As Marion Barry swept every ward in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary except for predominantly white Wards 2 and 3, the pundits proclaimed that the divisions between black and white Washingtonians were greater than ever before.
They had a point: Only 586 voters in Ward 3 punched their card for the three- term mayor. But the election returns also uncovered a race and class rift that permeates Washington’s political culture—one that is discussed in hushed tones, if at all. After the election, as the press peppered him with questions about the frail state of black/white race relations in the District, master politician Barry was one of the few observers to detect the other racial fault line.
“The black community is divided, too,” he said softly during a press conference.
Barry was right, of course. Only in a political contest in which all of the main contenders are black do the “secret” color and class divisions within the African-American community become apparent: affluent blacks estranged from poor blacks, high yellas from coal blacks, and buppies from ‘bamas.
“It’s like a roach crawling into the middle of the room,” says Peter Williams, the former head of Common Cause/D.C. “The people who live there are going to be too embarrassed to go and step on the roach; the people who are visiting aren’t going to say anything. So that roach is going to crawl up the legs of a chair onto a table and no one is going to say anything. That’s what this problem is like. Plus, no one wants to be called on the carpet for airing dirty linen.”
In the September mayoral primary, each of the three major black candidates brought to the campaign a color and class history that spoke sotto voce to African-American voters. The light-skinned Sharon Pratt Kelly, a direct descendant of the black aristocracy, represented the high yella (light-skinned) elite sensibility. John Ray, brown-skinned from ‘bama (rural) sharecropper beginnings, embodied the bootstrap philosophy of Booker T. Washington. Ray transformed his’bamaself, climbing the class ladder and landing a job at a high-profile law firm. (Vexing the more polished African-Americans, Ray continued to conjugate some of his verbs in the rural style.) Barry, a shade lighter than Ray, was the poor boy from Itta Bena with a bootstrap history of his own: He earned a degree in chemistry, but abandoned the career track to join the civil rights movement. One of the most accomplished racial chameleons of our era, Barry was as comfortable sipping tea with the queen of England as he was schmoozing on the street corner.
Barry captured the precincts east of the Anacostia River, where most of poor Washington lives, with his emotional appeal to their interests, and claimed victory with just 47 percent of the vote because Ray and Kelly canceled one another out. Both campaigned on the good-government platform, splitting the white vote and the upper- and middle-income black vote. Between them, Ray and Kelly collected 50 percent of the Democratic ballots cast. In Ward 4’s Precinct 63, a predominately black affluent neighborhood, Barry picked up 391 votes while Kelly and Ray recorded 802.
Color and class divisions in the black community are not unique to Washington; they are but another consequence of the sin of slavery. Whites naturally avoid the subject because they fear an indiscreet comment might label them even bigger racists. But the taboo is just as great among African-Americans, where any public discussion is considered airing dirty laundry. In recent years, only filmmaker Spike Lee has broken the silence with his entertaining dissection of class and color, School Daze, set at a Southern university (which some said smelled like historic Spellman College).
Whites focus almost exclusively on class distinctions, segregating their own community along economic lines. The African- American equation that determines admission and acceptance, on the other hand, is more complex. There is the “brown bag test” of color (the lighter the better), the culture assessment (“Say, where did you go to school?”), and the matter of cash (how much, and where did it come from).
Clearly, few issues are more emotion-laden in the African-American community than the question of color and class preferences and prejudices. This melanin- and economics-based selection process occurs quite covertly, which is why last year’s elections are so fascinating; they reveal the nasty little secret that native Washingtonians and longtime residents have kept for years. The process affected more than the three major mayoral candidates. In his bid for an at-large council seat, R. David Hall found that his near-white skin was a handicap in areas east of the Anacostia River. Councilmember William Lightfoot, fearing his Gold Coast address would send a signal of elitism, bowed out of a head-to-head battle with Barry. In many ways, last year’s elections were replays of previous political campaigns in the District tinged by color and class. In a larger sense, they were also a reflection of the city’s divided past, according to historians, community activists, and political analysts. Dwight Cropp, a fourth-generation Washingtonian who currently serves as special assistant to George Washington University President Stephen Trachtenberg, remembers when skin color and family lineage were the primary criteria in determining even the smallest opportunities.
“Even in things like school plays,” Cropp, who is light-skinned, recalls about the days in the ’40s and ’50s.“By the ’80s, I think, we were pretty much getting out of [color distinction]. To some extent, Sharon’s election may have brought back some of that.”
