New History Finally Recognizes Afro-Creole Spiritualists

Posted in Articles, History, Interviews, Louisiana, Media Archive, Religion, United States on 2022-05-13 01:23Z by Steven

New History Finally Recognizes Afro-Creole Spiritualists

Religion Dispatches

Paul Harvey, Distinguished Professor of History
University of Colorado

“Ladder of Progress,” a drawing added to the archive of the Cercle Harmonique by René Grandjean, the circle’s first archivist.

Emily Clark’s new work, A Luminous Brotherhood, is an extensive study of a subject that has weirdly been neglected in scholarship: the career of the Afro-Creole Spiritualist Cercle Harmonique from 1858 to 1877. Religious studies scholar Clark has thoroughly mined the records of the Cercle, kept at the University of New Orleans, and produced one of the most important recent works I have seen in race and religion in American history.

By focusing on Afro-Creole Spiritualism in New Orleans, we get an extended, as well as intimate, look at how one very particular group, mostly men and free people of color, envisioned their ideal society through the voices of spirit mediums.

In doing so, they drew from French thinkers and historical experiences (including everyone from Rousseau, Robespierre, and Lamennais to the French and Haitian Revolutions), and applied those to the construction of what they referred to as “the Idea”—a republican society that would achieve liberty, equality and fraternity even in an American society burdened by slavery and racism since its birth.

I had a conversation with Clark, reflecting both on the book as well as on broader questions of race, religion and politics…

Read the entire interview here.

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Rethinking Religion and Race in the Great Migration

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Religion, United States on 2017-11-12 23:30Z by Steven

Rethinking Religion and Race in the Great Migration

Black Perspectives

Emily Clark, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington

Prophet Noble Drew Ali (standing center) and temple members, at religious service of the Moorish Science Temple of America, circa late 1920s (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division)

This post is part of our online roundtable on Judith Weisenfeld’s New World A-Coming

Judith Weisenfeld’s New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration is, in short, a marvelous book. With its focus on the Moorish Science Temple of America (MST), the Nation of Islam (NOI), Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement (PM), and a number of congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews, Weisenfeld challenges much of the previous scholarship by moving these groups from the margins to the center. She pushes the field to rethink its approach to religion and race, opening multiple avenues for future scholars..

…One of my favorite ways to appreciate a new book is to consider how it has re-shaped my thinking about my own work. My first book looked at the Afro-Creole community in New Orleans. No one characteristic differentiated Afro-Creoles from other southern blacks. Much of the city’s Afro-Creole population belonged to Catholic, educated, often mixed-race, French-speaking or bilingual families who were freed during the colonial or antebellum era and who were often wealthier than their Black, non-creole neighbors. When writing in response to W.E.B. Du Bois, local historian Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes noted a distinction between Afro-Creoles and other Black Americans. Desdunes wrote, “One aspires to equality, the other to identity. One forgets he is a Negro in order to think that he is a man; the other will forget that he is a man in order to think that he is a Negro…

Read the entire article here.

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TriPod Mythbusters: Quadroon Balls And Plaçage

Posted in Articles, Audio, History, Louisiana, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2016-10-25 19:12Z by Steven

TriPod Mythbusters: Quadroon Balls And Plaçage

WWNO 89.9 FM
New Orleans, Louisiana

Laine Kaplan-Levenson, Host

There is a common myth told about 19th-century New Orleans. It goes something like this: Imagine you’re in an elegant dance hall in New Orleans in the early 1800s. Looking around, you see a large group of white men and free women of color, who were at the time called quadroons, meaning they supposedly had ¼ African ancestry. The mothers play matchmakers, and introduce their daughters to these white men, who then ask their hand in a dance.

The ballroom is fancy, and the invited guests look the part. When a match is made, a contract is drawn up. The white man agrees to take care of the young woman and any children she may have with him. This arrangement was called “plaçage.”

