Little Negro Boy Begs for White Arm (1904)

After being hit by a train, five-year-old Albert Turner was taken to the Lackawanna Hospital for surgery. Due to the severity of the incident, little Albert’s arm was amputated. During his recovery  in the hospital, he asked his doctor if he could have a new arm-a white one. The little boy was offered the possibility of a prosthetic limb, but refused to accept unless the artificial arm was of a white complexion.

Negro Boy Begs for White Arm 1904
“Little Negro Boy Begs for White Arm” The Scranton Republican July 17, 1904. page 7.

This article exposes the complexities and the stigmatizing affects of being Black in America, but particularly Scranton, Pennsylvania. What makes this piece of local history more striking and unique, is that is the experience of a small Black child living in Scranton at the turn of the century.  Although this incident was 114 years in the past, this implicit self hatred and bias related to skin color is still internalized by black and brown children today.

No other stories ran in any of Scranton’s newspapers about little Albert Turner.  It was clear that his plea for a white complexioned prosthetic arm says something about the social position of blackness. In his 5-year old mind, that caucasan limb would make him “less black.”

This phenomenon of colorism is not exclusive to 20th century America. Social scientist have been studying this for decades. Take Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s famous doll study of the 1940s for instance: The two researchers conducted a series of experiments in order to study the psychological effects of segregation on African American Children. Most of the children in the study preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it. The Clarks concluded that prejudice. discrimination, and segregation created a feeling of inferiority among Black children and damaged their self-esteem (naacpldf.org).

In 2010, Margaret Beale Spencer, a leading researcher in the field of child development was commissioned by CNN to design a pilot study. Her investigation aimed to re-create 1940 Clark Study. Spencer concluded, skin-color bias among U.S. children associate positive traits to lighter skin and negative traits to darker skin—no matter what the race of the child was. As Spencer put it in a CNN broadcast “Our children are always mirrors, and what we put out there , kids report back…We are still living in a society were dark things are devalued and light things are valued.”

 

What are we teaching the children of Scranton? Are we reinforcing the idea that skin color is not a signifier or superiority or inferiority; or does the legacy of the little Negro boy begging for whiteness still live on today?

The 1904 Scranton Republican article concludes in truth: “There is a psychological phase of the incident which furnishes food for thought” –this is a tragic reminder of the psychological damage of colorism.

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