Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What Color Is That Colored Person?

Harpo nearly big as his daddy.  He strong in body but weak in will.  He scared.  Me and him out in the field all day.  Us sweat, chopping and plowing.  I'm roasted coffee bean color now.  He is black as the inside of a chimney.
Celie
The Color Purple by Alice Walker

When I attended UMES in Princess Anne I found people of Color had a much wider range of descriptions for their skin color than us poor Caucasians with our range of Fish Belly White to Olive.  At that time (in the seventies) everyone seem to base their description on coffee.  When I was the only white person in a class I was referred to as "that speck of cream in a cup of black coffee".  From that base it went into; cafe au lait, chocolate, mocha, Caramel, "he has got some cream in his coffee", honey, the color of coffee ice cream, cafe latte, and "poured in to much cream don't even know he is coffee."

Reminds you of the Wanda Sykes comedy routine in which she mentioned how the "random screenings" at airports weren't really random, considering  that they had a Benjamin Moore paint chart at the gate, and if you were darker than "khaki," you were getting screened.

While thumbing thru the book  "Somerset County Maryland Certificates of Freedom 1821-1864" I was struck by the skin color references.

In Maryland, the Law of 1805 Chapter 66, required free blacks to have a Certificate of Freedom.  http://www.aomol.net/megafile/msa/speccol/sc2900/sc2908/000001/000607/html/am607--46.html
This certificate was issued by the clerk in the county court house and among the items contained in it, beside name, was skin color and height.  As a note, most everyone was under 5'6" in these certificates between 1821 to 1864.  It also indicated if the person was free due to being born of a free woman or by manumitting. 

From the book "Somerset County Maryland Certificates of Freedom 1821-1864";

Looking at 886 Certificates of Freedom (COF), skin color descriptions would fall in to 14 skin shades.  No doubt these shades of color were described by white people as people of color would have listed at least fifty different shades. 

Chestnut - 215 COF
Dark Chestnut - 164 COF
Dark - 148 COF
Black - 99 COF
Light Chestnut - 51 COF
Yellow - 46 COF
Bright Mulatto - 42 COF
Copper - 36 COF
Mulatto - 31 COF
Very Dark - 24 COF
Yellow Bright Mulatto - 19 COF
Brown - 7 COF
Light Yellow - 3 COF
Nearly Black - 1 COF

Today it would be hard to determine which color description in these "certificate of freedom"would be the blackest and which would be the lightest - is "Very Dark", darker than "Black" and is "Yellow Bright" lighter than "Bright"?


Harpo tell me all his love business now.  His mind on Sofia Butler day and night.
She pretty, he tell me.  Bright.
Smart?
Naw.  Bright Skin.  She smart too though.
.......
Harpo bring her over to meet his daddy ..... Harpo so black he think she is bright, but she aint that bright.  Clear medium brown skin, gleam on it like on good furniture.  Hair notty but lots of it, tied up on her head in a mass of plaits..... strong and ruddy looking, like her mama brought her up on pork.

Celie
The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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