Although class and color divisions heightened during Kelly’s tenure and became a major factor in last year’s elections, there has been virtually no public discussion of the subject in the African-American community. Williams, for one, feels such a discussion is critical. “Anything that is a disharmony should be addressed. Otherwise, it can do nothing but get worse. Look at what’s happening to the NAACP; it’s collapsing into itself.”
The fountainhead for this color/class strife within the African-American community is miscegenation—the mixing or breeding of two distinct races. Rapacious plantation owners virtually raped their female slaves; in some instances those slaves, believing such alliances their only salvation, willingly and aggressively sought these men. This mixing of mediums often imposed greater psychological damage than the physical branding that was often done to slaves, and provided fodder for some of the best creative efforts of African-Americans: “My skin is yellow/My hair is long/Between two worlds, I do belong/My father was rich and white/He forced my mother late one night/What do they call me/My name isSafronia,” Nina Simone sings in “Four Women,” describing the different hues and experiences of black women.
Charles Waddell Chestnutt, in his The House Behind the Cedars, tells a story of blacks who were light enough to pass as white. And today’s best-selling mystery, Blanche Among the Talented Tenth by BarbaraNeely also explores the underworld of color and class divisions in the African-American community—this one the fictional resort of Amber Cove, which resembles in tenor if not in fact Martha’s Vineyard and Highland Beach. Both places were retreats for upper-income blacks, who earned their way into these closed societies either by the color of their skin, family heritage, or occupation.
Russell Adams, chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Howard University, says discrimination was initially based on genetic traits that irrefutably tied slave to master.
“You know, the boy got green eyes just like the overseer,” Adams recalls from one slave’s story of her chattel life. “Or there were things like ‘The overseer don’t need no wife ’cause he got girls in three houses and children in two.’ ”
The incidence of miscegenation was greater, Adams says, in places like Haiti and Jamaica, where white female mates where harder to come by. Thus, slave owners were more likely to satisfy themselves with black women. And in Haiti, a separate set of rules applied to descendants of those mixed alliances labeled as mulatto, octoroon, or quadroon, depending on the amount of cream that spilled into the coffee. The division created the current caste system in the island nation of Haiti, which until recently was held together by its military dictatorship.
Stateside, color divisions helped fuel the “house-nigger/field-nigger” conflict, chronicled in many well-known historical accounts. House niggers, most of whom were light-skinned, enjoyed better living conditions than their counterparts in the field, setting up the first-class distinction among blacks. Moreover, field niggers often believed that in order to survive in the big house and live so closely to the oppressor, house niggers undoubtedly had to compromise themselves. And in fact, house niggers were occasionally traitors who informed on various slave uprisings and escapes. On the other hand, there were occasions when the house niggers proved to be quite useful to organizers of rebellions, providing crucial information on the planned activities of slave owners and other whites.
The house niggers, including the miscegenational offspring born of slave and slave master, became the first generation of the colored aristocracy and the foundation for today’s middle- and upper-middle-income African-American classes.
“The overwhelming majority of aristocrats of color were indeed mixed-bloods ranging in color from light brown or yellow to virtually white,” writes Willard B. Gatewood in his book Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920. “Their appearance was obviously an advantage in a society that placed the highest premium on a white skin. Because whites preferred their Caucasian features and considered them more intelligent than blacks, mulattos had greater opportunities, especially in securing jobs.”
In turn, many African-Americans adopted the color-struck ways of their white counterparts, says Bryce Suderow, the white editor and publisher of Street Stories, a monthly booklet of opinion and interviews.
“I think black people picked up on that and were just reacting” to what white people did, Suderow says. “Until I started spending a lot of time around black people, I was unconsciously stereotyping them based on their color. If I met a dark-skinned man, I automatically assumed he was not very smart. Somebody [who was] light-skinned I thought was more intelligent. And I was more attracted to light-skinned black women.”
Williams finds that blacks are no more exempt from biases and prejudices than whites: “That’s the problem with subtle forms of racism and its first cousin, elitism—we don’t always see it. We just act on things.”
Such tendencies are not unique to the District; other major cities carry similar historical baggage. Each had its own method of discriminating against the very light or very dark. Along with the color discrimination came class stratification. It was an unofficial caste system as detrimental in some instances asHaiti’s.
Delores Taylor, a near-white Pittsburgh native, says she “never was turned away from any place” even during the segregated days of the ’40s and ’50s. However, she remembers very well an incident that offers a glimpse of the two-sided blade dodged by mulattos and others who wore the color of slave masters on their faces.
