The Mulatto: an unspeakable concept
The discourse of race has necessarily produced its own supplements; and there has been no more intriguing categorical supplement to racial discourse than that of the ‘mulatto’. In this essay, I explore some of the meanings of this supplement as it was produced, accepted, and then retracted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — first as a legalistic and sociological category, and second as an ideological signifier in the domain of fictional and autobiographical literary genres.
Shifting and stuttering between a ‘both/and’ and a ‘neither/nor’ binary logic of racial identification, the mulatto is a peculiarly homeless signifier that hesitates in the no-man’s-land between monolithic racial alternatives and casts an immanent doubt upon both their houses. As early as the 1910s, meditation on the mulatto would precipitate speculation that, far from being an isolated ‘problem’, the ‘man of mixed blood’ was the springboard of societal progress: ‘the advance of civilization is dependent upon this process of racial intermixture’,1 which could be spotted everywhere across Europe and the rest of the world. As racial discourse has evolved in a myriad of directions and forms according to the structures of the political and sexual economies in which it operates, this supplement has of course known various, often incompatible applications. Nowhere, perhaps, has the supplement been as ‘dangerous’ as in the USA, for reasons, and with results, which will be discussed in this essay. Nevertheless, if there is a consensus of opinion about this supplement today, it would seem to be that it is unspeakable. The ‘strategic essentialisms’ employed by the various Black peoples since the 1960s in the name of civil and human rights have finally settled all doubts in favour of a performative ‘one drop of blood’ rule whose essentialist origins are, precisely, those of the ultra-racist American South. As a recent article on the subject in Australia has put it, ‘When "self-identification" was introduced in the early 1970s as the means by which Aboriginality would be determined, it was a repudiation of all those racist notions of half-caste, quarter-caste, and "quadroon" which had been used to deny indigenous people their culture, their land and their children … [P]eople could claim Aboriginality if they fitted three criteria: indigenous ancestry, self-identification and community acceptance.’2 The presumptions here are as perplexing as they are inescapable: the notion of the ‘mulatto’ or ‘half-caste’ is a racist one, that has been superseded by a new performative identity which nonetheless contains an appeal to a dualistically conceived ancestry. There are Aborigines and there are white people, and this is notracist. Only the supplement is.
The unspeakableness of ‘mulatto’ today is, of course, an index of its historicity — our retrospective distaste for it springing from its contamination by an essentialist doctrine of races, from which we have emerged into the broad light of ‘culturalist’ day. Any such transcendence of nineteenth century racialism, which invariably decodes for us as racism, is surely a boon of the great modern revolutions in ethnography, biology and social science. What is less clear, however, is how, in the context of a specifically American state-racism, this concept in particular once helped to open a loophole in the dominant ideologies of racial identity, and uniquely contributed to the development of our very ‘culturalist’ paradigm of race; and how, in that same context, the mulatto has always been unspeakable anyway: a dirty secret or scandalous aporia to be resolved back into the imperturbable binarism of black and white (which is rather a different binary from that of Negro and Caucasian).
For ‘one drop of blood’ has generally been enough, in the logic of American racism, to taint the body with blackness; enough to demote any subject of the ante-bellum Democracy to slavery and/or three-fifths citizenship status,3 and practically deprive him or her of the vote in the Southern states until 1967. And yet, where else but in the Southern states did those peculiar terminological embarrassments, such as ‘octoroon’, ‘quadroon’ and ‘mulatto’, take purchase and seem to offer an elaborate qualification of the one-drop rule? Did the progressive diminishment of the quotient of ‘black blood’ in the body correlate with any parallel diminishment of legal disenfranchisement and inequality on its basis? If not,4 and a single drop was alwaysformally enough to dictate the social death of blackness, what did it matter the ratio between what were known as ‘Caucasian’ and ‘Negroid’ bloods?
