Table of Contents
Reading Meaning in the Mixed Body
Assimilating into What?: Stereotypes, Appearances, and Behavior
Eliminating the Tragic: Intersections of Christianity, Racial Uplift, and True Womanhood
Passing as Subversion and Reification
The Journey Home: Replacing Tragedy with Authority
Looking Within and Beyond Race with Irene, Clare, and Angela
From the Passing Mulatto to the Biracial Character: Race, Class, Gender, and Family
The Community of Multiplicity
Reading Meaning in the Mixed Body
as even now you look
but never see me . . .
Only my eyes will remain to haunt,
and turn your dreams
But the mulatto, even more than the full-blooded Negro, is “America’s metaphor.”2
The word mulatto3 is derived from Mylitta, the black Queen of the Gods associated with miscegenation who was first worshipped in Assyria and then in Greece.4 Mylitta slipped into obscurity and the mulatto became a racial war site for the Self and the Other. The Self, here defined as homogenous whiteness, seeks various methods to separate from the Other, here defined as the difference of blackness. These methods include establishing black images as reservoirs containing repressed and devalued aspects of whiteness that substantiate and justify white supremacy. For instance, the traditional tragic mulatto reflects the fears and shameful desires of whiteness. The mulatto as a reservoir allows the Self to disassociate from these negative qualities. The life of the mulatto ensures the permanent distance of the Self from the Other. The infertility, degeneracy, and criminality resulting from a mix of the worst of whiteness and of blackness remove the mulatto to the outskirts of society in early nineteenth century American literature or the mulatto tragically dies after the black blood of passion conquers the white blood of reason in late nineteenth and early twentieth century American literature. The Self seems to remain separate and pure, preserving the foundation of race and racial categorization. However, race is a biological misnomer. Since race does not biologically exist, the clash of blood becomes a war conducted by one entity fighting against the difference within itSelf. The result is psychosis—a split of the Self as it projects the qualities of difference onto the Other. The mulatto becomes a metaphor for a personality at war with itSelf, for the dissonance within singularity.
The passing mulatto complicates this metaphor. Passing can be a physical, ideological, and geographical movement from being black to being white. Passing also is a movement through the image of another that might result in inauthenticity or a purposeful dualism. From an essentialist perspective, the figure might be seen as white or as black. From a heterogeneous perspective, the figure might be seen as containing both blackness and whiteness because it already is, to some extent, what it is passing for. The figure might also move beyond mere race to the intermingling of the Self and the Other. This intermingling results in the non-psychotic One—a harmony exposing the truth of race and accepting the varying dynamics of self-actualization.
American literary studies on the mulatto, passing, and marginality are relatively undeveloped. Criticism of the mulatto and passing in issues of American Mercury, Common Ground, Opportunity, Phylon, Sepia, and The Journal of Negro Education most often appear in the form of book reviews or articles focusing on social and racial implications. One of the first scholarly texts on the subject, Catherine Juanita Starke’s Black Portraiture in American Fiction: Stock Characters, Archetypes, and Individuals (1971), traces the appearance of the mulatto in a chapter without the benefit of critical analysis. In the more extensive Neither White nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction (1978) , Judith Berzon explores the perception of the mulatto by providing historical, sociological, and scientific context and by analyzing myths, stereotypes, and archetypal themes in mulatto fiction. In Claiming the Heritage: African American Women Novelists and History (1991), Missy Kubitschek defines, in one chapter, passing as a separation from history leading to death. Meanwhile, Ann duCille’s The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction (1993) applies to the black female body the traditional coupling theme as it concerns gender representations, class, social conventions, the institutions of marriage and family, and female virtue versus patriarchy within fictional black communities (especially those depicted by Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen). Part three of Deborah McDowell’s “The Changing Same”: Black Women’s Literature, Criticism, and Theory (1995) dwells on how the passing characters in novels by Fauset and Larsen question sources of power and domination like race, gender, class, sexual repression, and sexual expression in a patriarchal society that historically has advocated heterosexuality, female chastity, and domesticity. Cheryl Wall’s Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995) reads the works of three authors, including Fauset and Larsen, as part of and informed by the artistic journeys of the creators. In The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen (1995), Jacquelyn Y. McLendon examines black, female writing from contemporary feminist thought.
Later texts such as Samira Kawash’s Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity, and Singularity in African-American Literature (1997) explore going beyond essentialism without replicating a color line that both produces and maintains racial hierarchy. Juda Bennett’s The Passing Figure: Racial Confusion in Modern American Literature (1998) focuses on the connection between passing during the early modern period and understanding race in fiction as well as in film and music. Gayle Wald’s Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (2000) argues that race becomes a pliable instrument when categories of identity intersect as a result of passing, revealing stable racial difference as fiction that renegotiates identity.
These texts move from surveys, studies on significant Harlem Renaissance authors, collaborating with and substantiating traditional literary themes and theories, applying those theories to unconventional subjects, and developing unconventional theories explaining marginal personas to enriching literary analysis with cultural studies. These texts also reposition the examination of the mulatto from a bounded perspective in which race is an essential concept to one in which the mulatto is as an unbounded entity moving across and within the color line to a non-essentialist mode of being. In short, the trend exhibited by this collection of texts is from modernist essentialism toward a postmodern perspective in which identity is ambiguous, amorphous, and not necessarily connected to a historical context.
This work supplements that existing body of criticism by reflecting on the mutability of meaning in the female mulatto body and on the mutability of perception by acknowledging the erroneous nature of race and its concrete results, by examining the valorization and undermining of racial essentialism and heterogeneity, and by revealing passing as bound by the social and legal restraints related to the physical body even as it interrogates race, class, and gender. Specifically, this study will engage in dual readings that explore how some narratives containing mulattoes and passing personas produce both new subjectivities and a resolution reiterating the structure of race. Through this exploration, the war between the homogenous Self and the different Other will play out. The Other will counter attempts by the Self to maintain essentialism. The success lies not in the final outcome but in recognizing the subversive acts of the Other and the irrational tactics of the Self as continuously revealing the subjects as always already married. Still, this work realizes that essentialism has a place in the heterogeneous and multitudinous One, even if essentialism is a logical error. The key is not to eradicate, in an essentialist manner, one and not the other, but to accept duality and live in a state of awareness with those who knowingly choose to construct identities within or without the color line.
To illustrate the dynamics between the Self and the Other over and within the mulatto body, Chapter One reveals the illogic inherent in race even as the Self strives to enforce the concept with stereotypes, racial signs, and the tragic mulatto theme. Additionally, the chapter highlights assimilation as a conflicted and sometimes devastating tactic of the Other to reunite with the Self. Abolitionists used this tactic in their fiction to advocate the emancipation of slaves based upon their similarity with whiteness even though these slaves would never be fully welcome in white society. Mulatto characters in black-authored texts employed assimilation to facilitate racial and social equality even as they upheld existing hierarchies of race and gender. The development of the mulatto from simply tragic to an assimilated being that is simultaneously traditional and unconventional is evident in work such as Victor Sejour’s “The Mulatto” (1837), James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1857), Fannie Barrier Williams’s “After Many Days: A Christmas Story” (1902), and Jessie Fauset’s Comedy: American Style (1933).
Chapter Two centers on assimilation but with an emphasis on the intersections of Christianity, racial uplift, and the cult of true womanhood. Characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Emma Dunham Kelley’s Megda (1891), and Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1893) uphold and transform the tenets of Christianity and the cult of true womanhood by injecting into them blackness and racial uplift. Thus, assimilation becomes a positive force in which the mulatto is a reflection of the Other that is always already in the Self. At the same time, these characters continue to reinforce the value of whiteness and domesticity by relying on tenets historically used to justify white supremacy as measures for success in the black group. In the end, the cult of true womanhood with its domestic sphere and white standard of beauty are revised as the characters extend their original peripheries but are not rewritten.
Chapter Three concentrates on assimilation in the form of passing. This chapter examines the complications and nuances of passing in the tragic mulatto theme to show how the phenomenon further interrogates race and unveils the relationship between the Self and the Other. Work analyzed includes Joel Chandler Harris’s “Where’s Duncan” (1884), Charles Chesnutt’s Mandy Oxendine (completed around 1896 or 1897 but unpublished until 1997) and The House Behind the Cedars (1901), and James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). While the Self still seeks assertion through essentialism, the passing character transitions from place to place, class to class, and race to race, from being merely a stereotype to being psychologically aware, and from struggling between being both black and white to approaching existence in the One.
Chapter Four moves to the Harlem Renaissance to explore the tragic mulatto theme and the passing figure. The chapter turns to class as an influential factor in racial uplift and passing in a brief examination of race in a modern social context and in Alain Locke’s “The New Negro” (1925). The chapter then shows how the Harlem School and the New Guard approached the issue of class within a racial context. The section on the Harlem School analyzes selections of poetry by Langston Hughes in addition to Jean Toomer’s Cane (1921). The section on the New Guard delves into Walter White’s Flight (1926), Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (1928), and Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929). The mulattoes in all of these novels struggle with patterns of twoness: balancing the feminine and the masculine, the past and the present, the town and the country, and the European and the American. While the struggle never ends for most of the mulattoes, they do shift from reinterpreting to rewriting the tragic mulatto theme through an increasing state of psychological awareness and a long-established desire for equality and privilege rather than a simple desire to be white.
