Colorism Within the Harlem Renaissance

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Within any group of people there is always going to be some form of judgment and African American people of the early twentieth century Harlem are no different. Throughout this course students have been immersed into the culture of 1920s Harlem and through this immersion many significant issues have surfaced from the artist of the time period. A major issue that has been repetitive throughout all forms of art during this period is colorism.

Colorism which can also be called color conscientiousness, intra-racism, being color-struck, or having a color complex is a long standing epidemic focusing on physical appearance with a large concentration on the color of one’s skin (Carpenter 1). It is an ideology that is largely used in African American art dating as far back as slave folk literature and still being a dominant force in present day African American literature, but was a defining form of expression during the Harlem Renaissance.

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Although colorism is not gender specific I have found that it plays a more dominantly negative role in the lives of women and through literary and secondary source supports this paper will further express what colorism is and the affect it has on the women who face it at such a high racially tense time. I believe it is first important to have an understanding of the period of time known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a time period that begin in the 1920s [when] black intellectuals of Harlem had a ‘reawakening’ of culture that had been dormant for generations (Huggins 3).

It was a time where men and women of African descent aimed to form a high culture of their own in order to bridge the gap between differing races and create a world of literature free of prejudice (Huggins 5). This was also a time for African Americans to form an identity for their race that would yield power and put rest to the beliefs that African American people were savages, because they too would now have culture (Huggins 7). It is during this period that black art was broken into categories such as folk and high art and begin to be ranked as good or bad (Huggins 10).

The Harlem Renaissance was a period in time that bred elitism amongst people of the same ethnicity with terms such as the talented tenth, common folk, old and new Negro, and the disregarding of traditionally accepted art in an attempt to be more “white” which eventually spilled from everyday life to literature. It is the understanding of the time period and how growth created tension amongst Harlemites that one can see how elitism transformed into colorism.

Elitism which is a form of superiority that occurs when people attribute their talents to be of a higher caliber than others, is in this case a direct connection to why colorism is an issue during this time period. As I considered the transformation of influential members of African American society I noticed that the overall theme found in most literature was the desire to be more like whites or the open disdain about imitating the “white lifestyle”. This created a divide within the black community allowing colorism to nestle into a fresh wound.

Many scholars on the subject such as Hutchinson; believe that the term new Negro being used as a synonym for blacks appealing more to things generally associated with white America aided in this division (Hutchinson 171). It is at this point that the desire to be like white people culturally begin to slowly intercede into appearance with the desire to have straightened hair and pale skin and the divide of those who had these things and those who did not began what we know as colorism.

This journey of unveiling the truth and finding relevance of the ideology of colorism then leads people to define colorism on a societal level in contrast to the technical definition previously given. Although colorism does date back many generations before the Harlem Renaissance it was not until this time period that it gained such a mass appeal not only in local communities, but in a more broad media circuit as well. Historical archives discovered by Dorman show that colorism had tangible boundaries within the African American community during the 1920s (47).

It is stated that blacks often divided themselves into four subcategories which consisted of “black”, “brown”, “light brown”, and “yellow” Negros (Dorman 47). The above ranking would be listed in a hierarchy from “black” being at the bottom of the socially accepted hierarchy to the “yellow negro” being the most revered and desired socially. As the research continues it becomes ever more important to discuss how exactly the differing pigmentation of one race of people actually occurs, because I feel that it has an effect on the way colorism is handled throughout the African American community.

There are two ways in which a person of African descent can be of a lighter complexion; the first being amalgamation, which is the coming together of both the black and white races and reproducing to make a mulatto or mixed race child and the second is the use of cosmetic creams in attempt to bleach one’s skin until they too appear mulatto (Dorman 48). This is relevant because, it shows the extremes that people are willing to go to reach the highest plateau of social acceptance.

Many of these creams were painful acidic chemicals slowly burning away the pigmentation as people slept, while others were considered mild abrasive materials used to “gently” scrape away dark pigments (Dorman 56-58). Then for one to consider the danger that could come from having sexual relations between the races at a time when Jim Crow laws and segregation was in full affect with the intent to bear a child as proof and still go through with the act all for the sake of a mulatto child.

