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  • Zelema Harris

COLORISM: Its Destructive Power of Divisiveness Based on Skin Color

“Your daddy is an old white man.”

Those words, from my new second grade classmate Mary, ricocheted against my head like a fly ball hitting me directly on the forehead, then bouncing into my little 7-year-old fists.

Without even thinking I flung my fists into her back. That was not enough to control my anger. And before I knew it my fists opened and I shoved her with all my might down an incline. As I watched Mary tumble into the hardened red clay soil she began to cry. Two girls stood beside Mary as though to protect her, each trying to get closer to her while staring at me. Barbara, a leggy seven-year-old had five sandy colored long plaits down her back and on the side of her face with little scraps of worn yellow ribbon tied at the end of each plait. Her skin color was redder than it was brown. She rightly earned the nick name Red. I didn’t understand why she was so mad. She kept scrunching up her face as though I had pushed her down instead of Mary. Pauline, the other girl was mad but not as much as Barbara.

After Mary stopped crying, she looked in my direction and screamed “You are not my friend anymore!”

Her nasty words did not affect me that much because I had just met her that day and didn’t know we were friends in the first place. Mary deserved what she got. My dad was not an old white man, maybe old but definitely not white. After all, he was 80 years old and was born a long time ago in 1866. He was like me and the rest of the people who lived in our community - a Negro. Sometimes old people in the community said “Colored folks” when they were talking about us. My teacher told my class that Colored Folk’s Day at the South Texas State Fair in Beaumont would be Monday, March 29, 1948. It was only September and I couldn’t wait to ride the yellow school bus to a big city on Colored Folk’s Day!

I learned when I was around 12 years old that my father’s father was a white slave owner and his mother was a mixed-race slave. She was a Negro which was defined as having one drop of African ancestry blood. So, my father was a Negro because his mother was.

All four of us, Mary, Barbara, Pauline and I lived on the same road directly south of the school. The road we lived on was six- and one-half miles long. As we walked down the red clay dirt road, we saw a few scattered homes on each side nestled among corn stalks from recently harvested corn, empty cotton bolls and sugar cane waiting its turn to be harvested. The roads in Liberty Community did not have official names. Roads were identified by who lived on them. Our road was referred to as Old man Beck’s road. Beck had passed away but he was the first to clear land for farming on our road.

It took me thirty minutes to walk home. My mother kept time on how long it took us to get home from the time the school day ended. During those 30 minutes I had plenty of time to think about what happened. Barbara and Pauline walked with Mary. I was sad, I wanted to cry not for what I had done, but for what Mary had said. I did not plan to tell my mother about the incident and hoped she would not find out. If she knew, she would be upset that I hit and pushed Mary first. Mama always said, “Keep your hands to yourself unless someone hits you first.” I was afraid someone would come by our house and tell my parents. Information traveled slowly in 1947 because no one who lived near my family had a phone. The general store owner, Mr. Odom had a phone and he delivered long distance messages by horseback, mostly if someone died. The last time he rode down our road was to tell my father that his oldest son, Dredson Marshall, a WWI veteran, had died. Dredson lived in Harlem, New York. He was the second oldest of my father’s 15 children by his first wife. Most of his children left Texas and moved to New York in the late 1930’s until the mid-1940’s.

I didn’t’ know if Mr. Shankle, Mary’s father, would ride up to our house on his quarter horse and tell my parents what I had done. I watched anxiously the front yard from our bedroom window. My two sisters and I shared the same bedroom.

While waiting for everyone to get home I thought about what lie I would tell if mama found out I had hit and pushed Mary. The lie I settled on was Mary hit me a little bit and the other kids didn’t see her and I hit her back and she fell. Fortunately, I did not have to invent a story because my mother could detect an untruth.

I was relieved that mama did not ask me any questions when I got home. This was not normal for her. Mama must have felt guilty for not attending Family Day herself on our first day in a new school. All of the other parents who attended were mothers. My father went instead.