In 1952, Taylor was in a hospital after just giving birth to her last child when hospital officials realized she was black, and should not have been placed in the room with white mothers. Taylor says she was immediately placed in a private room, since all the semi-private rooms were occupied by whites. Later, a nurse wanted to introduce her to other mothers, and took her to the section of the hospital where blacks were housed.
“Not one of them acknowledged me,” remembers the 71 year-old Taylor, whose four children are now grown and bear complexions of varying hues.
“It wasn’t until I was a grown woman that I found out it was a big thing for a colored young man to date a light-skinned girl,” continues Taylor, who says her house was always crowded with young men courting her and her sisters.
“My husband’s mother was Scotch-English with red hair and green eyes. She was against my marrying him because I was not a college person and she did not think I was right for him,” Taylor offers, noting that light-skinned people were also subjected to class discrimination. “If you’re not fighting one thing, you’re fighting another.”
The melanin and cash hierarchy produced a perpetual state of confusion in black communities around the country. Even in my own family in New Orleans, the obsession with color was constant. Often, my maternal grandfather chastised me for fraternizing with those darker than me; his words of disgust and caution were said within earshot of my friends, who cringed when the word “nigger” spewed from his mouth.
My maternal grandfather was a Creole whose complexion would have easily permitted him to pass for white. But he didn’t. Instead, he found a good Creole family to marry into. His reaction to my dark-skinned friends struck me as particularly odd, since my favorite uncle, Amos, was as dark as midnight, and had a great relationship with my grandfather.
My Uncle Amos and his wife, Loweska, suffered for their association, however. There were times in the ’50s when Amos was beaten mercilessly by gangs of white boys who mistook my aunt—who had red hair, milk-colored skin, and hazel eyes—for one of them. She broke many a bottle over the heads of white boys who thought it their place to protect her honor. Aunt Loweska and Uncle Amos’ escapades were legendary.
In her 1977 chapbook Colored Creole: Color Conflict and Confusion in New Orleans, Aline St. Julien voices similar laments about life in New Orleans, where color really mattered. “My mother says I am Creole. My teacher said I am Negro. Some Europeans say I am Colored and others call me nigger. Who am I? Am I white or black? Fair skin and kinky hair was the lesser of the two evils, because then one could pass for white with a hat on the head.”
“Many of us wanted to be white,” St. Julien continues, “but since Negroes had the worse time of it, we felt lucky to be Creoles….Creoles ranged in colors from white to dark brown with a lot of yellow and teasing tans in between. Hair texture, if straight, is described as good hair, and kinky hair is considered bad hair. A dark child in a Creole family is acceptable. If he has kinky hair and dark skin, he usually is the butt of family jokes.”
The civil rights, Black Power, and Black Arts movements were supposed to provide opportunities for African-Americans to discard the racist ways of white folks. The black community would learn to redirect the self-hatred expressed in the relationship between some of its light-skinned and dark-skinned members. However, those movements only temporarily succeeded in making blackness a political statement rather than a question of pigmentation.
Midnight women with kinky hair became fashionable, gracing magazine covers and appearing in movies and television commercials. Dialect became an acceptable language—Black English—and a cause célèbre pushed by African-American intellectuals. Poor people, especially those in the throes of some bootstrap episode, were novelties, shown off at parties of big-name socialites, politicians, and celebrities. (And the blacker the better—Sidney Poitier black, James Baldwin black.) But with the arrival of a depressed economy and what some called an oppressive Republican regime under Ronald Reagan, café au lait became kosher and the poor or low-income became pariahs.
Nathan Hare, noted sociologist and author of The Black Anglo-Saxons, sees a societal shift back to pre-civil rights standards and values. The problem isn’t restricted to the nation’s capital.
“Look in the media today—blacks are almost uniformly copper [colored] whites. That is, they have white features but tanned skin,” Hare says. “In this crossover, rainbow era, people are encouraged to think white and forget their differences. The class thing and color thing go hand-in-hand.”
Indeed, black cover girls on many national magazines appear to be lighter in the ’90s than they were in the ’80s. Jesse Washington, a national editor at Associated Press in New York, flat-out admitted in the January 1995 issue of Essence, “I love light-skinned black women.”
Although Washington admits that he likes all women regardless of their color, the caveat is that light-skinned women hold a special place in his eyes: “I always do a double take when a Vanessa Williams type walks by.”
