Freedom’s Story: Teaching African American Literature and History
National Humanities Center
April 2010

Trudier Harris, J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of English, Emerita
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Definition and Background

In the past couple of decades, the word pigmentocracy has come into common usage to refer to the distinctions that people of African descent in America make in their various skin tones, which range from the darkest shades of black to paleness that approximates whiteness. More specifically, the “ocracy” in pigmentocracy carries with it notions of hierarchical value that viewers place on such skin tones. Lighter skin tones are therefore valued more than darker skin tones. Such preferences have social, economic, and political implications, as persons of lighter skin tones historically were frequently—and stereotypically—viewed as being more intelligent, talented, and socially graceful than their darker skinned black counterparts. Blacker blacks were viewed as unattractive, indeed ugly, and generally considered of lesser value. Europeans standards of beauty thus dominated an African people for most of their history in America.

Although the word pigmentocracy may have come into widespread usage fairly recently, the concept extends throughout the history of Africans on American soil. During slavery, black people who were fathered by their white masters often gained privileges based on their lighter coloring. Indeed, one reported pattern is that blacks of lighter skin were reputedly selected to work in the Big Houses of plantation masters while blacks of darker hues were routinely sent to the fields. Moreover, one of the origins of the Dozens, the ritual game of insult in African American culture, is reputed to have developed as a result of slurs darker skinned blacks who worked in the fields hurled at lighter skinned blacks because their mothers had given birth to children sired by white masters. Some masters who recognized their paternity publicly sometimes sent their partially colored offspring to the North to be educated. This practice explains in part the belief that blacks of lighter skin were more intelligent (they simply had more educational opportunities). It was convenient to the mythology of slavery to suggest this pattern as well, for even without formal admission, whites were aware that some blacks looked more like them than others. Since many theories of bestiality and dehumanization were aligned with darker skinned blacks, it was perhaps preferable to be more tolerant of the lighter skinned ones. Even this, however, was not a consistent pattern, for theories also developed about mongrelization, that is, the mixing of black and white blood, leading to extreme anti-social behavior in persons so endowed.

Value based on skin tones led to some interesting historical developments both within and outside African American communities. To prevent blacks fathered by white masters from making claims on their masters, children born to enslaved women were legally designated to take the status of those women. Blond-haired, blue-eyed enslaved persons, therefore, could not change their condition through any legal process. To ensure that this pattern could not be broken, anyone determined to have had black blood in one of their ancestors five generations removed was still designated “Negro.” Mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, sextaroons [hexadecaroon?], and whatever word would define a person who had 1/32 black blood [dotriacontaroon??] were all designated to be fully black by laws of American society. “The mighty drop” of black blood, as some scholars refer to it, was powerful enough to control generations of persons legally classified as black who might otherwise have been classed as white or who might have passed for white…

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