a thing valued for its own sake. An exclusive community emerged, sometimes known as the “Brown Paper Bag Society” because entry supposedly depended on having a skin tone lighter than a brown paper bag.

They came of age between World War I and the Roaring Twenties and began their life together in a place of unusual promise and privilege. In a phrase popular in their day, they were “light, bright, and damn near white.” My grandfather’s education, and the social prominence of his parents, enhanced his status in this community. My grandmother came from a more modest background. Her father was a carpenter who repaired brickwork. It was said that he worked on the plaster moldings in the Capitol.

However, he could not read. It took time for my great-grandparents to warm up to their daughter-in-law, but her fair complexion made her an acceptable match for my grandfather. Although they had no great wealth or power, my grandparents could feel like they belonged to an exclusive aristocracy that held a place of privilege within the Black community. Their marriage concentrated many threads of white ancestry into a single lineage that became part of my heritage.