Adams says he often invites his Howard University students to accompany him to the second floor of Founders Library to observe the color-struck phenomenon in action: “The Vanessa Williams types get all the guys’ attention, and the Cicely Tysons don’t get any action,” he adds.
Washington finds comfort in his fetish for nadinola girls, noting that “many of today’s largest black superstars are with light women, including Michael Jordan, Spike Lee, Ice-T (who is light-skinned himself), Eddie Murphy, and John Singleton.” He denies that his appreciation for light-skinned women means he isn’t black, insisting that it’s a matter of individual taste. Washington points to the traditional “house-nigger/field-nigger” distinction as the source of the taunts he receives for liking light-skinned women.
“But if our former masters treated us differently because of our skin color, then it seems just as shameful for us to do the same in reverse,” Washington continues, apparently oblivious to the contradiction between what he practices and preaches. “Now that we have recognized the beauty and majesty of our African ancestry, it’s time for us to discard meaningless, petty color distinctions and let people revel in whatever they choose.”
Some of the women Washington admires are in fact offspring of mixed marriages. At one time a violation of many states’ laws, interracial marriages have become, if not common, at least socially acceptable. As a result, a national movement has begun to have a multiracial category added to the Census Bureau form, making it possible for persons from such mixed marriages to acknowledge their full heritage instead of just checking off “African-American” or “other.”
The Office of Management and Budget last year held four public hearings around the country to hear testimony regarding a number of proposed changes in the Census Bureau form, including the addition of a multiethnic or multiracial category. The majority of those who testified favored adding such a category; a final decision is pending.
If a multiracial category had been in place between the post-Reconstruction and World War I years, more than 200 families in Washington might have chosen that characterization. The black aristocrats seemed to flock to the city, and drew genuine pleasure from recounting in detail their family backgrounds. Occupation, respectability, and of course, color wove them together into an “exclusive self-consciouslyelitist group,” notes author Gatewood.
The city boasted old and respectable black families with names like Syphax, Bullock, Scurlock, Cardozo, and Grimke. There were exclusive private clubs that admitted members based principally on their status in the community, their family heritage, and the color of their skin. Behavior at social affairs was as much a determinant of a person’s training as was education and occupation. For black society women, like their white counterparts, proper etiquette—the ability to entertain properly, setting out fine china and crystal—were highly rated.
Virgil Thompson, one of the campaign workers who helped Kelly win the 1990 primary, lived during his youth on what was figuratively the other side of the tracks. He didn’t experience the fine crystal and china of Dwight Cropp’s past. Thompson’s memories of youth in the city illustrate both a segregated Washington and a segregated African-American community.
“I grew up in the projects, with [community activist] “Catfish’ Mayfield. When I met Marion Barry, I was 17 years old. The majority of the time I observed there wasn’t much difference between me and the other people who lived in the projects,” says Thompson, a dark-skinned man. “We stayed on our property, except maybe to go over to another project. We were all in the same boat.”
It wasn’t until Thompson returned from a stint in the Army, more educated and sophisticated, that he realized that African-Americans in his hometown harbored their own brand of segregation.
Gloria Dugar, a food service worker in the D.C. Public Schools, says class discrimination is insidious: “The way upper-class people treat poor people—they have this thing of looking down on them. Some of the rudeness and ignorance our people are showing each other is heartbreaking.”
Phil Pannell, a community activist in Ward 8, found the color and class discrimination in Washington far more pronounced than it was in New York’s Harlem, where he grew up.
“You see it and hear about it when people talk about GS rating, low license plates, and brown bag parties,” says Pannell. “I never heard of that stuff until I came here.”
The government GS rating is a barometer of a person’s income, while the low license-plate number is an indication of one’s connection with people in high places. And, while Pannell says a brown bag (actually used during Jim Crow days by some blacks to determine who they would permit in their circles) doesn’t wait at the door of places where parties are held, it nonetheless remains a convenient melanin test in determining who to invite to social events.
Pannell says he experienced his first brown bag party when he arrived in the District from New York back in the ’70s. He says he had been hanging around with a group of gay blacks who kept telling him they wanted him to meet certain group of people. Eventually, he was invited to a party.
“I understood immediately why they wanted me to come. Everybody there was light-complexioned,” says Pannell who is light-skinned with red hair. “Over here east of the river, people still talk about redbones [a combination of red and yellow hues supposedly signifying a fiery temperament and hot-blooded sexual nature].”
