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Essays by Alice Dunbar-Nelson


E. B. Reuter, in his latest book, The American Race Problem, makes this comment, "During the past decade there has been a somewhat marked improvement in the economic conditions of the Negroes. This is reflected in the decline of the number of women employed, and in the shift in numbers in different occupations." This statement is followed by a table showing the shift in occupational employment.

From one elevator operator in 1910, the number jumped to 3,073 in 1920. Those engaged in lumber and furniture industries in 1910 were 1,456. In 1920, 4,066. Textile industries jumped from 2,234 to 7,257. On the other hand, chambermaids in 1910 were numbered 14,071, but in 1920 they had declined to 10,443. Untrained nurses from 17,874 to 13,888; cooks from 205,584 to 168,710; laundresses, not in public laundries, from 361,551 to 283,557. On the other hand, cigar and tobacco workers jumped from 10,746 to 21,829, and the teaching profession showed a normal increase from 22,528 to 29,244.

Just what do these figures indicate? That the Negro woman is leaving the industries of home life, cooking, domestic service generally, child nursing, laundry work and going into mills, factories, operation of elevators, clerking, stenography (for in these latter occupations there is an almost 400 percent increase). She is doing a higher grade of work, getting better money, commanding better respect from the community because of her higher economic value, and less menial occupation. Domestic service claims her race no longer as its inalienable right. She is earning a salary, not wages.

This sounds fine. For sixty-three years the Negro woman has been a co-worker with the Negro man. Now that she is more than ever working by his side, she feels a thrill of pride in her new economic status.

But—"the ratio of children to women has declined from census to census for both races. The decline has in general been more rapid for the Negro than for the white elements in the population." In 1850 the number of children under five years of age per 1,000 women from 15 to 44 years of age for Negro women was 741, for white women, 659. In 1920 the Negro birth rate had decreased to 439, the white to 471. While the percentage of children under five years of age had decreased in the case of Negro women from 13.8 in Negro families to 10.9, and in white families from 11.9 to 10.9!

"In spite of the considerable increase in the Negro population and in the increase of the marriage rate, the actual number of Negro children under five years of age was less in 1920 than at any of the previous enumerations." In 1900 the number of Negro children under five years of age was 1,215,655; in 1910, the number was 1,263,288; in 1920 it was 1,143,699!

And this sharp decline in the face of increased knowledge of the care and feeding of infants; the work of the insurance companies in health, Negro Health Week, public health nurses, clinics, dispensaries, and all the active agencies for the conservation and preservation of health.

One startling fact is apparent. Negro women are exercising birth control in order to preserve their new economic independence. Or, because of poverty of the family, they are compelled to limit their offspring.

The same author, Dr. Reuter, tells us that a recent study showed that fifty-five Negro professors at Howard University had come from families averaging 6.5 children, while the professors themselves had an average of 0.7 children. Some were unmarried, but for each family formed, the average number of children was 1.6. "The birth rate of the cultured classes is apparently only one-third of the masses."

The race is here faced with a startling fact. Our birth rate is declining; our infant mortality is increasing; our normal rate of increase must necessarily be slowing up; our educated and intelligent classes are refusing to have children; our women are going into the kind of work that taxes both physical and mental capacities, which of itself, limits fecundity. While white women are beginning to work more away from home, at present, even with the rush of all women into the wage earner's class, in New York City alone, seven times as many colored as white women work away from home.

The inevitable disruption of family life necessitated by the woman being a co-wage earner with the man has discouraged the Negro woman from child-bearing. Juvenile delinquents are recruited largely from the motherless home. That is the home that is without the constant care of the mother or head of the house. For a child to arise in the morning after both parents are gone, get itself an indifferent breakfast, go to school uncared for, lunch on a penny's worth of sweets, and return to a cold and cheerless house or apartment to await the return of a jaded and fatigued mother to get supper, is not conducive to sweetness and light in its behavior. Truancy, street walking, petty thievery and gang rowdyism are the natural results of this lack of family life. The Negro woman is awakening to the fact that the contribution she makes to the economic life of the race is too often made at the expense of the lives of the boys and girls of the race—so she is refusing to bring into the world any more potential delinquents.