Chapter Five introduces new approaches to achieving existence in the One. This chapter examines how some passing Harlem Renaissance figures in Passing and Plum Bun continue the movement beyond the confines of race, class, and gender by engaging the dynamics of the gaze and of fantasy. These two tactics empower the passing figure to look both within and beyond race to see objectively the operational mechanics of passing in which the real of appearance and the truth of identity are superfluous and boundless. Seeing objectively allows the characters to enter a different state of consciousness that is more conducive to self-determination even as they continue to dwell in confining environments. Consequently, the mulattoes both inhabit and refute the real of appearance and the truth of identity, becoming ambiguous and plural beyond measure.
Chapter Six delves into a practically unexplored segment of the marginal studies field by examining the postmodern passing mulatto in Michelle Cliff’s Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise (1980), Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (1998), Patricia Jones’s Passing (1999), Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” and Dorothy West’s The Wedding (1995). The mulattoes in these texts continue to move from being stock characters to being archetypes attracting meanings other than those originally established. These figures have acquired
mythic proportions as embodiments of cultural beliefs, values, and aspirations and fears that are accepted uncritically, that are supported and maintained by prescribed ritual, and that recur in literature with enough regularity to personify, by their persistence, some conscientious feeling or some facet of man’s [or woman’s] unconscious mind. In their subsequent persistence, they seem to lead lives of their own, attracting meanings and emotional halos not always identical with primal manifestations of their thematic motifs.5
No longer tragic figures serving as containers for negative qualities of the Self, the mulattoes become self-aware and self-determining. By investigating existing criticism and exploring various levels of interpretation, this chapter uncovers how some postmodern fictional mulattoes continue to counter (il)logical race and racial categorization with the logic of truth revealed in the act of passing, authorizing the construction of their own identities according to their own needs and desires, navigating conflicts of identity, and sometimes being in the One.
The last chapter concludes this work with a word of caution. Even though characters might manage to exist in a state of multiplicity by changing their perspectives, or states of consciousness, other conflicting ways of being do not disappear. They are, in fact, residents within multiplicity. Not being able to accept this conflict can result only in Self-destruction. To demonstrate this point, the conclusion investigates Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) and asserts that self-destruction results in blindness and insanity. Self-destruction begins when the subject attempts to avoid identity conflict and when the subject is unable to acknowledge that difference and sameness remain acceptable and equitable ways of being in the One. Clearly, there is no escaping the discourse of the Self and the Other unless a lack of sight and a loss of mental acuity can be declared viable options.
Assimilating into What?: Stereotypes, Appearances, and Behavior
Is he truly a black person? Then how classify the 80 per cent of the “Negro” population which admits Caucasian ancestry? Does one become less a “Negro” the closer he approaches the Caucasian appearance [or experience]? If “one drop” of “white” blood does not make a “Negro” a “white” man, why does “one drop” of “black” blood make a “white” man a “Negro”? If the two “races” are physically repugnant to each other, why laws and ordinances to keep them apart or supposedly apart? Should one who is one-eighth “Negro” be accorded superior social status to one who is one-eighth “white”?1
“This interest in race improvement on the part of educated [mulatto] Negroes is perhaps a safety-valve for emotions which would otherwise mean devastation to themselves and to society.”²
The ideological cobweb of race appears so substantial that it has been made to serve as the very basis of individual and group identity. The ideology of race is based upon tacit theoretical assumptions, enabling the equivalency of race to a “biological” unit.³ Racial character as inherent in the biological unit serves as a basis for the separation of individuals and groups into allegedly homogeneous and labeled categories informed only by heterogeneity when each is contrasted with the other. The difference highlighted by contrast is, however, merely superficial. After all, race is fundamentally a concept and racial character is merely a related idea rather than biological fact. Since the establishment of race involves “thought-fully” creating oversimplified and illogical divisions, then the idea of racial character also must be imbued with the same as well as other errors that often occur in the cognitive process.
One error constituting a primary means of racial characterization, the stereotype, serves to separate and/or exclude individuals and groups from racial privilege. In Difference and Pathology, Sanders L. Gilman notes that when the sense of order and control in relation to the Self undergoes stress, anxiety appears. We then “project that anxiety onto the Other, externalizing our loss of control. The Other is thus stereotyped [and] . . . is invested with all of the qualities of the ‘bad’ or the ‘good.’”4 In other words, since racialized qualities of difference threatening order and control allegedly are in the body of the Other, then these differences and the very body of the Other are now within control of the Self. The Self becomes able to operate in a manner that is seemingly independent of its bond with the Other. The white Self can now be defined as “not different” with a racial character always over and above and in contrast with the “different” Other, regardless of whether the racial character of the Other is negative or positive. Straightening this curved line of logic involves understanding that stereotypes forming a racial character married with biology are merely a mode of operating based upon either/or reasoning—stereotypes do not take into account the group in all of its dimensions or even the fact that the group is composed of diverse individuals. Stereotypes also often prevent realization of truth: the difference projected onto the Other is the difference that is within the Self. The Self and the Other are both part of the One—the same and the different within a shared existence. Because the One is truly heterogeneous, it reveals essentialism as a logical error but also as one of many states of being in the One.
The one-drop rule supplements stereotypes by confining the bond between the Self and the Other in the body of the mulatto. The one-drop rule declares anyone with one black ancestor as black, theoretically returning all wayward mulattoes to blackness and allowing for no synthesis of the Self and the Other evident in and represented by the mixed body. The tragic mulatto stereotype served the same purpose as the one-drop rule but went one step further by propelling racially ambiguous mulattoes back into a black doom. The mixed raced being as ultimately destined for ruin became what might be the oldest archetype in American literature.5
Sterling A. Brown was “the first to call attention to the literary ‘stereotype’ of the Tragic Mulatto in a systematic fashion, and to have named it (he sometimes also referred to the Tragic Octoroon or the melodrama of the Octoroon).”6 Brown defines the mulatto as a representation that is “disconnected from reality or verisimilitude[,] . . . anchored only in rhetorical precursors.”7 Up until the late 1800s, many authors drew fictional mulattoes from the same pools of persona and plot characterized by essentialism. Racial signs could identify these mulattoes. Remarkable hair, skin, eyes; 8 a “dark shade,” a “bluish tinge,” an “opal-tinted onyx,” or a “half-moon” on the fingernail;9 and full lips served to expose mulattoes as black. This phenomenon has been marked in literature. Olivia Cary, a mulatto character in Jessie Fauset’s Comedy: American Style (1933), feels the whiteness within her validated because her first-born appears white: he has “white skin” and “‘good’” hair while his fingernails lack the “tell-tale half moons.”10 Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1857), the second novel to be published by a black American, features several main characters with remarkable eyes and hair. Mrs. Garie, a mulatto, has “gloriously dark eyes” that are “not entirely black, but of that seemingly changeful hue so often met with in persons of African extraction, which deepens and lightens with every varying emotion” while her son Clarence has a “slightly mezzo-tinto expression of his eyes, and the rather African fulness [sic] of . . . lips.”11 Emily, Clarence’s sister, shows no “African blood” except through the “slight kink” of her hair.12 Rena Warwick, who is light enough to be taken for white in Charles Chesnutt’s House Behind the Cedars (1901), has a wave in her hair that her mother has never been able to eradicate. In Passing (1929), Nella Larsen writes about Clare Kendry, a mulatto with a “tempting mouth [and] . . . [a]rresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with, for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret about themThey were Negro eyes[:] mysterious and concealing [and] . . . exotic.”13
Racial signs, like the one-drop rule, could not always effectively operate in conjunction with proof of sight. For instance, census takers in 1890 had difficulty trying to figure out who was black and who was white. “Occasionally, the census manuscripts show a ‘W’ [white] that has been scratched out . . . and replaced with a ‘Q’ [quadroon] or an ‘O’ [octoroon], evidently after a mixed-race respondent politely corrected her visitor.”14 In Randall Keenan’s Walking on Water, published in 1999, a New Orleans Creole tells a story in which a “fair-skinned” girlfriend worked as a restaurant manager: her employees “assumed she was white. This boyfriend of hers came in who was pitch black and the next thing she knew she was fired. I guess they suddenly made the connection, ‘Oh, she must be black.’”15
Having one black ancestor does not automatically result in what F. James Davis terms “negroid traits.” Davis has found that “[s]ome persons with three-eighths or even one-half African lineage have been known to pass as whiteIn instances where someone has received no ‘negroid genes’ at all from the known African ancestors, that person not only appears white but is in biological fact white.”16 F. James Davis’s statement about “negroid traits” and “genes” reveals the ineffectiveness of the one-drop rule from a racial perspective. This ineffectiveness is doubly exposed as Naomi Zack goes further than Davis by proving that there are, in fact, no racial genetic markers:
the biological sciences yield no genetic information on racial traits, per se. Contrary to ‘common sense,’ there are no guidelines for identifying such traits on any general level that can be used to predict either the presence of other racial traits in the same individual or nonracial traits that always occur with the racial traits. This means that there is no scientific way to identify human racial traits as opposed to other human physical traitsIn fact, human blood groups are not distinguishable by race, and there is no evidence that individuals of mixed race inherit predictable fractions of their forebears’ racial characteristics.17
Clearly, the (il)logical framework of biological race can be used against itself as racial traits and characteristics prevent classification. Characteristics thought to be singular in one group can be found in another. Blacks can have straight hair, aquiline noses, and blue eyes while whites can have kinky hair, full lips, and arresting black eyes. In addition, people such as the restaurant manager and characters such as Olivia Cary’s daughter and George Winston in The Garies and Their Friends can be “almost white” due to their “manners and appearance of [gentlefolk].”18 Again, the Self and the Other exist always already in the mulatto body, neither completely distinguishable nor able to be consistently categorized by faulty racial rules and racial sight.