Evans Moore, who handled constituent services in Ward 8 for Kelly, says both his deep brown complexion and his “untraditional white diction” have been rejected at times by African-Americans.
“There were times I wasn’t asked to perform certain public functions,” adds Moore.
Orchestra leader Glen Pearson says Sunday church services, which have traditionally drawn the entire spectrum of the black community, were the places to go to witness class distinctions in everything from where people sat to the offices they held in the church. While he never personally experienced any significant discrimination, Pearson’s experience is that “there is more racism going on within the black community than outside of it.”
And as for class: “There are so many cliques; the upper class only hang out with the upper class, and the lower class, who have less choices, they’re with their own. And believe me, there is great disparity between the haves and have-nots in the black community,” adds Pearson, whose 10-piece group, the Floating Opera, has performed in a variety of venues, including Vernon Jordan’s home when he hosted a party for his friend, President Clinton.
Carolyn Johns-Gray, an Anacostia resident and native Washingtonian of medium skin complexion, recalls being raised with an unconscious attitude of “snobbishness and elitism” based on nothing more than where she lived. “But that was the way we were trained as children; we were told because we lived in Washington we were better,” she says.
While Johns-Gray escaped the taunts that were ready for light-skinned African-Americans at the hands of their darker brothers and sisters, her daughter did not.
“My daughter has been called white girl; a teacher even wrote on her report card that she ‘Harbored an air of aristocracy over the other children’; can you believe that? It’s petty things like that you don’t pay much attention to when they happen, but years later you look at them and you become angry,” Johns-Gray adds.
On the surface, insufficient melanin was the proscribed admission for aristocratic membership. But refinement, culture, gentility, and character were more substantive criteria—the kind of traits that some say “either you’re born with it or you’re not.” It’s the sort of behavior that when practiced by the untutored carries an obvious degree of affectation, which real aristocrats can smell as quickly as chitterlings in the hands of an unskilled cook.
This is ultimately what turned off upper-income black Washington to Marion Barry—not the color and class agenda that he promoted so vigorously during the campaign, but his lack of refinement and culture.
“What’s clear to me is, there is a group of old-line black Washingtonians who were not happy with the election, and that has to do more with their values and what they perceived as Barry flouting those values they hold dear,” says Cropp. “They have not been able to readjust to him coming back; some never accepted him to begin with.”
District elections have always been the best barometer for gauging whether the city’s racial attitudes are really changing, says Jamin Raskin, an American University professor who has studied city politics for many years.
“It [color conflict] was there in the race between Clifford Alexander and Walter Washington. It was there in the race between Marion Barry and Patricia Harris,” he says.
Raskin says the upper middle class in Ward 4 always had a “distinct political identity.” That community served as the basis of support for Sterling Tucker when he ran for mayor in 1978, and of Kelly’s support in 1990.
The class, color, and culture duel temporarily crippled the political aspirations of At-Large Councilmember William Lightfoot, who had promised to jump into the 1994 mayoral race if Ray lost the primary. But after the primary election results bared the city’s racial and class divisions, Lightfoot announced he would not run for the office, fearing that Barry would exploit the divisions for his own political gains. Even Lightfoot’s staff felt that he would have to spend more time defending his black bona fides than discussing the issues.
Lightfoot’s fears were well-founded. Typically, opportunistic politicians play a black and white race card. Barry’s card is like a wild deuce that will beat anything: He uses it against white opponents and “the establishment,” as he did in the primary, accusing the Washington Post, Washington Times, and Washington City Paper of essentially trying to dictate to the black community who its leaders should be. It was also a wild card against Kelly and Ray; Barry cast Kelly as out-of-touch with the poor community, while Ray was portrayed as the white community’s boy.
Lightfoot knew Barry wouldn’t hesitate to inflict the same pain on him, portraying him as an “Uncle Tom” or the “white folks’ water boy.” Those images would have spelled political and personal disaster for Lightfoot in the African-American community, where the Jack Benny and Rochester comedy show always brought in poor ratings. Lightfoot would have been forced throughout the campaign to respond to questions about his children attending the elite Lowell School and refute charges that his personal-injury law practice is making a near-million on the misery and misfortune of working people. And, while the two-term lawmaker could have rumbled with sports entrepreneur Rock Newman’s sidekick, Lightfoot believed the community would have been left bloody from the fight.