This is the bald and ungarnished statement of a startling series of facts. The decline in the birth rate of the Negro. The rise in the economic life of the Negro woman. The sharpest peak of the decline—if a decline can be said to a peak—is in the birth rate of the more cultured and nearly leisure classes. The slow increase in the national life, caused by the women workers not having time to homes in the strictest sense of homemaking. The sharp in juvenile delinquency—in the cities, of course, and among the children of women workers. And worst of all because more subtle and insinuating in its flattering connotation of economic freedom, handsome salaries and social prestige—the growing use of married women of the child-bearing age as public school teachers, with the consequent temptation to refrain from child-bearing in order not to interfere with the independent life in the school room.

This is the situation. I would not suggest any remedy, make any criticism, raise any question, nor berate the men and women who are responsible for this crisis. For it is a serious crisis. I would only ask the young and intelligent women to give pause.

The new Negro is the topic most dwelt upon these days by the young folks, whom some call, frequently in derisive envy, the "Intelligentsia." In every race, in every nation and in every clime in every period of history there is always an eager-eyed group of youthful patriots who seriously set the selves to right the wrongs done to their race, or nation or sect or sometimes to art of self-expression. No race or nation can advance without them. Thomas Jefferson was an ardent leader of youthful patriots of his day, and Alexander Hamilton would have been dubbed a leader of the intelligentsia were he living now. They do big things, these young people.

Perhaps they may turn their attention, these race-loving slips of girls and slim ardent youths who make hot-eyed speeches about the freedom of the individual and the rights of the Negro, to the fact that at the rate we are going the Negro will become more and more negligible in the life of the nation. For we must remember that while the Negro constituted 19.3 percent of the population in 1790, and 18.9 in 1800, he constitutes only 9.9 percent today, and his percentage of increase has steadily dropped from 37.5 in 1810 to 6.3 in 1920.

No race can rise higher than its women is an aphorism that is so trite that it has ceased to be tiresome from its very monotony. If it might be phrased otherwise to catch the attention of the Negro woman, it would be worth while making the effort. No race can be said to be a growing race, whose birth rate is declining, and whose natural rate of increase is dropping sharply. No race will amount to anything economically, no matter how high the wages it collects nor how many commercial enterprises it supports, whose ownership of homes has not kept proportionate pace with its business holdings. Churches, social agencies, schools and Sunday schools cannot do the work of mothers and heads of families. Their best efforts are as cheering and comforting to the soul of a child in comparison with the welcoming smile of the mother when it comes from school as the machine-like warmth of an incubator is to the chick after the downy comfort of a clucking hen. Incubators are an essential for the mass production of chickens, but the training of human souls needs to begin at home in the old-fashioned family life, augmented later, if necessary, in the expensive schools and settlements of the great cities.


Most of us are familiar with the sight of the middle-class white woman going from door to door in the frankly colored neighborhood, ringing the bells and asking with honeyed accents of condescension, "I wonder if you could tell me where I can get a good cook (or laundress or housemaid)"; and the blunt reply of the stout colored dame, as she holds the door against Nordic intrusion, "'Deed, I couldn't tell you ma'am, I need a girl myself."

That is one phase of the problem of personal service—many of us dislike the term "domestic" service—it has collected such a variety of unpleasant connotations. But the situation must have reached an acute condition if we are to judge by the findings of the group of rich New York women, headed by Mrs. Boardman, which has decided to place servants in the professional class. Service is to be on a par with other operations in the business world, and the supposed stigma which is attached to domestic employment is to be removed. The maid and cook and laundress will be graduates of schools for their training. They will have regular hours. They will be addressed by the title "Miss" or "Mrs." and all the rest of it. But as the Philadelphia Record whimsically objects, what about the price paid to these super-servants?

Our race knows that this solution will not touch us. When super-servants are to be employed, with all the frills and appurtenances, including the gracious form of address, we well know the Caucasian female of the species will not have to pay a dark-skinned girl the price, nor be willing to accord her the position of business employee rather than personal maid. And after all, there will be comparatively few even of the wealthiest class who will be able or willing to pay the price for this superior class of domestics.

So that leaves the problem exactly where it was at the beginning.