Charles Chamberlain teaches history at the University of New Orleans. “Plaçage is defined historically as where a white man would basically have a relationship with a free woman of color where she would be kept, so that he would provide her with a house and some form of income so that she could maintain a lifestyle.”

What Chamberlain is describing is basically a common-law marriage. And those did happen. But the idea of Quadroon Balls is way sexier, which helps explain why they get talked about so much. French Quarter tour guides walk by the Bourbon Orleans hotel and talk about the famous quadroon balls that took place inside. But try to find proof of plaçage Chamberlain says, and it’s not there…

Listen to the story here.

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The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World by Emily Clark (review) [Wright]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Louisiana, United States on 2014-03-20 03:04Z by Steven

The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World by Emily Clark (review) [Wright]

Early American Literature
Volume 49, Number 1, 2014
page 257-262
DOI: 10.1353/eal.2014.0015

Nazera Sadiq Wright, Assistant Professor of English
University of Kentucky

The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World unveils the historical genealogy of the American quadroon from its invention as a by-product of the Haitian Revolution and evolution as an alluring figure of sexual desire in New Orleans to its contemporary representation in film and media. Emily Clark tells a masterful story of the quadroon’s migration from the Caribbean to the United States, surfacing in Philadelphia, and settling in New Orleans. She begins with the revolution in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, a revolt that resulted in the establishment of Haiti in 1804. The American quadroon was a socially constructed formula created after the Haitian Revolution to reduce anxiety over race revolts in the Caribbean that threatened to reach American soil. The fictional quadroon, argues Clark, aided in the imaginative construction of New Orleans as a foreign city apart from the American polity. As with Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s black, female mistress kept hidden away like a secret, so too did Americans create “a complex symbolic strategy that kept the quadroon at an imaginative distance from the nation’s heart and heartland” (6). Clark insists that scholars consider New Orleans as a foundational scene of American history, arguing that “the presumption that the history of New Orleans and its quadroons is unique diverts the gaze of the rest of the nation away from its own unattractive Atlantic past, allowing it to remain firmly fixed on less-troubling founding scenes played out on the Mayflower and in Independence Hall” (9). The Strange History of the American Quadroon corrects this sanitization by examining the “intertwined stories” of the quadroon’s evolution as a cultural symbol, the actual people whom this racial classification represents, and the myth that New Orleans is the only home of the quadroon (10).

Using a dazzling array of materials carefully gleaned from archives and historical repositories, including collections at the Latin American Library at Tulane University, the Templeman Library at the University of Kent, and the Office of Archives and Records from the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Clark restores the quadroon to US cultural memory. The first chapter situates the quadroon in the American popular and political imagination through her appearance in the Philadelphia press in 1807. With Haitian refugees migrating to Philadelphia and other US cities after the Haitian Revolution, the image of the quadroon articulated white Philadelphians’ fear of a black republic as well as more generalized anxiety regarding the tenuous political landscape of a newly formed nation. The chapter begins with a detailed account of Haiti’s involvement in the quadroon’s migration to America and her embattled appearance in Philadelphia politics and print culture, arguing that the figure of the black woman “emerged as a charged rhetorical device” in the Philadelphia newspapers to represent the animosity between radical and conservative Democratic Republicans (35). This animosity resulted in the quadroon press war of 1807, which recounted Philadelphia’s unstable relationship with Saint Domingue as a conflict among political parties. The richness of this chapter rests in the way Clark synthesizes the history of the Haitian Revolution and its impact on Philadelphia commerce to demonstrate how this duality “conjured the quadroon as a political trope” (37). This chapter will be especially helpful to scholars invested in studying Haiti through the lens of early Philadelphian print culture.

