American Chiaroscuro: The Status and Definition of Mulattoes in the British Colonies

American Chiaroscuro: The Status and Definition of Mulattoes in the British Colonies

The William and Mary Quarterly
Third Series, Volume 19, Number 2 (April, 1962)
pages 183-200

Winthrop D. Jordan (1931-2007)

The word mulatto is not frequently used in the United States. Americans generally reserve it for biological contexts, because for social purposes a mulatto is termed a Negro. Americans lump together both socially and legally all persons with perceptible admixture of Negro ancestry, thus making social definition without reference to genetic logic; white blood becomes socially advantageous only in overwhelming proportion. The dynamic underlying the peculiar bifurcation of American society into only two color groups can perhaps be better understood if some attempt is made to describe its origin, for the content of social definitions may remain long after the impulses to their formation have gone.

After only one generation of European experience in America, colonists faced the problem of dealing with racially mixed offspring, a problem handled rather differently by the several nations involved. It is well known that the Latin countries, especially Portugal and Spain, rapidly developed a social hierarchy structured according to degrees of intermixture of Negro and European blood, complete with a complicated system of terminology to facilitate definition. The English in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas, on the other hand, seem to have created no such system of ranking. To explain this difference merely by comparing the different cultural backgrounds involved is to risk extending generalizations far beyond possible factual support. Study is still needed of the specific factors affecting each nation’s colonies, for there is evidence with some nations that the same cultural heritage was spent in different ways by the colonial heirs,..

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