Lightfoot wasn’t the only person singed in this year’s election by the melanin quota set by the city’s African-American community. R. David Hall, who ran for at-large member of the council, points the accusing finger at color and class as culprits responsible for his poor showing in Wards 7 and 8. A light-skinned real estate developer and former president of the school board, Hall has been mistaken for a white person; at other times, he has been asked if he were Hispanic. Hall says Barry warned him he might have trouble pulling votes because of his complexion. The results show the warning was not without substance: Hall performed well in Wards 1, 2, and 3, but miserably in the areas east of the Anacostia River. Ancient Councilmember Hilda Mason trounced Hall in Wards 7 and 8.
“The mayor’s election in 1990 was the most racially divided in the history of the city,” says Raskin. “Sharon’s support was all white and upper middle class in Ward 4.”
If the four-year tenure of Sharon Pratt Kelly as mayor were made into a movie, it would be subtitled “The Tragic Mulatto.” The twin albatross of color and class doomed almost from the beginning any chances the uptown girl had of successfully inheriting the title of “People’s Mayor” unofficially held by her predecessor—and now, successor. It wasn’t enough that she bore the mark of the master; Kelly had a privileged background to boot, although that life was visited by the early loss of her mother to cancer.
But Kelly and her sister Benaree did not want for anything; their father Carlisle T. Pratt, a lawyer and later D.C. Superior Court Judge, saw to that. Kelly proved to be no slouch in garnering her own accoutrements of class, including a house on the Gold Coast and a vice president post atPepco. Earlier she had earned a law degree from Howard University. Kelly’s image was antithetical to the image Barry projects—a country boy born to a poor and uneducated Mississippi family, who made his way to college and later devoted his life to uplifting the race, first through his involvement in the civil rights movement, later in the District’s quest for independence, and now in politics representing the downtrodden.
“Plus she carries herself in a certain way; you know, she dresses preppy, always well-groomed, manicured nails,” says a District elected government official who requested anonymity. “The contrast is stark when you see her in the public-housing projects.”
There’s no denying Kelly was, and for some remains, the kind of African-American that low-income, dark-skinned blacks love to hate. She is a direct descendant of the colored aristocracy whose history Gatewood has charted.
Writes Gatewood: “In the late 19th century the light-skinned colored aristocrat exhibited a self-conscious elitism: on some occasions it led to condescension and even arrogance toward other blacks, especially the poor, uneducated masses at the bottom of the class structure, who were sometimes referred to as vicious and degraded; on others this same elitism produced a sense of awesome responsibility that translated itself into a commitment to improve the lot of the race in general.
“As the exceptional group in the race, they expected to be in the vanguard,” he continues. “Although they by no means escaped the impact of the proliferating discriminatory regulations and practices, they still enjoyed sufficient privileges denied ordinary blacks to nourish their hope of being assimilated in the larger society.”
Among the special privileges the aristocrats were provided was access to education and professional or government employment, sowing the seeds for W.E.B. DuBois’ “Talented Tenth” theory, which held that a small percentage of African-Americans, by virtue of their lineage and education, were exclusively responsible for leading the race. For DuBois, color was not the significant feature of his theory—but because of his light-skinned complexion, it was perceived as a critical element.
The fatal flaw of DuBois’ theory (which he later abandoned for reasons other than those presented here) was that it implied, accurately or inaccurately, that 90 percent of black America was uneducated and unable to manage its own destiny. He psychologically re-enslaved the majority of African-Americans, and was perceived as placing the progressive development of the black race into the hands of those whose ancestors had slept with or been raped by their masters. The physical similarities between some of the Talented Tenth and former slave masters offered the notion, implied or otherwise, that whites principally controlled blacks’ destinies.
Unfairly or not, Kelly seemed to embody this theory. She bragged, for example, that at an early age she was trained at the dinner table in the fine art of the debate—that is, in the verbal communication skills that have always been essential in receiving at least a partial hearing from white America and, unfortunately, have also served to separate upper-class from lower-class blacks. The Pratt girls, through their father’s own career, were given a sense of mission, an understanding that there were downtrodden blacks who required special assistance from them; it was their duty to the race.
The aristocratic air that haunted Kelly later in life, when she wanted to make her greatest impact on her hometown, was further refined at Roosevelt High School, where many of her upper-class neighbors sent their children, and later at Howard University—the capstone of Negro education and fertile soil from which most of the black intelligentsia sprang. A review of Howard yearbooks and the images of its past presidents give clear indications that it served as home to many blacks whose skin complexion resembled a cup of coffee served by someone a little too heavy-handed with the cream. The first truly dark-skinned man to lead Howard was not hired until 1989, when Franklyn Jenifer arrived. A native Washingtonian from a low-income background who left Massachusetts’ higher education system to head the historically black institution, Jenifer was treated like a runaway who thundered into the plantation house hoping for protection from the barking dogs. His tenure was marked by internal strife that carried the tone of color conflict.
