The trope of the tragic mulatto has existed since 19th century American literature. Evolved from the one-drop-rule, an extension of white-supremacy’s attempt at controlling and policing blackness, this trope perpetuated racist stereotypes of blackness following emancipation and reconstruction. These stereotypes aimed to illustrate blackness as inherently primitive and whiteness as civilized. Logically, and legally, the two were never meant to commingle, but the existence of light-skinned, silky-haired, offsprings would prove the hypocrisy of such laws and their defenders.
Named after the mule—the offspring of a horse and donkey— this half-and-half “breed” of humans bore the physical evidence of generations of rape black women endured at the hands of their masters, overseers, and any white man who indulged his devious sexual acts on black women who had no protection from the law. But these offsprings, like the truth of their origin, were to remain as invisible as the rest of slavery’s traumas.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
While there were white abolitionists who spent the early 19th century arguing the immorality of slavery, it was not until Ida B. Wells-Barnett's The Red Record , a fierce condemnation of lynching and the erroneous reason white southern men gave for hanging black men, that the hypocritical violent actions of the very white male vigilantes were laid bare:
"A Red Record" Ida B. Wells
"To justify their [the southern white man] own barbarism they assume a chivalry which they do not possess. True chivalry respects all womanhood, and no one who reads the record, as it is written in the faces of the million mulattoes in the South, will for a minute conceive that the southern white man had a very chivalrous regard for the honor due the women of his own race or respect for the womanhood which circumstances placed in his power.”
Such an exposé almost cost Wells-Barnett her life, but it did not silence her from speaking truth to the relationship that brought about the mulatto and their derivatives (quadroon, octoroon, griffe). In a single pamphlet, Wells-Barnett not only began to pull at the fragile fringes of white-supremacy, it also provided a counter-narrative to the dehumanizing trope that perpetuated American fiction and the American psyche.
Popularized by Lydia Maria Child, the tragic mulatto was created and appropriated by white abolitionists to further a crusade against the injustices of slavery. This light-skinned character, light enough to pass into the civility of whiteness, was always haunted by the savagery of their black blood and thus forced to meet a tragic end. What was intended to be an exposing of slavery's immorality resulted in one-dimensional characters who allowed "white readers to identify with the victim by gender while distancing themselves by race and thus avoid[ing] confronting a racial ideology that denies the full humanity of nonwhite women," as argued by scholar and author of Women and Sisters, Jean Fagan Yellin. The tragic mulatto, like Sambo, Uncle Tom, Mammie, was created to erase the contextual history of slavery’s violent physical, emotional, economical, and mental affect on African descendants, thus absolving the white masters, and their beneficiaries, of any personal guilt or responsibility.
Since the publishing of Child’s stories this trope has continued in popular fiction: Uncle Tom’s Cabin , Pinky , Imitation of Life , and more written by white authors who insisted on characterizing “the mulatto’s unhappiness" as "the anguished victim of divided inheritance,” as noted by Po et and critic, Sterling Brown in " Negro Character as Seen by White Authors ." Under the pen of the white writer, the algebraic equations of race, created by Thomas Jefferson, was applied with 1/2 of the mulatto being bound to the " savagery " of their black blood and 1/2 being the “intellectual prowess” of their white blood. The battle of these two “divided inheritance[s]” are always cancelled out, as in the one-drop rule, by their blackness, thus forever barring them from entering the purity of whiteness and access to humanity.
As the white writer used the tragic mulatto to perpetuate white-supremacist ideology, black writers like Williams Wells Brown, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson used the trope as a means to subvert it. No one did this more adeptly than Harlem Renaissance novelist, Nella Larsen.
In her two novels, Quicksand, and Passing, Larsen presents two equally dynamic and tragic women, Helga Crane and Clare Kendry, caught in-between the dichotomy of blackness and whiteness. Both women perform a form of passing: Helga escapes to Europe while Clare passes into white American society. However, both means of escapes prove futile: the exoticism Helga faces in Europe and the banality Clare find in whiteness in America leave both women returning to black American society. Larsen uses this return to expose the tragic mulatto’s longing for whiteness as a sham. The desire is not to be white, but to access resources, protection, freedom—all of which were only legally permitted to whiteness. Conversely, Larsen does not present her tragic mulatto’s characters rejection of whiteness and immersion into blackness as the solution—both her characters follow the traditional trope’s calling for a tragic end—instead she proposes a rejection of socially imposed identifiers and reveals how the mandate for them strangle humanity’s capacity to soar. This rejection is picked up and propelled by a woman I crown as Larsen’s successor, Kathleen Collins.
"Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?" Kathleen Collins
In Collins’ posthumously published collection of short stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, the author explores race and the affect of ancestral trauma. Each of Collins’ characters are marked by tragedy. From the beginning story of a black woman’s marriage to her white husband falling apart, to the deeply depressed uncle who can’t leave his bed, to the college student working through her depression in a dark bedroom closet, these grim stories surround mixed-race characters who are forced to navigate a black-and-white world that refuses to make room for them. While many characters in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? face tragic endings, Collins’ rebellious voice echoes from each page. She uses Child’s tools to dismantle the legacy of one-dimensional, hyper-sexualized. hyper-exocitized light-skinned men and women driven to despair because of their “negro blood” preventing them from obtaining whiteness.
Collins challenges the monolithic depiction of blackness each time she places the word “negro” in quotations and parenthesis, a technique that questions its validity as the exclusive characterization. This is not to dismiss the reality of race, but to further reject the “one-drop” homogenous idea of black identity. While Collins focuses on characters who carry both European and African ancestry she rejects presenting blackness as the disparaging fact that lead these mixed-race individuals to their tragic end. Instead, she reveals the disparity of existing in a racist world incapable of handling the mirth, talent, and vivaciousness in young black people.
Collins reveals this disparity not only in the racist legal and sociological realities, but in the colorist ideologies that travelled from the plantation and rooted itself in present day society, further punishing blackness or anything associated with it. Each story forces us to look at the way generations of violent rape against black slave-women, which begat the mulattoes, the griffes, the quadroons, the octoroons, continues to live and breathe in their descendants. It’s this history that stops a father from supporting the interracial union his only daughter is engaged in, and for another father to be crushed—and ashamed—that his daughter would cut her hair, the only feature that distinguishes her from looking like any other “negro.”
There is one story in particular where Collins reveals this disparity in a way that is as tragic as it is triumphant. It is in the story of "The Uncle" where a once talented olympian so light he could be "a real double for Marlon Brando," is driven to such a deep depression after having to give up his dream that he "lost the will to struggle with life," and "took to his bed for weeks at a time and cried day and night." In this story Collins takes the classic tragic trajectory given to the mixed-race characters by white authors and presents it as a source pride. The Uncle's ability to soak "his life in sorrow and [go] back to some ancient ritual beyond the blunt humiliation of his skin, with its bound-and-sealed possibilities" led the niece/narrator to classify him as "the bravest man [she] had ever known." In the view of the narrator her Uncle was not tragic for the same reason Camus cautioned against viewing Sisyphus as totally tragic--the scorning of fate. The Uncle's refusal "to overcome his sorrow as some affliction to be transcended, some stumbling block put in his way for the sake of trail and endurance," serves to expose the tragic confinement of a racist society, but it also establishes a rebellion within the Uncle who refused "to strike out against it [his fate], go down in a blaze of responsibilities met and struggled with. No. He utterly honored his sorrow, gave in to it with such deep and boundless weeping," it's not the rebellion we've been conditioned to characterize as such, but neither is rolling a rock up a hill for eternity. The point is not in the choice the Uncle makes, the point is the fact that he made a choice; Collins restores an autonomy that has historically been refused black individuals in society and literature.
Collins employs elements of the tragic mulatto trope in a way that adds to the traditional way black writers have used it to subvert white-supremacist ideologies and, instead, expose white-supremacy as the true tragedy that affects and infects Americans who have historically existed in the margins. Collins illustrates the way this tragedy divides communities, forces black women to suppress their sexuality, and robs people of their lives and happiness. The tragedy is not in the characters, but in the world shaped and dictated by men who created hierarchies of humanity in algebraic formulas that arose from their raping of black women. It is these laws, this truth, and this tragedy that still haunts us today.