We have noticed before that the number of ladies maids has dropped from 10,239 in 1910 to 5,488 in 1920. Of chambermaids from 14,071 in 1910 to 10,443 in 1920. Of child nurses from 17,874 in 1910 to 13,888 in 1920. Of dressmakers and seamstresses from 38,277 in 1910 to 26,961 in 1920. Of cooks from 205,584 in 1910, to 168,443 in 1920. Of laundresses, not in laundries, from 361,551 in 1910 to 283,557 in 1920. We have noted, too, that women are leaving the ranks of personal service for the easier (so far as hours go) and better paid work in mills, industries, factories.

But there are phases of personal service that are attractive. Board and lodging being often included, the wages are "clear," and the work is often so planned that there is not the strain, the constant being on tiptoe that is necessary in the industrial and professional world. Often, too, contacts, that are afterwards remunerative, are made. If there were an adequate protection afforded the girl or woman who goes into personal service, either as a career, a stop-gap, a summer avocation, or a means to an end, there is hardly any phase of the work-a-day world that would offer better opportunities for the girl forced to leave school before she has gained her high school diploma, or for one who has done so.

And that adequate protection of the woman in personalservice can come only from intelligent organization into a union that will safeguard her interests, protect her morals, assure her of a home when temporarily out of employment, and give her accurate card catalogue information of prospective employers.

This is an idea neither new nor original. During the war, Miss Eartha M. White, of Jacksonville, Florida, had under her direction a most excellent union of women in war work, whether elevator runners, drivers of trucks, special domestic servants or what not. It had possibilities, that union did. It may still exist, but if so, its activities are of the soundless variety. Perhaps the closing of the war, releasing the women from their unusual duties caused a cessation of interest.

Four or five years ago, Miss Nannie Burroughs, of Washington, D.C., conceived the idea of a Domestic Servants Organization, with rules, regulations and projects similar to the unions among men laborers or skilled workmen. It was a magnificent idea, and with her customary smashing skill, Miss Burroughs put it across in quite a bit of the territory of the United States. A building was bought and operated for the girls in the heart of northwest Washington. It is a sort of Social Center, with classes, lodging rooms, recreation rooms, dining rooms, where excellent meals can be obtained at small cost, and all the rest of it.

But the appeal was never national. For one thing, to put such an idea across, trained organizers and speakers must be on the go all the time, reaching the women in small towns, as well as in large ones, and hammering, hammering away at the idea. And that takes money. And Miss Burroughs had no money. And not much time to do the work herself, since the life of her own school, the National Training School, depends upon her own efforts.

And that still leaves the problem in the air.

Only those who have had dealings with the middle-class employer of colored girls know that those girls sometimes have to endure to get a fair living wage. We know by heart the tales of the miserable sleeping quarters, the long and uncertain hours, the lonely evenings, which ofttimes end in surreptitious visits to any place where company and pleasure may be had. Small wonder then, that girls drift into factories—and they are pretty poor factories in the Middle Atlantic and Southern states which employ colored girls. Small wonder that domestic service is shunned. There is too much uncertainty about its operations.

Girls under the charge of institutions who are paroled to service, fare much better. The parole officer, or visiting officer, sees to it that the girl's room is adequately furnished, is warm and attractive. She insists upon recreation and hours off. She places a valuation upon the girl's services, and sees that she is so recompensed. And the paroled girl is correspondingly respected because there is law behind her. She is apt to be free from the unwelcome attentions of the men of the house—for no man relishes being hauled into court on the charge of "contributing to the delinquency of a minor" or "interfering with the safety of a ward of the state."


The Girl Reserves in their beautiful ritual promise to "face life squarely." Surely a most essential thing for all young girls to know; to learn to look with honest, clear-eyed vision at life, stripping away shams and non-essentials, facing facts and not being lured from the truth by silly reticences and repressions.

I wish that every girl of our race could learn the code of the Girl Reserves—at least that one part of it. And I wish that every Aframerican woman in this country could take as the essential basic element of her life this one thing—to face life squarely. We have come a long way from the Victorian days of repressions and hidings of the truth, and silences about what everyone knew was true, and pretences and shams, when the mention of any portion of anatomy but the face was silenced with blushes, and no respectable woman wore silk stockings. But we still love to deceive ourselves, and while we are less prudish than our Victorian mothers, we are still afraid of the truth as it touches the fabric of society. And we love to make high-sounding phrases which mean nothing, and to talk glibly about progress and changes in the social order and the superiority of the age, and how mankind is marching on, and kindred banal stuff. And the mere mention of a question which might puncture the gossamer veil of pretense cloaking the meaningless words causes consternation.

