Fred’s Skin Whitener, Colorism, and ‘Passing’

I’m delighted when the themes and personalities that surface in my research reappear in unexpected places, both in the archives and in current arts and cultural happenings.  That was my reaction when, a few weeks ago, I was at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania viewing microfilm of an obscure publication called The Interstate Tattler, published during the 1920s until sometime in the 1930s (no one seems to know for sure when it stopped publishing).  It was a weekly that reported on politics, sports, arts, entertainment, society doings, and outright gossip for an African American audience mostly from the East Coast to Chicago. I was turned onto the publication by Black dance scholar/author Jacqui Malone, who was introduced to it by a curator at the Schomburg Museum. I was looking for material on the Blackbirds productions and on Lawnside Park, that African American entertainment and amusement enclave where LaVaughn Robinson first saw Louise perform. In the course of that search, I noticed that in every edition I looked at there were advertisements for skin whitening products.  One ad from May 1929 said “Have soft, white skin by tonight.” Here’s another ad, from February 1932.  

And here’s an image from the Dovie Horvitz Collection (University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries) of Dr. Fred Palmer’s skin whitener, “tone and bleach cream,” in the original box with separate leaflet with directions.  I stumbled on a disturbing footnote on this product: in 1916 the manufacturer of the product pleaded guilty to charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department for “misbranding” the cream as “Guaranteed Absolutely Harmless” when the product contained almost 8% mercury (Whaaaat???).  The court imposed a fine of $25 (about $675 in today’s money) and costs.  

The Interstate Tattler ads amplify a blog post I wrote a few months ago about the impact of colorism on opportunities for Black women in the entertainment field.  There I quoted Caseen Gaines, author of Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way, who explained the color protocols of Shuffle Along, the pioneering 1921 production by an all-Black creative team, including Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, and performed by an all-Black company, that took Broadway by storm, but was largely forgotten in the history of American theater.  He said that “to appeal to white theater-goers, the chorus girls all had light complexions.” He added that “there was a lot of colorism in Shuffle Along in the cast, particularly for the women. They chose all light-skinned women, you know, women that would pass the brown-paper-bag test, which is essentially being lighter than a brown paper bag.”

The Interstate Tattler ads speak to the intensity and pervasiveness of whiteness as a standard of beauty and key to opportunity—-not just in entertainment, but for Black women generally in Louise’s time.

Colorism’s hold is affirmed by an “exception to the rule” noted in the “Theatricals” column of the June 2, 1934 edition of The New York Age.  There I found this comment on Lew Leslie’s skin-color calculus:

“The Blackbirds’ chorus.  Lew Leslie specializes in picking dark brown-skinned choruses and it is not a bad idea.  These girls look more uniform and seem a cut above the usual run of chorines—-not so hardened and dissipated looking.  And do they dance? I’ll say they do.” 

I don’t know that this comment qualifies Leslie as “progressive” on the colorism front.  But it does support the notion that when it came to stage opportunities for Black women, “looks” often trumped talent.

And now comes the stunningly beautiful and poignant new film Passing, based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen about the upending of lives of two childhood friends when they reencounter each other as adults——one “passing” as white and married to a wealthy, self-proclaimed white bigot, and the other living in Harlem as the wife of a prosperous dark-skinned doctor and mother of two dark-skinned boys.

The film, hewing steadfastly to the novel, mines the vulnerabilities and dilemmas of those whose physical characteristics, and social manners, allow them the choice of crossing the color line——those who choose to pass, and those who choose not to.  

“The Secret Toll of Racial Ambiguity,” by writer/scholar Alexandra Kleeman, is an illuminating essay on the making of Passing, the racial reckoning of the film’s writer and director Rebecca Hall, and the kinds of conversations that the film has provoked about color and privilege. Kleeman noted that among the lively social media commentary on the film — some of it questioning why more white-appearing bi-racial actresses weren’t cast in the principal roles — one Twitter user wrote that “in Larsen’s day, passing did not necessarily mean persuading others that you were white, only persuading them that you were ‘not-Black’.”  That statement catapulted me back to my law school days in 1970/71, when pioneering Black woman lawyer Sadie T.M. Alexander (1898-1989), the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania (as well as the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the U.S.), made a presentation to the Black Law Students Union at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.  In a disarmingly personal talk, Mrs./Dr. Alexander told a story of being on a double-date with Raymond Pace Alexander (who would become her husband in 1923), taking a trolley car to downtown Philadelphia to see a play for which they had purchased tickets weeks earlier. She described how she and her colleagues, all impeccably dressed, stood in the theater lobby with tickets in hand as ushers passed by them repeatedly and seated white theatergoers.  Finally, she told her friends to reel off any foreign language words and phrases they knew, regardless of whether they made any sense.  After they did this for a few minutes, the head usher yelled out, “These aren’t Negroes. Seat these people.”  I remember thinking at the time that I wasn’t sure what message this story was intended to convey to a room of Black Penn law students, only a few of us women.  I wondered whether the outcome of the story would have been the same if the Alexanders’ skin-tone had been darker.  I wonder now whether Mrs. Alexander felt pleased at having used racial ambiguity and white folks’ ignorance to subvert racial barriers, or whether she struggled internally with denying her race, even briefly, in order to exercise the privilege that she and her friends had paid for.

Sadie T.M. Alexander. Photo Credit: Black History Heroes. Source

The Whitman Sisters — Alice, Maud, Alberta and Essie — were masters at using racial ambiguity and their prominence on Black vaudeville stages to “signify” on racial and gender barriers and attitudes.  There is so much to marvel at in the Whitman Sisters’ reign as one of the longest-running and most lucrative vaudeville companies.  Nadine George-Graves unpacks the multiple exceptionalities of this family of performers, producers, entrepreneurs, and cultural definers in her, The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender, and Class in African American Theater, 1900-1940.  The Whitmans — who were fair-complexioned enough to pass for white — “complicated issues of race and colorism in their repertory by choosing to not only perform as a black act (they would wear burnt cork or greasepaint on their faces) and…occasionally perform as a white act….” (p.64).  George-Graves describes how the sisters would confound audiences when they “performed in black-haired wigs and blackface and then, as a finale, took off the makeup and wigs, let their dyed blond hair down and came back on stage … . In this situation, we have black women being mistaken for white women, blacking-up in order to remove the dark mask and appear as black women … . Of course, if there were black men on stage when the sisters reappeared as blonde women, the audience’s confusion would have escalated due to discomfort about interracial relations (p.66). 


The four Whitman Sisters. Source


Ad for Whitman Sisters show at Standard Theatre, 12th & South Streets, Philadelphia. Source

There was no chance of Louise “passing,” judging from the photos we have of her.  But I wonder how her career and stylistic choices might have been affected by prevailing beauty standards and the preferences of white audiences for fair-skinned Black women.  Might her choice of male performance attire and a “masculine” dance style been influenced by a recognition of how much less Black men were constrained by the “brown paper bag” test than Black women were?  Some of her peers speculated that the reason she got little recognition was her decision to challenge male dominance of the tap dance field with her style and presence. Had she not made those unconventional choices, would she have had a career at all? 

Copyright 2021 by Germaine Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

Germaine Ingram (she/her) is a Philadelphia-based jazz tap dancer, choreographer, songwriter, vocal/dance improviser, oral historian, and cultural strategist. She creates evening-length pieces that explore themes related to history, collective memory, and social justice, and designs arts/culture projects that explore and illuminate community cultural history. She collaborates with artists from diverse traditions and disciplines, including jazz/experimental music composers, site-specific choreographers, dance and vocal improvisers, African diasporic culture specialists, and visual/media artists.