Tracing the Red in “Redbone”: Colorism and Misogyny in Black History

“My peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid” – this line from the 2016 song “Redbone” by Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) describes the appearance of a light-skinned Black woman with a bright red undertone to her skin and hair: a “redbone.” The figure of the untrustworthy “redbone” woman is a common theme in contemporary rap lyrics. Glover’s song opens with a reference to cheating: “Daylight / I wake up feeling like you won’t play right / I used to know, but now this shit don’t feel right.” The woman of interest made the narrator wait to have sexual intercourse with her and then cheated on him. He warns other men to “stay woke” because there are men ready and waiting to steal their women. Glover implies that women are objects, and the title “Redbone” suggests that the woman’s skin tone is the reason behind both her actions and another man’s ability to steal her. After all, implied in the figure of the “redbone” is sexual attractiveness, so a “redbone” has more opportunities to cheat. In the song, this lighter-toned woman behaves scandalously, and is constantly willing to give and/or take whatever she desires. But each description of the woman as a cheater, a tease, a scandalous redbone, sexualizes and objectifies her. She is left without a personality or any identifiers other than her skin color. Even as it sexualized and objectified Black women with lighter skin tones, the hit song was still featured in the movie Get Out, receiving multiple Grammy nominations.

“Redbone” featured on Childish Gambino’s 2016 release Awaken, My Love. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Staying Woke in the Twenty-First Century

Glover is only one “on a lengthy list of music artists, who have used their platform to one-dimensionalize Black women – dehumanizing dark skin, while praising light skin.” When songs like “Redbone” demonstrate skin tone preferences, it impacts the people who listen to it. Skin tone becomes “another physical attribute by which women are evaluated.”1 Glover’s personal statements, such as admitting that he does not like the politics of dating Black women, help us understand how and why he wrote the lyrics for many of his songs, including “Redbone.” His song perpetuates this idea that light-skinned women are sexual and scandalous beings who should give men what they want (i.e. sex). As the lyrics of “Redbone” state: “if you want it, you can have it.”

“Redbone”’s themes are part of a much longer history, with roots in the institution of slavery and its aftermath in the United States. Here, I trace the history of colorism – a form of discrimination where people treat those with lighter skin better than those with darker skin – and the sexualization of Black women in three key moments: the hypersexualization of light-skinned enslaved women in the US South; the colorism that impacted Black students attending historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the Jim Crow Era; and the perpetuation of the “redbone” figure in today’s hip-hop lyrics. When Glover sang for men to “stay woke” about their redbones, it seems he was not very woke about the history of colorism and the sexualization of Black women.

The Rape of the Past

One can trace the history of hypersexualizing Black women back to our country’s original sin: slavery. Howell Cobb, a U.S. congressman from Athens, Georgia, demonstrated this sexualization of Black women and preferential treatment of lighter-toned women in the antebellum era through personal correspondence. These letters to and from Cobb’s family and friends provide the reader an intimate view of how enslavers like Cobb viewed the bodies and sexualities of enslaved women.

Correspondence from the 1830s between Cobb and his friend Henry Benning displays Cobb as an overly sexual bachelor. An 1834 letter from Benning states that he expected Cobb to not write due to him “pillowing . . . the whores of New York and Philadelphia.”2 Benning underscores Cobb’s sexualization of women as a whole and later specifies that “a little town whore could not attract your notice though time was when a crabby nigger could not escape you un-Cobbed.”3 In other words, Cobb participated in so much sexual activity that he even had sex with Black women. He was not alone in his sexual pursuits. Numerous historians, like Frank Tannenbaum, have shown that white enslavers took Black mistresses. Although during this period, interracial sexual relations were scandalous and prohibited, white men continued to sexually assault Black women.4 This institutionalized rape shaped our contemporary view of race and gender. Men had unlimited access to all women’s bodies, but particularly those of Black women. The tangible outcome of this system – the birth of mixed-race children – would have serious implications for understandings of color within the Black community in the coming decades.

The Divide is Not Just Black and White

After about three months of this collective school spirit, we find a break in the class and the persons of light complexion seem to organize into a body of their own. The brown skinned ones are also destined to form a group of their own, if they are not considered among those of the fair group. Now the group which is left is naturally a dark group who are thrown upon their own resources.