From the outset, Kelly seemed to understand that an invisible boundary separated her from low-income and darker-skinned Washingtonians. If she were going to serve all of Washington, even those across the Anacostia River and in other economically depressed pockets of the city where the disenfranchised live their anguished days, she knew she had to go to their turf. She held an inaugural prayer breakfast in a tent at Ballou Senior High School, which the media heralded as a healing gesture. But any lingering goodwill quickly wore off when she failed repeatedly to appoint any residents from Ward 8 to the more than four-dozen boards and commissions under her direct jurisdiction.
Almost immediately there were rumors of tension between her and Police Chief Isaac Fulwood, another native with roots deep in the city’s low-income community and a resident of Ward 8. It didn’t help matters that Fulwood had a greater helping of melanin than did Kelly. Officials in the Kelly administration categorized the tension as a difference in styles and as a result of the mayor’s desire to have a more proactive crime-fighting plan. But some residents believed the conflict was another expression of the then-mayor’s taste in color.
“People were drawn to Fulwood. They saw him as this dark-skinned Negro person that identified with his community,” says Virgil Thompson, who was a key organizer of Kelly’s political victory in the September 1990 primary and served as a special assistant during her administration.
Thompson says many District residents immediately developed the perception, because of the Fulwood conflict, that Kelly didn’t want dark-skinned people around.
“People east of the river looked at Sharon as being an elitist and not being part of them,” says Thompson, who is at work on two books—one about the Kelly administration; the other about public housing in the District. “History will tell she did more for dark-skinned and low-income people than Marion Barry ever did.”
Perhaps residents would have been able to see blessings in Kelly and their fears could have been assuaged were it not for the billboard-size signs of a color-struck, class conscious administration: Most of her initial cabinet level appointees were high yella, upper-income African-Americans, or white women. Few were darker than the traditional brown bag. Those who couldn’t pass that test had proven themselves in loyalty, if not skill.
Lawrence Guyot, a light-skinned African-American with roots in Louisiana and Pass Christian, Miss., has been in the District for nearly 30 years. He remembers an event at which Kelly was introducing political appointees; Guyot was shocked by the complexions of the people she had chosen
“I watched four people, and they kept getting whiter and whiter,” says Guyot, a Ward 1 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and District government employee.
Evans Moore says Kelly’s appointments were even the talk among her own staff at the Constituent Services Office. Across the river, according to Moore, people were calling Kelly “HYB”—“High Yella Bitch.”
When Kelly ran into trouble during negotiations with Jack Kent Cooke over construction of a new stadium for the Redskins, she called on light-skinned former military man and old-line Washingtonian Clifford Alexander. When she lost her two chiefs-of-staff, she called on Karen Tramantano, a white woman. Some of her appointees could have easily played the part of the young protagonist in the movie Imitation of Life, who tries to abandon her black heritage. What also bothered residents was that for all the rhetoric Kelly paid to hometown pride, most of her appointees were foreign-grown—they had been born and spent most of their lives outside of the District of Columbia.
“I don’t understand why she didn’t understand you don’t do that,” Guyot adds.
A series of media disclosures began to put the lid on the Kelly coffin even before the September election: Residents learned the new building at 1 Judiciary Square had cost taxpayers four times as much as had been initially reported. They also learned that Kelly had installed bulletproof windows and a fireplace in her 11th-floor office. Later, with the help of WRC-TV’s Tom Sherwood, residents were treated to an inside view of the mayor’s quarters, including the hideaway penthouse suite. And then there was the makeup fiasco. The Washington Times reported that Kelly had used about $5,000 of taxpayer money during fiscal 1993 to pay for the services of a professional makeup artist. By the time the report appeared, the city’s Office of Cable Television had picked up a second contract with the makeup artist, using $9,500 of cable franchise fees almost exclusively to tend to Kelly. That information forever sealed in the minds of many District residents the image of a bourgeois mayor, out of touch with the city’s black residents, many of whom were unemployed and suffering.
