Slang of the Week: high yeller/yaller/yellow/yella (noun/adjective phrase)
a light skinned African American, usually an attractive female
In the classic film Imitation of Life, Annie Johnson’s high yeller daughter Sarah Jane takes advantage of her light complexion to pass for white and avoid racism; in doing so, she rejects her own mother.
“Nobody knows my name, nobody knows what I've done
I'm as good as any woman in your town
I ain't no high yeller, I'm a deep killer of brown
I ain't gonna marry, ain't gonna settle down”
— Singer Bessie Smith
This term falls under the category of “language I mistakenly thought was dead.” At one time, it was used quite commonly; you often hear it, for example, in blues songs of the 1920s, like the one above. In a 1925 letter to his white friend Carl Van Vechten, the well-known African American poet Langston Hughes begins the story of a bar fight with the now politically incorrect language: “Two or three other colored fellows and a high-yellow girl came to our table and at five in the morning we were having such a gay* time that everybody else gathered around to look on.” While most examples I found are from this period, Clarence Major suggests the term might date back much further in his book From Juba to Jive.
I had thought that it was no longer used because it of its association with attractiveness; it is tied to the prejudice that light skin is better than dark. Of course, the prejudice still exists; the standard of beauty for black women is usually represented by light-skinned celebrities like Halle Berry, Beyoncé Knowles and Tyra Banks. Dark-skinned women proclaimed as beauties, such as Sudanese supermodel Alex Wek, are rare.
Because of that connection, many people find the term offensive, but not everyone. You still find it in online conversations (usually as "high yellow") and Hurricane Chris uses the newer synonym yellow bone in his hit A Bay Bay, released this year. Like high yeller, it is used primarily about attractive women and can also be found in Lil Flip’s 2002 song Sunny Day: “I roll on vogues** and pimp yellow bone hoes,” he boasts. Yellow bone most likely comes from a combination of high yeller and red bone, an older term for light-skinned blacks with Native American ancestry.
* Hughes means delightful by “gay”—not homosexual.
**Vogue is a company that produces fashionable car wheels and tires.
Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers: A Decade-by-Decade Guide to the Vanishing Vocabulary of the Twentieth Century by Rosemarie Ostler. In it, you’ll find terms that people really don't use anymore, such as rubber cow (1920s), bed check Charlie (1950s) and giraffe party (1940s).