In chapter 2, Clark reveals how American consciousness came to terms with the Haitian Revolution by displacing fear onto the body of the “menagere,” which Clark defines as a free black woman of color who engaged in sexual partnership with white men in New Orleans. This individual wielded significant economic influence, while being demonized as “an insatiable consumer who seduced white men, including American white men, tempting them away from their proper roles as faithful husbands and fathers” (53-54). In that the “menagere” was viewed as a dangerous, sexually irresistible figure who disrupted men’s natural attachments to white women, the free black woman of color threatened national consciousness as a “usurper of patriotic filiation” (54). Quadroon balls emerged in the context of this perceived threat. In these ballrooms, “men could take in the spectacle of quadroon…

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Quadroons for Beginners: Discussing the Suppressed and Sexualized History of Free Women of Color with Author Emily Clark

Posted in Articles, History, Interviews, Louisiana, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2013-09-07 16:42Z by Steven

Quadroons for Beginners: Discussing the Suppressed and Sexualized History of Free Women of Color with Author Emily Clark

The Huffington Post

Stacy Parker Le Melle

“As a historian, I knew that mixed race women and interracial families were everywhere in America from its earliest days. And I knew that most of the free women of color in antebellum New Orleans bore no resemblance to the quadroons of myth.” —Dr. Emily Clark

As an American, I follow my roots like trails across the globe. My mother is from Kansas and is of German descent, and my deceased father was black with roots in North Carolina, and before then, Africa. Arguably you can trace all of us back to Africa. But my parents’ union created me: a black American woman, a woman of color, a mixed kid, a mulatta, maybe an Oreo, definitely a myriad of identities and categories to embrace or resist.

Living in Harlem, I see so many mixed marriages, mixed kids everyday all the time. Traveling the South, I see so many kids with the telltale curly locks. Growing up in Metro Detroit in the 80s, I knew there were other black & white mixes like me. I just didn’t know them. Only at college in Washington, DC, did I meet mixed girls and have them as friends. And not until my English, women’s studies, and African-American history courses did I learn any American history about women like me.

Before college, maybe I’d encounter a definition of “miscegenation” – that very special crime of racemixing in segregated America. And maybe an explanation of the “one drop rule” that went on to create the classifications of “mulatto” and “quadroon” and “octaroon“—your label dependent upon which fraction of African was in your genealogy. But that was it. In my high school American History texts, I don’t remember any acknowledgement of centuries of rape and consensual relationships between whites and blacks. None of my suburban history teachers lingered on the taboo. Maybe I didn’t either. When I think of the mania around racemixing, and of the cultural trope of the “tragic mulatta“—the woman doomed because she is too white for the blacks, too black for the whites—it was easy to assume that the history of mixed-race women in America was simple in its sadness and injustice.

Yet there is nothing simple about the American Quadroon. Once she was the picture of irresistible beauty, the symbol of a city thought of as irredeemably “other”, an earthbound goddess who conjured so much desire that white men made her concubines, and slavetraders scoured the states for enslaved girls that fit her description to fulfill buyer demand. That was the myth, the dominant story. But as Tulane historian Emily Clark writes in her richly-researched and compelling The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World (UNC Press), she was also a family-woman, marrying men of color, living the propriety dream in her New Orleans society. If her myth was simple in its power, her reality was rich and complicated—by no means a single story…

How do you define an “American Quadroon”?

Dr. Clark: There are really two versions. One is the virtually unknown historical reality, the married free women of color of New Orleans who were paragons of piety and respectability. The other is the more familiar mythic figure who took shape in the antebellum American imagination. If you asked a white nineteenth-century American what a quadroon was, they would answer that she was a light-skinned free woman of color who preferred being the mistress of a white man to marriage with a man who shared her racial ancestry. In order to ensnare white lovers who would provide for them, quadroons were supposedly schooled from girlhood by their mothers to be virtuosos in the erotic arts. When they came of age, their mothers put them on display at quadroon balls and negotiated a contract with a white lover to set the young woman up in a house and provide enough money to support her and any children born of the liaison. The arrangement usually ended in heartbreak for the quadroon when the lover left her to marry a white woman. If this sounds like a white male rape fantasy, that is exactly what it was. There is one other key characteristic of the mythic American Quadroon: she was to be found only in New Orleans…

Read the entire interview here.