By dinner time everyone was home. My four siblings who got out of school later had all come home from school – RH was fifteen, Charlie was fourteen, Tressie twelve and Priscilla eleven. They were my mother’s children by her deceased first husband. But to me, they were simply my older brothers and sisters. The boys had chores right after school. They went outside before dinner to pump water in barrels for my mother to cook, scrub and do laundry. The girl’s chores started after dinner – cleaning the kitchen. School work was important to my mother. And you could miss chores if you had to study. Although I was not assigned homework, I read Priscilla’s textbooks sometimes and solved math problems that Charlie and Tressie made up for me. They were fun problems like subtraction and addition using marbles, hopscotch and jacks. “Johnny had 20 marbles, he lost 3 and gave two to his friend. How many marbles did he have left?” I credit these play sessions with my early knowledge of practical math.

My father came home after working on our new home he was building about a mile and a half from the house we were renting. Everyone’s arrival home made me feel protected. Chaos was always present with seven of us and my feisty 75-year-old grandmother who found something to quip about all day every day. Her wrath was mitigated by her size. She weighed 90 pounds and was 4’8”. She and my mother got into shouting matches many days about what one of my brothers had done or had not done. Charlie called our grandmother a Master Sargent. I saw her as fun. She kept things lively, often making us laugh out loud as she reprimanded us. For some reason we never took her seriously.

All seven of us ate at the makeshift butcher block table which was in the smoke house when we moved into the house. My mother had taken four pine boards the width of the butcher block and nailed them on top to extend the table. The table was covered with a red and white checkered plastic table cloth. My mother who was a little taller and much heavier than my grandmother Alice. They were both considered pretty women. My grandmother said my mother had a lot of male suitors when she was a teenager.

Mama never sat down to eat unless we had company. She ate as she was standing fussing at us for what we had done wrong or what we were going to do wrong. Either the boys had not hauled enough water into the house or the girls left a soiled pan soaking overnight rather than wash it. My dad remained silent.

In my seven years I had never thought it was unusual for an 80-year-old man to work from before sun up to sun down. Nor did I think of his skin color as different until Mary said he was white. I was hurt and ashamed at the same time that someone would think about my father in that way. My father was handsome to me, lanky, slightly over six feet, defined cheek bones, weighing around 175 lbs. with straight white hair and balding on the top of his head. His eyes were a watery blue-gray on most days. Other days his eyes were a dull green. Mary’s description of my dad may have been the beginning of my desire to protect him because I never got over the emotional pain I felt that day.

As we ate our meal of fresh mustard greens cooked with fat back, baked chicken (it took less time to cook than fried chicken, my favorite), baked sweet potatoes, piping hot corn bread with butter that was churned that morning. We listened to mama and grandma Alice exchange barbs. After a while they both laughed as if to say we are being ridiculous. They both had a biting sense of humor. Grandma then proceeded to discuss her usual topic about the need to respect your mother and father and how your days on earth would be lengthened…I knew she was lecturing my mother and us at the same time, but mainly my mother.

By 6:30 it was time for the rest of the children to do homework by lamp light fueled with oil. Second graders were not assigned homework. I ran to the back yard to draw water for my bath. After filling the number 2 aluminum tub with one third water, I called my brother RH to pick up the tub and bring it into the girls’ bedroom where I bathed in cool water. It felt good to immerse my small body into the tub. After bathing myself, I read my favorite and only book that mom bought me when I was five years old and we lived on the farm in Wiergate. The cover of my first book of nursery rhymes had an image of a girl with white skin and yellow hair and the words were

“Twinkle twinkle little star how I wonder where you are. Up above the world so high like a diamond in the sky.”

Another favorite was,

“To bed to bed says sleepy head, tarry a while says slow. Put on the pan says greedy Nan, we’ll sup before we go.”

I loved that book. I had been reading it since I was five. I also read Priscilla’s school books. Tressie and Charlie taught me to read before I started to school. But I loved reading the nursery rhymes before going to bed each night.

As much as I enjoyed reading it did not replace the farm. I missed our farm. My mother had sold the farm, along with the livestock and our weathered four room house in Wiergate. My freedom was taken away. The rental property we now lived in had a small yard and not enough room to play. There were no strawberries for me to pick in the early mornings. No cows for my brothers to milk or fresh vegetables to can, nor hogs to slaughter. We purchased most of our vegetables and meats from neighbors. The only advantage I had was living near other children my age. And now, since I pushed Mary down, I had no friends. This was our second house since June when we moved to Liberty. And this was only September.