Regardless of the faults of race, the mulatto body, which originally inherited from racial theories only the vices of whiteness and blackness—i.e., criminality, degeneracy, and sterility—was a site for calamity as whiteness and blackness waged a battle from within. Social historian Everett V. Stonequist states in Race Relations and the Race Problem that “the pull of the darker race will affect [the mulatto] even when consciously his [or her] attention is fixed upon the lighter race,” resulting in an “inner drama.”19 Sterling A. Brown’s definition of the tragic mulatto includes a biological conflict generated by warring blood: he holds that white novelists make it so the mulatto’s “intellectual strivings” and his or her “unwillingness to be a slave” come from the so-called white blood, and his or her “emotional urges, . . .indolence, [and] . . . savagery” come from the so-called black blood.20
This war defines the tragic mulatto. The mixed character, most often female in nineteenth and early twentieth century tragic mulatto texts, longs to escape from her confined existence by elevating her social and financial status. She usually achieves this elevation by obtaining a white lover. However, the drop of black blood is so strong that she ultimately can go nowhere but to disaster: either death or a reluctant return to the confined existence, both of which offer the doom of a complete blackness. When the mixed female attempts to override essentialism with deliberate miscegenation, literary rhetoric punishes her in the name of the Self. Even though the mulatto might have slipped by due to faulty racial laws and faulty racial sight, the fear of detection and ultimate doom are rhetorical snares that appear to be inescapable.
Victor Sejour’s “The Mulatto” (1837), the earliest known work of black fiction regardless of the fact that it was published in France,21 adheres to the tenets of the tragic mulatto. The main character, a male, could fit well into civilized (white) society but is consumed by antipathy and violence (blackness). The narrator, who is telling the story to a white male, states that ‘“Georges had all the talents necessary for becoming a well-regarded gentleman; yet he was possessed of a haughty, tenacious, willful nature; he had one of those oriental sorts of dispositions, the kind that, once pushed far enough from the path of virtue, will stride boldly down the path of crime.”’22
Alfred, who is both Georges’s father and owner, pushes Georges too far. Alfred is the embodiment of the worst of kind of slave owner. Alfred is ‘“humane and loyal with his equals,’” but he ‘“was a hard, cruel man toward his slaves.”’23 Alfred tears apart the black family structure by disenfranchising black men as he rapes Georges’s mother, Laisa, and attempts to rape Georges’s wife, Zelia. Laisa dies while the virtuous Zelia is hung and vilified as ‘“the mulatto woman who wanted to kill her master.”’24 Laisa’s brother and Georges are unable to protect or avenge the women. Exposed and without agency, the slave is ‘“vile as a dog”’25 — a vessel and an object to be acted upon without restraint. Alfred’s immorality and cruelty renders Georges ‘“dangerous and bloodthirsty.”’26
At this point, Georges engages in criminal behavior and the story centers on mirror images. Georges murders Alfred’s family just as Alfred contributed to the demise of Georges’s family. Georges becomes a criminal like his father, who is duplicitous and imposes unfair treatment upon his slaves. Alfred’s ‘“hatred”’ 27 and disregard for the humanity of his slaves prevents him from acknowledging Georges as his own son. Upon learning of his parentage, Georges kills himself. Alfred’s inhumane treatment of slaves results in his own son’s hatred for him. Georges’s hatred leads to Alfred’s death. Both the white man and the mulatto struggle with virtues and vices, indicating that these aspects are not limited to one race but are universal and applicable to all human beings.
“The Mulatto” does conform to the tragic mulatto stereotype, and ultimate doom ends the narrative. Even so, the short story is a critique of the racial environment in which the theme was produced in the first place. The final message is not that the mulatto can never be white or equal to a white person but that slavery debases both the slave and the master. By playing the role of an Uncle Remus, the old black storyteller communicates this truth through an oral narrative to the white listener. In a society in which white paternalism rules over so-called subordinate blackness, the dark narrator becomes the teacher, the white master the student, and the story the great equalizer.
The stereotypical tragic mulatto elements of persona and plot also are evident in white-authored texts such as James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) . Although Archy Moore in The White Slave; Or, Memoirs of a Fugitive (1836) by Richard Hildreth was probably “the first of the mixed-bloods,”28 Judith Berzon acknowledges The Last of the Mohicans as the “first American novel in which a mulatto character is significant.”29 In the novel, the clashing blood within Cora Munro is revealed through the contrast of her persona with that of her half-sister, Alice. Cora is a “surpassingly beautiful”30 dark-haired woman. Regardless, as the child of a black female slave and a British officer, Cora is “stained even before birth with the blackness of the primitive and passional” while Alice is younger, fair-haired, and blue-eyed.31 Alice represents the purity of whiteness and contrasts with Cora’s corrupted blackness. At times, Cora is courageous and logical whereas Alice is “timid”32 and “nearly insensible.”33 However, since the dark stain never truly can penetrate the purity of whiteness, Cora must be separated from the representative Alice through death, the final descent into the night.34
Mulatto characters like Cora play a central role in the American novel during the antebellum period. Starke notes that almost all of the novels written during this period featuring mulattoes are antislavery tracts. Abolitionists employed the tragic female mulatto in a sentimental fashion to show how the system of slavery morally degraded both Southern and Northern whites. Sterling A. Brown, as well as Robert Bone, opines that the use of the figure also aided in creating sympathy among whites for enslaved blacks by showing mulattoes to be like them,35 counteracting the image of the black brute, the sexually immoral Sapphire, and the childlike black even as the tragic outcome supported ‘“the belief that mixture of the races was a curse.’”36 The result was restless, competitive, and intelligent (characteristics resulting from the white blood) mulattoes unsatisfied with their lot in life just as disadvantaged whites were with theirs. The most evident manner in which mulattoes and whites resembled each other was in the refinement of manners, in appearance, and in the reversal of fortune.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), George Harris and Eliza Shelby share many characteristics attributed to whiteness. George is an adroit and ingenuous slave with “high spirits,” fluent speech, erect carriage, and a handsome, manly appearance.37 His wife, Eliza, is a beautiful and refined slave with a “softness of voice and manner.”38 Just as George is a favorite in the factory where his master hires him out, Eliza is “a petted and indulged favourite”39 at Mr. Shelby’s plantation. In addition to resembling and being favored by whites, George and Eliza establish a household that is locatable within whiteness. George, Eliza, their children, his sister, and his mother eventually live in a “small, neat tenement, in the outskirts of Montreal” where a “cheerful fire blazes on the hearth” and “a tea-table, covered with a snowy cloth, stands prepared for the evening meal.”40 Their household is like that of Mr. Shelby’s but on a smaller scale, enabling the white audience to relate to a more recognizable environment as well as to the traditionally white characteristics—such fortitude, perseverance, and hard work—that it took to establish such a home.
The establishment of this new household is due to the interruption of George and Eliza’s relatively privileged lives on their respective plantations by the dictates and needs of their masters. Unfortunately, George’s skills make his master conscious of his own “inferiority.”41 In turn, the “tyrannical”42 Mr. Harris puts George to ‘“the hardest, meanest, and dirtiest work, on purpose.”’43 Mr. Shelby, Eliza’s owner, is reduced to selling servants to reconcile debts. These horrors of slavery—severe mistreatment, separation of family members, and human trade—force “loyal” and talented slaves to run for their lives and strive for a better lot.