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Louisiana: Crossroads of the Atlantic World

Posted in Anthologies, Books, History, Louisiana, Slavery, United States on 2013-06-24 20:28Z by Steven

Louisiana: Crossroads of the Atlantic World

University of Pennsylvania Press
November 2013
304 pages
6 x 9; 3 illustrations
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8122-4551-6
E-book ISBN: 978-0-8122-0873-3

Edited by:

Cécile Vidal, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for North American Studies
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Located at the junction of North America and the Caribbean, the vast territory of colonial Louisiana provides a paradigmatic case study for an Atlantic studies approach. One of the largest North American colonies and one of the last to be founded, Louisiana was governed by a succession of sovereignties, with parts ruled at various times by France, Spain, Britain, and finally the United States. But just as these shifting imperial connections shaped the territory’s culture, Louisiana’s peculiar geography and history also yielded a distinctive colonization pattern that reflected a synthesis of continent and island societies.

Louisiana: Crossroads of the Atlantic World offers an exceptional collaboration among American, Canadian, and European historians who explore colonial and antebellum Louisiana’s relations with the rest of the Atlantic world. Studying the legacy of each period of Louisiana history over the longue durée, the essays create a larger picture of the ways early settlements influenced Louisiana society and how the changes of sovereignty and other circulations gave rise to a multiethnic society. Contributors examine the workings of empires through the examples of slave laws, administrative careers or on-the-ground political negotiations, cultural exchanges among masters, non-slave holders, and slaves, and the construction of race through sexuality, marriage and household formation. As a whole, the volume makes the compelling argument that one cannot write Louisiana history without adopting an Atlantic perspective, or Atlantic history without referring to Louisiana.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction. Louisiana in Atlantic Perspective—Cécile Vidal
    • Chapter 1. “To Establish One Law and Definite Rules”: Race, Religion, and the Transatlantic Origins of the Louisiana Code Noir—Guillaume Aubert
    • Chapter 2. Making a Career out of the Atlantic: Louisiana’s Plume—Alexandre Dubé
    • Chapter 3. Spanish Louisiana in Atlantic Contexts: Nexus of Imperial Transactions and International Relations—Sylvia L. Hilton
    • Chapter 4. Slaves and Poor Whites’ Informal Economies in an Atlantic Context—Sophie White
    • Chapter 5. “Un Nègre nommè [sic] Lubin ne connaissant pas Sa Nation”: The Small World of Louisiana Slavery—Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec
    • Chapter 6. Caribbean Louisiana: Church, Métissage, and the Language of Race in the Mississippi Colony during the French Period—Cécile Vidal
    • Chapter 7. Private Lives and Public Orders: Regulating Sex, Marriage, and Legitimacy in Spanish Colonial Louisiana—Mary Williams
    • Chapter 8. Atlantic Alliances: Marriage among People of African Descent in New Orleans—Emily Clark
  • Conclusion. Beyond Borders: Revising Atlantic History—Sylvia R. Frey
  • Notes
  • List of Contributors
  • Index
  • Acknowledgments
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The Reading Life: Authors Emily Clark, Bill Loehfelm And Dennis Formento

Posted in Audio, History, Interviews, Louisiana, Media Archive, United States on 2013-05-11 21:38Z by Steven

The Reading Life: Authors Emily Clark, Bill Loehfelm And Dennis Formento

The Reading Life
University of New Orleans

Susan Larson, Host

Emily Clark, Clement Chambers Benenson Professor of American Colonial History; Associate Professor of History
Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana

Emily Clark

This week on The Reading Life, Susan talks with Tulane professor Emily Clark, whose new book is The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World, and novelist Bill Loehfelm, whose amazing new thriller, set in New Orleans, is The Devil in Her Way.

Listen to the interview with Dr. Clark  (00:00:50-00:12:06) here. Download the interview here.

