Paper bag party

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Paper bag parties were multi-racial social events at which only individuals with complexions at least as light as the color of a brown paper bag were admitted. The term also refers to larger issues of class and social stratification within the African-American population.

Free African Americans[edit]

The historian Ira Berlin has noted the emergence in the 16th and 17th centuries of Atlantic Creoles, people of color descended from the multinational peoples in African ports where Portuguese and Spanish traders, African women and Arab traders congregated. Some were enslaved with their African mothers; others were freed. The men tended to learn multiple languages and found work at the trading posts on the edges of African settlements, especially at the places where Europeans bought slaves. Sometimes the multiracial Creoles would work as overseers or translators. They started sailing with the Portuguese and some went to Europe before any came to North America. Others were among the earliest slaves brought to the American colonies and the Chesapeake Bay area.[1]

In the early Chesapeake Bay Colony, some Africans came as indentured servants and gained freedom. Others arrived as slaves, but in the early years could sometimes be freed from slavery through work. Most Europeans arrived as indentured servants, agreeing to work for a period to pay off their passage. Some Native Americans learned to speak English and adopted English customs. All these groups lived and worked together; boundaries were more fluid than after slavery became institutionalized as a racial caste. Colonial records show that some African slaves were freed as early as the 17th century.

These free families became well-established, with descendants moving to frontier regions of Virginia, North Carolina and west as areas opened up. Free Indians who lived in English communities also married into these communities. There they were free of the strictures of plantation areas and were often well-accepted by white neighbors. Many became property owners. Some multiracial communities married within their common group; other free African Americans consistently married out into the European American community and their descendants assimilated as white. Some prominent Americans have been descended from these early free families, for instance, Ralph Bunche, who served as ambassador to the United Nations.[2]

As early as the 18th century, travelers remarked on the variety of color and features seen in slaves in Virginia, as European ancestry was obvious. Light-skinned slaves, some of whom were descendants of masters and their sons, were sometimes given better treatment on plantations, with domestic jobs inside the master’s house, including as companions or maids to his legal children. Some of them were educated or at least allowed to learn to read. Sometimes the master might have arranged for an apprenticeship for his Mulatto son and freed him upon its completion, especially in the first two decades after the American Revolution, when numerous slaves were freed in the Upper South. In the Upper South, from the Revolution to 1810, the percentage of people of color who were free increased from 1 to more than 10 percent. By 1810, 75% of blacks in Delaware were free.[3]

Newly imported Africans and darker-toned African Americans were used in hard field labor, where they were more likely to experience abuse. As tensions about slaver uprisings rose in the 19th century, slave states imposed more restrictions, including prohibitions on educating slaves and on slaves' movements. The slaves could be punished for trying to learn to read and write.

In Louisiana especially, Creoles of color had long formed a third class during the years of slavery. They had achieved a high level of literacy and sophistication under French and Spanish rule, becoming educated, taking the names of white fathers or lovers, and often receiving property from the white men involved with their families. Many became artisans, property owners and sometimes slaveholders themselves. Unlike in the Upper South, where free African Americans varied widely in appearance, free people of color in New Orleans and the Deep South tended to be light-skinned, the children of more generations of European ancestry. The privileges of Creoles of color began to be curtailed after the Louisiana Purchase, when American slaveholders arrived who tended to view all people of color as of one class: black, or, not white.[4]

After the Civil War[edit]

When four million slaves were emancipated and granted citizenship in the South, new issues arose both for whites and for free people of color. When slavery ended, some free people of color, especially those who were called "old Issue" for having been free long before the war, resisted being grouped with the freedmen. They created social organizations that excluded darker blacks, as they assumed that this group had just been released from slavery. The free people of color were proud of their education and property rights. This is an example of within-race colorism. These practices have remained in modern society today.

20th century[edit]

From 1900 until about 1950 "paper bag parties" are said to have taken place in neighborhoods of major American cities with a high concentration of ethnic minorities. Many churches, fraternities and nightclubs used the "brown paper bag" principle as a test for entrance. People at these organizations would take a brown paper bag and hold it against a person's skin. If a person was lighter or the same color as the bag, he or she was admitted. People whose skin was not lighter than a brown paper bag were denied entry.[5]

There is, too, a curious color dynamic that sadly persists in our culture. In fact, New Orleans invented the brown paper bag party — usually at a gathering in a home — where anyone darker than the bag attached to the door was denied entrance. The brown bag criterion survives as a metaphor for how the black cultural elite quite literally establishes caste along color lines within black life. On my many trips to New Orleans, whether to lecture at one of its universities or colleges, to preach from one of its pulpits, or to speak at an empowerment seminar during the annual Essence Music Festival, I have observed color politics at work among black folk. The cruel color code has to be defeated by our love for one another. —Michael Eric Dyson, excerpt from Come Hell or High Water.[6]

This is one of the ways that multi-racial people attempted to isolate and distinguish themselves from those who were mostly African or Native American.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998, p.17-25
  2. ^ [1] Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, 2005, accessed 15 Feb 2008
  3. ^ Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1994 Pbk, pp.78 and 81
  4. ^ Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1994 Pbk, p. 83
  5. ^ Did Hurricane Katrina reveal a historic reality? Excerpt from Michael Eric Dyson's (2006) Come Hell or High Water
  6. ^ Dyson, Michael Eric (2007). Come hell or high water : Hurricane Katrina and the color of disaster (Pbk. ed.). New York: Basic Civitas. ISBN 978-0465017720. 

Russell, Kathy; Midge Wilson, Ronald Hall (1993-10-01). The Color Complex. New York: Anchor. p. 208. ISBN 978-0-385-47161-9. 

Williams, Lena (1992-11-22). "The Many Shades of Bigotry". New York Times. 

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