This reversal of fortune also appears in The Garies and Their Friends. Mrs. Garie is owned by, educated by, and married to the white Mr. Garie, a father figure “whose education and associations have been of a highly refined character.”44 However, all of that is swept from her when a mob storms the Garie residence and she dies in childbirth. Even if the mulatto is unlike Mrs. Garie and is at first unaware of her heritage, she still is raised and educated as a white child in the household of her father. The father always is socially prominent, wealthy, and from a refined family45—witness Cora Munro’s father, who is a British officer, and the Southern aristocratic father of Rena and her brother John. Because of her “white” gentleman father and her education, the mulatto speaks with no dialect and is “extremely sensitive, proud, upright, and respectable.” 46 At her father’s unexpected death, the narrative reveals that he has failed legally to free her. She discovers that she is a slave, and her father’s creditors sell her. Then a slave dealer, an overseer, or a Yankee seeking to benefit from the Fugitive Slave Act victimizes her.47
Sometimes the high-born young Northerner or European who wishes to marry the mulatto accepts her in spite of her drop of black blood; they escape the condition of slavery and live a prosperous and reputable life, usually abroad.48 In “After Many Days: A Christmas Story” (1902), Fannie Barrier Williams builds a plot around Gladys Winne. Gladys is betrothed to a “handsome, wealthy, and gifted lawyer.”49 In the midst of such fortune, Gladys becomes aware that she is the daughter of Aunt Linda, a house servant of Gladys’s friends. Upon learning of Gladys’s heritage, the lawyer’s love for Gladys stands strong, and the story ends with the characters clasping each other. In Black and White Tangled Threads (1920) by Zara Wright, Zoleeta’s fiancé does not falter after learning of her heritage.
More often contrary to these happily-ever-after plots, the highborn Northerner or European rejects the mulatto, and she dies a suicide, dies of shame, or dies protecting her “young gentleman.”50 Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice (serialized from 1901 to 1902) by Pauline Hopkins combines the two plots. Upon learning of Aurelia’s and her daughter’s heritage, their lovers first deny them, causing Aurelia’s failed suicide attempt and Hagar’s death. The lovers later accept them—belatedly for Hagar. In The House Behind the Cedars, Rena is rejected by her fiancé George Tryon and comes in contact with Jeff Wain, a would-be-rapist, who drives an ill Rena through the snow to a cold death. In The Garies and Their Friends, Clarence Garie dies after being rejected by his white lover.
The Harrises, Mrs. Garie, Cora, Rena, and Gladys all suffer the tempests of Fortuna. Because white readers supposedly can relate to these characters, the personas not only inspire sympathy, but also they represent a nightmare for the white bourgeois female whose blood lines might be obscured by immigration, migration, and miscegenation, and whose father might become bankrupt or die, leaving her “mountainous debts.”51 The moral of the story, then, is to encourage those who are privileged to release those who are in bondage and restricted by color lest the privileged be exposed to the same unfortunate circumstances—a role reversal that could happen at any moment to anyone.
So even as the tragic mulatto came to a definite end, counteracting the slipperiness of racial identification by sight, the persona also specified how similar mulattoes and whites are—from appearance to behavior. Still, the commonality of behavior is fraught with conflict. Many black-authored texts written during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century emphasized behavioral and ideological commonality in the form of assimilation or racial uplift. Some critics argue that assimilation involves revealing black superiority, showing white America that “some blacks could succeed within the framework established by the dominant white majority” and attacking “American society for not recognizing the worth of some members of the non-Caucasian group.”52 Literary critic Robert Bone’s beliefs about assimilation are both in and out of keeping with this definition. He remarks,
Assimilation has its roots in what Langston Hughes has called “the urge to whiteness within the race”It begins with an incorporation of the white idealThis early idealization may persist throughout adult life as an unconscious desire to be white. The other side of the coin is an unconscious self-hatred, likewise appropriated from the dominant culture.53
Bone goes on to state that assimilation is in this sense a means of escape from “the Problem”—assimilation is a form of flight involving a denial of one’s racial identity, which may be disguised by such mutually-exclusive sentiments as “‘I’m not a Negro but a human being.’”54 He further defines assimilation as
primarily a social-class phenomenon. The cultural ideal, after all, is not merely to behave like a white person but to behave like a middle-class white person. Indeed, becoming middle class is precisely the process of eradicating one’s ‘Negro-ness.’”55
“Behaving” like a white person in order to succeed in the dominant framework of Reconstruction and Jim Crow means unconditional acceptance of bourgeois values. These values are “morals,” their “canons of respectability,” and their “standards of beauty and consumption[:][b]usiness success, professional stature, the accoutrements of culture, the outward display of wealth, and strict codes of personal conduct.”56 White cultural ideology included a premium on education and “a strict Protestant asceticism which stressed the strength of character necessary to withstand temptations which might interfere with the accumulation of property or the achievement of middle-class status.”57 Racial thinking placed these values within whiteness partly to lend credence to denigrating stereotypes of mulattoes and blacks. Because these values actually are not proprietary, “acting” white can be seen as the desire of the Other to (re)join the Self but in an attempt to be acknowledged as equitable and equal rather than to become white.
Assimilation through behavior ultimately failed to effectively counter negative racial thinking. During Reconstruction, “[c]oncern about people passing as white became so great that even behaving like blacks or willingly associating with them [was] often treated as more important than any proof of actual black ancestry.”58 “Behaving” like and associating with blacks was an indication of immorality, to the extent that even committing a socially deviant act, such as incest, allowed the white perpetrator to be designated as ideologically and therefore essentially black. “Then, not even one drop of ‘black blood’ was needed to define a person as a ‘white nigger’—and race became entirely a social category with no necessity for any biological basis.”59 Blackness became more recognizable and, conflated with immorality, was placed outside the moral purity of whiteness.
Because commonality of behavior and ideology did not alleviate wholly the fear of difference, the bourgeois black group recognized its own achievements as an exclusive class, turning inward with a sense of self-preservation and self-development. In this exclusive class, blacks were classified as good or bad “Negroes,” but even good ones were inferior to whites. This class emphasized ancestry and family heritage bound up with “their place in the slave system, their role in opposing it, and the extent to which their families had been free of it.”60 For example, “slaves who had occupied a privileged, or at least unusual, position in the slave system”61 were favored. This position might have included the status of a house over field slave; ancestors who accomplished something extraordinary like “purchasing or otherwise securing freedom from slavery, acquiring an education, or participating” in abolitionist activities; or white parentage allowing access to education, wealth, or special opportunities unavailable to slaves or free blacks. 62 Also, this elite group stressed morals such as “[t]hrift,” “industry,” “initiative,” “perseverance,” “promptness,” “reliability,” and a “stern regard for duty” over self-indulgence;63 displays of status in the form of “[h]ome ownership, higher education for the children, . . . membership in a select religious denomination[;] . . . outward tokens of” respectable personal conduct such as “neatness, good manners, and conservative dress”;64 wealth, and color.
Bone accuses the Talented Tenth of and Judith Berzon explains the black bourgeois as turning inward “as a way to protect itself from the full force of collective feelings of rejection and self-hatred” when “recognition of the mixed-bloods as a separate caste will not be granted by the white man.”65 In “Do Negroes Want to be White?,” George Schuyler argues that while the “national Negro addiction to straightening hair and lightening complexions by generous use of cosmetics still persists,” “[t]he goal is not to be white but to be free in a white world.”66 For instance, black society in the Philadelphia featured in The Garies and Their Friends has its own “fine library, a debating club, chemical apparatus, collections of minerals, etc.”67 The interest of black society was “to achieve status within Black communities.”68
This form of assimilation can be tragic because it produces exclusion on the basis of color. In Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry (1929), Emma Lou Brown is practically ostracized by her light-skinned family on the basis of her dark color. In Fauset’s Comedy: American Style, Olivia Cary turns both inward to the black community and outward to the white community because she is rejected on the basis of skin color. The result is self-hatred and a replication of hierarchy.
Olivia has ‘“one consuming ambition and that is to be white.’”69 With blackness comes shame and rejection in the face of fear of the different, so Olivia’s primary aim is to annihilate any obvious signs of marginality by associating only with whiteness. Her mother proclaims her a ‘“confirmed Negro-hater”’70 and believes Olivia would not speak to “her own grandfather on the street . . . if he showed color.”’71 Olivia marries a mulatto with white skin because they would have “white children.”72 She seeks status in the black Philadelphian community on the bases of white bourgeois ideology and colorism by establishing an elegant household and by keeping her near-white daughter from playing with a dark-complexioned girl. Blacks are ‘“pushed in the background[,][l]ooked down upon and despised.’”73 Olivia does not want her daughter, Teresa, to experience that type of shame, regardless of the fact that Teresa does not see ‘“what difference”’74 color makes. Olivia feels shame because of white society’s negative view of blackness; yet, she is determined to become part of that same society to avoid shame. Since her husband refuses to pass and ‘“is never happy unless he has some typical Negro hanging about,”’75 Olivia cannot be white as long as they remain together. So, in order to become fully part of the race “God . . . meant should rule,”76 Olivia bestows her racial ambition onto her children.
