High yellow, occasionally simply yellow (dialect: yaller, yeller), is a term for very light-skinned multiracial people who also have African ancestry. It is a reference to the golden yellow skin tone of some mixed-race people. The term was in common use in the United States at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, and appears in many popular songs of the era, such as "The Yellow Rose of Texas".
"High" derives from the fact that these individuals are so light skinned, they often pass for white. Many high yellows are as light skinned as Europeans, and even lighter than some Europeans. Their specific skin hue is generally caused by a mixture of European ancestry. In other cases, some African-descending individuals simply have naturally lighter-skinned genes than most other Africans, without biracial admixturing.
In an aspect of colorism, "high yellow" also had aspects of social class distinctions. In post-Civil War South Carolina, according to one account by historian Edward Ball, "Members of the colored elite were called 'high yellow' for their shade of skin", as well as slang terms meaning snobbish. In New Orleans, the term "high-yellow" was associated with Creole "brahmin". In the era of Duke Ellington, a native of Washington, D.C.,
In some cases the confusion of color with class came about because some of the lighter-skinned blacks came from families of mixed heritage free before the Civil War, who had already begun to accumulate education and property. In addition, some wealthier white planters made an effort to have their "natural" sons (the term for children outside marriage created with enslaved women) educated and some even passed property on to them.
These social distinctions made the cosmopolitan Harlem more appealing. Nevertheless, the Cotton Club of the Prohibition era "had a segregated, white-only audience policy and a color-conscious, "high yellow" hiring policy for chorus girls".
In her 1942 Glossary of Harlem Slang, Zora Neale Hurston placed "high yaller" at the beginning of the entry for colorscale, which ran:
The French author Alexandre Dumas, one of whose grandmothers was a Haitian slave, had skin "with a yellow so high it was almost white". In a 1929 review, TIME magazine called him a "High Yellow Fictioneer".
The terminology and its cultural aspects were explored in Dael Orlandersmith's play Yellowman, a 2002 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in drama. The play depicts a dark-skinned girl whose own mother "inadvertently teaches her the pain of rejection and the importance of being accepted by the 'high yellow' boys." One reviewer described the term as having "the inherent, unwieldy power to incite black Americans with such intense divisiveness and fervor" as few others.
The phrase survives in folk songs such as "The Yellow Rose of Texas", which originally referred to Emily West Morgan, a "mulatto" indentured servant apocryphally associated with the Battle of San Jacinto, but was later bowdlerize. Blind Willie McTell's song "Lord, Send Me an Angel" has its protagonist forced to choose between three women, described as "Atlanta yellow", "Macon brown", and a "Statesboro blackskin". And Bessie Smith's song "I've Got What It Takes", by Clarence Williams, refers to "a slick high yeller" boyfriend who "turned real pale" when she wouldn't wait for him to get out of jail. As recently as 2004, white R&B singer-songwriter Teena Marie released a song titled "High Yellow Girl," said to be about her daughter Alia Rose., who is biracial.