Mama never explained anything. At least she never said a word to me. One day we just moved and then we moved again. I knew my father was building a new home for us because we would go to the 25-acre site on the weekend and help. There was a fresh water spring on our land surrounded by a grove of pine trees. The spring was near our home site and we loved to drink the cool water from a gourd dipper that my father carved. My brothers handed supplies to daddy when he needed them—wood siding, shingles and nails. Sometimes he spent time teaching them how to design and build a home with his T-square. My job was to straighten old nails by placing them on a cobbler’s cast iron shoe stand and hammering them straight. My father warned me not to straighten the head of the nail. He needed the head to hammer the siding and shingles in place. I loved having tasks but I sometimes hit the nail’s head instead of the shaft. My father never said a word about my mistakes. I don’t recall my dad reprimanding any of us while I was growing up. He was easy going and kind to all of us, including my mom who didn’t seem to be happy unless she was talking to her relatives or when she attended church. I could understand her joy at church because she believed that the world would end soon and she would be caught up in midair and lifted into heaven. That is what my 7-year-old mind understood from listening to our pastor on Sunday morning. I did not understand why she laughed with her sisters and other relatives and didn’t laugh with us.

I was 12 years old in the 9th grade in high school before my mother told me about the death of her first husband. I had heard bits and pieces but did not know the full story. When her husband died of pneumonia her baby girl, Priscilla was eight months old and her oldest, RH was 5 years old. Her husband did not have insurance because insurance companies would not insure Black people where they lived in East Texas. My mother said she was angry that he had died suddenly and left her with nothing. His family was willing to take her two sons, Charlie and RH but not her girls. She was desperate. My father heard of her plight and visited her with food and candy for the children. She married him after a short courtship. She was 32 years old and he was 72. She did not expect to have another child. I was born one year after they were married. My mother was 33 when I was born and my father was 73 years old.

My father did not have the financial resources my mother thought he had. He was receiving $30 a month in Old Age Pension from the State of Texas. He was also a dowser, carpenter and farmer who had the ability to increase his income.

Daddy and his nephew started a business after he married my mother and could not find work. His nephew designed homes and created beautiful designs in color. He and my father built several homes when we lived in Wiergate. Those resources were used to purchase the land in Liberty Community, build our home and replenish our livestock. One year our cotton crop earned $3,000. During off season daddy and my brother, Charlie dug wells where he located ground water with a divining rod. The two of them cleaned older wells. My daddy was an entrepreneur. He had a family for whom he had to provide.

My thoughts kept shifting away from why I hit and pushed Mary. I had never had a fight before so why was I so angry that Mary called my father an old white man? I had learned in June that bad white men had murdered my half-sister in 1938 before I was born. That was my only reference about white people. Or could I have been embarrassed that he came to school that day? I don’t know but I did know that hearing those awful words filled me with a fury that was now barely buried.

As I have gotten older and seen colorism at work both within my own race and observed it in other racial groups, I recognize the devastating affect it has on individuals and groups. I have asked myself these questions: Why do folks who have been exposed to white dominance and cruelty want to be like them? Why do people want to look like the slave owner who tortured, raped and murdered our ancestors?

Isabel Wilkerson, in her latest book, CASTE, THE ORIGINS OF OUR DISCONTENTS stated the following:

“Among marginalized Americans, the closer they have been to the dominant caste in skin color and in hair and facial features, the higher on the scale they have generally ranked, the women in particular, and the more value attached to them even by those whose appearance is further from the caste-driven ideal.”

Colorism has pervaded the lives of Black folks since slavery. The house slaves were of lighter skin, and were often the slave owners’ children. Miscegenation was common during and after slavery when it was unlawful for Black and white races to mix. It happened often. And was codified into a caste system based on skin color, hair texture and physical features.

This unnatural and immoral social order kept the slave system running smoothly. Vestiges of this caste system exists today, but is waning because Black people are increasingly rejecting a system that pits them against each other. Race mixing has contributed to this change as well as exposure to mass media. Today, more Blacks are being hired and promoted based on their talent rather than their physical representation of the dominant culture.