Through her children, especially Teresa, Olivia presents to society “the incontestable proof of her white womanhood.”77 Olivia controls the lives of her children, right down to their conduct, their careers, and the pastel colors of her daughter’s dresses. Olivia’s dark-skinned son, Oliver, embodies the self-hatred accompanying his mother’s longing for whiteness; thus, he commits suicide. Olivia’s remaining son marries a dark-skinned woman and, with his father, practices medicine in a black neighborhood. Teresa, unable to escape her mother’s hold, is sent to Christie’s Academy, where she is taken as white. She eventually marries the racist Frenchman Aristede, who proposes marriage based on the implied promise of a dowry, and settles “down into an existence that [is] colorless, bleak and futile.”78 Because the dowry is not forthcoming, Aristede eventually turns out a financially destitute Olivia. Both Olivia and Teresa are white in France, but it is a poor existence lacking vivacity and joy, excluding access to a white bourgeois lifestyle with its standards of privilege and its demand for respect.
What is so tragic about Olivia Blanchard is that she chases a respect based on caste and on color. Assimilation both reinforces essential categories of race and exposes the limitations of racial and class categories. Olivia essentializes blackness by equating it only with shame. This essentialism allows her to move, on the steam of self-hatred, from one seemingly concrete state of being to another informed by a self-affirming bourgeois ideology. As she attempts to rehabilitate the image of a shameful blackness, Olivia defines darker-skinned blacks, including her own son, as lower class. Respect based on rank obliterates the possibility for a respect that emerges from interpersonal relations, causing her to forsake and destroy her family.
Also tragic about Olivia’s actions is that she longs to erase the Other that is always already within the Self. She rejects blackness—her father, her husband, and her remaining son—for what she sees as the possibility of a pure whiteness—herself and daughter. Seeing “a woman, past middle age, with a home and husband in God’s country, pass them up for the fabled freedom of Paris” makes Mrs. Reynolds, a fellow American traveler in Paris, “sick.”79 The fabled freedom is whiteness. Blinded by the promise of equality and riches promised by whiteness, Olivia does not take into account that fables are lessons to be learned rather than a reality to be lived in and of themselves. She also does not realize that freedom from one way of being can lead to bondage in another. The whiteness in which Olivia and Teresa live already is tainted by their very existence within that whiteness. The concept of tainted purity is evident in Olivia’s maiden name. Blanchard may seem to illuminate its subject, but it is a derivative, or a no longer pure form of the French term blanche, or white. Additionally, since racial purity is not a biological fact, “[i]t follows then that every appeal to some originary, authentic, pure identity . . . can only be an appeal to a mythical purity.” 80 As long as these mulattoes remain within whiteness, and as long as racial purity remains mythical and takes the same ethereal qualities as the fable, then the identity for which Olivia longs never can be attained.
Even as assimilation reinforces whiteness and bourgeois ideology as functions of whiteness, the assimilation of difference into sameness is actually a restatement of what it already is. Fictional mulattoes like Olivia Cary who yearn to be white and seek to do so by mimicking white cultural ideology subversively and repetitively incorporate difference and shame back into sameness. Assimilation becomes an unstated recognition of the intrinsic place of the Other, or difference in the Self. It is recognition of the yin and the yang that form a complementary whole in which caste and shame already belong to both blackness and whiteness. This is the lesson in the fable and the truth in the myth. In this light, Comedy: American Style is about more than assimilating into whiteness due to a need for respect. The text suggests the possibility of movement, albeit unconscious on Olivia’s part, from a fragmenting Self-hatred that denigrates difference to a unifying Self-acceptance that recognizes difference as a natural part of being.
Eliminating the Tragic: Intersections of Christianity, Racial Uplift, and True Womanhood
Other assimilationist tactics of racial uplift used by the black group include practicing Christianity to remove the tragedy from blackness and embracing the cult of true womanhood to resist racial stereotypes and to subvert patriarchy. Racial uplift, Christianity, and the cult of true womanhood are themes in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Emma Dunham Kelley’s Megda (1891) and Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1893). While Uncle Tom’s Cabin censures even as it advocates the adoption of true Christianity, the black-authored novels push together blackness and whiteness through assimilationist tactics and sanction spiritual revolution as part of a racial revolution. The result is mulattoes who are no longer tragic but are uplifted and, to an extent, self-determining.
Naming the title character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a sellout is an obvious reading. The black Uncle Tom actually is morally superior to all of the white slave owners in the text: he has unquestioned faith in God, he demonstrates a loyalty based on reciprocal affection, and he is strong enough to keep his faith and spread the Word in the face of great trials and difficulty.
The Bible, which Tom reads diligently, professes that in God’s kingdom, people worship together in the Lord. Tom acts as an agent of this kingdom of togetherness and spiritual unity. He helps everyone, black or white, good or bad. He truly cares for others and tries to treat his neighbors as he wants to be treated. He maintains his faith and turns the other cheek. Turning the other cheek does not mean he lacks strength. His moral strength is great. He stands up to his last owner, Simon Legree, by refusing to engage in un-Christian-like activities, such as whipping other blacks. Simon Legree seeks to become Tom’s “Church;”1 he is a false prophet calling for Tom’s very body and soul. Tom chooses his battle against Legree, and he fights it with all that he has, bearing awful beatings and miserable conditions. He effects change on the Legree plantation; as a result of his kindness and his spreading the Word, others become Christians and thus kinder, more ennobled people. The mulatto slave Cassy, ‘“a lost soul . . . pursued by devils that torment [her] day and night,”2 even decides not to kill Legree because of Tom’s influence. Tom cannot even ‘“have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything, and have ‘em [his], than have the best, and have ‘em any man’s else,”’3 but he is spiritually free and manages to help others in his own special way.
Christian values and attitudes—not those prescribed by humans but those in the Bible—are what ultimately change people for the better. Tom is spreading the gospel like Jesus, and the result should be, as it was in the Bible, a group of disciples who do not focus on superficial difference but live to serve God by obeying His commandments. This is the ultimate Christian society, and Tom is the strongest proponent of this society.
If Tom had lived and managed to influence all people, then the result would have been a type of Heaven on Earth, a salvation in which everyone becomes equal, in which everyone lives together and mixes together as they all strive for a common purpose. However, Tom is killed before barely beginning his work—just like George and his family are sent back to Africa before becoming fully established in their new lives. Once blacks are freed and improved and shown by white citizens how to live as free men and women, Stowe states that they need to be shipped back to Africa to build up their own country and prosper there. Stowe claimed that black Americans “were superior because of their Christian virtues,”4 but sending these morally superior people back to Africa or to death like Tom only can serve to deplete the moral force in America.
Stowe does show the humanity of blacks, that they have some of the same cares and concerns as whites, that they are Christians, and that they are family-oriented. Blacks have the values traditionally ascribed to white society. However, blacks have no voice: white characters sometimes interpret their words, white authors have created or recreated them, and white authors/characters put to death or exile powerful blacks. The novel conveys that the abolitionists, or white people, have the last word in effecting change for blacks. Their last word is homogeneity. Blacks must become like whites. Still, blacks cannot be whites. A black population that is equal to whiteness might justify miscegenation, the antithesis to white purity. The need for this separation implies the potential power of a Christian blackness. Tom—partly Stowe’s own ironic creation—is threatening to the white social order that would advocate a beneficial Christianity. Tom, then, demonstrates a power that had to be curbed because of its intense possibilities. The view of Tom as a threat questions the view of him as a race traitor and calls for a reading that would establish him as a symbol of true Christianity and as a potential revolutionary.
Like Tom, Megda seeks to embrace Christianity and blackness is washed to the purity of a spiritual whiteness. Megda features a religious, genteel society consisting mostly of mulattoes who appear white. Often mentioned are Megda Randal’s “two small white hands.”5 Dell, the town beauty, has “dazzling white” skin.6 Ethel, the moral role model for Megda, has a “fair, sweet face.”7 Ethel’s faith guides her speech and her actions. Her faith and the resulting gentility precipitate her refusal to join a social club unless it “will banish from its entertainments and socials such dissipations as whist, dancing and theatricals.”8 Everything about Ethel—her appearance, her dwelling, and her demeanor—designates her as the epitome of whiteness. The fact that Ethel dies before her vows, wearing a wedding dress of “ivory white silk,”9 makes her especially worthy of salvation. A virgin, she can now ascend to Heaven to marry or become one with the Maker. She is literally, figuratively, and spiritually white all over.
The presence of difference brings into relief and further defines this physical and spiritual whiteness. Classmate Maude Leonard’s “dark, richly-colored face” makes “Ethel’s delicate loveliness look almost spiritual, Meg’s white face look whiter still, and Meg’s light-brown hair look almost golden.”10 Whiteness is exonerated in the physical and spiritual realms, typifying the lives of the characters. Mrs. Randal desires her daughters, Megda and Elsie, to “grow to be good, pure, noble-minded women, respecting themselves and thus commanding respect from all with whom they come in contact.”11 According to her brother Hal, Megda admires character and respects “high ideas and lofty desires and noble pursuits.”12 By the end of the novel, Megda has taken up Ethel’s religious work. Megda learns to return evil with good by worshipping a god who loves all of his children. She expands the membership base of a Christian society. She forgives Maude, who steals her essay and lies about the theft. She becomes the second-choice wife of a pastor and submits to his will. Megda actually develops into what she admires and what her mother desires—a ‘“good,’” ‘“true,’” and ‘“noble’” person.13 Uplifted by Christianity, Megda is no longer tragic and doomed to a black death; instead, she is like Ethel: white psychologically, spiritually, and physically.