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The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World

Posted in Books, History, Louisiana, Media Archive, Monographs, United States, Women on 2013-05-05 23:21Z by Steven

The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World

University of North Carolina Press
April 2013
296 pages
6.125 x 9.25
16 halftones, notes, bibl., index
Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4696-0752-8

Emily Clark, Clement Chambers Benenson Professor of American Colonial History; Associate Professor of History
Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana

Exotic, seductive, and doomed: the antebellum mixed-race free woman of color has long operated as a metaphor for New Orleans. Commonly known as a “quadroon,” she and the city she represents rest irretrievably condemned in the popular historical imagination by the linked sins of slavery and interracial sex. However, as Emily Clark shows, the rich archives of New Orleans tell a different story. Free women of color with ancestral roots in New Orleans were as likely to marry in the 1820s as white women. And marriage, not concubinage, was the basis of their family structure. In The Strange History of the American Quadroon, Clark investigates how the narrative of the erotic colored mistress became an elaborate literary and commercial trope, persisting as a symbol that long outlived the political and cultural purposes for which it had been created. Untangling myth and memory, she presents a dramatically new and nuanced understanding of the myths and realities of New Orleans’s free women of color.


  • PROLOGUE: Evolution of a Color Term and an American City’s Alienation
  • CHAPTER ONE: The Philadelphia Quadroon
  • CHAPTER TWO: From Ménagère to Placée
  • CHAPTER THREE: Con Otros Muchos: Marriage
  • CHAPTER FOUR: Bachelor Patriarchs: Life Partnerships across the Color Line
  • CHAPTER FIVE: Making Up the Quadroon
  • CHAPTER SIX: Selling the Quadroon
  • EPILOGUE: Reimagining the Quadroon
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Acknowledgements
  • Index

PROLOGUE: Evolution of a Color Term and an American City’s Alienation

Let the first crossing be of a, pure negro, with A pure white. The unit of blood of the issue being composed of the halt of that of each parent, Will be a/2 + A/2. Call it, for abbreviation, h (half blood).

Let the second crossing be of h and B, the blood of the issue will be h/2 + B/2 or substituting for h/2 its equivalent, it will be a/4 + A/4 + B/2 call it q (quarteroon) being ¼ negro blood.

Thomas Jefferson, 1815

Travelers have long packed a bundle of expectations about what they will encounter when they visit New Orleans. Long before jazz was born, another presumably native-born phenomenon drew visitors to the Crescent City and preoccupied the American imagination. The British traveler Edward Sullivan observed succinctly in 1852,”I had heard a great deal of the splendid figures and graceful dancing of the New Orleans quadroons, and I certainly was not disappointed.” Sullivan’s fellow country-woman Harriet Martineau provided more-disapproving intelligence on New Orleans quadroons some fifteen years earlier: “The Quadroon girls of New Orleans are brought up by their mothers to be what they have been; the mistresses of white gentlemen.” Frederick Law Olmsted observed of the city’s quadroon women just five years before the outbreak of the Civil War that they were “one, among the multitudinous classifications of society in New Orleans, which is a very peculiar and characteristic result of the prejudices, vices, and customs of the various elements of color, class, and nation, which have been there brought together.”

The Civil War did not much alter advice to visitors about New Orleans quadroons. The “southern tour” in a guidebook published in 1866 includes New Orleans quadroons in its itinerary. Admitting that “the foregoing sketch of society and social life in New Orleans, I need hardly remind my reader, was penned long before the late rebellion had so changed the aspect of every thing throughout the South,” the entry reassures its readers that they may nonetheless expect to encounter survivals of the quadroon in the postbellum city. “The visitor will, however, be surprised as well as delighted at the extent to which the manners and customs of ‘the old regime’ are still perpetuated among the descendants of the early settlers in the Crescent City.” Twenty-first century travel literature upholds the practice of enticing tourists to New Orleans with tales of the quadroon. “The quadroons (technically, people whose racial makeup was one-quarter African) who met here were young, unmarried women of legendary beauty,” a popular travel website explains. “A gentleman would select a favorite beauty and, with her mother’s approval, buy her a house and support her as his mistress, ‘the entry continues, concluding with a guarantee that traces of this peculiar tradition could be found only in one place in America. “This practice, known as plaçage, was unique to New Orleans at the time.”