My family moved to Beaumont, Texas during my freshman year of high school. During my junior year I invited my new boyfriend, Manuel to meet my parents before they would allow me to go to the athletic banquet with him. I worked really hard getting the living room in perfect order, using Old English furniture polish to cover the nicks in the furniture. I swept and mopped the oak floors. The living room where we would sit was sparkling.

Manuel was to arrive at 7:00 p.m. I waited for his arrival while sitting on the couch facing the front door. I watched the clock on the wall and as the minutes ticked away to 7:30 I grew anxious. My mother stuck her head in the doorway and asked “do you think he is coming?” I did not answer but left the sofa and went to the bathroom so my parents could not feel my embarrassment or see my anger. The phone rang jarring me from my thoughts. We had one yellow dial type phone with a long-twisted cord that sat on the dresser in my parents’ room. I rushed from the bathroom to answer the phone. Hello. His voice responded “Zelema, where do you live?” I live at 2301 Hemlock Street. “That is where I went and an old white man came to the door.” That’s my father! That is MY FATHER! I yelled. “You didn’t tell me your father was white.” I slammed the phone down. This was the second time someone had called my father an old white man.

My father was sitting on the back porch. I asked if he had answered the door and he said yes. He heard someone knock on the door a little before 7:00 p.m. and a young man ran after he opened the door. He thought it was someone who had the wrong address.

Manuel has shared this story many times with classmates and friends over the years amid loads of laughter. Initially, my focus of the story was on my father’s skin color.

Later, I began to understand the dynamics of a young Black man going to a white man’s home at night in 1955. I can imagine Manuel’s fear. Manuel’s skin pigmentation is jet black. He was already conditioned by Jim Crow laws and colorism to avoid a situation of this nature. Emmitt Till and many other Black boys were murdered under similar circumstances. I have gained a better understanding from Manuel’s perspective as to why this story has stayed with him for over 60 years.

To this day I am not sure of the extent to which I have experienced preferential or prejudicial treatment based on my skin color. Skin color was never discussed in our home. However, I still feel both the shame and pain of my cousin calling me “the whitest girl” in our all Black school in Liberty Community. I was nine years old on the playground with all of my friends when my cousin yelled from a two story classroom window:

“Zelema, you are the whitest girl in our school.” This feeling of shame I experienced then contradicted the racial pride that was being instilled in me by my father. Despite these contradictory emotions I have learned to love the totality of who I am.

During the summer of 1953 my father and I rode the Beaumont city bus for an appointment he had with Dr. Pecora, our family doctor. Buses were segregated with whites sitting on the front of the bus and Blacks sitting in the back. The number of seats allowed each race was determined by a sliding metal sign at the top of the bus. Printed on front of the sign was WHITE and COLORED was printed on the back of the sign. The bus drivers were the only ones authorized to slide the sign based on the number of Blacks and whites who were riding the bus. Sometimes the bus drivers would not move the sign and there would be Black people standing while many seats were vacant in the white section.

My father and I sat in the Black section of the bus going to town. However, when we were boarding the bus going home, the bus driver watched my father as he was passing the white section and called out “Sir, you are to ride up front.” My father kept walking and said “No Sir, I am Colored” and kept walking until we found a seat in the Black section. My father made two points that have stuck with me throughout my life: He was proud to be a Black man and he was not going to be separated from me, his daughter based on skin color.

When I arrived at my new school in Liberty the next morning, my second day, a few kids were on the playground. I ran up to Teresa and said hi. Teresa lived next door to me and I did not know at the time that Teresa was Mary’s first cousin. Their fathers were brothers. Teresa was in 5th grade and got out of school later than I did.

As we were exchanging hellos Mary rushed up and grabbed Teresa’s hand forcibly yelling, “Do not talk to her. She pushed me down and hurt my knees.”

To show her cousin what I had done Mary pulled up her flour sack yellow fabric dress and showed one scrapped knee that had begun to scab over. I was left alone on the school yard until the classroom doors opened.

I loved school. I loved my teacher. She was pretty and her name was Lola Morgan. She smelled good, like fresh gardenias. Her clothes were “store bought” and fit her small waist and wide hips perfectly. Every strand of her short hair was in place. And she was related to my father somehow. She was kind to all the children. We had spelling bees. Each of her 15 second graders had a ring made from construction paper and the first ring was taped on the ceiling of the classroom. Each time you spelled all of the words correctly, a ring was added. Leon Bennett and I were the most competitive. Leon was the smartest little boy I knew. Most of the other boys in Wiergate needed my help in learning to read. And Leon did not live in Liberty on a farm. He was bussed in from Newton, Texas which made him a city boy. Occasionally Leon had more rings than I but at the end of the school year my rings had cascaded all the way down to the floor and beyond.