Let me illustrate: We are fond of talking nowadays about "Progress in Race Relations." It is a phrase that is on the tongues of white and black—those interested in sociology and economics. We are deluged with releases giving statistics of the increased good will between the races. Headlines of startling height in some of our papers record touching instances of affection and love between Nordics and Aframericans.

Much is doubtless true. Southern colleges and universities are studying the Negro as never before. Men and women of our race appear before their student bodies, and in the classrooms, getting respectful and interested hearings. A thing unthinkable in any term twenty-five years ago. The Negro just now is the pet subject of litterateurs and sociologists. He is in the hey-dey of an unprecedented era of popularity. And so his emissaries are given eager attention; his books are read avidly, and best of all, bought and circulated. Gatherings and meetings and conferences between the races in the South are common occurrences, and there is no longer fear and wonder on the part of the Southern white women lest fire from Heaven descend upon them in wrath at meeting black men on a quasi equality.

But—let us face the situation squarely. We are apt to be lulled to sleep by the beautiful and touching instances of Christian amity between our people and those of the Nordic race. And yet we ought to know that behind the web of honeyed words, under the skin of every Southern white man and woman there lies the venom of race hatred. As in older days it was said that if you scratch any Russian, you would find a Tartar. We may amend the proverb to say scratch every Nordic and you find a cracker .

The Mississippi Flood is a case in point. While Nature has unloosed the torrent of her wrath upon a hapless land and wrought devastation untold and horror inescapable, similar demons have been unleashed in the souls of the white men in the path of destruction. If there ever were truth in the statement that "one touch of nature makes the whole world kin," it has lost its applicability in this instance. If the progress in race relations had kept pace with its advertisements, we should not hear the pitiful tales which filter through from the Southland. The thin veneer of civilization has sloughed off the white men and the old slave-driving, whip-cracking, black-women-raping, antebellum, plantation overseer herds the helpless blacks to his own liking, and a virtual slavery exists in the vast flood area.

Let us face this fact squarely. True the plantation owners of Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas are not the highest type of Nordics. They are not the ones who go to colleges or universities, or are interested in lectures or literature. The only race relations they ever heard of are the relations of black man and white master, or black woman and white ravisher. But until the Negroes of the backwoods are safe in the knowledge of their own freedom; until peonage ceases to be winked at by the law; until the chain gang is abolished and simple, elemental justice is dealt the ignorant blacks, we are hiding our heads in the sand. And the women of our race must realize that there is no progress in sobbing with joy over the spectacle of two or three ordinary Southern white women sitting down to talk with several very high class black women over the race problem. We are deluding ourselves if we feel we are getting anywhere by having conferences, where hundreds of black women are wringing their hands because their men have been driven over the crumbling levee to certain death, while the white men stand out of the danger zone.

We have learned to face the issue of lynching squarely. We are no longer hoodwinked by unsupported statements. We know that there have been more lynchings in the present year thus far than in the past. But this phase of the question is a good one for the women to look firmly in the face. Lynchings only occur where Negroes are afraid. When they cease to fear, the white man turns tail and skulks away.

We talk much about the army of graduates who step forth proudly this month ready for their conquering march through life. And we quote statistics to show our remarkable progress and expansion educationally. But if we would face this educational question squarely, we would see that the problem is to keep the standard where it belongs. For as long as we have segregated schools, as long as our educational system in this country is a biracial one, unless every nerve of every one of us is strained to the uttermost, we will have a biracial standard, and the Negro one will inevitably be lower. We cannot afford to deceive ourselves; for the sake of the children we should fight segregation in schools as if it were a poisonous viper attacking the very heart of our race. To face this problem squarely we must admit that the schools are primarily for the children and not for teachers, and that it were far better that our youngsters be thrown into competition with all races in schools, where no quarter is given, and the rate must be kept high, and from whence if they get through, they can emerge strong from the battle, and with respect for their own ability to stand up in a contest of wits, than that they be swathed in the inevitable paternalism of a strictly "colored" school. The job for the women of the race is to abolish the double standard of measurement and achievement of the child. And we do not need to deceive ourselves by averring that such a double standard does not exist.

