Thursday, March 1, 2012

Racial Descriptors In The USA: "Yellow", "High Yellow", & "Redbones"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides commentary about the descriptor "yellow" and "high yellow" as it was used and may still be used among African Americans & other Americans in the United States. I'm re-posting a comment that I wrote in 2008 on a thread about the Caribbean song Yellow Gals (Doodle Me) on the Folk & Blues forum Mudcat

Subject: RE: Yellow Gal From: Azizi Date: 25 Jan 08 - 08:52 PM

In case folks don't know it-I'm African American :o)

I mention that because when it comes to sharing information about the topic of this thread, I think that my race is relevant. That said, other folks who aren't African American can also share and in my opinion, have shared accurate and interesting information about this subject.

I just wanna add to the mix {to use a word with no pun intended] and share some thoughts about the terms "yellow" and "high yellow" as those terms pertain to African Americans:


In the phrase "high yellow", "high" means "very" and "yellow" means "light skinned".


Fwiw, I agree with most of what Roger in Baltimore has wrote in his posts to this thread. However, I have seen and heard the term "high yellow" used much more in contemporary literature/mass media and in every day life than the term "yellow". But maybe that's due to the nature of my reading material and the circles of people with whom I interact.

I don't agree with Roger's statement that "yellow" or "high yellow" ...commonly describe skin that is quite light, but which has a definite yellow hue". Inspite of the use of the color term "yellow", I don't think that a person of Black/non-Black descent who is described as being "yellow" or "high yellow" has to have a yellow hue to their skin.

I agree with the statement that there are a large number of skin colors that could be considered to be "yellow" and/or "high yellow". Some "high yellow" people are very pale and others have a reddish tinge to their skin. Btw, Black people who have a reddish hue to their skin are sometimes called "redbones". This is not a new referent. Comedian "Red Foxx" and activist Malcolm X {Detroit Red} are examples of Black men who were redbones.


Since at least the Black pride movement which began [again] in the late 1960s, "yellow", "high yellow", and "red bone" are usually not publicly used in everyday conversation unless Black people {or a non-Black person who has a high degree of acceptance among those particular Black people} are engaging in informal, friendly teasing.


Some high yellow people can "pass for White" and some can't {because of their skin color, hair texture and/or their other physical features} Of course, there are different skin complexions of White people, too. And "passing for White" {meaning a person being considered a member of the "White" race because of his/her physical appearance}implies {or at least used to imply} that the person is mistaken to be White. Actually, almost all Black people who are high yellow have more "European" ancestry than "African" ancestry. Therefore, if the laws and social definitions of the United States [where I'll limit my conversation for now] weren't so racist, those people who were "passing", would be able to claim without any difficulties that they were indeed White or that they were both Black and White [or Black and non-Black]. However,because of the one drop of Black blood rule, and the exclusivity of the definition of who is or isn't White in the United States, it's extremely difficult for a person who has a known [Black] African ancestor, no matter how many generations ago, to claim that ancestor and still be accepted as a White person.


People who are referred to as "yellow" and "high yellow" may be racially mixed with Black/White or Black and some other non-Black race/ethnicity such as Native American, or Latino/a or Filipino or Japanese etc etc etc. Also, a yellow or high yellow person may have two biological parents who are Black. It should also be noted that-in the case of a high yellow person having two biological Black parents-both of these parents [and/or neither of these parents] need have been "yellow" or "high yellow" themselves. [And neither of these parents need have been first generation racially mixed themselves]. The Cosby Show [which featured a Black family with children who had different skin colors] helped acquaint many non-Black people with the fact that it is possible to have a wide range of skin colors within two parent Black families. Of course, there may be more skin color variations within Latino families than African Americans. I'm not sure if non-Black Latinos* use the terms high yellow, yellow, and red bone. I'd love to know more about the terms that Latino people do use to refer to skin color-besides "moreno" which I think means "brown"[skinned].

*I suppose there are some North and South American Latinos who don't have any African ancestry. But I think there's not many Latinos who don't have any African ancestry. Of course, if you go baaaack far enough, everybody has African ancestry.

I made a minor change in the first sentence of the last paragraph. Otherwise this post is exactly as I wrote it in 2008


Yellow Gal (Doodle Let Me Go)

The focus of the discussion in that Mudcat thread was the sea shanty "Yellow Gal (Doodle Let Me Go)". Here's a link to a YouTube video of a group singing that song

Some of the commenters in that discussion focused on the meaning of the word "doodle". The camp that I belong to believes that "doodle" means "sweet". Visit that website to read how we reached that conclusion.

The Yellow Rose Of Texas

It will undoubtedly surprise some people to learn that the relatively familiar American song "The Yellow Rose Of Texas" is about "yellow gal", meaning a woman of Black/non-Black ancestry. That above mentioned Mudcat thread contains comments about and lyrics of that song. Here's a link to a sound file of that song ://

Rikkyhardo, that video's uploader, included informative summary of the history of "The Yellow Rose Of Texas", and that song's lyrics (the lyrics with the racial referents as well as examples of how those racial referents were replaced. Here's an excerpt of those comments and the 1858 "minstrel" version of that song:

Legendary account The song is based on a Texas legend from the days of the Texas War of Independence. Accordingly a woman named Emily D. West — a mulatto, and hence, the song's reference to her being "yellow" — who was seized by Mexican forces during the looting of Galveston, seduced General Antonio L√≥pez de Santa Anna, President of Mexico and commander of the Mexican forces. The legend credits her supposed seduction with lowering the guard of the Mexican army and allowing the Texan victory in the battle of San Jacinto waged in 1836 near present-day Houston. Santa Anna's opponent was General Sam Houston, who won the battle literally in minutes, and with almost no casualties.

Minstrel Version (1858)

There's a yellow rose in Texas that I am going to see, No other darkey knows her, no darkey only me; She cried so when I left her, it like to broke my heart, And if I ever find her we never more will part. (Chorus) She's the sweetest rose of color this darkey ever knew, Her eyes are bright as diamonds, they sparkle like the dew, You may talk about your Dearest May, and sing of Rosa Lee, But the yellow rose of Texas beats the belles of Tennessee

Yellow Gal - Leadbelly

This song uses the same tune as Walt Disney's Three Little Pigs singing "Whose Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf". The words that Leadbelly sings are Verse 1: My daddy went home with that yellow gal, Verse 2: She's pretty and fine, that yellow gal, and Verse 3: She has pretty hair, that yellow gal.

Here's that video:


Uploaded by songs1994 on Mar 3, 2009

Leadbelly's line that the yellow girl "has pretty hair" is reflective of the viewpoint that is still found among many Black people & non-Black people that hair like White people's is "good" and hair like most Black people is "bad". Such opinions can result in poor self-esteem among Black people, and particularly among Black females.

Related Links
Click to find the words to a version of the 19th century song "Massa Had A Yeller Girl".

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