Quite clearly, the drive to construct a gradation of degrees of blackness is an emblematic product of that nineteenth century habit of denomination, systematization, and scientificity: of knowledge-power which proceeds by dividing the qualitative manifold into strictly quantified segments and fractions in order to render each atom of social and ‘Natural’ material subservient to a regime of administrative control. Thus, a meticulous stratification of the social body according to racial ‘complexion’ ought to produce new entities and knowledges which — in theory — would only extend the reach of social power. The most complete systematisation of racial intermixture was recorded by C. B. Davenport in 1913, in his work Heredity of Skin Color in Negro-White Crosses, where the following chart can be found:
‘Mulatto’, of course, was the most elastic and interesting of these terms, for while at times it designated a strict 50-50 balance between ‘Negro’ and white (i.e., in most cases, the direct offspring of plantation rapes), it also stretched to encompass what the 1870 and 1910 Census Reports called ‘all persons having any perceptible trace of Negro blood, excepting, of course, Negroes of pure blood’.6 It was only in the Census of 1890 that the gradation of mulatto-quadroon-octoroon was applied as a classificatory typology to the populace; from that point onward this system of classification was not used. By and large, after that brief moment and before 1920, the term ‘mulatto’ was enlarged to include ‘all persons who are recognized, in the communities in which they live, as being of mixed blood’.7 In other words, at a practical level, the scientific discourse of racial complexion was outranked by a more sociological concept of the ‘mulatto’, which applied to the ‘mixed group’ as a whole — its function being always to discern and publicise the ‘one drop of blood’.
The 1910s were the heyday of the concept of ‘mulatto’, with Reuter’s magnum opus being only the pinnacle of a sizeable array of sociological and literary speculation about racial intermixture, eugenics and the anomalous status of the ‘man of mixed blood’. The next step was predictable given many of the uneasy implications of such speculation: the subsumption of this last, vestigial reminder of the traumatic history of plantation rape into the original racial concept of ‘Negro’, now blurred into the ideological imago of blackness itself. Indeed, the ‘census of 1920 was the last count of mulattoes made in the United States. Thereafter, insofar as the Bureau of the Census was concerned, all Negroes did look alike.’8
And not only did the Census wipe a potentially destabilizing concept off its rolls, but the arena of academic scholarship similarly tightened and then shut the loophole that had opened in the 1910s, so that the formative complaint of Reuter in 1918 — ‘The whole work on this important subject remains to be done. Any wide observation or comparison, or any thoroughgoing analysis of a single situation, has not been made’9 — would only be forlornly echoed by Du Bois in 1940: ‘There is, of course, nothing more fascinating than the question of the various types of mankind and their intermixture…; but ever since the African slave trade and before the rise of modern biology and sociology, we have been afraid in America that scientific study in this direction might lead to conclusions with which we were loath to agree.…’10
Here is one clear case of an emergent, systematised, Enlightenment ‘order of things’ giving way under severe social and ideological pressure, and of a whole new taxonomy of intermediate ‘races’ collapsing back into the original and still dominant slave-owning dichotomy of black and white. Heredity and sociology prepared a space for the mulatto that U.S. society did not and could not fulfil. Brazil, on the other hand, did, and as Carl Degler rightly points out, ‘when a society develops a place for the mulatto, as occurred in Brazil [or indeed Haiti], then certain other responses to the presence of black men in a white dominated society, such as those that were worked out in the United States, for example, are foreclosed.’11 The hegemonic discourse of race in the United States insisted absolutely on the maintenance of the rigid racial dualism prescribed by slavery. ‘The simple duality was quite conducive to the development of the view that a man was either Negro or white, there being no more room for an intermediate person in the biological schema than there was for an intermediate status in the law. There was no place, in short, for the mulatto; in the liberal ideology there could be no mulatto escape hatch.’12
The scholar Joel Williamson offers an interesting corrective to this view, yet it is a corrective that is as dependent on the historicity of the ‘escape hatch’ briefly realised, as it is of the concept, ‘mulatto’, to which it was grafted. Williamson argues that, ‘In the South before emancipation in 1865, only one class of Negroes seems to have had considerable power. These were the free mulattoes. … The free mulatto elite existed virtually everywhere in the South, but its presence was most striking in the two places in which free mulattoes lived close together in considerable numbers - in the Charleston District in South Carolina, and in some parishes in lower Louisiana and in New Orleans … Over several decades after emancipation the distinctive mulatto elite disappeared ... ’13 So, if the mulatto ‘escape hatch’ did indeed open up in America, it was precisely under the prevailing conditions of the ‘peculiar institution’ itself, where the difference between black and white in law was at its most extreme; only there and then could the dangerous supplement find purchase outside of the basic dualism and establish a semi-autonomy in the guise of an ‘elite’. After emancipation, the concept and the people whom it nominated, inexorably ‘disappeared.’