Passages like these give the impression that New Orleans was the sole place in America where one could encounter beautiful women produced by a specific degree of procreation across the color line, women whose sexual favors were reserved for white men. The reality was, of course, more complicated than that. Women whose racial ancestry would have earned them the color term quadroon lived everywhere in nineteenth-century America.‘ Today, the most well known of them is undoubtedly Virginia-born Sally Hemings, who bore her owner, Thomas Jefferson, seven children. Sally Hemings was the daughter of white planter John Wales and an enslaved woman he owned named Betty Hemings. Betty was the daughter of an enslaved woman named Susannah and a white slave-ship captain named John Hemings. Sally Hemings came to Monticello as the property of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wales Skelton, who was, like Sally, the daughter of John Wales.

Sally Hemings ancestry qualified her as a quadroon under Thomas Jefferson’s own rubric, but when he sat down in 1815 to clarify to an acquaintance the legal taxonomy of race in his home state of Virginia, he did not take the living woman best known to him as his example. Instead, he eschewed the vivid register of language and enlisted the symbolic representation of algebra to illustrate the genetic origins of the physical and legal properties of the woman who bore most of his children and was his deceased wife’s half sister. In a virtuosic and bizarre display of what one scholar has called a “calculus of color,” Jefferson presented a tidy mathematical formula to define the race and place ot the quadroon. The complicated, messy identity and status of Sally Hemings were tamed by the comforting discipline of symbolic logic. Flesh and blood, love, shame, and fear were safely imprisoned within the cold confines of mathematics. Unnamed, Sally Hemings mother was reduced to a/2 + A/4 = h (half-blood). Sally herself was a/4 + A/4 + B/2. “Call it q (quateroon) being ¼ negro blood,” Jefferson instructed (see Figure 1).

This formulaic representation renders race as a kind a chemical compound comprising elements that act on one another in ways that multiply, mix, or cancel one another out to produce predictable results. Just as the combination of the elements of hydrogen and oxygen in the proportions represented by the formula 2H2 + O2 = 2H2O will always produce H2O—water—Jefferson’s calculus of race was meant to be precise, immutable, reliable, knowable. With detached precision, Jefferson produced theoretical mulattos and quadroons devoid of the untidy human elements of desire and power that destabilized the living expressions of his mathematical calculations. He may have been driven to abstraction by the disturbing situation of his own reproductive life, but larger historical currents probably played as important a role in his recourse to symbolic logic.

More than two decades before he drafted the chilling equations of 1815, Jefferson produced his well-known observations on race in Notes on the State of Virginia. The black people Jefferson references in Notes are not abstract symbols but corporeal examples, their differences from “whites” mapped on their bodies and projected onto their sensibilities. The observations in Notes are evocative, almost sensual passages, dense with palpable detail. Here, race is human, organic, expressive, a thing whose qualities can be described, but whose essence cannot be defined. Race slips the porous boundaries of words and threatens to overwhelm with its immeasurable meaning. Jefferson’s calculus of 1815, by contrast, imprisons race within the abstract forms and structures of mathematics, subjecting it to universal rules that prescribe and predict comforting certainties that can be anticipated, managed, even controlled.