At recess I stayed near the fence surrounding the school pretending to be interested in the dandelions. None of the kids would talk to me. Little did I know that my classmate’s behavior toward me was just the beginning of what was to come.

I watched the large clock on the wall dreading walking home with no one to talk to me. At 2:15 P.M. the bell rang and we rushed out of the classroom. As I was running down the road toward home, someone was behind me. I looked back and saw a little boy chasing me. I had no idea where he came from. He was not in my class and I had never seen him before. In fact, I did not know he was chasing me until he gained on me and I ran sideways toward a barbed wire fence. The little boy, shorter in stature than I was, pushed me into the fence. He then pummeled my entire body with his little hard-hitting fists. I was unprepared for this assault. I started crying offering no defense. I had never been in a fight before.

He stopped punching me when he saw me crying and said, “Do not mess with my sister no more.”

I later learned his name was Jean Shankle.

When I got home, mama opened the door and saw my red tear-streaked face and asked what happened. I told her this little boy beat me.

She sounded angry when she responded, “If you ever come home like this again, I am going to beat you.”

Mama did not give me a hug; no, I love you. Nothing to console my hurt and embarrassment. That was just her way. I felt rejected, alone and afraid.

I did not know at the time that she was preparing me to fight the injustices that I would face as a Black woman in America.

After Jean had beaten me on my second day in a new school, I was terrified to go to school the next day. Fortunately, he was not in my class. He was in first grade. I found out later that the boys walked together from school and normally played around on the school yard before going home. On the day Jean beat me he had made a special effort to leave his friends behind and attack me.

School was no longer a place of safety. I was scared to go to school on my third day because I knew I had to defend myself. I was willing to leave things alone. We were even. I hurt Mary and Jean hurt me. Things never work out in such a simple way. The school ground was not safe. My four siblings attended the same school but their schedule was different from mine, except I had the same lunch period as Priscilla.

When the doors opened that 3rd school day morning, I ran into the safety zone of my classroom, greeted Miss Morgan who always seemed happy to see me. I never mentioned what happened with Mary and Jean, but I believe she knew. She paid particular attention to me that day and at recess asked me to stay in the classroom to help her clean the black boards. Lunch time was easier because all of the children ate in the cafeteria in two shifts. I saw my sister Priscilla who was in 6th grade. She sat with her friends and I sat with other kids in my class at a long two-sided bench with a table attached to the center. Most of these kids were bussed in and did not seem to be aware of the two fights in which I was involved.

The school bell rang with a prolonged high pitch and jolted me up and out the door. Earlier that afternoon I sharpened my pencil as my only weapon against Jean or Mary or whoever. I ran from the building as fast as I could with the sharpened yellow number 2 lead pencil in my small fist.

As I raced home far ahead of the other kids. I sensed someone behind me. I ran faster with adrenaline kicking in. I turned in time to see this little monster catching up with me. I felt I could not out run him so I stopped suddenly with my fist raised. I acted swiftly stabbing his face before he could hit and push me against the barbed wire fence.

He screamed in pain and began to cry, “Why you do that?”

I felt good that I had defended myself but scared that Jean was hurt really bad. I knew I had done the right thing by striking first because I did not want to face my mother for losing another fight.

After jabbing Jean with my pencil, he held his face with one hand, and with tears streaming down his face he turned and ran back toward the school.

The story does not end after I fought Jean. I did gain respect and a reputation for being tough, able to whip a boy. I was far from tough but I knew I had to defend myself. I was a frightened little girl who found the courage to do what needed to be done.

My father’s skin color placed me front and center of colorism. He was the common thread of my experiences with this divisive tool that pits Black people against each other because of their skin pigmentation. I learned through him pride, compassion, acceptance and the tenacity to keep being who you are without apology.

James Robert Marshall 1866-1956, the bastard son of a slave owner and a slave woman was my first hero.


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