Thoroughly Modern Mulatta: Rethinking “Old World” Stereotypes in a “New World” Setting

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Oceania, Women on 2011-01-19 01:20Z by Steven

Thoroughly Modern Mulatta: Rethinking “Old World” Stereotypes in a “New World” Setting

Volume 28, Number 1 (Winter 2005)
pages 104-116
E-ISSN: 1529-1456, Print ISSN: 0162-4962
DOI: 10.1353/bio.2005.0034

Maureen Perkins, Associate Professor of Sociology
Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia

This paper examines the role of racial stereotypes in the life narratives of several women of color living in Australia. While coming from very different parts of the world, all show an awareness of popular images of the mixed race woman. Their sensitivity on this issue points to the continuing effects of past racism and the globalization of colonial discourse, as well as hints at a sense of community based on color which crosses established “ethnic” boundaries.

In 2001 I interviewed seven women “of color” who had come to Australia from different countries and cultures. I talked with each of them about their childhoods and their experiences of growing up. Although interviewers have often used life stories to understand the collective, (1) the purpose of my interviews was not to construct a picture of Australian society. I was more interested in what could be called transcultural commonality, ways in which these women, while coming from different linguistic and socioeconomic backgrounds, felt that they could identify with “color” as a shorthand for certain types of understanding. I wanted to pursue the question of whether being a woman “of color” in a country which did not usually recognize this term in its lexicon of race and ethnicity actually provided a form of community that cut across more established “ethnic” identities. If it did so, it seemed to me that it would be the globalized nature of colonial discourse that created such a common understanding. It was, then, the points of intersection in these life stories that I set out to trace, rather than the specific context of individual narratives.

The meetings were, no doubt, greatly influenced by what I thought I shared with these women, and it would be no exaggeration to say that in some ways I was consciously learning about myself in the process. In asking specifically whether their skin color had been an issue in their childhoods, and whether they had felt it marked them out as different, I was using my own memories of growing up as a brown-skinned immigrant in 1950s London. Nevertheless, I tried to treat each contact as a conversation rather than a formal interview with specific questions. At no point did I introduce the term “mulatta” or “half-caste,” or even “mixed race,” but I did raise the question of whether they had experienced racism. Despite their very different backgrounds, all had experienced racism of some kind, and were acutely aware of its presence in Australian society. The history of colonialism was something that each referred to, though all were conscious of living much more liberated lives, in racial terms, than their parents had done.

Two historians of colonialism, Catherine Hall and Robert Young, have disagreed about whether the racial language of the past can change its meaning. Young writes that however many new meanings of “race” there are, the old refuse to die: “They rather accumulate in clusters of ever-increasing power, resonance and persuasion.” “So what,” is Hall’s reaction: “the origin of a word cannot determine its meanings across time” (127). The one key word about which they most disagree is “hybridity.” Young uses it in the subtitle of his influential book, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. He believes that, while given different inflections, the word cannot stand outside the past, and in fact “reinvokes it” (“Response” 146). Hall, on the other hand, writes about the possibility of re-articulating meanings, and the need to consider the historical context in which people make new meanings from old words.

This debate between Hall and Young is central to understanding the role of color in modern Western societies. Race theory developed by Europeans in the nineteenth century placed a high value on purity. Miscegenation, or breeding between races, was seen as a “mis” take, and like all “mis” words would have a sorry outcome. The legacy of this period of history has been to render all of the terms describing mixed race offensive and painful to some people. Australian Aboriginal communities, for example, reject the term “half-caste” because of its connotations of “part” Aboriginality and its association with the removal of the stolen generations. (2) Werner Sollors writes of the difficulty of describing a condition which in its very conceptualization necessitates thinking racially. Julian Murphet calls the “mulatto” an “unspeakable concept.” In a British context, the distinguished sociologist of race Michael Banton wrote in 2001: “The use of race in English to identify certain kinds of groups sometimes leads to use of the expression ‘mixed-race,’ which is objectionable because of its implication that there are pure races” (185). Banton would not be alone in thinking the term “mixed race” offensive.

Yet Banton’s comments were going to press at the same time as the English census forms for 2001 were becoming available, with their whole new category of “mixed.” Similarly, in the United States, the 2000 census allowed citizens to identify as mixed race for the first time. In both countries, people of “mixed race” themselves have been amongst those agitating for the recognition that such a census category would give them. At the same time, “mixed race studies,” using postcolonial hybridity theory, have become increasingly influential. (3) Can the connotations of a word change, so that its historical traces no longer impact in new contexts?…

Read or purchase the article here.