This is truly a vicious cycle because, the same people who feed into its capitalistic success are the very people who suffer from the ramifications in some form being it their lack of lightened skin, the reason behind their skin, or simple discrimination for being considered more desirable than their darker counterparts. This epidemic of intra-racial racism has at this point grown into such a large entity that it is now spilling over into all aspects of African American life.

Now not only is it a mass production aiding the American economy, specifically the cosmetic companies, but it is also being represented in art by people on the high end and the low end of the complexion hierarchy. Colorism has become a prominent topic for literary works by well-respected African American artist; some who are speaking on the behalf of the entity and others who are discrediting its validity. Over time colorism manifests itself into a genre of literature known at the time as passing. Passing by definition is the attempt to coexist in white America although one of a person’s parents is of Negro blood (Huggins 144-45).

Passing novels discussed many variations of the affects that colorism played on 1920s Harlem by taking viewpoints of all colored complexion, whites, and even general consensuses. It is what some believe made this era of black art so impressive, because it held raw openness about real issues taking place that needed to be exposed so that a change could occur. There were many novels written during the Harlem Renaissance and many authors who influenced the everyday happenings of their fellow Harlemites.

Two of the most influential writers who often used colorism in their work were Nella Larsen and George Schuyler. Though Schuyler was better received I believe both play important roles on this subject and their work can offer much insight to this topic. Black No More written by Schuyler and Quicksand written by Larsen are examples of works that apply the most to the topic of colorism and the role it played in the lives of the people of the Harlem Renaissance. I begin by explaining and finding the underlining meaning of Larsen’s Quicksand.

The novel focuses on the life of Helga Crane, a woman who has fair skin due to the interracial relationships of her parents. She is born to a white mother whose family despises her, because she is a constant reminder of her mother’s indiscretion. Though she is the black sheep of the family her one saving grace is her Uncle Peter who takes pity on her, because of the love he has for his deceased sister. Upon feeling unwelcomed within her family Helga decides to leave and teach at Naxos, a school for Negroes, where she continues to be outcast by the elite African American society.

It is her disapproval of the actions of cult-like admiration of white people that forces her back to reliable Uncle Peter in Chicago for help. When Helga is denied by her new aunt she leaves with Mrs. Rore for a job that lands her in Harlem. It is after Helga finally becomes dissatisfied with the trivialness of Harlem that she travels to Copenhagen to be with her aunt who adores her exotic looks as do the others she comes in contact with until she tires of being a show piece and finally retires down south to live the life that she has been avoiding.

It is from all this traveling that the reader can see the distress Helga is in that causes her to continuously move. Helga is constantly looking for acceptance for who she is as a person instead of how she looks. It appears that this is the case, because no matter what reception Helga receives about her looks she is unhappy. There is a continuous internal struggle, because Helga never truly feels accepted much like the reader could assume about the author, Nella Larsen. By understanding the struggle of Helga Crane one may wonder how closely related to the protagonist of the novel is Miss Larsen.

According to Vanessa Bush the answer is that the two are almost identical. Larsen was a biracial woman of Danish and West Indies descent whose mother remarried a white man who despised Nella (813). Nella too had ties to Chicago and moved around often in attempts to find a place to belong (Bush 813). Bush further explains how Larsen struggled with racial identity, but unlike Helga she spoke outwardly about it and could constantly be found in the middle of many debates about uplifting African Americans (Bush 813).

According to a biography entitled In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line written by George Hutchinson Larsen used her novels to express her struggle with racial identity and fear of abandonment (Bush 813). It is this fact that acts as a bridge between what is fantasy and what was a reality for women such as Larsen by using art to show how colorism affects those who are supposed to benefit from it. It is from the similarities found in the art that Larsen produced as well as knowing the struggles that she faced as a mulatto woman that transcends art and acts as a mirror of reality.