So the ‘unspeakableness’ of the term ‘mulatto’ attests not simply to our own disquiet with a concept that bears the traces of a hateful biological essentialism, but more sinisterly to a powerful ideological closure in the dominant ideology itself. This is the source of its residual fascination. Precisely because of its fluctuating semantic domain and its radical historicity — the way in which the concept of ‘mulatto’ retreats from legal specificity into nebulous generality and then dies altogether — it has recurrently been promoted as the very crux, the ‘key to the race problem’14 in the Americas, and in the United States most particularly.
In this essay, I want to address some of the ideological aporias of the
mulatto explored by two white Southern writers in their narrative fictions
— Mark Twain and Thomas Dixon— before passing on briefly to the treatment
of this concept by the most eminent and brilliant of the twentieth century’s
African-American intellectuals, W. E. B. Du Bois. I will not be analysing
one of the primordial practico-ideological capabilities of the mulatto,
that of ‘passing’, which can be referred to as the possibility of being
white, and which tended to be explored by black writers and intellectuals
more than white ones.15 Instead I am first
interested in a rather different issue, (into which the first often shaded,
to be sure), namely the impossibility of being either white or black
as this became the hallmark of white ideological speculation on the mulatto
in America; and thus the impossibility of the mulatto being itself
in any consistent and future-oriented way. This psychological impossibility
is nevertheless figured, by both conservative and progressive writers,
in the context of a latent demographic possibility, which is stated most
bluntly in the satirical plaint of T. G. Fessenden:
To forestall this dystopian vision (here linked critically, and not without warrant, to the concept of democracy itself), white writers promoted the ‘tragic mulatto’ stereotype, from various ideological imperatives. This stereotype was a holding operation, a test-pattern, behind which the broader social-ideological task could be accomplished — the liquidation of the mulatto altogether, the conversion of a dangerous supplement into the mask of blackness. Finally, then, it will be salutary to turn to that other latent ‘possible’ of the mulatto as endorsed by W. E. B. Du Bois in Dusk of Dawn and in his eventful life more generally: the possibility of being black. That this could be a valuable and meaningful move, ideological second nature to us today, was in its day as radical and significant a realisation in the history of discourse on race as can be imagined.All hail Columbia's transmutation
The realm of classic narrative fiction, insofar as it gravitates naturally to the psychological, has generally borne out the authoritative thesis of Edward Reuter to the effect that, ‘Psychologically, the mulatto is an unstable type.’16 Such instability in the mulatto character Roxana in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson(1894) has led at least one critic to complain: ‘The one thing wrong with Roxana is that she is neither black nor white long enough at a stretch to be entirely convincing. The problem is not that she is, literally, a mulatto but that Mark Twain had trouble deciding which Roxana is the real one: the one who looks white or the one who acts black.’17 Yet the attribution of Roxana’s loss of ‘much of her identity’ to an aesthetic failure is specious. The ‘real’ Roxana could only ever have been the paradoxical split personality that the text so roundly produces, as perfect a product of the liberal imagination of ‘mixed race’ as the tradition affords. As Sterling Brown has written, ‘Mathematically they [white writers] work it out that his [the mulatto’s] intellectual strivings and self-control come from his white blood, and his emotional urgings, indolence and potential savagery come from his Negro blood.’18 A female version of this racial algebra is definitive of Roxana.