Perhaps the place at which we are apt to deceive ourselves most blatantly is at the point of political independence. The political independence of any American citizen is a joke. And not only the political independence, but the political participation of the Negro in the affairs of the body politic is something to make high Olympus howl with mirth. Even in New York where the Aframerican is largely Tammanyized, he is no free agent. For being wise, he is an opportunist and slips into the well-worn groove of the perfectly obvious.

But now and then we hear of groups among us having conferences, the women as well as the men. And we talk wisely about what will be done to candidates when they dare to rear their heads. And if we were honest enough with ourselves to face the issue squarely, we'd all go home and admit that we will all file in line, march to the ballot box and vote as we are told at the crack of the boss' whip.

I might go on and multiply instances in our racial and national life where endless confusion of thought and action are caused by our refusing to look situations in the face; by self- and racial-deception, by weak acceptance of the obvious explanation—by "going along" in other words.

Oh, that the girls may teach the women and the boys teach the men the wisdom of "facing life squarely."


Prefatory Note by Gloria T. Hull

Entitled "Brass Ankles Speaks" (Vol. 2, WADN), it is an outspoken denunciation of darker skinned black people's prejudice against light-skinned blacks told by a "brass ankles," a black person "white enough to pass for white, but with a darker family background, a real love for the mother race, and no desire to be numbered among the white race." This brass ankles recalls her "miserable" childhood in "a far Southern city" where other schoolchildren taunted and plagued her because she was a "light nigger, with straight hair!" This kind of rebuff and persecution continued into a Northern college and her first teaching job:

Small wonder, then, that the few lighter persons in the community drew together; we were literally thrown upon each other, whether we liked or not. But when we began going about together and spending time in each other's society, a howl went up. We were organizing a "blue vein" society. We were mistresses of white men. We were Lesbians. We hated black folk and plotted against them. As a matter of fact, we had no other recourse but to cling together.

And she states further that "To complain would be only to bring upon themselves another storm of abuse and fury."

This essay was as close as Dunbar-Nelson ever got to revealing feelings about her own racial status as a "yaller nigger." She tried to publish it, but would not or could not do so under her own name, and the magazine editor refused to print it pseudonymously.


The "Race" question is paramount. A cloud of books, articles and pronunciamentos on the subject of the white man or girl who "passes" over to the other side of the racial fence, and either entirely forsakes his or her own race, to live in terror or misery all their days, or else come crawling back to do uplift work among their own people, hovers on the literary horizon. On the other hand, there is an increasing interest and sentimentality concerning the poor, pitiful black girl, whose life is a torment among her own people, because of their "blue vein" proclivities. It seems but fair and just now for some of the neglected light-skinned colored people, who have not "passed" to rise and speak a word in self-defense.

I am of the latter class, what E. C. Adams in "Nigger to Nigger" immortalizes in the poem, "Brass Ankles." White enough to pass for white, but with a darker family background, a real love for the mother race, and no desire to be numbered among the white race.

My earliest recollections are miserable ones. I was born in a far Southern city , where complexion did, in a manner of speaking, determine one's social status. However, the family being poor, I was sent to the public school. It was a heterogeneous mass of children which greeted my frightened eyes on that fateful morning in September, when I timidly took my place in the first grade. There were not enough seats for all the squirming mass of little ones, so the harassed young, teacher—I have reason to believe now that this was her first school—put me on the platform at her feet. I was so little and scared and homesick that it made no impression on me at the time. But at the luncheon hour I was assailed with shouts of derision—"Yah! Teacher's pet! Yah! Just cause she’s yaller!" Thus at once was I initiated into the class of the disgraced, which has haunted and tormented my whole life— "Light nigger, with straight hair!"

This was the beginning of what was for nearly six years a life of terror, horror and torment. For in this monster public school, which daily disgorged about 2500 children, there were all shades and tints and degrees of complexions from velvet black to blonde white. And the line of demarcation was rigidly drawn—not by the fairer children, but by the darker ones. I had no color sense. In my family we never spoke of it. Indian browns and cafe au laits, were mingled with pale bronze and blonde yellows all in one group of cousins and uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters. For so peculiarly does the Mendelian law work in mixed bloods, that four children of two parents may show four different degrees of mixture, brown, yellow, tan, blonde.

