“They even told me, ‘You could pass for white if you hadn’t married a colored man.’” – Una Mae Carlisle, The Baltimore Afro-American, 1948
For generations, light-skinned multiracial people have challenged notions of racial hierarchies. They have been given preferential treatment compared to their darker-skinned family members, neighbors, and friends. Yet they have also endured the isolation and rejection that can come with appearing too white. I know this based upon my own personal experiences, the experiences of my very interracial family, and the histories of multiracial musicians and entertainers. Their careers so perfectly explain the precarious positions of multiracial people and parallel modern struggles multiracial people face.
All too often, multiracial people are placed in positions that force them to choose one heritage over the other or participate in systems that fetishize their ethnic ambiguity to the detriment of darker-skinned multiracial and monoracial people. However, history shows us that multitudes of multiracial people refused to be complicit in this system and used whatever platform they had to speak out against colorism and racism. Multiracial entertainers have long attempted to shed light on the black community’s diversity and created works that advocate for all black people. Two such examples of outspoken people include actress Fredi Washington (1903-1994) and singer-songwriter Una Mae Carlisle (1915-1956). They achieved great successes during their lifetime, despite immense pressures to pass as white. Their stories are still relevant today as multiracial people continue to navigate racial politics and asserting their own identity.
Fredi Washington was born in Savannah, Georgia, and like many African Americans in the 20th century, she migrated north with her family to find better opportunities outside of the Jim Crow South. Her parents worked in Harlem’s postal service and entertainment industry, which put the Washington family in what could be considered the middle class. Growing up amid the flourishing Harlem Renaissance, Fredi honed her skills as a singer, dancer, and actress. Her career took her across the American South touring with Duke Ellington’s band and even Europe, where she participated in staged theater. Fredi was also a pioneering film star and made notable appearances in films like Black and Tan Fantasy (1929) and Imitation of Life (1934). The films spotlighted Washington’s talents and utilized her light skin to explore colorism and multiraciality within the black community. After being deemed too fair to be featured in films, Fredi continued to work in entertainment as a critic, consultant, and as a community advocate through the Negro Actors Guild of America, which she helped to found to address inequalities in the film industry.
Una Mae Carlisle was raised in the multiracial communities of Xenia and Zanesville, Ohio, and grew up in proximity to Wilberforce University, where her parents were educated. Her heritage, as documented in books and newspapers, lists her as being black and Native American most frequently. At other times she is also described as being bi-racial with a white father. However, according to Census records, both of her parents were listed as being black or mulatto. Throughout her career, Una Mae’s race either went unmentioned or alluded to her ethnic ambiguity. Reviewing how white newspapers and black newspapers referenced her race exemplifies the various ways people identified multiracial people in the first half of the twentieth century. On at least one occasion, she was billed as being “Red-Blooded,” she was also described as “negro” or “ofayish looking,” but in interviews, she referred to herself as being “colored.”
Carlisle got her start in local radio after being discovered by Duke Ellington and was then mentored by Fats Waller during his residency at Cincinnati’s WLW radio station. In 1934, she moved to New York to join the Cotton Club after a world-wide search for a revue that also featured a young Lena Horne. Una Mae then moved on to Europe in 1936, where she became a sensation in clubs and among the European aristocracy who appreciated her wit and immense talent. Upon returning to the US in 1939, she quickly gained notoriety as a composer and radio star. She became the first woman to have numerous compositions featured on Billboard’s Lucky Strike Hit parade and the first African American to host their own nationally broadcasted radio show. While practically unknown today, she was an internationally renowned composer, radio star, television star, and performer that contributed significantly to the development of popular music in the 1940s and 1950s.
As Fredi and Una Mae were actively making their way up in the world, colorism was rampant. Black and Tan clubs across the country, primarily owned by white men, served as gatekeepers to the entertainment industry. The club owners ensured that only performers that fit into their narrow notion of black culture succeeded. The notorious and degrading paper bag test was regularly used at clubs like the Cotton Club to disqualify darker-skinned women from working in the entertainment industry. This practice significantly contributed to the problematic ideas still prevalent today that beauty goes hand in hand with lighter skin and proximity to European heritage.
However, in this environment black women considered to be too white also struggled because of their ethnic ambiguity that threatened the widespread racial hierarchies the entertainment industry has long reinforced. Fredi Washington and Una Mae Carlisle felt these pressures and were subjected to racial scrutiny during their lives. Their experiences are demonstrative of the attempts to obscure multiracial people who challenged conceptions of what black people were supposed to look like. Throughout their careers, Fredi and Una Mae benefitted from colorism but were also denied opportunities or refused agency over their identity.
In the 1930s, Fredi and Una Mae worked in clubs that used the paper bag test and were favored by white producers who celebrated their beauty and light-skin. Fredi was given opportunities in the film industry outside of subservient roles typically available to black women, best demonstrated in her role as the white passing Peola Johnson in Imitation of Life and Ouanga (1936), where Fredi played a black plantation owner in Haiti in love with a white American. Una Mae was quickly accepted into white social circles, played numerous whites-only clubs in her early career, and performed in a number of soundies that featured her nationwide hits. But these women were also pressured multiple times in their careers to pass as white so that they could obtain success denied to black people and ease the discomfort of white audiences. In response to the pressures, both Fredi and Una Mae spoke out against passing and used their platforms to criticize the systems that exempted them from harsher racial treatment because of their light skin and fame.
In 1948, after an incident during a performance at Baltimore’s Club Astoria, where Una Mae witnessed black patrons being mistreated or removed in favor of white patrons at her performance, she was quoted as being “vocal about her distaste for segregation” and “fed up with racism.” Her earnestness in addressing the racism she saw corresponds to an earlier interview with Baltimore’s Afro-American in 1944, in which she said:
“What hurts me most is the fact that people are always going out of their way to do things for me just because I’m an entertainer. I want the same rights and privileges accorded [to] all colored people, whether they’re entertainers or not. There’s absolutely no gain made for our people’s when they treat me well if they go ahead and Jim Crow the average, unknown person. That’s no solution to the problem.”
Statements like this made it clear that Una Mae had no tolerance for colorism nor racism. Segregation affected her greatly, and she felt for the suffering of the black community. By taking advantage of her large platform in interviews, her radio show, or performing in benefit concerts, she advocated for black people and attempted to chip away at segregation. Similarly, Fredi Washington also spoke of her experiences of racism in the industry. In a 1945 interview for the Chicago Defender, she explicitly spoke of why she refused to pass when she was urged to do so.
“Early in my career, it was suggested that I might get further by passing as French or something exotic. But to pass, for economic or other advantages, would have meant that I swallowed, whole hog, the idea of black inferiority.”
Looking at these statements now, one can see how radical these women were in bravely addressing racism and colorism. Their comments convey the difficult situations multiracial people were put in and how they chose to support their community. Fredi and Una Mae were educated, eloquent, and aware of the privileges they had because of their light skin. Their staunch support for the black community provides a model for multiracial people today to be advocates and support the ongoing efforts to dismantle colorism. We can only do this by naming our privileges and showing up for our family, friends, neighbors, and communities. It is critical that mixed-race people act now as we push to end racism and create a brighter future for everyone.
Hannah Grantham is a DC-based musicologist currently working at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. Her research focuses on the history of musical instruments, jazz, folk music, and the material culture of music. She has worked with music collections at the Smithsonian, the University of South Dakota’s National Music Museum, and the Music Library at the University of North Texas.