“Never Was Born”: The Mulatto, an American Tragedy?

“Never Was Born”: The Mulatto, an American Tragedy?

The Massachusetts Review
Volume 27, Number 2 (Summer, 1986)
page 293-316

Werner Sollors, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and Afro American Studies; Director of the History of American Civilization Program
Harvard University

In my first marriage I paid my compliments to my mother’s race; in my second marriage I paid my compliments to the race of my father.

Frederick Douglass

Nationality demands solidarity. And you can never get solidarity in a nation of equal rights out of two hostile races that do not intermarry. In a Democracy you can not build a nation inside of a nation of two antagonistic races, and therefore the future American must be either an Anglo Saxon or a Mulatto. And if a Mulatto, will the future be worth discussing?

Thomas Dixon, Jr.

In the first Afro American novel, William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, The Presidents Daughter (1853), Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter (on the slave side) is described as light complexioned and no darker “than other white children.” Brown’s account continues:

As the child grew older, it more and more resembled its mother. The iris of her large dark eye had the melting mezzotinto, which remains the last vestige of African ancestry, and gives that plaintive expression, so often observed, and so appropriate to that docile and injured race.

This account of a woman who is an Octoroon is one of several of Brown’s Mulatto descriptions and representative of many other nineteenth-century sketches of characters whose hair is “‘straight, soft, fine, and light” and whose eyes usually receive much special attention. Descriptions such as the one of Mary’s melting “mezzotinto” (originally, a method of engraving) generate nervousness and laughter when…

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