In the school, therefore, I felt at first the same freedom concerning color. So I essayed friendship with Esther. Esther was velvet dark, with great liquid eyes. She could sing, knew lots of forbidden lore, and brought lovely cakes for luncheon. Therefore I loved Esther, and would have been an intimate friend of hers. But she repulsed me with ribald laughter—"Half white nigger! Go on wid ya kind!", and drew up a solid phalanx of little dark girls, who thumbed noses at me and chased me away from their ring game on the school playground.

Bitter recollections of hair ribbons jerked off and trampled in the mud. Painful memories of curls yanked back into the ink bottle of the desk behind me, and dripping ink down my carefully washed print frocks. That alone was a tragedy, for clothes came hard, and a dress ruined by ink-dripping curls meant privation for the mother at home. How I hated those curls! Charlie, the neighbor-boy and I were of an age, a complexion and the same taffy-colored curls. So bitter were his experiences that his mother had his curls cut off. But I was a girl and must wear curls. I wept in envy of Charles, the shorn one. However, long before it was the natural time for curls to be discarded, my mother, for sheer pity, braided my hair in a long heavy plait down my back. Alas! It, too, was ink-soaked, pulled, yanked and twisted.

I was a timid, scared, rabbit sort of a child, but out of desperation I learned to fight. My sister, a few years older, was in an upper grade, through those six, fearsome years. She had learned early to defend herself with well-aimed rocks, ink bottles and a scientific use of sharp finger-nails. She taught me some valuable lessons, and came to my rescue when my nerve had given out. She had something of the spirit of an organizer, too, and had a gang of "yellow niggers" that could do valiant service in the organized warfare between the dark ones and the light ones.

I used to watch the principal of the school, and her fellow teachers with considerable interest as I grew older and the situation unfolded itself to me. As far as I can remember now, they were all mulattoes or very light brown. If their sympathies were with the little fair children, who were so bitterly persecuted, they never gave any evidence. The principal punished the belligerents with an impartiality that was heart-breaking. Years afterward, I learned that she had told my mother and the mothers of other girls of our class and complexion that she understood and appreciated our sorrows and troubles, but if she gave any evidence of sympathy, or in any way placed the punishment where she knew it rightfully belonged, the parents of the darker children would march in a body to the Board of Education, and protest against her as being unfit for the job.

Time went on, and a long spell of illness took me out of the school. That too, was due to color prejudice. There wasn’t a small-pox scare, and the Board of Health ordered one of those wholesale vaccinations that are sometimes worse than the disease. My mother sent a note to the principal asking her not to have me vaccinate. on the day selected, but that she would take me to the family physician that night, and send the certificate to school in the morning. The principal read the note, shook her head, looked at me sorrowfully, "You should have stayed at home today, " was her terse comment. So I was dragged, screaming and protesting to have my arm scratched with a scalpel instead of a vaccine point. Terror and rage helped the infection which followed, and for a long while my life was despaired of. It seemed certain that I would lose my arm. Somehow, I did not, and when I was well enough, about eighteen months later, to think of education, my mother sent me to a private school.

The bitterness that had been ingrained in me through those six fateful years, from six to twelve years of age, stayed. The new school was one of those American Missionary Schools founded shortly after the war, as an experiment in Negro education. Later, these same schools became the aristocratic educational institutions of the race. Though the fee was only a nominal one, it was successful in keeping out many a proletariat. Thus gradually, all over the South these very schools which were founded in a missionary spirit by the descendents of abolitionists for the hordes of knowledge-seeking freedmen, became in the second and third generations, the exclusive stamping grounds of the descendents of those who were never slaves, or of the aristocrats among freedmen.

And because here I found boys and girls like myself, fair, light brown, with educated parents, descendents of office holders under the reconstruction regime or of free antebellum Negroes, with traditions—therefore was I happy until the end of my high and normal school career.

Except for Eddie. I loved Eddie. He represented to me the unattainable, for he was in the college department, and he won prizes in oratory and debate and one day smiled at me understandingly when I was only a high school freshman. I walked on air for days. But Eddie was of a deep darkness, and refused to allow me to love him. With stern dignity he checked my fluttering advances. He would not demean himself by walking with a mere golden butterfly; far rather would he walk alone, he told me. It broke my heart for nearly a month.

