Skip to Main Content
The Mulatta and the Politics of Race

The Mulatta and the Politics of Race

Teresa C. Zackodnik
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 272
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Mulatta and the Politics of Race
    Book Description:

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

    The Mulatta and the Politics of Racetraces many key instances in which black women have wielded the image of a racially mixed woman to assault the color line. In the oratory and fiction of black women from the late 1840s through the 1950s, Teresa C. Zackodnik finds the mulatta to be a metaphor of increasing potency.Before the Civil War white female abolitionists created the image of the "tragic mulatta," caught between races, rejected by all. African American women put the mulatta to diverse political use. Black women used the mulatta figure to invoke and manage American and British abolitionist empathy and to contest racial stereotypes of womanhood in the postbellum United States. The mulatta aided writers in critiquing the "New Negro Renaissance" and gave writers leverage to subvert the aims of mid-twentieth-century mainstream American culture.The Mulatta and the Politics of Racefocuses on the antislavery lectures and appearances of Ellen Craft and Sarah Parker Remond, the domestic fiction of Pauline Hopkins and Frances Harper, the Harlem Renaissance novels of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen, and the little-known 1950s texts of Dorothy Lee Dickens and Reba Lee. Throughout, the author discovers the especially valuable and as yet unexplored contributions of these black women and their uses of the mulatta in prose and speech.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-057-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-2)

    In her 1995 study,The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen, Jacquelyn McLendon posed a provocative question that has gone unanswered: “Is it possible, through theorizing, to situate these texts within a specific set of black intertextual relations even though the tragic mulatto is a figure of white creation?” (12). While a critical focus on the mulatta in African American texts has been lacking, both before and since McLendon raised the possibility of this figure’s importance to black women writers, the study of passing saw a virtual explosion in the mid-1990s. With conference panels,...

  5. Chapter 1 Fixing the Color Line The Mulatta, American Courts, and the Racial Imaginary
    (pp. 3-41)

    In “Racial Histories and Their Regimes of Truth,” Ann Laura Stoler argues that contemporary studies of race tend to read retrospectively, “flattening” what is often a more vexed terrain in order to “distinguish between racisms of past and present.” The consequence is the implication that “racisms once existed in more overt and pristine form. . . . [A] biologized, physiological and somatic racism of the past [is] held up as fundamentally distinct from a more nuanced, culturally coded, and complex racism of the present” (183). Indeed, examinations of race in American culture tend to follow what we might call a...

  6. Chapter 2 “White Slaves” and Tragic Mulattas The Antislavery Appeals of Ellen Craft and Sarah Parker Remond
    (pp. 42-74)

    The mulatta was not only the anxious obsession of the law and science as these discourses debated and constructed racial identities but was also the fantasy of fiction and theater throughout the nineteenth century. Particularly popular were narratives and dramas of the “tragic mulatta” or “white slave.”¹ While depictions of the mulatta varied according to genre, critics generally agree that these contours of the tragic mulatta plot predominated.² “[T]he tragic mulatta plot centers on a beautiful fair-skinned young girl whose father is most often her master but who remains ignorant of her slave identity,” summarizes Carla Peterson. “Socialized as a...

  7. Chapter 3 Little Romances and Mulatta Heroines Passing for a “True Woman” in Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy and Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces
    (pp. 75-114)

    While Ellen Craft’s and Sarah Parker Remond’s “womanliness” was frequently noted in British press reports of their appearances and lectures, it was singled out as a characteristic somehow out of the ordinary and worthy of remark, as unique as seeing a “white slave” or tragic mulatta, or hearing a black woman speak of the concubinage of mulattas in Southern states like Louisiana. Indeed, press accounts of Ellen Craft’s appearances often made not only her white skin but also her femininity, as evident in her dress and behavior, the sole focus of their remarks. Time and again, Craft’s “delicate,” “graceful” (“Anti-Slavery...

  8. Chapter 4 Commodified “Blackness” and Performative Possibilities in Jessie Fauset’s The Chinaberry Tree and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand
    (pp. 115-155)

    Black women writers in the early decades of the twentieth century challenged racist ideologies that continued to mythologize black womanhood as immoral and negotiated a fraught politics of representation rendered all the more complex by a cult of primitivism in full swing. As part of this larger challenge, Jessie Fauset, the most prolific novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, and Nella Larsen, the first black female novelist to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, parodied modern notions of womanhood and racial difference. While Fauset and Larsen used the mulatta figure to parody dominant notions of womanhood and challenge race as it was...

  9. Chapter 5 Passing Transgressions, Excess, and Authentic Identity in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun and Nella Larsen’s Passing
    (pp. 156-185)

    Writing on African American drama, Sandra Richards notes that “thanks to feminism, we have apparently come to understand that gender is performative. However, race—or, more properly stated, visible difference in skin color—remains tied to a metaphysics of substance” (47). Currently, race theory speaks of race as power-effect, a metaphor or construct naturalized or grounded through appeals to the body and bodily differences. Just as black British cultural studies theorists like Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, and Kobena Mercer call for “de-essentializing” blackness, several African American critics and theorists likewise maintain that “blackness must now be defined as a mediated,...

  10. Epilogue The “Passing Out” of Passing and the Mulatta?
    (pp. 186-198)

    Despite the varied political uses to which African American women have put the mulatta, for some time she has been a vexed figure in African American literary studies. The lack of a concentrated effort to study how this figure might operate in different historical moments for African American writers and the critical dismissal, if not hostility, the mulatta has met with are telling. The mulatta articulates something about race with which many continue to be uncomfortable and is very much at the center, rather than marking or mediating the borders, of an American racial imaginary and its color line. Consequently,...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 199-216)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 217-228)
  13. Index
    (pp. 229-235)