The mulatto in Megda serves the same purpose as the educated, beautiful, and refined mulatto of the abolitionist texts: to convey the worth of blackness through assimilation, or similarity with whiteness. However, in the abolitionist texts, the mulattoes are tragic because they live in bondage despite their fair appearance and Christian faith. Traditional tragic mulattoes are tragic because they view blackness as negative and yearn to be white but cannot. In Megda, the mulattoes exist in their own community, which serves as protection against the rejection by the dominant community and against self-hatred. This self-hatred also seems to be lacking because everyone in the community has reached a higher spiritual plane that allows them to operate without bitterness. Unlike Olivia Cary and her son Oliver in Comedy: American Style, the dark-skinned characters do not yearn to be physically light and none of the spiritually transformed characters are unsatisfied with their earthly lots in life. The one person who acts in opposition to this state “converts” and then dies. The deceitful Maude asks Megda for forgiveness, Maude’s dark face “white enough now”14 that she has repented and is dying. Dark skin serves as a separation of the spiritual, or the assimilated, from the non-spiritual, or the nonconformist, until the call for repentance and a life exemplary of true bourgeois Christianity is answered. Converting to the social order and Christian theology will erase both racial and spiritual sins; one will avoid the tragic and become white as snow, despite skin color, by following the true path of God.
Iola Leroy also engages in racial uplift and exhibits the main qualities of the abolitionist tragic mulatto. She is a self-respecting and quiet “Southern lady, whose education and manner stamp her as a woman of fine culture and good breeding.”15 She has a “sympathetic” quality in her voice due to “some great sorrow.”16 This great sorrow is Iola’s mixed heritage. Her father, Eugene Leroy, married Marie, one of his slaves. Their children are Iola and Nicholas, who are sent north to be educated. Cousin Lorraine, an old racist associate of Eugene’s, produces false papers that legally substantiate the race of his family members, and then he sells the children back into slavery. No longer eligible to inherit her father’s estate, Iola spends most of the novel searching for members of her black family after Emancipation.
Just as Megda removes “tragic” from the tragic mulatto, Iola changes the mulatto archetype as she upholds blackness over whiteness, both on a personal and a social level. In the course of events, Iola has the opportunity to marry a white doctor. But she “could not accept his hand and hide from him the secret of [her] birth; and [she] could not consent to choose the happiest lot on earth without first finding [her] poor heart-stricken and desolate mother.”17 After being reunited with her family, she searches for a job and, despite the obstacle of prejudice, manages to become gainfully employed. When she does marry, it is to Dr. Frank Latimer, the mulatto grandson of a “Southern lady.”18 Although she loves Frank, their union is based on kindred “hopes and tastes[,] . . . grand and noble purposes” in which they “labor for those who had passed from the old oligarchy of slavery into the new commonwealth of freedom.”19 For Iola, to be ‘“the leader of a race to higher planes of thought and action, to teach men clearer views of life and duty, and to inspire their souls with loftier aims, is a far greater privilege than it is to open the gates of material prosperity.’”20 Iola’s words and actions, then, are ‘“a call to higher service and nobler life’”21 in which she helps fellow race members lift themselves out of the mire and into fields of green. Iola is part of a group of mulattoes (the fictional precursors of the Talented Tenth) “who feel the grave responsibility of defining for the black race what is best for it, who work within the context of moral Christian ethics [The] mulatta . . . [is] a source of light for those below and around herBecause of her physical beauty and her spiritual virtue, she inspires her society toward the higher values of life.”22
The moral Christian ethics Iola and Megda practice are informed by the cult of true womanhood (1820-1860) with its cardinal virtues of “piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.”23 Barbara Welter expouses, “Home was supposed to be a cheerful place, so that brothers, husbands and sons would not go elsewhere in search of a good time. Woman was expected to dispense comfort and cheer”24 and engage in “morally uplifting tasks” such as housekeeping, needle-working, culturing flowers, writing letters, singing or playing an instrument, reading appropriate literature (conducive to the traits of true womanhood), producing arts and crafts, etc. The homemaker provided moral values and nurturance. The true woman was a mother who denied the self, who controlled and influenced the domestic sphere as well as the sons who would become future leaders, but who herself was powerless in greater society.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, most women always are seen as good mothers, except for the self-involved Marie St. Clare. Miss Ophelia stops treating Topsy as a subservient piece of chattel, buys the girl, takes her North, and teaches her to read and survive on her own. The Quaker Rachel Halliday treats Eliza like a daughter, regardless of color and station. Rachel has “just the face and form that made ‘mother’ seem the most natural word in the world.”25 Eliza is the Ur-mother, jumping across an icy river to prevent her child from being captured and sent back into slavery. Her domesticity helps to make the hearth cheerful. She is “evidently contented and happy as woman need be”26 in her Canadian home, cutting bread for her husband and two children, who sit and pleasantly converse at the table near her. This happy family revives Cassy, who turns out to be Eliza’s mother. Upon reuniting with her relatives, Cassy seems “to sink at once into the bosom of the family, and take the little ones into her heart, as something for which it long had waited.”27 Furthermore, Eliza is able to minister to her domesticated mother because Eliza’s faith in God makes her a ‘“blessed woman.”’28 Her “steady, consistent piety, regulated by the constant reading of the sacred word, made her a proper guide for the shattered and wearied mind of her mother.”29 Able to leap across an icy river to save her child, able to reproduce despite horrific conditions, and able to teach others morals and values, Eliza is a black Herculean representative of the true woman.
The true woman also inhabits the Randal home in Megda. At the Randal’s, the focal points are the kitchen and the dining room—the fecund areas promising spiritual and moral fulfillment. The family gathers in the “cosy”30 kitchen and welcomes Megda home with smiles, kisses, and hugs. Brother Hal often is found at home, debating with Megda in an attempt to curb her righteous and headstrong manner and speaking of his beloved as sister Elsie washes the dishes. At the dining room table, the plights of others are discussed, and they take the form of moral lessons to be learned or of opportunities for spiritual growth. Like Megda’s friends, Mrs. Randal emphasizes piety, which is “the core of woman’s virtue, the source of her strength,”31 and purity, which is “as essential as piety to a young woman, its absence as unnatural and unfeminine. Without it she was, in fact, no woman at all, but a member of some lower order. A ‘fallen woman’ was a ‘fallen angel,’ unworthy of the celestial company of her sex.”32 Mrs. Randal communicates maxims and theories that are in accordance with Christianity as well as the cult of true womanhood.
Meanwhile, Iola searches for her family and refuses to sacrifice her pious dedication to her mission or the purity of her vision and of her body to the protective control of patriarchy. Iola moves from a state of purity to sexual object when she is identified as black, but her moral and spiritual chastity is emphasized as she repeatedly rises above lustful masters and rescues herself from the white Doctor Gresham, whose proposal of marriage would only reposition her as one who is legally bound in a patriarchal system. After finding her displaced family members, she becomes part of a “bright,” “happy,” and “peaceful home”33 with the mother, to whom Iola and her brother Harry are reverently devoted, as the center. After the reunion there are, once again, “cosy” scenes taking place at dining tables. At those tables, Mrs. Leroy utters prayers of thanks and for the protection of her family while Harry, like Hal, shares details of his love life in the moral and nurturing environment.
After their weddings, both Megda and Iola embrace domestic virtue within their own homes. Megda’s home is a “perfect little nest of beauty and comfort”34 inhabited by children, a male and a female, who probably will carry on the tradition of the household. The “grand lesson of faith and submission to His will”35 Megda has learned from her friend Laura becomes paramount in her marriage to Mr. Stanley. He admonishes her with one word, and she listens to him as she did not listen to her brother. As a pastor, Mr. Stanley serves as Megda’s spiritual and moral guide. As her husband, he is more able to curb her flashes of temper because romantic love, which “was to be passive and responsive,”36 also has made her submissive. Barbara Welter notes, “[s]ubmission was perhaps the most feminine virtue expected of women.”37 The husband was to do the thinking and the wife was only to respond to it; she was not offer advice unless asked; she was to obey her husband; she was to cease self-defense and bear all.