Out in life, I found myself confronted, as did most of my friends and associates, with the same problems which had confronted the principal of that public school. I became a public school teacher. There were little dark children in my school. I had to watch them tormenting the little fair children, and not lift my hand to protect them, at the risk of a severe reprimand from my principal or supervisor, induced by complaints from parents. I had to endure in hot, shamed silence the innuendos constantly printed in the weekly colored newspaper—a sort of local Smart Set—against the fair teachers, every time one was seen with a new coat or hat. How could they afford to dress so well? was the constant query. Light colored girls, it was well known, were the legitimate prey of white men. Were not the members of the Board of Education helping out the meagre salaries of the better looking teachers? What price shame? Protest? The editor was a black man and owed allegiance to no proprietary, His daughter had failed to pass the teachers' examination; she had failed in the normal school; she had failed in the high school. She was really stupid. But her father would not believe it. There were some darker girls who had made brilliant records in in school; were brilliant teachers. He shut his eyes to their prowess and vented his spleen upon the light ones who had succeeded.

After teaching a year or two, I had saved enough to embark upon my cherished ambition—to go to college, and so I came North. Here I found a condition just as bitter, but more subtle. You come up against a dead wall of hate and prejudice and misunderstanding, and you cannot tell what causes it.

During the summer session I had lived with a colored family in the town. The room was uncomfortable, the food not good, and the prices as high as in the school. Therefore, when I decided to return for the winter, I applied for and secured a place in one of the college cottages. This branded me at once among the colored students. I was said to be "passing," though nothing was further from my mind—especially as there were no race restrictions in the dormitories. I tried to make friends among the colored girl students—all of whom that year were brown. Success came only after the hardest kind of hard work, and it was only a truce. I had to batter down a wall, which had doubtless been erected by my erstwhile dark-skinned landlady.

I had registered from my own religious creed. The rector of the white church in town called at once, made me welcome, and asked me to connect myself with his church. I waited three weeks for the colored minister to make a like overture. I would have preferred the colored church, for I had always taken an active part in our little church at home among my own people. But no gesture was made, so I went to the white church. Then an entertainment was given at the colored church. I saw a flier for the first time on the day of the affair, with my name down for a recitation. Naturally, I did not go on such slight notice, and forever afterwards was branded among the colored townspeople as a "half white strainer, with no love for the Race."

And yet, in spite of all the tragedy of my childhood and young womanhood, I had not been able to develop that color sense. When I say this to my darker friends, they simply laugh at me. They may like me personally; they may even become my very good friends; but there is always a barrier, a veil—nay, rather a vitrified glass wall, which I can neither break down, batter down, nor pierce. I have to see dear friends turn from a talk with me, to exchange a glance of comprehension and understanding one with another which I, nor anyone of my complexion, can ever hope to share.

In the course of my peregrinations, after college days, I came to teach in a small city on the Middle Atlantic Seaboard. A little city where hate is a refined art, where bitterness is rife, and where prejudice is a thing so vital and potent that it makes all other emotions seem pale and insignificant. I shall never forget the day that I was introduced by the principal to the faculty of the high school where I was to teach. There were two other faces like mine in the group of thirty. The two who looked like me, exchanged glances of pity—the others measured me with cold contempt and grim derision. A sweat broke out on me. I knew what I was up against and an icy hand clutched my heart. I felt I could never break this down; this unreasoning prejudice against my mere personal appearance.

With the children it was the same. The day I walked into my classroom, I head a whisper run through the aisles, "Half white nigger!" For a moment I was transplanted to that first day at school twenty odd years ago.

The agony of that first semester! The nerve-racking terror of never knowing where there would be an outbreak of unreasoning prejudice among those dark children, venting itself in a spiteful remark, and undoing in a moment what I had spent weeks to create. The heart-breaking rebuffs when I tried to be cordial with my fellow-teachers; the curt refusals to walk home with me, or to go to church or places of amusement. The scathing denunciations of irate parents when their children did not get the undeserved marks they wanted. I was accused of everything except infanticide. Mine had been the experiences of the other two teachers, I was told. The principal protected as far as he could, but what can a busy man do against a whole community? If I had a dollar for every bitter, scalding, hopeless tear that I shed that first school year, I should be independently wealthy. It was only sheer grit and determination not to be beaten that kept me from throwing up the job and going back home.

