Tragic Mulatto

The tragic mulatto [muh-lat-oh] is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries, from the 1840s.

The ‘tragic mulatto’ is an archetypical mixed-race person (a ‘mulatto’), who is assumed to be sad, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the ‘white world’ or the ‘black world.’ As such, the ‘tragic mulatto’ is depicted as the victim of the society they live in, a society divided by race.

The female ‘tragic octoroon’ was a stock character of abolitionist literature: a light-skinned woman raised as if a white woman in her father’s household, until his bankruptcy or death has her reduced to a menial position and sold. She may even be unaware of her status before being reduced to victimization. This character allowed abolitionists to draw attention to the sexual exploitation in slavery, and unlike the suffering of the field hands, did not allow slaveholders to retort that the sufferings of Northern mill hands were no easier, since the Northern mill owner would not sell his own children into slavery.

The ‘tragic mulatta’ figure is a woman of biracial heritage who must endure the hardships of African-Americans in the antebellum South, even though she may look white enough that her ethnicity is not immediately obvious. As the name implies, tragic mulattas almost always meet a bad end. Lydia Maria Child’s 1842 short story ‘The Quadroons’ is generally credited as the first work of literature to feature a tragic mulatta, to garner support for emancipation and equal rights. Child followed up with the 1843 short story ‘Slavery’s Pleasant Homes,’ which also has a tragic mulatta character.

Writer Eva Allegra Raimon notes that Child ‘allowed white readers to identify with the victim by gender while distancing themselves by race and thus to avoid confronting a racial ideology that denies the full humanity of nonwhite women.’ The passing character in Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ has been deemed a ‘tragic mulatta.’ Generally, the tragic mulatta archetype falls into one of three categories: A woman who can ‘pass’ for white attempts to do so, is accepted as white by society and falls in love with a white man. Eventually, her status as a biracial person is revealed and the story ends in tragedy. Or, a woman who appears to be white and thus passes as being so. It is believed that she is of Greek or Spanish descent. She has suffered little hardship in her life, but upon the revelation that she is mixed race, she loses her social standing. And lastly, a woman who has all the social graces that come along with being a middle-class or upper-class white woman is nonetheless subjected to slavery.

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

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