One of the many stereotypes that Black women have confronted, in addition to the Mammy, Sapphire/Angry Black Woman, and Jezebel stereotypes, is the Tragic Mulatto.
Often portrayed in literature and film as a young woman or young girl, (never an older woman of a certain age), she is seen as doomed in her search for love, validation of her humanity from other non-Black women people, and has to contend with the constant fight against the negation of her womanhood.
The word mulatto has its origins in deriving from the Portuguese and Spanish word mulatto, which is itself derived from mula (from Old Spanish, from Latin mūlus), meaning mule, the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey. Many Europeans did not think that the offspring between a White European and a Black African would live very long and most notably is the main reasoning behind the word’s origin (“Mulus”) is that all offspring of such a union would be born sterile and incapable of reproducing themselves.
But, mulattos did not start occurring in America. They started in slave holding pens along the Slave Coast of West Africa, on slave ships bound for the so-called New World, and on afterwards in the original colonies, through race-based slavery, and through Jane Crow segregation.
In historical documentation of mulatto ( a word I will only use in reference to its historical context as it is an outgrowth of how mixed-blood/bi-racial Black people were categorized), light-skinned Black women were often spoken of, literally and figuratively, by authors and historians. So great is the plethora of the written word on mulatto women, that one would think that during American race-based slavery that there existed only female mulattos, and no male mulattos.
Take the famous story of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly.
The principal character, Eliza, is a very light-skinned mulatto.
Full page illustration by Hammatt Billings for Uncle Tom’s Cabin (First Edition: Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1852). The engraving shows Eliza telling Uncle Tom that she has been sold and is running away to save her child.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin theater poster, showing Eliza crossing the ice. Color lithograph, 71×106 cm, 1881.
SOURCE: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-1298 (color film copy transparency), uncompressed archival TIFF version (18 MB)
Here, in a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
Poster for “George Peck’s grand revival of Stetson’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, booked by Klaw & Erlanger,” 1886. (Stage play based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin)
SOURCE: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division under the digital ID var.0685.
Also ubiquitously mentioned are the placage women of New Orleans.
Creole women of color taking the air, from a series of watercolors by Edouard Marquis, 1867.
The system of placage was found in other places, as in the cities of Natchez and Biloxi, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; St. Augustine and Pensacola, Florida; as well as Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). Placage, however, drew most of its fame—and notorious historical legacy—from its public application (left-handed marriage) in New Orleans. Mulattos were not the only mixed-blood women found in the placage–so were quadroons and octoroons–terms that came out of the hated ODR system of categorizing Black people as if they were nothing more than a lesser form of humans.
Other authors besides Stowe, wrote of female mulattos, as in the case of William Wells Brown , in his novel Clotel, The President’s Daughter:
Front page of the novel, Clotel, the President’s Daughter.
Still, other authors wrote famous novels on mulatto women, such as Nella Larsen (herself the child of a Black Father and Danish mother), with her two most well-known novels of mulatto heroines: Passing and Quicksand.
Not all women of the placage system were fictional———-some were real-life women:
Marie Laveau, a famous Voodoo queen of New Orleans.
Henriette DeLille (1813-1862) was born in New Orleans to Jean Baptiste DeLille Sarpy , a wealthy Frenchman who had immigrated to Louisiana and Poupone Diaz, a quadroon.
Even in film, female Tragic Mulatto reign supreme, as in the case of two films based on the novel by Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life:
Imitation of Life film poster, 1959.
Film poster of Imitation of Life, 1934. The film also starred (not pictured) Freddie Washington, as the doomed Tragic Mulatto character.
As can be seen, there is no dearth of information on female Tragic Mulattos, but, in the case of male Tragic Mulattos, the information is scant at best, or practically non-existent. You would think that nothing but female mulattos were born, and no male mulattos ever existed.
One would think that male multi-racials were either 1) born in low numbers in comparison to females; or 2) because of who wrote much of the history on American race-based slavery (and segregation)–predominantly male authors–that male multi-racials never had any impact on America in any way.
In films and TV, the issue of the Tragic Mulatto as Male has never been shown in large numbers with male representatives, only more so in the person of a woman or girl.
Which brings me to this episode of the situation comedy, The Jeffersons, created by Norman Lear.
In this episode, “Jenny’s Low,” Jenny Willis, daughter of the IR couple, Helen and George Willis, is visiting with her fiance, the Jefferson’s son Lionel, and discusses with him the long absence of her brother, Alan. Two years earlier, Alan simply up and left his family, took off for Europe, and spent two years living in Paris, France. He decides to return back to America, and to his family—-much to the consternation of Jenny. Lionel questions her as to why she is so angry about the reappearance of her brother and chalks it up to a long deep-seated envious jealousy of her brother due to colorism.
