From Invisible Man to “New People”: The Recent Discovery of American Mulattoes

From Invisible Man to “New People”: The Recent Discovery of American Mulattoes

Phylon (1960-)
Volume 46, Number 2 (2nd Quarter, 1985)
pages 106-122

Patricia Morton

It might well seem obvious what the following persons have in common: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Walter White, Horace Mann Bond, Julian Bond, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Weldon Johnson, Charles Chesnutt, and Langston Hughes.

Although such a list could be expanded indefinitely, the point is that most of these are familiar enough names that they will readily be identified as Afro-Americans who have acted in some capacity as spokespeople for black Americans. Therefore, the obvious answer to the question suggested above is that these persons share their racial identity, as black American people. It might also be recognized, however, that this answer is based upon a distinctive North American perspective. In Latin American societies, for example, they would be identified instead as “mulattoes,” and in several cases, on the basis of physical appearance and status, as “white.”

It is essentially only during the last decade that this kind of distinction has been explicitly recognized in the publication of a number of studies which explore the historical experience of Americans of mixed black and white ancestry. It was observed recently that “As a field of enquiry with its own conceptual and methodological concerns, Afro-American history came of age during the past two decades.” In one sense these mulatto studies might be seen as part of that coming of age; however, in another sense they hearken back to what Black History has attempted to do for black Americans until recently, namely, to write the mulatto into American history. What does seem clear is that such studies represent a new direction in American historiography, and that the scholars engaged in this field are far from arriving at any consensus regarding their conceptual and methodological concerns. Indeed, they have remained largely unaware of one another’s work, and have arrived largely independently at conclusions which are sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory. It may be useful at this point, therefore, to compare and contrast their accounts, to offer some tentative suggestions as to their strengths and weaknesses, and where possible, to integrate their conclusions. In addition, this recent upsurge of scholarly interest in Americans of mixed black and white ancestry is a striking phenomenon in itself, which deserves some comment in the context of modern North American attitudes to race and race relations…

…Both miscegenation and mulatto are emotion-charged and value-laden terms, and both have been employed by North American whites in a variety of ways in accordance with their views on race. However, the mulatto figure has also been employed by Afro-Americans as a defense against white racism. Certainly Berzon demonstrates that during the Jim Crow era, Afro-American writers revived the “superior mulatto” for this purpose, consistently and repeatedly portraying the respectable and virtuous character of the person of mixed ancestry to counter the image of Negro degradation. These novels depict exemplary “Victorian” mulatto women, and equally bourgeois mulatto men who are also educated, refined, patriarchal, self-reliant, and devoted to acquiring all the marks of middle-class status. They are race leaders and role models who are both distinct from and an inspiration to the black masses, and particularly during the turn-of-the-century years, Afro-Americans themselves emphasized mulatto distinctiveness, John Mencke’s thesis notwithstanding….

Login to read the entire article here.

Tags: ,