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‘But most of all mi love me browning’: The Emergence in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Jamaica of the Mulatto Woman as the Desired

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Social Science, Women on 2009-11-06 19:09Z by Steven

‘But most of all mi love me browning’: The Emergence in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Jamaica of the Mulatto Woman as the Desired

Feminist Review(on-Line)
Volume 65, Issue 1
June 2000
pages 22 – 48
DOI: 10.1080/014177800406921

Patricia Mohammed, Head and Lecturer
Centre for Gender and Development Studies, Mona Unit
University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica

One of the most common threads in the Caribbean tapestry races which have populated the region over the last five centuries largely through forced or voluntary migration, is that there have emerged mixtures of the different racial groups. A large proportion of Caribbean women and men are referred to euphemistically as ‘mixed race’. The terms used to describe people of mixed race vary by territory and have been incrementally added to or changed over time. The original nomenclatures such as sambo, musteephino, mulatto, creole, etc. have been replaced at present to include terms like brown skin, mulatto, clear skin, light skin, red-nigger, dougla and browning. The title of the article comes from a contemporary dancehall song in Jamaica in which the black singer, Buju Banton, unwittingly echoes an unspoken yet shared notion of female desirability in the Caribbean: a preference for ‘brown’ as opposed to black women or unmixed women. In the ongoing constructions of femininity in the region, class and skin colour have intersected with race to produce hierarchies and stereotypes of femininity based on racial mixing. Drawing on some of the historical data available, particularly that of the pioneering research in this area produced by Lucille Mathurin [1924-2009] in 1974, this article interrogates some aspects of miscegenation in the Jamaican past, to configure these with gender, race and class relations in the present. The article does not attempt to arrive at conclusive findings but to contribute to the ongoing process in the region, and elsewhere, of differentiating the category ‘woman’ in historiography and sociology.

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Demystifying the Tragic Mulatta: The Biracial Woman as Spectacle

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Women on 2009-10-21 01:14Z by Steven

Demystifying the Tragic Mulatta: The Biracial Woman as Spectacle

Stanford Black Arts Quarterly
Volume 2, Issue 3 (Summer/Spring 1997)
pages 12-14

Stefanie Dunning, Associate Professor
Miami University (of Ohio)

To talk about the complexities of subjectivity is to enter into a discussion which necessarily locates itself at the intersection of race, clans, gender and sexuality. When thinking about my own subjective position, I am confronted by constructions that simultaneously identify, name, abridge and abstract me. Sometimes they help guide my thoughts about myself; at other times, they limit my thinking, reducing me to general categories of color, class, and desire. My present task, interrogation of a biracial subject position, is as much a gender discussion as it is a racial one. My investments in this discussion are deep; I am writing theoretically and distantly about myself— looking for truths about biraciality that I recognize in the words of other theorists, hoping to trace for myself and my audience one thread within a complex, unraveling cultural text. I am not interested here with how biracial subjects manage their subjectivites; such an approach inherently positions biraciality as problematic, the historical consideration of which falls beyond the scope of this project. Instead I will explore the way biracial subjectivity is gendered through its construction.

Women are the primary signifiers of miscegenation in literature and film. Likewise, the critical discourse on biraciality foregrounds the “tragic mulatta.” Yet, theorists regularly circumvent the issue of gender and theories lack interrogation of the point at which race and gender meet to sign biraciality. Visibility, i.e. what biracial people “look” like, makes up a significant part of biracial women’s experiences with uniracial onlookers. Moreover, visibility informs biracial women’s response to the uniracial “gaze.” This paper posits that biraciality is read differently “along gender lines.” While discourses about “mulattos” efface biracial men, biracial women are discursively foregrounded as “exotic.” Effectively, biraciality is inscribed with a specifically female status: the desire of ‘uniracial’ onlookers to exoticize biracial women inform the “gaze” which casts biracial women, “spectacle.”

Read the entire article here.

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Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s Mulattos: From Barefoot Madonna to Maggie the Ripper

Posted in Articles, Arts, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Women on 2009-10-15 20:04Z by Steven

Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s Mulattos: From Barefoot Madonna to Maggie the Ripper

Journal of American Studies
Volume 41, Issue 1 (April 2007)
pages 83-114
DOI: 10.1017/S0021875806002763

Jo-Ann Morgan, Associate Professor of Art History and African American Studies
Western Illinois University

