High yellow

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

High yellow, occasionally simply yellow (dialect: yaller, yella), is a term used to describe a light-skinned person of white and black ancestry. It is also used as a slang for those thought to have "yellow undertones".[1] The term was in common use in the United States at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, and is reflected in such popular songs of the era as "The Yellow Rose of Texas".


"High" is usually considered a reference to a social class system in which skin color (and associated ancestries) is a major factor, placing those of lighter skin (with more White ancestry) at the top and those of darker skin at the bottom.[2] High yellows, while still considered part of the African-American ethnic group, were thought to gain privileges because of their skin and ancestry.[3] "Yellow" is in reference to the usually very pale undertone to the skin color of members of this group, due to mixture with white people.[4] Another reading of the etymology of the word "high" is that it is a slang word for "very", often used in Southern English, therefore "very yellow" (as opposed to brown).

Use as social class distinction[edit]

In an aspect of colorism, "high yellow" was also related to social class distinctions among people of color. In post-Civil War South Carolina, and according to one account by historian Edward Ball, "Members of the colored elite were called 'high yellow' for their shade of skin", as well as slang terms meaning snobbish.[5] In his biography of Duke Ellington, a native of Washington, D.C., David Bradbury wrote that Washington's

social life was dominated by light-skinned 'high yellow' families, some pale enough to 'pass for white,' who shunned and despised darker African-Americans. The behaviour of high yellow society was a replica of high white, except that whereas the white woman invested in tightly curled permanents and, at least if young, cultivated a deep sun tan, the colored woman used bleach lotions and Mrs. Walker's "Anti-Kink" or the equivalent to straighten hair.[6]

In some cases the confusion of color with class came about because some of the lighter-skinned black people came from families of mixed heritage free before the Civil War, who had begun to accumulate education and property. In addition, some wealthier white planters made an effort to have their "natural sons" (the term for children outside of marriage who were produced with enslaved women) educated or trained as apprentices; some passed on property to them. For instance, in 1860, most of the 200 subscription students at Wilberforce College were the mixed-race sons of white planters, who paid for their education.[7][8]

These social distinctions made the cosmopolitan Harlem more appealing to many black people.[6] The Cotton Club of the Prohibition era "had a segregated, white-only audience policy and a color-conscious, 'high yellow' hiring policy for chorus girls".[9] It was common for lighter-skinned African Americans to hold "paper bag parties," which admitted only those whose complexion was lighter than that of a brown paper bag.

In her 1942 Glossary of Harlem Slang, Zora Neale Hurston placed "high yaller" at the beginning of the entry for colorscale, which ran:

high yaller, yaller, high brown, vaseline brown, seal brown, low brown, dark brown[10]

Quadroon novelist Alexandre Dumas, père was called "High Yellow" in a 1929 issue of Time magazine.

Applied to individuals[edit]

The French author Alexandre Dumas père was the son of a French mulatto general (born in Saint-Domingue but educated by his father in France) and his French wife. He was described as having skin "with a yellow so high it was almost white". In a 1929 review, Time referred to him as a "High Yellow Fictioneer".[11]

Singer Eartha Kitt was taunted by darker-skinned relatives and called that "yella gal" during her childhood.[12][13]

Art and popular culture[edit]

The terminology and its cultural aspects were explored in Dael Orlandersmith's play Yellowman, a 2002 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in drama. The play depicts a dark-skinned girl whose own mother "inadvertently teaches her the pain of rejection and the importance of being accepted by the 'high yellow' boys". One reviewer described the term as having "the inherent, unwieldy power to incite black Americans with such intense divisiveness and fervor" as few others.[14]

In popular print media, Life (magazine) published a full-page colour reproduction on page 34 of its 1st February 1937 issue of a 1934 painting by Reginald Marsh (artist) as part of an article entitled "Living Art at $5 Per Picture". Titled "High Yaller", the painting's subject is a light-skinned black woman dressed in bright yellow from head to foot walking down a Harlem street.[15]

The phrase survives in folk songs such as "The Yellow Rose of Texas", which originally referred to Emily West Morgan, a "mulatto" indentured servant apocryphally associated with the Battle of San Jacinto. Blind Willie McTell's song "Lord, Send Me an Angel" has its protagonist forced to choose among three women, described as "Atlanta yellow", "Macon brown", and a "Statesboro blackskin".[16] Bessie Smith's song "I've Got What It Takes", by Clarence Williams, refers to "a slick high yeller" boyfriend who "turned real pale" when she would not wait for him to get out of jail.[16] Curtis Mayfield's song "We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue" makes reference to a "high yellow gal".[17] In "Big Leg Blues", Mississippi John Hurt sings: "Some crave high yellow. I like black and brown."[18]

Digital Underground's 1991 album Sons of the P featured "No Nose Jobs", a song in which Shock G as Humpty Hump opines:

"They say the lighter the righter - Oh yeah?! Well'at's tough - Sometimes I feel that I'm not black enough - I'm high yellow, my nose is brown to perfection - And if I was to change it'd be further in that direction - So catch me on the beach, I'll be gettin' a tan - But yo there's no mistake that - Humpty-Hump is from the motherland".