In this quote from a 1929 article in Howard University’s school newspaper, student Edward H. Taylor examines the racial segregation between light- and dark-skinned students in terms of fraternity and sorority life. “Colorism ideology in the United States stems from slavery where the closer one was to White phenotypically, the better, a stance that was manifested in the preferential treatment that lighter-complexioned house slaves received in comparison to darker field slaves.”5 During the early 1900s, Black fraternities, sororities, and universities permitted this behavior, leaving dark-skinned Black students to face racial prejudice in two forms: from white people and from light-skinned Black students with whom they should have been united.

Members of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority at the University of Cincinnati in 1921. (Courtesy of the University of Cincinnati)

Taylor mentions in the article how dark-skinned Black men had the opportunity to join fraternities based on their “extreme extra curricula activity,” but, dark-skinned Black women did not have this chance, despite having access to similar extracurriculars. This discrepancy shows that, although light-skinned people judged both men and women based on their darker appearance, men had the ability to escape this discrimination at times because of their knowledge set; women did not experience the same privilege. Taylor later argues that fraternities and sororities should change their methods for choosing members and base any segregation in their selections on character as opposed to skin tone. He asks them to “open [their] prejudiced hearts and see if [they] cannot possibly find a real man or real woman among the darker element at the university.”

The colorism dominant in these fraternities and sororities went as far as rejecting any student who failed the brown paper bag test, meaning they had a skin tone darker than a brown paper bag.6 This discrimination also occurred at the university level when Howard administrators required students to send in a picture of themselves along with their application to the school as part of the admissions process.7 Avon Dennis, the director of admissions at the time, confirmed this requirement and could not deny that they used the picture to reject students with darker skin.8 Before even reaching campus, darker students faced discrimination, and it only intensified once on campus.

From the hypersexualization of Black women during slavery and the emphasis placed on their phenotype during the Jim Crow Era, “Redbone” is born. Considering the history, “Redbone” should not be the hit song it has become because, at the end of the day, Black men and women – light-skinned or not – are all still Black and must overcome a multitude of other prejudices and forms of discrimination. But, the song’s success along with the popularity of songs with similar themes present the idea that maybe they are successful due to the connection to societal ideals, or maybe societal ideals are encouraged by the popularity of songs like “Redbone.” Either way, the cycle needs to be broken. A Howard University student who wrote an editorial in 1929 said it best: “there is nothing in a white [or light] skin to gloat over and nothing in a Black skin to be depressed about. It is character, intelligence and virtue that count.”

So, remember that the popular song about a sexy redbone is more than a catchy tune; it has deep roots in our country’s violent past, one where white men had the license to sexually assault Black women and where colorism affected solidarity among the Black population. We need to end this cycle by learning about the past and promoting a new narrative that is supportive of our Black women of every shade.

Notes

  1. Morgan L. Maxwell, Jasmine A. Abrams, and Faye Z. Belgrave, “Redbones and Earth Mothers: The Influence of Rap Music on African American Girls’ Perceptions of Skin Color,” Psychology of Music 44, no. 6 (2016): 1488–99. Return to text.
  2. Henry Benning, Howell Cobb Family Papers, 1834, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia, Athens, GA. Return to text.
  3. Benning, Howell Cobb Family Papers. Return to text.
  4. Frank Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 121–26. Return to text.
  5. Marybeth Gasman and Ufuoma Abiola, “ Colorism Within the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs),” Theory Into Practice 55, no. 1 (2016): 39–45. Return to text.
  6. Audrey Elisa Kerr, “The History of Color Prejudice at Howard University,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 54 (Winter 2006/2007): 82–87. Return to text.
  7. Kerr, “The History of Color.” Return to text.
  8. Kerr, “The History of Color.”. Return to text.

About the Author

One Comment

Debra Blackmon-Parrish

About the Author, Dominique Cooper, she has captivated and confirmed the type of colorism I grew up to know which was back in the sixties. In fact there was a saying
“If you are light, you are right but if you are black, stay back.”
This article aroused my subconscious of how growing up was harsh, disrespectful and brutal to girls like me who was considered dark-skinned.
It’s refreshing to read and know that a young woman is smart, intelligent and “woke” enough to write the TRUTH.
Thank you Dominique Cooper for a major history lesson. The following quote is a tribute to you and your article.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better do better.” Maya Angelou

Reply

Share your Thoughts