Skin Trouble

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Complexion in Jim Crow America could be a tricky thing. In the spring of 1955, Ebony magazine ran a curious story about the Platts, a family of Florida orange-pickers who had been “barred from the best schools because of a nose, [and] ostracized because of the tint of the skin” despite their claims of being white. According to teachers and law enforcement officials in Lake County, Florida, six of the Platts’ seven children had dusky complexions and “broad noses” befitting Negroes. Thus, the family had no place in the whites only community to which they belonged. Local authorities expelled the Platt kids from Lake’s white schools and forced the family to move out of their white neighborhood and into a house without running hot water and other basic amenities.

The Platts’ appearance in Ebony speaks to several, overlapping realities about color and capitalism in mid-twentieth century America. Working-class white ethnics, immigrants, and indigenous people often took great pains not to be forced into a “Negro” existence, as the Platts had been. (So-called black people did the same in the practice widely known as “passing”.) Black media companies, for their part, worked hard to showcase stories like the Platts’ as both a way to sell magazines and to highlight the arbitrary nature of racial categories under segregation.

Yet, the complexities of race and skin color went even further, reaching off the page and into the homes of Ebony’s black readership. Page three of the Platt’s story appears on the same page as Palmer’s “Skin Success” ointment and soap. In addition to helping with rashes and pimples, Palmer’s was well-known to “even” (i.e. lighten) the complexions of its black consumers. “You’ll forget,” the ad assures, “you ever had skin trouble.” One could only hope.

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Notable Replies

  1. Background and ethnicity is so hard to define, and history of America and a few other white man dominant nations spent so much time trying to define who was who, well before the advent of DNA and well before we got to a nation where most people everywhere agree that background and ethnicity is not as important as the content of one’s character. Sadly, there are still some people that like to define the lines by skin color or looks or background. Most of us should have moved on to more important economic and social justice issues by now.

    The facts of science and anthropology have determined that all human beings are descendants of African born humans. We know that now, we didn’t all know it 50 years ago, but some scientists did. So we are all human beings of African descent.

  2. Sheriff McCall was the equivalent of Pitchfork Ben Tillman. He was not just a segregationist but a violent white supremacist.

  3. True, but even though Chief Justice John Roberts declared racism a non-issue, race is still an issue. It isn’t about genetics, it’s about social and economic status, and who can be defined as one of us versus one of them. If you are one of them, then you must fight for economic and social justice.

    Listen to the “debate” over Trump’s comments about immigration. He is only talking about illegal immigration on the Southern Border and branding undocumented people as Mexicans. The GOP is going batshit trying to decide whether to embrace Trump or run from him. Whatever they are deciding they too are only talking about Mexicans and the Southern Border. They are completely ignoring the Northern Border and everyone else who is entering the country. You can call that an argument about immigration policy, but at it’s core it is a racist argument aimed at Mexicans and Hispanics in general.

  4. You’re correct this is a race thing. They always talk about securing the Southern Border, despite the fact that about 20% of the illegal immigrants in our country probably came in through Canada (mostly Europeans, with some Asians). That may not be the lion’s share, but it is still 2.5 million people! And yet, not one word about the European illegal immigrants. I wonder why.

  5. This can’t have been a real problem, since I’ve heard repeatedly about how great black people have been treated since slavery ended, which is what makes it their fault for why they’re poor and desperate since they had the same opportunities as the rest of us. And that’s why we should finally stop helping them, since we’ve given them enough and can finally start openly hating black people again without fear of being called racist for it. I see so many comments saying that sort of thing every day that it MUST be true. Otherwise, if we’re to believe that racism has continued all the way up until now, then…we’d be monsters for continuing it. But since we’re not monsters, then racism isn’t real and therefore this story is invented.

    And what’s truly sad is that I have no doubts that I’d read multiple comments saying that same thing if this story was posted on a conservative website. You don’t have to be racist to support the Republican Party, but it sure helps.

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