Welter also implies that ceasing self-defense resulted not out of a sense of inferiority but out of a sense of empowerment inspired by being self-righteous. She writes that “in her heart [the woman] knew she was right and so could afford to be forgiving, even a trifle condescending.”38 The knowledge of truth and of its deficiency in one’s partner inspires power in the submissive state. Furthermore, racial uplift draws from the cult of true womanhood in order to develop black self-determination. Uplift ideology takes from the cult of true womanhood the “exaltation of domestic virtue, symbolized by the home, family, chastity, and respectability, all infused with an ethic of religious piety,” to provide the moral criteria for racial progress.39 Megda practices racial uplift by conforming to the cult of true womanhood as well as to Christianity, demonstrating that black people also can be pure and ethical and thus worthy of full American citizenship. Iola, like other educated blacks in the late-Victorian age, idealizes “matrimony as a platonic sharing of racial uplift responsibilities.”40 Rather than become part of a relationship in which her voice is silenced or part of an interracial relationship in which her blackness is hidden, she foils patriarchy and racial stereotypes by marrying a fellow activist whose goals of racial uplift are in line with her own. After their marriage, they do live in a “cosy”41 home, but Iola extends the periphery of her home and the elements of domestic virtue to her school as she is loved by little children and turned to for comfort by senior citizens, for guidance by young women, and for counsel by mothers. She is responsible for the moral education of and for fostering black pride in children who are future race leaders. Iola not only believes that women need to make their “homes more attractive” to keep the prisons empty but also that both mothers and fathers need to be educated and children taught that “the true strength of a race means purity in women and uprightness in men.”42 By uniting the black family, by embracing the role of motherhood, by insisting upon her dignity through shunning “victimization and excoriating racist stereotypes,” and “by playing an equal role with the black man in engineering social reform and racial equality, the black woman can come to view herself as the apotheosis of intelligence, courage, and self-sacrifice, instrumental in the historical process.”43 For Iola and Megda, moral change and the assertion of a positive racial identity begins in the home, after which they are communicated to others through maternal influence.
Even though Iola might redefine submissiveness and relocate domesticity, she does not deconstruct the cult of true womanhood; rather, she places it in the black community on a separate but equal basis reflective of her state of marriage. Like Megda, she possesses “a high regard for industry, uncritical admiration for Anglo-Saxon ‘culture’ and ‘refinement,’ and a firm belief that education will allow blacks to surmount prejudice and attain equality.”44 Also like Megda, she has become the ultimate wise mother, but only on a wider level and on a more evenly balanced marital playing field. On this playing field, motherhood still is significant “because mothers were responsible for raising young men, who would in turn become the future rulers of society.”45 Iola still is a caregiver: a nurturer and mother to others. However, the men she raises will rule society along with rather than instead of the women she educates. Then again, “[m]otherhood was seen as a form of self-denial—women were expected to give themselves over to the children.”46 Iola may be deviant, but she does not go very far. Her deviance is for the good of the black community and, in that context, is justified. Any construction of identity on a personal basis would be selfish and lack mother-suffering. In the end, Iola is pure, pious, domestic, and submissive—a true woman but in a different context.
Furthermore, Iola and Megda conform to and thus reify the white beauty standard. Simultaneously, their compliance counters negative black images47 and allows them to place blackness within white beauty. Upholding the white beauty standard associated blackness with Christianity and an inherent purity. Because blackness became associated with Christianity and purity, these images no longer could serve as reservoirs for white exploitation, lust, and violence. Blackness faced miscegenation and domesticity head on, confronting a fractured identity with a new standard designed to re-establish wholeness and facilitate a moral rebirth. The black body, without actually moving from the black community, became “sanctified” and metaphorically white.
The cult of true womanhood presented this white beauty standard “for all women to emulate,” but it seemed “only white middle-class women could hope to embody it.”48
The connection between whiteness and purity is . . . evident in the numerous analogies used to describe virginal womenThese associations are part of the reason that great emphasis was placed on women’s complexions. Catherine Clinton notes in The Plantation Mistress that “tanned skin . . . was an unforgivable and unnatural departure for the southern lady. Not only were there unfavorable racial connotations associated with darker skin, but ladies preserved their complexion as testifying to their pampered status within an agrarian society.” Thus the cult of true womanhood was not only geared toward white women, but white women of means. This ideal of womanhood placed certain white women on a pedestal.49
Barbara Christian notes that “[s]ince positive female qualities were all attributed to the white lady, [black] writers based their counterimage on her ideal qualities more than on the qualities of any real black woman. The closest black women could come to such an ideal, at least physically, would of course have to be the mulatta, quadroon, or octoroon.” 50 This imitation of ideal qualities explains why the fair-skinned Iola is a shining beacon to the black masses and why Megda’s whiteness is a reflection of her purity. Because of the close correlation between physical type and spiritual qualities,
[t]he literary conventions of the novel at that time . . . also legislated that the heroine of a story be beautiful, since physical beauty, at least for a woman, was an indication of her spiritual excellenceThe nineteenth-century novel promoted a rather fragile beauty as the norm; qualities of helplessness, chastity, and refinement rather than, say, strength, endurance, and intelligence were touted as the essential characteristics of femininity. The nineteenth-century heroine not only had to be beautiful physically; she had to be fragile and well bred as well.51
White skin was a sign of exemplary character and social station in addition to being an aesthetic value. Manners, morality, and virtue served to ensure that the purity implied by fair skin is a reflection of the inner state of being. William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or the President’s Daughter (1853), the first novel to be published by a black man in America, concentrates the plot around a mulatto whose physicality, or her beauty, fragility, and refinement, became, according to Barbara Christian, the standard for other black novels.52 Thus, Clotel is “a picture of tropical-ripened beauty” because of her “finely cut and well-molded features,” the “long silky hair, falling in curls down her swan-like neck,” the “dark and brilliant eyes” that light up an “olive-tinted face,” “a set of teeth that a Tuscarora might envy,” a “heavenly smile,” “accomplished manners,” and a splendid form consisting of a voluptuous, “tall and well developed figure.”53 She is fragile and embodies the qualities of “helplessness, chastity, and refinement rather than
. . . strength, endurance, and intelligence.”54 Her “beauty, like the southern lady’s, is primarily a reflection of her spiritual qualities, for she is a natural Christian.”55
Conforming to and modeling this white standard of beauty allowed some light-skinned blacks to overcome prejudice and attain equality, after which they extended a helping hand to others. The appearances of both Iola and Megda reflect the fact that they are natural Christians who help others. They embrace an ideology that accepts darker-hued blacks who can be made beautifully white, or pure, through Christian faith and dedication to advancing the race. Moreover, Iola advocates installing ‘“purity’” in women through education.56 This purity will stem from a Christian faith, making available the strength needed to fulfill the duties of the moral “true woman” as well as the “race woman,” or the woman engaged in racial uplift. The essence of the black woman’s being no longer will be evident through skin tone but through demeanor and action. Although it may seem as if Iola Leroy and especially Megda focus upon fair skin in and of itself, these novels actually extend the borders of Christian character within white beauty by making it instrumental in black self-development and the improvement of the black group in America.
Because Iola and Megda place blackness, racial uplift, and self-awareness within the cult of true womanhood even as they overcome moral and physical tragedy, they hybridize the codes of the cult of true womanhood and the tragic mulatto57 and move into an arena of beauty that once seemed off limits. For the true Christian woman,
‘“[ p]ain and suffering are the crucibles out of which come gold more fine than the pavements of heaven.’”58 Iola Leroy and Megda are the gold here, upholding whiteness as an indicator of purity and the traditional concept of white womanhood while rendering the value of self-determining blackness within domesticity and white beauty. Once again, assimilation becomes a function of placing blackness within whiteness, a social miscegenation reflective of the inescapable physical miscegenation inherent in the mulatto and in the very existence of the One. The tragic mulatto stereotype has taken a life of its own, surpassing mere existence as a stereotype designed to mark and control difference.
Passing as Subversion and Reification
Iola and Megda pass into the circumscribed white beauty standard, assimilating into even as they subvert the ideal to change the quality of life for black Americans. Another type of assimilation is racial passing. The definitions of passing differ broadly. Gunnar Myrdal designates passing as a disguise, a simulation of whiteness “to conceal the truth under a false appearance.”1 For Gayle Wald, passing “entails . . . not racial transcendence, but rather struggles for control over racial representation in a context of radical unreliability of embodied appearances.”2 For Walter Benn Michaels, passing is possible because it is a matter of refusing or failing to represent a blackness that cannot be hidden because it already is invisible.3 Passing can occur because “[c]ommon sense decrees that the phenotypical differences we associate with different races are a physical fact.”4
In Comedy: American Style, passing becomes a metaphor for death when Olivia Blanchard severs black family ties for a bleak and infertile life. Olivia lives a desperate life because she is surrounded by blackness and then because she lacks wealth in a white world. She moves from one disenfranchised state to another. To a certain degree, Olivia is the starting point of her misery. She is an essentialist and is without the knowledge that both her physical whiteness and the bourgeois whiteness for which she longs are not and never have been pure. For Olivia, only a final passing out of the physical world can cure her woes. In Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) , passing takes on a new dimension as the narrator moves through the cities in Europe and in southern and eastern America. “Spatial metaphors for both transcultural contact and mixed raced conditions abound.”5 The narrator moves from place to place, from whiteness to blackness, and from both to neither, or to unsubstantial representations. The narrator, who once saw both the whiteness and blackness within himself as he peered in a mirror, submits to an essentialist society rather than to the ambiguity of signifying. His view of himself remains fragmented,6 without a fulcrum from which to balance an identity. In this light, passing is a capitulation to the mechanisms of the color line and is thus potentially complicit with racial ideology.