Hoping to break with the past image of the “imperial mayor,” Kelly began connecting with the lost, dark-skinned children of the defunct Barry administration. She hired Rufus “Catfish” Mayfield, whom some would say is just a cut above ‘bama, to remain in touch with residents east of the river. Later, Kelly hired Anita Bond, a Gold Coastie who was always received warmly because of her close association with the “People’s Mayor.” Bond was manager or deputy manager for nearly all of Barry’s political campaigns except the September primary and the November general election; she was in Kelly’s employ during those two periods. The coal-colored Joseph Yeldell became Kelly’s visible sidekick, with the unspoken intent of endearing her to those for whom she was fast becoming invisible. Also, the appointment of Yeldell as special assistant was a tacit admission by Kelly that she’d made a mistake in flushing the government clean of skilled workers simply because they were employed by the Barry administration.
Such efforts proved too little too late. The “dye” had been cast, and darker colored, less expensive, Afrocentric fabric was the coming trend.
With Barry’s return to office, the color divisions in the black community may recede into the city’s subconscious, without anyone acknowledging the historical barrier Kelly attempted to cross during her tenure. Nor has anyone been willing to consider the September primary as a modern-day version of the “house-nigger/field-nigger” conflict—a comparison that is not far-fetched. But while the African-American community can turn ostrich on the issue of color, the developing class conflict seems too formidable to ignore.
Bart Landry, University of Maryland sociologist and author of The New Black Middle Class, says the class conflict is expressed attitudinally and in activism: “I don’t think there is really any animosity in terms of how middle-class blacks feel about poor blacks. But there is a potential for conflict in issues affecting living environment that the two groups [poor and middle class] are concerned about.”
Middle-class blacks will try to resist the development of low-income-housing development in their neighborhood as much as middle-class whites. Like other middle-class residents in the country, African-Americans who have reached a certain economic level will seek a neighborhood that reflects their position in society, says Landry.
Recent reports from the Census Bureau indicate the District in 1994 alone lost as many as 8,000 residents; many of them are believed to be middle class African-Americans who moved to Prince George’s County, Md., providing the political edge for the November election of that jurisdiction’s first black county executive. The most recent haven for the black middle-class appears to be Mitchellsville, Md. Such well-known local African-Americans as authors Marita Golden and Nathan McCall have bought homes in the town, which is fast becoming a segregated enclave of nearly rich and famous blacks who like being around each other but don’t want the blight, crime, and general headaches of urban living.
Other urban centers including Detroit and Chicago have witnessed a similar exodus of the black middle class, although not as pronounced as the District’s.
“It’s ridiculous to point the finger at the black middle class and say you’re leaving behind the brother in the ‘hood, any more than it is the European immigrants who moved out of the inner city, leaving members of their ethnic group,” Landry adds.
“The people who are the ‘Talented Tenth’ will never be able to do anything for the masses of black people if they refuse to talk to them,” counters Peter Williams. “It’s not just white people driving through Southeast locking their doors.”
Howard University political science professor Ron Walters opines that the class divisions in the African-American community are consistent with a “maturing class process that was once [primarily] wage-based and is now moving to a wealth-based middle class as a result of family investments—real estate, stocks, bonds—those sort of things.”
Some District politicians, fearing the potential loss of this new breed, are rallying around issues that affect the middle class; their hope is to prevent more middle class taxpayers from escaping to the suburbs. Ward 7’s Kevin Chavous, Ward 2’s Jack Evans, Ward 6’s Harold Brazil, and at-large members Linda Cropp and Lightfoot teamed up in an attempt to push back any tax increases or reduction in municipal services during the latest round of budget cuts in December 1994; their efforts failed.
“In private discussions with middle- and upper-income black folks,” continues Dwight Cropp, “they have more in common with middle- and upper-income whites, and they have as much problem with supporting dependent populations.”
Walters agrees, underscoring the point by citing a recent encounter in San Diego after he gave a speech, which he concluded by emphasizing the importance of upper-income blacks staying connected with the larger African-American community.
“This guy came up to me at the end and said, “In an average week the only black people I see are my wife and my children,’ ” says Walters.
The future color of black America may have very little to do with high yella, redbone, or the brown bag; the primary hue is likely to be green, as in money. The shift on the color wheel could be disastrous for a city like Washington already separated by its quadrantal design. Any greater separation between the haves and the have-nots is sure to ignite class conflict, segregating the District even further while devastating its political and social infrastructure. African-American residents hoping to avoid the cash-dominated fray could find themselves whipped into submission like a captured runaway slave.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.