Mixed bodies, separate races: The trope of the “(tragic) mulatto” in twentieth-century African literature

Mixed bodies, separate races: The trope of the “(tragic) mulatto” in twentieth-century African literature

McMaster University (Canada)
251 pages
AAT NR57539

Diana Adesola Mafe, Assistant Professor of English
Denison University

This dissertation proposes that the American literary trope of the “tragic mulatto” has both roots and resonances in sub-Saharan Africa. The concept of the mulatto, a person of mixed black and white heritage, as a tragic, ambiguous Other evolved primarily from nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American fiction. I argue, however, that the mulatto occupies a similarly vexed discursive space in the historiography of sub-Saharan Africa and contemporary African literature. After contextualizing the American trope through such postbellum novels as James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928), I track the emergence of specific racially mixed populations in sub-Saharan Africa as a result of trade, migration, and colonialism. My historical survey of such mixed race communities as the Afro-Portuguese lançados of Senegambia and the Coloured people of South Africa brings to light the remarkable currency of (tragic) mulatto stereotypes across time and space. Having established the circulation of mulatto stereotypes in (pre-)colonial sub-Saharan Africa, I consider how two contemporary mixed race South African writers engage with such stereotypes in their work. This study argues that twentieth-century Coloured writers Bessie Head and Arthur Nortje realize the trope of tragic mixedness in their respective lives and writing. Head and Nortje reflect the rigid apartheid ideology of their native South Africa and assign universality to the “plight” of being mixed race in a segregationist society. But both writers also use their (gendered) identities as “tragically mixed” to challenge the policed racial categories of apartheid, subverting fixity through, paradoxical performances of Self. I conclude my study in the post-civil rights and post-apartheid arena of the twenty-first century, using my own experiences as an African “mulatta” and the current field of mixed race studies to illustrate how paradox itself is indispensable to progressive readings and imaginings of mixed race identity.

Table of Contents

  • CHAPTER ONE: The Evolution of the “Tragic Mulatto” Trope in American Literature: An Introduction
  • CHAPTER TWO: The White Man’s “Other” Burden: (Pre-)Colonial Race Mixing in the “Dark Continent”
  • CHAPTER THREE: A Mulatta in Motabeng: Bessie Head’s A Question of Power as African Tragic Mulatta Fiction
  • CHAPTER FOUR: A Portrait of the (Tortured) Artist as a Young (Coloured) Man:Reading Arthur Nortje
  • CHAPTER FIVE: The Premise/Promise of Paradox: Concluding Theories and Reflections from a New Millennium “Mulatta”

Purchase the dissertation here.

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