But, here the episode gets even deeper that. Even for its sometimes buffoonish antics of the lead character, George Jefferson, played by Sherman Hemsley, this series (like Lear’s famous original All in the Family, from which The Jeffersons is a spinoff), tackles more subjects in its thirty-minute episode, than any of the vapid and listless TV series and Hollywood movies can ever do in taking on the issue of the Tragic Mulatto, and turns the stereotype on its head—–
—–but, this time from the perspective of a man, instead of a woman.
Jenny is angry at Alan for being born much lighter than her. She is angry at Alan at leaving the family and then just nonchalantly dropping back in as if nothing happened. She is angry that Alan went away and lived in Europe and did not have to face the issue of race back home.
But, Alan has had some doubts himself about his life in Europe. That no one cared or questioned him on what he was, was just as dismaying to him. That he began to question what he was, not just as a multi-racial, but, as a person with an identity, a history that was part of two cultures (White and Black), and that his life began to seem aimless and without roots, began to push him back towards the world from which he ran two years before. Yes, he passed in France to achieve basic humanity, better economic opportunities, and a social standing that did not defile nor debase him, but, that passing left him devoid of himself. He began to question, “Who am I?” He sorely missed a part of himself, even if it meant returning back to a nation that worshipped the ODR for Black Americans.
He acknowledged that even though passing may have helped him in France, in the end it cut off a very important part of himself—-his family, his relationship with them, his knowledge and understanding of self and the alienation and isolation it caused him in France. That Alan had to deny what he was in Europe (“Because nobody asked. Nobody cared.”) was just as painful as taking a knife to himself in not acknowledging his mixed-blood ancestry. By keeping mum about what his racial ancestry was, Alan was living a lie and that lie was suffocating him.
————there is another aspect of this episode that is not directly addressed.
Besides the racism issue, as well as the colorism issue, the issue of sexism/genderism is not brought out into the open.
Jenny asks this questioned repeatedly of Alan, but, not only must the issue colorism be acknowledged, so to must the issue of genderism.
Alan, being a man, can traverse the world in ways that Jenny, a woman, cannot.
There are places he can go, to some degree, and not be met with swift condescension, derision, contempt and disrespect.
There are places he can go through and not have to face sexism.
Racism, yes, especially when confronting the bigots of the world who would castigate him for his mixed-blood ancestry.
But, sexism is not a factor he would have to face, conjoined with racism.
That double jeopardy falls at the feet of many a Black woman.
In her pointed question to Alan, maybe Jenny was seeing only race and color.
In her question to Alan, I saw a much bigger factor of genderism.
I saw that in this scenario, gender trumped race.
Life for a man is just as fraught with perils as it is for a woman, but, life for a woman, involves many intersections of oppression, that include the dismissal of women as always less-than, not-quite adequate as a man, especially if that woman so happens to be a Black woman.
But, the episode is so good on so many levels in how it had the backbone to bring out into the open the issue of color, passing, fear of what one is, running from what is, and finally turning around and facing up to all that is a part of what one is.
That so many films, as well as TV shows, have not shown the Tragic Mulatto from a male perspective is deplorable, but, I will give The Jeffersons its due.
For a series that was produced in the 1970s, it was way ahead of its time.
Today, ten years into the 21ST Century, the idea of making a movie about a prominent multi-racial male character is zero to none.
That many people still conjure up the image of a woman or girl multi-racial is sad.
There are a few novels that address the Tragic Mulatto from a male perspective, most notably James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man .
Yes, there have been a very few movies that have finally tried to address the issue of the Tragic Mulatto from a male standpoint, The Human Stain is one such movie. I have not seen the movie yet, but, here is a trailer of it:
Even then, the use of a White male actor still rears its head. What, there were no bi-/multi-racial men who could play the lead part?
But, the fact must be acknowledged that the Tragic Mulatto is not just a feminine subject; it is a masculine subject as well.
In real life—and in reel life—mixed-blood/biracial/multi-racial men do exist.
High time that TV and Hollywood paid more attention to this, and not in the pathetic vein of all mixed-blood people as being tragic.
High time that TV and Hollywood take a page out of The Jeffersons and create more media on the fictional and real multi-racial men:
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois
Langston Mercer Hughes
The Tragic Mulatto.
It never was something that mixed-blood people ever created. The propaganda of the Tragic Mulatto is a creation of White Supremacy and contempt towards the humanity of Black people with mixed blood.
High time TV and Hollywood started showing and creating films that show the humanity and depth of the life of a people who but for the circumstances of their ancestry still are relegated to the corner of the room and ignored for all they have contributed to this country, even with the hell of a history they have had to shoulder—-and still do.