Fluidity without Postmodernism: Michelle Cliff and the “Tragic Mulatta” Tradition

Fluidity without Postmodernism: Michelle Cliff and the “Tragic Mulatta” Tradition

African American Review
Vol. 32, No. 4 (Winter, 1998)
pages 673-689

Suzanne Bost, Associate Professor of English
Loyola University

I am writing the story of my life as a statue… I wish they had carved me from the onyx of Elizabeth Catlett.  Or molded me from the dark clay of Augusta Savage.  Or cut me from mahogany or cast me in bronze.  I wish I were dark plaster like Meta Warrick Fuller’s Talking Skull.  But I appear more as Edmonia Lewis’s Hagar—wringing her hands in the wilderness—white marble figure of no homeland—her striations caught within.  (Cliff, Land 85)

In “The Laughing Mulatto (Formerly a Statue) Speaks,” Michelle Cliff invokes past stereotypes of the mulatto and the sculptors who remolded them. From Edmonia Lewis (1844-1909)—the half-black, half-Chippewasculpor who gained international fame with the help of abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child—to Augusta Savage (1892-1962)—the Harlem Renaissance artists who sculpted busts of W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, and Marcus Garvey—black artists have been reconstructing images of African Americans.  The speaker of “The Laughing Mulatto” identifies with racial “betweeenness,” yet she also subverts racist conventions that privilege the whiteness within biracial African Americans. She wishes that her skin were darker: onyx, mahogany, or bronze, not white marble (Cliff, Land 85).  Her wish implicitly compares race to workable materials, as if racial identity were something that could be chiseled and molded by an artist…

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