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The paper bag principle: class, colorism & rumor and the case of Black Washington, D.C Hardcover – October 9, 2006

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Editorial Reviews


“This is, to my knowledge, the first full-length treatment ofcomplexion legends and myths, filling a major gap in the literature. . . . It treats controversial issues with great sensitivity andinsight.” —Nancy Bonvillain, Simon’s Rock College of Bard

Book Description

The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Colorism, and Rumor in the Case of Black Washington, D.C. considers the function of oral history in shaping community dynamics among African American residents of the nation’s capitol. The only attempt to document rumor and legends relating to complexion in black communities,The Paper Bag Principle looks at the divide that has existed between the black elite and the black “folk.” While a few studies have dealt with complexion consciousness in black communities, there has, to date, been no study that has catalogued how the belief systems of members of a black community have influenced the shaping of its institutions, organizations, and neighborhoods. Audrey Kerr examines how these folk beliefs—exemplified by the infamous “paper bag tests”—inform color discrimination intraracially. Kerr argues that proximity to whiteness (in hue) and wealth have helped create two black Washingtons and that the black community, at various times in history, replicated “Jim Crowism” internally to create some standard of exceptionalism in education and social organization. Kerr further contends that within the nomenclature of African Americans, folklore represents a complex negotiation of racism written in ritual, legend, myth, folk poetry, and folk song that captures “boundary building” within African American communities. The Paper Bag Principle focuses on three objectives: to record lore related to the “paper bag principle” (the set of attitudes that granted blacks with light skin higher status in black communities); to investigate the impact that this “principle” has had on the development of black community consciousness; and to link this material to power that results from proximity to whiteness. The Paper Bag Principle is sure to appeal to scholars and historians interested in African American studies, cultural studies, oral history, folklore, and ethnic and urban studies.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 136 pages
  • Publisher: Univ Tennessee Press; 1 edition (October 9, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1572334622
  • ISBN-13: 978-1572334625
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,275,409 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Dera R Williams VINE VOICE on April 7, 2009
Format: Hardcover
In The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Complexion, and Community in Black Washington D.C., Audrey Elisa Kerr attempts to dissect the oral history of colorism and class in the nation's capitol, during slavery and into the 20th Century. She shows the many facets of black life in Washington D.C., and how the status of blacks were determined by the color of your skin, your features and grade of hair, as well as your ancestry (where you had free or enslaved ancestors), education and economic status.

Because fairer skinned blacks had better access to education and privileges due to either favoritism shown by slave owners or as benefactors of acknowledged white parentage, they were the ones who were the first black collegians in historically black colleges and universities. At one time Howard University and Dunbar High School had populations that were overwhelmingly fair-skinned. Over time, with better opportunities, blacks of all hues flooded the universities; however, as late as 1985, a group of Howard University law students gave a graduation party and employed the paper bag test. This hurtful, demeaning practice involved holding a paper bag against a person's arms or face and if you were darker than that paper bag, you were not allowed entranced into various groups, organizations and social clubs. Although the practice of providing a paper bag or a comb test to test the ease of it going through one's hair diminished, it became a metaphor for some groups to exclude those who they deemed not worthy.

Dr. Kerr wrote this book, as part of her dissertation, to not only explore the rumors and myths surrounding colorism among African Americans, but also to document black history in Washington D.C.
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Format: Hardcover
I appreciate the great detail the author offers about the history of African Americans in the past 200 years of Washington, DC history. She does a thorough job of interviewing those who saw themselves as being discriminated against by "The brown paper test".

However, she does not offer any insights or interviews from the point of views of light skinned/Creole people as to the reason why they would have promoted a "brown bag principle" in the first place. There is a part of her book that says that light skinned black people "isolated" themselves from dark skinned black people and yet still were never accepted into the white society. It is possible that the isolation was forced rather than by choice. She could have delved more into the history of light skinned black people being told that they were not "black enough" by dark skinned black people because they were mixed raced.

Technically, that is what a light skinned black person is
--- a person of mixed raced heritage.

There is much evidence many light skinned black people/biracial people claim to have problems being accepted and being ridiculed in their neighborhoods and schools. A "brown paper bag" party would have been seen as a safe haven for biracial, mixed raced, light skinned black people to be around those people who identify and understand them. They could relax without being ogled about their physical appearance or multi racial families.
It is normal and natural for all peoples to create friendships with those who understand their issues and struggles. With that said, after finishing the book, I was left with a pertinent question.
If the brown bag parties did exist and catered to lives of biracial or light skinned black people, then why would dark skinned black people even want to attend those parties?
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