With emancipation a fait accompli by 1865, one might ask why Kentucky-born Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1835–1907), former Confederate soldier, son of a border state slaveholder, began painting slaves then. Noble had known the “peculiar institution” at first hand, albeit from a privileged position within the master class. As a result, his choice to embark upon a career as a painter using historical incidents from slavery makes for an interesting study. Were the paintings a way of atoning for his Confederate culpability, a rebel pounding his sword into a paintbrush to appease the conquering North? Or was he capitalizing on his unique geographic perspective as a scion of slave-trafficking Frankfort, Kentucky, soon to head a prestigious art school in Cincinnati, the city where so many runaways first tasted freedom? Between 1865 and 1869 Noble exhibited in northern cities a total of eight paintings with African American subjects. Two of these, The Last Sale of Slaves in St. Louis (1865, repainted ca. 1870) and Margaret Garner (1867), featured mixed-race women, or mulattos, as they had come to be called. From a young female up for auction, to the famous fugitive Margaret Garner, his portrayals show a transformation taking place within perceptions of biracial women in post-emancipation America. Opinions about mulattos surfaced in a range of theoretical discussions, from the scientific to the political, as strategists North and South envisioned evolving social policy.

Margaret Garner or The Modern Medea (1867)

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Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture

Posted in Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United Kingdom, Women on 2009-10-12 23:07Z by Steven

Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture

Duke University Press
272 pages
13 b&w photographs
Cloth ISBN: 0-8223-2105-X, ISBN13: 978-0-8223-2105-7
Paperback ISBN: 0-8223-2120-3, ISBN13 978-0-8223-2120-0

Jennifer DeVere Brody, Professor, African and African American Studies
Duke University

Using black feminist theory and African American studies to read Victorian culture, Impossible Purities looks at the construction of “Englishness” as white, masculine, and pure and “Americanness” as black, feminine, and impure. Brody’s readings of Victorian novels, plays, paintings, and science fiction reveal the impossibility of purity and the inevitability of hybridity in representations of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and race. She amasses a considerable amount of evidence to show that Victorian culture was bound inextricably to various forms and figures of blackness.

Opening with a reading of Daniel Defoe’s “A True-Born Englishman,” which posits the mixed origins of English identity, Brody goes on to analyze mulattas typified by Rhoda Swartz in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, whose mixed-race status reveals the “unseemly origins of English imperial power.” Examining Victorian stage productions from blackface minstrel shows to performances of The Octoroon and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she explains how such productions depended upon feminized, “black” figures in order to reproduce Englishmen as masculine white subjects. She also discusses H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau in the context of debates about the “new woman,” slavery, and fears of the monstrous degeneration of English gentleman. Impossible Purities concludes with a discussion of Bram Stoker’s novella, “The Lair of the White Worm,” which brings together the book’s concerns with changing racial representations on both sides of the Atlantic.

This book will be of interest to scholars in Victorian studies, literary theory, African American studies, and cultural criticism.

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Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance

Posted in Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States, Women on 2009-09-25 23:13Z by Steven

Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance

Rutgers University Press
224 pages
b&w illustrations
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8135-3977-5
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8135-3976-8

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, Professor of English
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Of all the images to arise from the Harlem Renaissance, the most thought-provoking were those of the mulatta. For some writers, artists, and filmmakers, these images provided an alternative to the stereotypes of black womanhood and a challenge to the color line. For others, they represented key aspects of modernity and race coding central to the New Negro Movement. Due to the mulatta’s frequent ability to pass for white, she represented a variety of contradictory meanings that often transcended racial, class, and gender boundaries.

Portraits of the New Negro Woman investigates the visual and literary images of black femininity that occurred between the two world wars. Cherene Sherrard-Johnson traces the origins and popularization of these new representations in the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance and how they became an ambiguous symbol of racial uplift constraining African American womanhood in the early twentieth century.

In this engaging narrative, the author uses the writings of Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset as well as the work of artists like Archibald Motley and William H. Johnson to illuminate the centrality of the mulatta by examining a variety of competing arguments about race in the Harlem Renaissance and beyond.

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The Mulatta and the Politics of Race

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States, Women on 2009-09-01 04:01Z by Steven

The Mulatta and the Politics of Race

University Press of Mississippi
272 pages
bibliography, index
ISBN: 157806676X (9781578066766)

Teresa C. Zackodnik, Professor of English
University of Alberta, Canada

An analysis of how black women used the mulatta figure to contest racial barriers.

From abolition through the years just before the civil rights struggle began, African American women recognized that a mixed-race woman made for a powerful and, at times, very useful figure in the battle for racial justice.

The Mulatta and the Politics of Race traces many key instances in which black women have wielded the image of a racially mixed woman to assault the color line.  In the oratory and fiction of black women from the late 1840s through the 1950s, Teresa C. Zackodnik finds the mulatta to be a metaphor of increasing potency.