Small wonder, then, that the few lighter persons in the community drew together; we were literally thrown upon each other, whether we liked or not. But when we began going about together and spending our time in each other’s society, a howl went up. We were organizing a "blue vein" society. We were mistresses of white men. We were Lesbians. We hated black folk and plotted against them. As a matter of fact, we had no other recourse but to cling together.

Much water has passed under the bridge since those days, and I have lived in many other communities. Save for size, virulence, and local conditions, the situation duplicates itself. Once I planned a pageant in one community. "You'll never put it over," my friends adjured me; "You haven't enough pull with the darker people." But I planned my committees always to be headed up by black or brown men or women, who in turn selected their aides, thus relieving me of all responsibility. It went over big, in spite of misfits on committees. But had I actually placed thereon men and women of real ability, who could have handled the situation more efficiently, the whole thing would have fallen to the ground if they were light in color.

I have served on boards and committees of schools, institutions, projects. I have seen the chairmen, or those with appointing power, look at me apologetically, and name someone whom they knew and I knew was unfit for a place, where I could have best helped and worked. But they did not dare be accused of partiality on account of color. I have had my offers of help in charity affairs refused, or if accepted grudgingly, credit withheld or services forgotten. I have been turned down by my own race far more often than many a brown-skinned person has been similarly treated by the white race. I have been snubbed and ostracized with subtle cruelties that I am safe to assert have hardly been duplicated by the experiences of dark people in their dealings with Caucasians. I say more cruel, for I have been foolishly optimistic enough to expect sympathy, understanding and help from my own people—and that I receive rarely outside of individuals of my own or allied complexion.

As if there is not enough stupid cruelty among my own, I have had to suffer at the hands of white people because of my likeness to them. On two occasions when I was seeking a position, I was rejected because I was "too white," and not typically racial enough for the particular job. Once when I was employed in a traveling position during the war, I came into headquarters from a particularly exhausting trip through the South. There I had twice been put off Jim Crow cars, because the conductor insisted that I was a white woman, and three times refused food in the dining-car, because the colored waiters, "tipped off" the white stewards. When I reached headquarters I found three of my best so-called brown skinned friends protesting against sending me out to work among my own people because I looked too much like white.

Once I "passed" and got a job in a department store in a large city. But one of the colored employees "spotted" me, for we always know each other, and reported that I was colored, and I was fired in the middle of the day. The joke was that I had applied for a job in the stock room where all the employees are colored, and the head of the placing bureau told me that was no place for me—"Only colored girls work there," so he placed me in the book department, and then fired me because I had "deceived" him.

I have had my friends meet me downtown in city streets and turn their heads away, so positive that I do not want to speak to them. Sometimes I have to go out of my way and pluck at their sleeves to force them to speak. If I do not, then it is reported around that I "pass" when I am downtown—and sad is my case among my own kind then.

There are a thousand subtleties of refined cruelty which every fair colored person must suffer at the hands of his or her own people. And every fair colored woman or man, girl or boy who reads this knows that I have not exaggerated. If it be true that thousands of us pass over into the white group each year, it is due not only to the wish for economic ease and convenience, but often to the bitterness of one's own kind. It is not to be wondered at that lighter skinned Negroes cling together in their respective communities. It is not so much that they dislike the darker brethren, but the darker brethren DO NOT LIKE THEM.

So I raise my tiny voice in all this hub-bub of "Race" clamor; all this wishy-washy sentimentalism about the persecuted black ones of the race, and their inability to get on with their own kind. As in Haiti, as in Africa, the bitterness and prejudice have always come from the blacks to the yellows. They have been the greatest sufferers, because they have had, perforce, to suffer in silence. To complain would be only to bring upon themselves another storm of abuse and fury.

The "yaller niggers," the "Brass Ankles" must bear the hatred of their own and the prejudice of the white race. If they do not choose to go over to the other side—and tens of thousands feel, like myself, that there is no gain socially in so doing, though there may be some economic convenience—then they are forced to draw together in a common cause against their blood brothers who visit upon them hatred and persecution.

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