Both Olivia and the narrator mask the truth. Yet this truth is not the one of essentialism distinguished by Myrdal. This truth is that these characters are only representations and reproductions of a blackness based on visibility and invisibility and of a whiteness based on the absence of blackness. Blackness is supposed to be identifiable by racial signs, but blackness can be invisible and remain so despite the employment of stereotypes and the tragic mulatto that are supposed to predict character and patterns of behavior. Whiteness “is the absence of both visible and invisible blackness. But if whiteness depends on the absence of something that cannot be perceived, then whiteness becomes increasingly precarious.”7 Whiteness, and especially blackness, cannot always be identified because there is no pure whiteness or blackness. Since there truly is no essential race to transcend, passing becomes about producing and manipulating images for social status and gain that are based upon the slippery slope of race.
Robert Bone views passing as “the most extreme form of the impulse toward assimilation….The desire to be white has been translated into a spurious reality.”8 Berzon recognizes “[t]he passing tragic mulatto” as first being “a product of the white man’s imagination” that assumes the figure “yearns to be white and is doomed to unhappiness and despair because of this impossible dream.”9 While Berzon recognizes the passing tragic mulatto as a conception by the “white man” that valorizes whiteness, Bone thinks of passing as the black desire for whiteness. Bone fails to take into account the various other reasons that resulted in passing and that also inform alterations of the tragic mulatto. Although racial hierarchy is based on the intangible, the social results are very concrete. The boundaries of whiteness and its privileges are firmly entrenched in the higher echelons of racial classification, which are supposedly beyond the reach of the different Other. As property, black people had no rights at all. As the newly “free” during Reconstruction, the black group was declared separate but equal to whites while being denied political, economic, and social rights. Racial violence increased. Freed slaves entered the fields of business, economics, and politics, threatening to change the exclusive societal structures of class and race as they became prosperous and powerful. White racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, disgruntled lower class whites, and other members of the dominant white society reacted by stuffing ballots, by denying blacks the right to vote with a show of physical force or oral threats, and by lynching and raping black victims. Complementing these actions was an increasing focus during the 1890s “on the belief that . . . black people were showing signs of an ugly degeneracy, signs most visible in an alleged propensity for criminality, sexual brutality, and violence[This belief served as support for] disenfranchisement and Jim Crow.”10 One solution to overcome disenfranchisement, or marginalization, was for mulattoes to join with blacks socially, economically, and politically or to reconnect with the Self by passing. Passing is an action allowing mulattoes not only to don white middle class values such as republican ideals—progressivism, individualism, self-reliance—but also to physically participate in the white world.
People who passed might have done so not only for the possibility of economic advancement and benefits, racial uplift, or to escape from proscription, discrimination, slavery, and the restrictions of segregation, but for (interracial) love, to get away from the double standard of black life, for amusement, to purposefully deceive, to prepare for political acts of subversion or revenge, and to investigate white criminal misconduct.11 Others may have passed inadvertently and failed to protest, passed involuntarily because they were too young to decide, or passed because others arranged it by switching babies, orphans, or foundlings.12 In Jessie Fauset’s There is Confusion (1924), the minor character Vera initially passes as white because she desires “the sense of freedom”13 but later decides to pass in the American South as a way of exposing racial injustice and to refrain from embracing whiteness with no higher purpose in mind. George in Uncle Tom’s Cabin passes to escape slavery. The slave mother Roxanna in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) switches her infant son with her master’s infant son, arranging a situation in which the two males involuntarily pass. In George Washington Cable’s “Madame Delphine” (1879) and Charles Chesnutt’s “Her Virginia Mammy” (1899), the mothers prevaricate to enable their daughters’ happy lives. Madame Delphine tells her faithful daughter Olive that her biological mother was white. Thus, Olive can feel free to marry her white lover because she has an unsullied heritage. Mrs. Harper passes as her daughter Clara’s mammy, allowing Clara to marry her white fiancé also because she has commendable ancestry.
Expressing the complications and nuances of passing is the tragic mulatto theme, in which the passing female figure is central. The tragic mulatto is usually a beautiful woman who is able to fit into a bourgeois whiteness. This marginal woman is unwilling to conform to a circumscribed existence in the black world and tries to escape its miseries by passing for white and obtaining a white lover. “The farther she goes from the community in which she is known as colored, the less likely is she to be” exposed by some white person who knows her.14 At times, her black “relatives and friends can be relied upon not to give [her] away. Their attitude is that [passing] is a good joke on the white folks; coupled with this there seems to be a sense of pride that one of their race has achieved the social equality denied to themselves.”15 At other times, her black family and friends might be the very ones who expose her. At any rate, she is unable to move freely in the white world due to the fear of her identity being discovered. The character wonders about racial signs, including kinky hair and the genealogically random Natus Æthiopus, which is when a dark-skinned child is born to a light-skinned mother and father. Ultimately, she can never really be white, and the only path to freedom lies in an almost atavistic return to blackness. This return begins with exposure by a human antagonist. The exposure also might be due to savage primitivism and its defeat of purity, which is followed by death, or to reclamation of the blackness that is home, which is followed by death as well. The implied principle in these novels is that a mulatto might escape the one-drop rule and the revelatory racial signs and behavior, but the anxiety of whiteness, or of the Self, ultimately will be put at rest because the passing figure never indefinitely can escape racial classification.
One of the original passing mulattoes appears in the short story “Where’s Duncan?” (1884) by Joel Chandler Harris. Duncan, also known as Willis Featherstone, travels with a caravan of farmers taking cotton to the market. The object of his journey is to revenge himself upon his parents: a white father who sold him into slavery and a black mother who has absented herself from his life. He plays a plantation melody and asks his mother, who has appeared at the campground and does not recognize him, “Where’s Duncan ?”16 The melody and his question spark his mother’s memory as well as a belated vengeance. The tale ends with a description of the mother stabbing the father and Duncan “enjoying the spectacle”17 as his father’s house burns around the three of them. The message seems to be that mixed beings are necessarily ravaged by the irrational passion burning inside and are eventually erased from the white page.
Early novels featuring passing mulattoes include Frank Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends, which is “the first [novel] to make ‘passing for white’ a major theme.”18 In The Garies, whiteness is based upon appearance and manners. George Winston allows others to mistake him as white. He is defined by white lawyers as ‘“almost as white as [they] . . . and [with] the manners and appearance of a gentleman. He might walk off any day without the least fear of detection.’”19 Mr. Ellis, a black friend, tells George that he is ‘“a white man, as far as complexion is concerned.’”20 A white schoolteacher initially is unwilling to reject two pupils because their African blood is not perceptible. The rogue lawyer Mr. Stevens observes ‘“how far a suit of clothes goes towards giving one the appearance of a gentleman.’”21 George, though, thinks it unlikely that he would permanently pass. Also, the rich Mr. Walters believes he is happy despite white condescension because he is not “liable at any moment to be ignominiously hurled from his position by the discovery of his origin.”22 Conversely, Clarence Garie does pass. As a result, he separates himself from his only relative and her friends. In society, he must be either white or black. Since he chooses whiteness, he lives ‘“in constant dread that something may occur to”’ expose his blackness.23 Naturally, his blackness comes to “light,” and he loses his white fiancée. Mr. Bates, his fiancée’s father, asserts that Clarence has ‘“been acting a lie, claiming a position in society to which [he] knew he had no right, and deserve[s] execration and contempt.’”24 Clarence subsequently returns to blackness through exposure. The return is almost atavistic: Mr. Bates names him a “nigger” in opposition to the gentleman he seemed to be; Clarence’s subsequent sickness speeds up his fall from a state of mental and physical well-being; Clarence journeys back to the black society of Philadelphia to fade from existence in the residence of his sister and her friends.
The common premise among these characters seems to be that a colored person might look, dress, and “act” white, but permanently and knowingly passing as white degrades the character and leads to blackness and a possible death. Although other black authors slightly revised the tragic mulatto theme featuring the passing persona, the common premise basically remained the same. Just before the Harlem Renaissance, Charles Chesnutt and James Weldon Johnson approached the theme with intellectual unrest and assertiveness. In Chesnutt’s freshman novel, Mandy Oxendine (completed around 1896 or 1897 but unpublished until 1997), Tom Lowery is proud of his “tainted” blood; he betters himself through education and honest work as a teacher and hopes to achieve fame despite his racial “shortcoming.” Mandy intuits “the essential element of difference in the status of the two races she stood between; she felt that it was not learning or wealth, or even aspiration—but opportunity. And she saw that to have opportunity was to possess the road to all else in life.”25 Consequently, she takes advantage of her God-given ability to be a white woman. However, passion morally degrades the characters and results in the revelation of identity. Rose Amelia, one of Lowery’s students, exposes both him and Mandy to fatal danger as a result of a passionate child-love for her teacher. Mandy evokes in her lover Bob Utley base emotions that reduce him from gentleman to savage, and she evokes in a visiting preacher a desire for a profane marriage intermingling with his focus on salvation. In the end, Mandy returns to blackness by marrying Lowery.