The ‘culturalist’ element of the novel crystallises early on, while Roxy is dressed as an elegant townslady in preparation for her suicide, and hatches the plot to rescue her son from being ‘sold down the river’ by swapping the clothing of the children (a classic Twainian switch). It reaches its culmination in the pathetic spectacle of the ‘real’ Tom, who has swapped places with the mulatto Valet de Chambre through Roxy’s machinations, and fully assumed that identity:
"A nigger! ? I am a nigger! — oh, I wish I was dead!" …
When ‘Tom’ fails his gentlemanly duty to challenge another character to a duel (for gross personal insult), and thereby dishonours his ‘family’ and is disinherited, Roxy confronts him: ‘"Its de nigger in you, dat’s what it is. Thirty-one parts of you is white, en on’y one part nigger, and dat po’ little one part is yo’ soul. ’Taint wuth savin’…. You has disgraced yo’ birth [as bastard son to a landed white gentleman father].’ (70) There is irony here, but not nearly enough. The scare-quotes usually used to soften the impact of this word effectively vanish in Roxy’s authorially approved speech-zone. Here, "nigger" just means nigger. Indeed, this level of truth in the text, the truth of the body as against the trappings of culture, is amply confirmed by Wilson’s perspicacious palmistry, and clinched by the ultimate ‘device’ of the detective story itself — namely, the accumulation of fingerprints as a database from which to determine guilt. It is through a fingerprint that ‘Tom’s’ identity is legally betrayed, and that the correlation between essence and behaviour is finally made, in spite of an appearance which the mulatto character has consistently proved quite compatible with legal enfranchisement. The relish with which Twain finally sends his mulatto character ‘down the river’ befits entirely the textual machinery that he has contrived to negate that troublesome appearance in favour of a racial essence. If the black ‘thirty-second’ part of him is, as Roxy says, his soul, then the whole apparatus of Pudd’nhead Wilson is just one more argument in favour of the ‘one drop of blood’ rule that will send ‘Tom’, with our contrived readerly approval, into the deepest slavery.
If we have thus seen a markedly ‘liberal’ Southern author subscribe, in the ideology of his textual form, to a subsumptive racial essentialism capable of endorsing the sale of a central mulatto character into slavery, then what can we expect from that most virulently conservative and avowedly racist of authors, Thomas Dixon? Perhaps surprisingly, the great ideological hero of his traumatized post-Reconstruction novel The Clansman (1905) is no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln himself, into whose mouth are put these emblematic words:
Indeed, as we shall see, this chiasmic relationship between race and
region is symptomatic of what I want to argue is a curious displacement
of guilt in the text, which ultimately locates the original sin of Reconstruction
and the prospect of a ‘mulatto citizenship’ not in the historical clash
of forces between racial blocs, but in the diseased, crypto-Napoleonic
psychology of a Northerner, the truly extraordinary Senator Stoneman —
and thus with Jacobinism and revolutionism per se. That the text wants
to offer some affection for American ‘Negroes’ in themselves, is clear
from the pure condescension of Ben Cameron’s idyllic portrait of them
as simple, trusting, hard-working, friendly allies of the honest Southerner,
and from the text’s own periodic vehiculation of this type in various
of the Camerons’ ex-slaves. Without the infusion of revolutionary political
ideologies from the North, these simple figures would exist in perpetuity
in a state of unruffled pastoral bliss; but once that ideology has taken
hold — once, that it to say, a certain intellectual miscegenation has
taken place — ‘race consciousness’ will out. The gentle Dr Cameron is
eventually forced to utter the ‘obvious’:
"For a Russian to rule a Pole," he went on, "a Turk to rule a Greek, or an Austrian to dominate an Italian, is hard enough, but for a thick-lipped, flat-nosed, spindle-shanked negro, exuding his nauseating animal odour, to shout in derision over the hearths and homes of white men and women is an atrocity too monstrous for belief." …
The mulatto-as-destiny, not the Negro as such, is thus what drives the diabolism of The Clansman. Silas Lynch (‘a Negro of perhaps forty years, a man of charming features for a mulatto, who had evidently inherited the full physical characteristics of the Aryan race, while his dark yellowish eyes beneath the heavy eyes glowed with the brightness of the African jungle’, 93) and the remarkable Lydia Brown (‘a woman of extraordinary animal beauty and the fiery temper of a leopardess’, 57) are both active, intellectual forces in the policies of Reconstruction, and are immediately associated with the Great Commoner, Stoneman. And yet, their activities are relatively underdeveloped and shady. We have only the odd assertion that, as Phil Stoneman says of Lydia’s influence over his father, ‘I believe the tawny leopardess who keeps his house influences him in this cruel madness.’ (162-3) Nothing is demonstrated; and nothing can be. Mulattoes cannot be directly responsible, for here they only portend a genetic future of which they are no more than minatory prolepses. The great aporia of The Clansman, and of so much reactionary thought about race and miscegenation, is here: though comprehensively villainized, the Negroes are ultimately insufficient targets, since ‘these millions of semi-savages’ cannot themselves be the generators of ideas or of world-historical transformation. The entire responsibility must rest ultimately with a white man.
