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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 15, 1979. Interview C-0015. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The role of skin tone in establishing racial identities and hierarchies

Here, Turner discusses how the importance of skin tone in terms of racial identity to African Americans constantly surfaced during her childhood. In school, Turner describes how teachers—both black and white—gave preferential treatment to the children with lighter skin tones. Similarly, Turner explains that her mother, who was "just as close to black as she could be without being black," was prejudiced as well. Turner's mother especially didn't want her to date young men with darker complexions. For Turner, these complexities revolving around the importance of skin tone and its relationship to status were often confusing and difficult to follow.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 15, 1979. Interview C-0015. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WALTER WEARE:
You were talking about your friend, that you went to school with, and the color difference.
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh, yes. This girl, May, was big. I think buxom would be the word, where you're not fat but you're big-framed. So, she was twice as large as I was. But we were the same age. She could play the piano far better than I could. She had a lovely voice; I didn't have any voice, a little wee voice. I could read music and I could carry a tune, but all I was good for was to fill in, you know. I was dramatic. I'd been reciting all my life; I was great on recitations. I loved to dance if they was doing something where you had to hop, skip, and dance. But invariably, I was always on the front row, I was always the first to get picked. I mean, between myself and May. May would always be in the back row; May always was only picked if they did have to have good voices. And, as a child, I resented it. I didn't even understand it. I could never understand why May and I couldn't be together. We sat together in school until we got separated for talking, which we did every year. But, nevertheless, I recognized it very early the distinction between May and myself, with the teachers, black teachers. Not just white teachers, just everybody. And it followed right through. You could see, even when I got to Durham. Bess Whittington was our chorister at the St. Joseph's choir, and Bess was very good at that. Bess was the closest dark you can get before you could say she was black. With no bones about it, "Come up here on the front, all of the pretty ones up here. Put all the dark ones in back." And she could get away with it. She was dark herself. But she made no bones about it. "Come up here; get back here; I need you; I want the pretty ones up here." It was the sort of thing that some resented. I was one of the poor souls that resented it all my life [laughter]. My mother used to say, always, when I wanted to go see somebody, wanted to go see May. There was a little girl that was just as white as it was possible to be, lived right down the street from her; I had another very good friend who was as pretty as she could be, one of these kind of copper-browns with braids that went down to where she sat on them in school. But when I would go in to say, could I go see somebody, I want to go see May, my mother would say, "Why don't you ever ask to go see Julia; why don't you ever ask to go see Effie?" "Oh, Mama, I want to go to see May. They'll be up here." Effie and this child lived further out. There were more reasons than one that I wanted to go see May, but anyway, I wanted to go. Every once in a while my mother would say, "One of these days, you are going to come in here with a big belly." She'd get to that part and I'm looking right at her. "Yes, you know what I mean, and expect me to love him and accept him, and I'm not going to do it." And I'd say, "Mama, you are prejudiced. You are just as prejudiced." She said, "Don't care if I am. I'm not prejudiced, but I'm not going to accept nothing like that. And I'm telling you. I just don't understand. You never want to go and see anybody. May, May, May!" [laughter]
WALTER WEARE:
Was you mother a light-skinned woman?
VIOLA TURNER:
Heck, no! Just as close to black as she could be without being black. The darkest brown, as May. These folks here, the man I've know all of his life, and I lived with his mother and father. They had a standing statement they'd make on me." Viola, have you met?" "Yes." "What does she look like?" "Oh, she's pretty nice looking. You know she's a dark, chocolate color. You know, with that sort of ruddiness under the skin." And you'd see these , start grinning. "What and the heck are you grinning for?" "You can describe more shades of black than anybody I have ever seen in my life. Why is it? You just don't want to say black?" "No. I just appreciate the difference in coloring. You light folks (they were both very light), you look at all of us and call us all black. We're not all black; we're every shade under the sun; and I try to tell you the shade of everything." [laughter] So, my mother was two shades removed from black. But there's no question about it. She was prejudiced. She liked the darker folks all right, but she didn't want me to bring one into the family. And that's the only kind of man that I ever really and truly liked. I had other sort of boyfriends-all kinds-every color under the sun, over a period of time. But when I really got very serious, they was always dark, and [laughter] I used to say, "Poor, my mother, would've had a fit. Can't you ever go out and find something better?" But no, it was born in her, evidently. She had lived with that sort of thing, and you know what had happened to her? She was humiliated time and time again, because she grew up in a period where half of the kids. . .my mother wouldn't have pictures made and I often wondered if that was one of the reasons, too. But I had one class picture of hers, as a kid growing up, which I lost in moving around. And, on there, you could count the dark or the black children on it. Everything on that was any shade of white going on up and coming on down to me. Browns and lights and mulattoes. Then a few here and there. And, of course, that was simply because in different areas in Georgia-and I guess in all of the states; I know it was true in Mississippi because I lived there a while-there were areas where there had been such a proliferation of these white children mixed with birth, you know. And consequently that was so close to the time when this was happening, that there was just loads of very fair children in the schools. Light browns and browns, and I guess, maybe-I hadn't thought of it until now-if I'd been in the public schools, I may have seen more. But being in, what was a special school at the time for the children, probably everybody who could spend a dollar a month, put their children there. Probably if you'd gotten into the public schools, you'd have seen loads of blacker children, I don't know. But, oh yes, there was feeling, a great deal of it.
WALTER WEARE:
Would you have been considered in those days a brown-skinned woman? Would that be the term they would use?
VIOLA TURNER:
For me?
WALTER WEARE:
Yes.
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh, yeah, I would be brown-skinned. And then when I was smaller, I'd often wondered why the thing used to offend me so. Looking at myself, I don't see how they did it. They used to call me yellow. That offended me greatly. I liked being brown, `cause I thought brown was so pretty. I didn't think my particular brown was so pretty, but I had two or three friends, girl-children growing up with me. `Course what they had went along with it that I didn't have. I always used to hold my mother accoutable for that, poor thing, she had nothing to do with it. But, really all of the brown children, the color that I thought was so pretty, they had this very pretty long black hair. So, you know, that was the Indian mixture and everything. I never could quite understand from my mother when I was small, why it was that I didn't have all of that hair that so many of my friends had.