The dissonance between Jefferson’s qualitative disquisition on blacks in Notes on the State of Virginia and his algebraic calculations of 1815 begs questions about more than the incongruities in the mind and life of one man. It points to a widespread and enduring tension in the American imagination over the symbolic expression and meaning of race that intensified and accelerated with the outbreak of widespread, violent slave rebellion in the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue in 1791. Jefferson’s own disquiet over the events that convulsed Saint-Domingue for the next thirteen years is clear in his correspondence, public and private. He spared his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph none of his fearful assessment in the early months of the violence. “Abundance of women and children come here to avoid danger,” he told her in November of 1791, having written to her earlier that the slaves of Saint-Domingue were “a terrible engine, absolutely ungovernable.” He gave lull vent to the enormity of his fears to his colleague James Monroe two years later. “I become daily more and more convinced that all the West India Island will remain in the hands of the people of colour, and a total expulsion of the whites sooner or later take place,” he wrote in the summer of 1793. “It is high time we should foresee the bloody scenes which our children certainly, and possibly ourselves (south of the Potomac), have to wade through and try to avert them.” Later that year he wrote to Governor William Moultrie of South Carolina to warn him that “two Frenchmen, from St. Domingo also, of the names of Castaing and La Chaise, are about setting out from this place [Philadelphia] for Charleston, with design to excite an insurrection among the negroes.” These men were neither former African captives nor French émigrés dedicated to the cause of racial equality, but the products of sexual relations between the two. “Castaing,” Jefferson advised Moultrie, “is described as a small dark mulatto, and La Chaise as a Quarteron, of a tall fine figure.”

Jefferson and his contemporaries did more than worry about the Haitian Revolution and the mixed-race people who seemed bent on spreading it. They acted with new urgency to insulate themselves from the threat of slave rebellion and racial reordering in the Atlantic world by means of policy and ideas. The revolution in the French colony of Saint-Domingue that culminated in the establishment of the slave-free black republic of Haiti in 1804 produced a new urgency in attempts to define and manage race throughout the Atlantic world. Race was the basis for the system of chattel slavery that fueled the Atlantic economy. If if could not be imaginatively codified and its mechanism understood, manipulated, controlled, slavery was imperiled. Jefferson’s algebra was one of a range of symbolic strategies Americans deployed in response to racial anxieties magnified by the Haitian Revolution. The American quadroon was another. Both were equally fanciful reductions of a complex reality.

The term quadroon was primarily descriptive for most of the eighteenth century, a color term applied to people whose genetic makeup was imagined to have been one-fourth African. Spanish and Spanish colonial artists began to attach qualitative meaning to the color terms in the second half of the eighteenth century in a genre known as casta painting. Casta paintings comprise multiple panels, usually in multiples of four, in each of which a man and woman of different races are shown with their child or children. Each scene is labeled with the color terms for the racial taxonomy being depicted. For example, a panel portraying a Spanishman and a black woman with their child is labeled “de Español y Negra: nace Mulata.” Such couplings between people imagined as occupying racial extremes were rendered in pejorative ways. As one scholar has noted, “The message is clear: certain mixtures—particularly those of Spaniards or Indians with Blacks—could only lead to the contraction of debased sentiments, immoral proclivities, and a decivilized state” (see Figure 2).

Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, a jurist and naturalist from the French Antilles, betrayed his anxiety over the uncontrollable nature of interracial procreation in a spectacularly detailed 1796 racial taxonomy that provides twenty combinations that produce a quadroon (see Figure 3). Elsewhere, he portrayed mixed-race women as dangerous beauties who seduced French men away from their proper loyalties and paved the way for the overthrow of the plantation regime in Saint-Domingue. Other late eighteenth-century writers likewise gendered the term quadroon and linked it to irresistible beauty. In his 1793 account of Surinam, John Gabriel Stedman succumbs to the powerful charms of a “young and beautiful Quadroon girl” and fathers a son on her.

At the end of the eighteenth century, Americans imagined the beautiful, seductive quadroon as a foreigner in the Caribbean who did not occupy American territory. In fact, of course, the quadroon was already well established in the bosom of the young republic under circumstances such as those at Monticello. This homegrown American quadroon was unacknowledged, however, both literally and figuratively. She, like Sally Hemings, remained in the shadows for nearly two centuries while Americans developed a complex symbolic strategy that kept her at an imaginative distance from the nations heart and heartland. When the Haitian Revolution drove thousands of mixed-race women from the Caribbean to American shores, the figure of the quadroon supplied something more accessible than algebraic abstraction to neutralize the threat embedded in mixed-race people. The foreign female of color who migrated to the United States from the blood-soaked shores of Haiti could be mastered and controlled by white American men. This fantasy of sexual triumph supplied an antidote to the terror inspired by the image of Haiti’s virile black men poised to export their war on slavery to the American mainland.