As the reader dives into the storyline of Helga Crane many emotions are evoked and that is exactly what Larsen attempts to do according to Cherene Johnson (836). Larsen uses characters such as Helga Crane to show the complexities of being a mulatto woman. In her novels the protagonist is often spunky and outspoken outwardly, but insecure internally due to the fetish she represents in both the black and white communities (Johnson 836).

It leads a reader to consider the distress of a mulatto woman being ostracized at every turn being fully accepted by neither society. It is in this way that Larsen took on the lesser spoken of side of a politically relevant viewpoint at a time when most did not discuss the trouble of being of mixed race. While Larsen writes about the struggles of being a mulatto woman there is another author who sheds light onto the desire for those darker in complexion to become lighter and in turn be considered more attractive.

The author that I am referring to is George Schuyler. His novel Black No More is a novel focusing on the obsession with skin complexion from a “darkies” point of view and the absurd extremes that people go through in order to appear lighter. The novel begins with two dark men conversing over their preference of “yaller” women over darker women before the protagonist, Max, attempts to gain the attention of a white women in the nightclub.

The incident from the previous night is the reasoning behind the choice Max makes to attempt to become white after finding out that there is a scientist who has created a machine to do so. The story then continues on explaining the adventures Max and his friend Bunny go on now as two white men of the South. This novel is relevant to the overall theme of this paper by showing the great lengths and in this case pain that people of dark complexion will go through to be lighter.

It shows the emotional affects that skin color has from the opposite side of the spectrum from Nella Larsen’s plight that however, can be attributed to the differences between the two. George Schuyler unlike Nella Larsen was a man of dark complexion who married a white woman producing one biracial child (Reuben 3). He was considered by some to be too compliant to the desires of whites and infuriated many black organizations because of this (Rueben 4). Through research done by Rueben I have found that Schuyler held many of his beliefs due to the racism he endured at different points in his life (1-4).

In many ways Schuyler’s personal life caused people in the African American society to shun him, because they felt that he did not represent the reality of their community (Rueben 4). I disagree and based on the research found I believe that it was because, of his unorthodox personal life that Schuyler could see the absurdity in the skin bleaching epidemic that allowed him to create such a profound political statement in efforts to make African American people see how unnecessary the lightening of their skin.

It is from the connection to the inner workings of the life of Schuyler that I can see the reasoning behind Black No More being written. Schuyler I can only assume was a man relatively removed from the African American community due to his choice in wife and her financial stature therefore he had no desire to be whiter, because he was already accepted by those that mattered to him.

It is because of this removal of this community that Schuyler could see the absurdity in the attempts of lightening skin to gain approval. By watching those around him I believe he used real people with science fiction to make an extreme problem that was accepted among people of color be brought to light in hopes of making a change. Both of these novels though from different points of view show how much of an affect colorism had on the African American community during the Harlem Renaissance.

On one end of the spectrum Nella Larsen shows the effect of colorism on a mixed race woman and how she is constantly objectified for her physical beauty while being despised for not being black or white enough; while Schuyler uses satire to show how dark skinned African Americans suffer with the rejection from white people as well as other African Americans. Schuyler and Larsen use art to show how intra-racism is dangerous to people of all skin shades, because it breeds hatred amongst a group that is already facing discrimination.

This ideology of lighter skinned people is one that has a deeper effect on women, because as the text from Schuyler shows men of any complexion are accepted, but all men prefer lighter skinned women as the ultimate sign of beauty. Overall I believe that what both of these artist show with their novels is that colorism is an epidemic within the African American community and while both groups of skin complexions are going through the negative effects of colorism it can all be diminished by coming together and accepting each other for who they are as people and not based on physical attributes.

Many scholars believe that colorism has the effect it does, because of the ability for some to be more accepted within the white community that the black, but if they could gain acceptance in full from those of their own race many light skinned people would not attempt to pass. Art shed light onto this epidemic, but it cannot change it without the support of the people; only the readers can make a decision to see, understand, and fight against colorism to create unity within this community.

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Colorism Within the Harlem Renaissance. (2017, Jan 11). Retrieved from

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