Before the Civil War white female abolitionists created the image of the “tragic mulatta,” caught between races, rejected by all. African American women put the mulatta to diverse political use.  Black women used the mulatta figure to invoke and manage American and British abolitionist empathy and to contest racial stereotypes of womanhood in the postbellum United States.  The mulatta aided writers in critiquing the “New Negro Renaissance” and gave writers leverage to subvert the aims of mid-twentieth-century mainstream American culture.

The Mulatta and the Politics of Race focuses on the antislavery lectures and appearances of Ellen Craft and Sarah Parker Remond, the domestic fiction of Pauline Hopkins and Frances Harper, the Harlem Renaissance novels of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen, and the little-known 1950s texts of Dorothy Lee Dickens and Reba Lee.  Throughout, the author discovers the especially valuable and as yet unexplored contributions of these black women and their uses of the mulatta in prose and speech.

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Tragic Mulatto/Mulatta

Posted in Definitions, History on 2009-08-23 03:52Z by Steven

From Wikipedia: The Tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries. The “tragic mulatto” is an archetypical mixed race person (a “mulatto”), who is assumed to be sad or even suicidal because he/she fails to completely fit in the “white world” or the “black world”. As such, the “tragic mulatto” is depicted as the victim of the society he/she lives in, a society divided by race. Because of society’s reluctance to acknowledge ambiguity in racial classifications, this character is particularly vulnerable…

Generally, the tragic mulatta archetype falls into one of three categories:

  • A woman who can “pass” for white attempts to do so, is accepted as white by society and falls in love with a white man. Eventually, her status as a bi-racial person is revealed and the story ends in tragedy.
  • A woman appears to be white. It is believed that she is of Greek or Spanish descent. She has suffered little hardship in her life, but upon the revelation that she is mixed race, she loses her social standing.
  • A woman who has all the social graces that come along with being a middle-class or upper-class white woman is nonetheless subjected to slavery.

A common objection to this character is that she allows readers to pity the plight of oppressed or enslaved races, but only through a veil of whiteness — that is, instead of sympathizing with a true racial “other,” one is sympathizing with a character who is made as much like one’s own race as possible. The “tragic mulatta” often appeared in novels intended for women, also, and some of the character’s appeal lay in the lurid fantasy of a person just like them suddenly cast into a lower social class after the discovery of a small amount of “black blood” that renders her unfit for proper marriage…


Please visit the Tragic Mulatto Myth site at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University.

Comentary by Steven F. Riley

The social stigma of ‘race mixing’ and the social upheaval which it was believed to have caused, was firmly imprinted into the American mindset with the publication of the 1842 anti-slavery short story, The Quadroons by Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880).  Child, a Unitarian abolitionist and women’s rights activist, introduced the world to the archetype that would be known as the ‘Tragic Mulatto’ that would last well into the middle of the 20th century.  There are various trajectories for the ‘Tragic Mulatto’, but generally he (or usually she) is a person of mixed race, who passes for white and in doing so, becomes extremely successful in some endeavor (usually love).  Inevitably, the ‘Tragic Mulatto’ is exposed and rejected by both racial groups, and the story ends — as one might guess — tragically.  Though it was not Child’s intent, the ‘Tragic Mulatto’ archetype was yet another tool (this time literary) used to preserve white hegemony.  It did this by: Firstly reinforcing the notion of  “white purity” that anyone not 100% ‘white’ was not white at all; secondly, further denigrating non-whites by implying that they all somehow secretly wished to be white and escape their lot in life; thirdly, effectively isolating mixed race individuals from both the whites they allegedly “wished to be” and the non-whites they wish to allegedly “wish to flee”; and fourthly, It leveled scorn upon those interracial unions that would bring such “hybrids” into the world.

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The Tragic Mulatta Plays the Tragic Muse

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Women on 2009-08-15 03:53Z by Steven

The Tragic Mulatta Plays the Tragic Muse

Victorian Literature and Culture
Volume 37, Issue 2 (June 2009)
pages 501-522
DOI: 10.1017/S1060150309090317

Kimberly Snyder Manganellia, Assistant Professor of 19th-Century British and American Literature
Clemson University

Marie Lavington, the runaway octoroon slave in Charles Kingsley‘s little-read novel Two Years Ago (1857), makes this declaration of independence in a letter to Tom Thurnall, the novel’s hero. Though Tom helped her escape to a Canadian Quaker community, Marie has tired of the “staid and sober” (122; vol. 1, ch. 5) lifestyle of a Quakeress.  She reenters the public marketplace by refashioning herself into the Italian diva, La Cordifiamma.  Marie’s ascent to the stage as La Cordifiamma marks the construction of a new female body in the mid-nineteenth century: the Tragic Mulatta who becomes a Tragic Muse.

Read or purchase the article here.

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