The émigré quadroon offered other advantages in the symbolic management of Americas mixed-race population. She was more easily contained and controlled than her domestic counterpart could be. The endemic American quadroon was geographically pervasive, but a limited range could be imaginatively imposed on the invader, quarantining the threat she posed. Anxiety over the destabilizing potential of procreation across the color line was assuaged if America ignored its own interracial population and practices, preoccupied itself with the migrant quadroon, and found a way to cordon off the newcomer from the rest of the nation. When the Haitian Revolution first drove the quadroon from the Caribbean to the United States, she surfaced in Philadelphia and created quite a stir. By the 1810s, however, she had migrated away from the city so closely associated with America’s founding and attached herself to a site comfortingly located on the geographic margins of the young republic: New Orleans.

Sequestering the quadroon figuratively in the Crescent City shaped American identity and historical narrative in subtle but powerful ways, effectively turning New Orleans into a perpetual colonial space in the national imagination. The subjection of eroticized women of color by white men is one of the key mechanisms and metaphors of colonialism. Historians and theorists have disputed the view of colonialism as a project limited to the empires of Europe and Asia, exposing the colonial enterprises of the United States not only in overseas sites such as the Philippines but within the nation’s continental borders. Native Americans and Mexican-descended inhabitants of the American West and Southwest are now widely recognized as the objects of episodes of domestic colonialism. In such instances, “mainstream” America defined itself and its values against an “other,”—usually a feminine, colored other. Slavery and racism, too, fit easily into the concept of domestic colonialism. The nation’s symbolic use of the figure of the quadroon has produced yet another instance of domestic colonialism, rendering New Orleans an internal alien barred by this presumably exceptional feature of its past from claiming a comfortable berth in the national historical narrative.

The acceptance of New Orleans as exceptional and its exclusion from the normative common history imagined to have been shared by the rest of America paradoxically secure some of the most prominent building blocks of American exceptionalism. The presumption that the history of New Orleans and its quadroons is unique diverts the gaze of the rest of the nation away from its own unattractive Atlantic past, allowing it to remain firmly fixed on less-troubling founding scenes played out on the Mayflower and in Independence Hall. Americans have used the figure of the quadroon for more than two centuries not just to explain and explore race but to delineate an American past and polity that is as sanitized—and as unsatisfying—as Thomas Jefferson’s equation. The pages ahead tell the intertwined stories of the quadroon as symbol, the flesh-and-blood people this symbol was supposed to represent, and New Orleans, the city long imagined as Americas only home to both.

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Historian Unmasks Quadroon Myth

Posted in Articles, History, Louisiana, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2012-03-29 01:25Z by Steven

Historian Unmasks Quadroon Myth

New Wave
Tulane University News

Carol J. Schlueter

Historian Emily Clark has been here before, plowing through New Orleans archival documents from the early 1800s, handwritten in French. Her latest search has unveiled truths about a group of women that Clark says history has maligned: free women of color.

“I want to bring them to the attention of history again,” says Clark, an associate professor who holds the Clement Chambers Benenson Professorship in American Colonial History at Tulane.

Funding from a state Awards to Louisiana Artists and Scholars (ATLAS) grant has allowed Clark to extend a sabbatical and work on a new book, The Strange History of the American Quadroon.

Myths abound about “quadroon balls” in early-19th-century New Orleans in which quadroons—described by Clark as “a name for any woman who seemed to be of mixed race”—were presented to groups of white men. With marriages between the two groups forbidden, what supposedly resulted was plaçage, a contractual living-together arrangement.

But when Clark went looking in the archives, she found something else…

Read the entire article here.

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