High yellow, occasionally simply yellow (dialect: yaller, yeller), is a term used to describe persons classified as black according to the one-drop rule, despite having primarily white European ancestry. It is a color reference to the olive skin of some mixed-race people. The term was in common use in the United States at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, but is now considered obsolete and sometimes offensive. It is reflected in such popular songs of the era as "The Yellow Rose of Texas".
"High" is usually considered a reference to a social class system in which skin color (and associated ancestries) is a major factor, placing those of lighter skin (with more European ancestry) at the top and those of darker skin at the bottom. High yellows, while still considered part of the African-American ethnic group, were thought to gain privileges because of their skin and ancestry. "Yellow" is in reference to the usually very pale yellow undertone to the skin color of members of this group, often due to mixture with Europeans. Another reading of the etymology of the word "high" is that it is a slang word for "very", often used in Southern English, therefore "very yellow" (as opposed to brown).
In an aspect of colorism, "high yellow" was also related to social class distinctions among people of color. In post-Civil War South Carolina, according to one account by historian Edward Ball, "Members of the colored elite were called 'high yellow' for their shade of skin", as well as slang terms meaning snobbish. In New Orleans, the term "high-yellow" was associated with Creoles of colour "brahmins".[Note 1] In his biography of Duke Ellington, a native of Washington, D.C., David Bradbury wrote that Washington's
social life was dominated by light-skinned 'high yellow' families, some pale enough to 'pass for white,' who shunned and despised darker African-Americans. The behaviour of high yellow society was a replica of high white, except that whereas the white woman invested in tightly curled permanents and, at least if young, cultivated a deep sun tan, the colored woman used bleach lotions and Mrs. Walker's "Anti-Kink" or the equivalent to straighten hair.
In some cases the confusion of color with class came about because some of the lighter-skinned blacks came from families of mixed heritage free before the Civil War, who had begun to accumulate education and property. In addition, some wealthier white planters made an effort to have their "natural sons" (the term for children outside of marriage who were produced with enslaved women) educated or trained as apprentices; some passed on property to them. For instance, in 1860, most of the 200 subscription students at Wilberforce College were the mixed-race sons of white planters, who paid for their education.
These social distinctions made the cosmopolitan Harlem more appealing to many blacks. The Cotton Club of the Prohibition era "had a segregated, white-only audience policy and a color-conscious, 'high yellow' hiring policy for chorus girls". It was common for lighter-skinned African Americans to hold "paper bag parties," which admitted only those whose complexion was lighter than that of a brown paper bag.
In her 1942 Glossary of Harlem Slang, Zora Neale Hurston placed "high yaller" at the beginning of the entry for colorscale, which ran:
"high yaller, yaller, high brown, vaseline brown, seal brown, low brown, dark brown"
Applied to individuals
The French author Alexandre Dumas, père was the son of a French mulatto general (born in Saint-Domingue but educated by his father in France) and his French wife. He was described as having skin "with a yellow so high it was almost white". In a 1929 review, Time referred to him as a "High Yellow Fictioneer".
Art and popular culture
The terminology and its cultural aspects were explored in Dael Orlandersmith's play Yellowman, a 2002 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in drama. The play depicts a dark-skinned girl whose own mother "inadvertently teaches her the pain of rejection and the importance of being accepted by the 'high yellow' boys." One reviewer described the term as having "the inherent, unwieldy power to incite black Americans with such intense divisiveness and fervor" as few others.
The phrase survives in folk songs such as "The Yellow Rose of Texas," which originally referred to Emily West Morgan, a "mulatto" indentured servant apocryphally associated with the Battle of San Jacinto. Blind Willie McTell's song "Lord, Send Me an Angel" has its protagonist forced to choose among three women, described as "Atlanta yellow," "Macon brown," and a "Statesboro blackskin". Bessie Smith's song "I've Got What It Takes", by Clarence Williams, refers to "a slick high yeller" boyfriend who "turned real pale" when she wouldn't wait for him to get out of jail. Curtis Mayfield's song "We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue" makes reference to a "high yellow girl". In "Big Leg Blues," Mississippi John Hurt sings: "Some crave high yellow. I like black and brown."
As recently as 2004, white R&B singer-songwriter Teena Marie released a song titled "High Yellow Girl," said to be about her daughter Alia Rose, who is biracial. The related phrase "high brown" was used in Irving Berlin's original lyrics for "Puttin' on the Ritz".
- Johnson heard these terms used by contemporary students at Montclair University, where he teaches.
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