There is a strange concertina-effect and regression of guilt here: individual Negro crimes are traced back to revolutionists in the Senate and in Congress who give Negroes the franchise, and these decisions are all directly attributable to Senator Stoneman whose unparalleled political genius drives them forward. Thus, the Negroes themselves are curiously blameless. The Klan’s persecution of Gus functions more as a displacement of its ultimate fury at the untouchable North that has produced him, than as simple racial supremacism, and Lydia Brown is ultimately little more than an objective correlative, to dangle behind the real ‘mixed’ enemy of Stoneman.
For Stoneman, of course, is himself nothing other than a mulatto in the realm of morals: ‘Honest and dishonest, cruel and tender, great and mean, a party leader who scorned public opinion, a man of conviction, yet the most unscrupulous politician, a philosopher who preached the equality of man, yet a tyrant who hated the world and despised all men!’ (172) Lydia is, in this sense, only the embodied alibi of this greater moral ‘mixture’, which is the text’s signal fascination and fixation: the extraordinary world-historical figure whose predicted democratic ‘dynasty’ will be precisely the ‘great grand mulatto nation’ of which Lincoln and Fessenden had despaired. The mulatto is, for Thomas Dixon as for any number of others, merely that figure through which is thought the unthinkable, the aporetic trope of a social and political more than one. The mulatto is a metastasising trope, here housing an irreconcilable physical doubleness, there framing a genuine psychosis in the arena of morals. It is nothing other than the historical and social paradox, the aporia or antinomy, of race and nation in the Americas made palpable. If the ‘mulatto nation’ is that towards which a promiscuous racial and sexual economy tends here and elsewhere, then its origin must ultimately be traced, not to ‘Negroes’, but to the ‘original sin’ of Enlightened democracy itself: the idea of a radically liberated (and miscegenated) polity sundered from Europe, alive and potent in the febrile dynastic imaginings of Stoneman who is, by this very logic, both despot and democrat at once. It is this Enlightenment idea that was never written into the Constitution, with its infamous editorial admissions of ‘Indians not taxed, and three fifths of all other persons’. In other words, to the degree that the Constitution enshrined the ‘free white man’ as the only legitimate subject of democracy, it fell behind the concept which, as Senator Stoneman in Dixon’s novel quite ably shows, is inseparable at the outer limit from the figure of the mulatto; a figure which, in good totalitarian wise, is thus to be ‘forced’ on the population by Stoneman as a purgative ‘five year plan’ for genuine democracy. The ideological sleight of hand of The Clansman is that it makes the genuine democrat a Stalinesque demagogue, while presenting its fanatical reactionary racists as cultured and well-educated men. In the result, however, it effectively betrays its own violently anti-democratic credentials, and elevates the mulatto as the very figure of ‘Democracy Unveil’d’.
But what if this aporetic shorthand for democracy itself were harnessed neither for ‘liberal’ nor for reactionary ends, but for its own sake as a ‘non-essence’, the queerest anessence, between anti-democratic racial entities? This has been the one unthinkable option among the various ‘possibles’ generated by the concept of the mulatto — unthinkable because, in a social space governed by a racially defined majoritarian social bloc, it would be politically worthless. The closest any text has come to endorsing it, only to supersede it, is the quasi-autobiographical Dusk of Dawn, by W. E. B. Du Bois. Here, while reflecting on the historical ubiquity of miscegenation in the U.S.A. and elsewhere, and making the astute observation that, within the hegemonic discourse of race in America, the ‘desire of the mixed-blood man is always and everywhere to be a white man; to be classed with and become a part of the superior race’ (315), Du Bois turns to a lengthy autobiographical sketch of himself as a young mulatto in Great Barrington, interpellated by the Constitutional discourse of citizenship, yet blissfully untouched by the prevailing racial ideology.
That realization happens, of course, in the South, where the young Du Bois, in one of the most extraordinary ‘elective affinities’ on record, based entirely on political grounds and in the face of extreme racist violence everywhere he looked, became a Negro,‘became a member of a closed racial group with rites and loyalties, with a history and a future, with an art and philosophy. I received these eagerly and expanded them so that when I came to Harvard the theory of race separation was quite in my blood.’ This wonderfully ironic troping of the term ‘blood’ was not to go unchallenged by some of his ‘liberal’ peers:
1 Felix von Luschan, cited
in Edward Byron Reuter, The Mulatto in the United States (Boston:
Richard G. Badger/The Gorham Press, 1918), 17.