On the 1988 album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm by Joni Mitchell, the song "Dancin' Clown" contains the lyrics "Down the street comes last word Susie, she's high yellow, looking top nice."

On Ice Cube's album War & Peace Vol. 2 (The Peace Disc) released in 2000, the song "Hello" contains the lyrics "I'm looking for a big yellow in 6-inch stilettos".

In 2004, white R&B singer-songwriter Teena Marie released a song titled "High Yellow Girl", said to be about her daughter Alia Rose,[19] who is biracial.[20] The related phrase "high brown" was used in Irving Berlin's original lyrics for "Puttin' on the Ritz".[21]

As recently as 2009, Lil' Wayne released a mixtape track from No Ceilings titled "I'm Good", and contains the lyrics "High yellow woman with her hair to her ass".[22]

In 2010, Soulja Boy released "Pretty Boy Swag" which has the line "I'm lookin' for a yellow bone long haired star (star)".[23]

In 2021, the Dominican-American R&B singer DaniLeigh sparked controversy by releasing a snippet of a song called "High Yellow". She later apologized following accusations of colorism.[24]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Dalzell, Tom (2009). The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English. Taylor & Francis US. ISBN 9780415371827.
  2. ^ Hunt, Y.; Augustson, E.; Rutten, L.; Moser, R.; Yaroch, A. (2012). "History and Culture of Tanning in the United States". Shedding Light on Indoor Tanning. p. 5. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-2048-0_2. ISBN 978-94-007-2047-3.
  3. ^ Banks, Taunya Lovell (2000). "Colorism: A Darker Shade of Pale". UCLA Law Review. Symposium Race and the Law at the Turn of the Century. 47: 1705–1885. Retrieved 2013-02-14.
  4. ^ Herbst, Philip (1997-12-01). The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States. Intercultural Press. ISBN 9781877864971.
  5. ^ Ball, Edward (5 November 2002). The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South. New York: HarperCollins. p. 269. ISBN 978-0-06-050590-5. Retrieved 6 June 2013.
  6. ^ a b Bradbury, David (2005). Duke Ellington. London: Haus Publishing. p. 11. ISBN 978-1-904341-66-6. Retrieved 6 June 2013.
  7. ^ Campbell, James T. (1995). Songs of Zion : The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa. Oxford University Press. pp. 256–259. ISBN 978-0-19-536005-9. Retrieved Jan 13, 2009.
  8. ^ Talbert, Horace (1906). The Sons of Allen: Together with a Sketch of the Rise and Progress of Wilberforce University, Wilberforce, Ohio. Xenia, Ohio: Aldine Press. p. 267.
  9. ^ Thomas J. Hennessey (1994). From Jazz to Swing: African-American Jazz Musicians and Their Music, 1890-1935. Wayne State University Press. p. 100. ISBN 0-8143-2179-8. high.yellow 1923.
  10. ^ Zora Neale Hurston (July 1942). "Story in Harlem Slang". The American Mercury. Vol. 55, no. 223. pp. 84–96.
  11. ^ "High-Yellow Fictioneer". Time. September 30, 1929. Retrieved 2020-04-26.
  12. ^ "Eartha Kitt's life was scarred by failure to learn the identity of her white father, says daughter". TheGuardian.com. 19 October 2013.
  13. ^ Hoerburger, Rob (25 December 2008). "Eartha Kitt, a Seducer of Audiences, Dies at 81". The New York Times.
  14. ^ Jolene Munch (March 18, 2004). "True Colors: Insightful Yellowman at Arena Stage". Metro Weekly. Archived from the original on August 31, 2005. Retrieved 2007-10-07.
  15. ^ "LIFE". February 1937.
  16. ^ a b Richard W. Bailey (November 2006). "Talking about words: How Many Words?". Michigan Today alumni newsletter. Retrieved 2007-10-07.
  17. ^ "Curtis Mayfield – We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue Lyrics – MetroLyrics". metrolyrics.com. Archived from the original on 2016-02-16.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  18. ^ "Big Leg Blues lyrics".
  19. ^ Gene Armstrong (June 3, 2004). "Rhythm & Views: Teena Marie, La Doña". Tucson Weekly. Retrieved 2007-10-07.
  20. ^ "At home with Teena Marie and daughter Alia Rose". Jet. July 1, 2005. Retrieved 2007-10-07.
  21. ^ Steffen, David J. (2005). From Edison to Marconi: The First Thirty Years of Recorded Music. McFarland. pp. 133. ISBN 0-7864-2061-8.
  22. ^ "Lil Wayne feat Lucci Lou – I'm Good Lyrics – Genius". genius.com.
  23. ^ "Soulja Boy – Pretty Boy Swag – Genius". genius.com.
  24. ^ Gray, Arielle (January 26, 2021). "DaniLeigh's Apology for the 'Yellow Bone' Controversy Only Makes It Worse". Glamour.

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