by Bruce S. Thornton // FrontPage Magazine
Remember when Attorney General Eric Holder called Americans a “nation of cowards” who put “certain subjects . . . off limits”? Holder,
of course, was referring to “subjects” that in fact we do nothing else but talk about non-stop – the refusal of whites to admit the persistence of white racism and its responsibility for all the ills afflicting the black underclass. To quote Paul Krugman for this received wisdom, “Race is the Rosetta Stone that makes sense of many otherwise incomprehensible aspects of U.S. politics.”
Yet Holder was unwittingly accurate, for there is a subject the mainstream culture and political discourse never touches: what Harlem Renaissance novelist Claude McKay called the “yellow complex.” This is the psychological condition of light-skinned blacks that was explored in novels of the 1920s like McKay’s Home to Harlem and Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry. Back then, the mulatto or light-complexioned black, especially the well educated, lived in a social and psychological limbo, excluded by racism from the white world, and forced by segregation to live among darker blacks whom they often despised and looked down on. Yet darker blacks themselves experienced conflicting emotions, at once attracted to and resentful of the light-skinned who scorned them.
Thurman’s Emma Lou is a sympathetic portrait of this complex from the perspective of a woman whose mother is a mulatto, but who inherited her father’s black skin: “Emma Lou had been born in a semi-white world, totally surrounded by an all-white one, and those few dark elements that had forced their way in had either been shooed away or else greeted with derisive laughter.” When she matriculates at an exclusive Negro college, she despises Hazel, another dark-skinned girl who attempts to befriend her, as “just a vulgar little n***** from down South.” Emma Lou “was determined to become associated only with those people who really mattered, northerners like herself or superior southerners, if there were any, who were different from whites only in so far as skin color was concerned.” What she discovers, however, is that most of the light-skinned students to whom she is attracted despise her as much as she despises Hazel.
A creation of racism and segregation, the psychology explored in this persistent theme of classic black literature was supposedly transcended by the “black is beautiful” movement of the 1960s. In black identity politics the poles of value were reversed: the snobbish mulattoes or blacks who lived by so-called “white” values were attacked for “acting white,” and authentic black identity comprised Read more →