Content Note: The subject matter in this post contains images, words, and phrases of a racist nature, some of which may be graphic.
Those of African descent have long been ‘othered’…treated as if they aren’t part of the human race…treated as subhuman…or only part human; certainly not deserving of the same rights as everyone else (often read as white people). This othering has resulted in racist caricatures of Blacks. These denigrating caricatures treat Black people in a dehumanizing manner. One such racist caricature is ‘The Tragic Mulatto’:
Lydia Maria Child introduced the literary character that we call the tragic mulatto in two short stories: “The Quadroons” (1842) and “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes” (1843). She portrayed this light skinned woman as the offspring of a white slaveholder and his black female slave. This mulatto’s life was indeed tragic. She was ignorant of both her mother’s race and her own. She believed herself to be white and free. Her heart was pure, her manners impeccable, her language polished, and her face beautiful. Her father died; her “negro blood” discovered, she was remanded to slavery, deserted by her white lover, and died a victim of slavery and white male violence. A similar portrayal of the near-white mulatto appeared in Clotel (1853), a novel written by black abolitionist William Wells Brown.
A century later literary and cinematic portrayals of the tragic mulatto emphasized her personal pathologies: self-hatred, depression, alcoholism, sexual perversion, and suicide attempts being the most common. If light enough to “pass” as white, she did, but passing led to deeper self-loathing. She pitied or despised blacks and the “blackness” in herself; she hated or feared whites yet desperately sought their approval. In a race-based society, the tragic mulatto found peace only in death. She evoked pity or scorn, not sympathy. Sterling Brown summarized the treatment of the tragic mulatto by white writers:
White writers insist upon the mulatto’s unhappiness for other reasons. To them he is the anguished victim of divided inheritance. Mathematically they work it out that his intellectual strivings and self-control come from his white blood, and his emotional urgings, indolence and potential savagery come from his Negro blood. Their favorite character, the octoroon, wretched because of the “single drop of midnight in her veins,” desires a white lover above all else, and must therefore go down to a tragic end.(Brown, 1969, p. 145)
Vara Caspary’s novel The White Girl (1929) told the story of Solaria, a beautiful mulatto who passes for white. Her secret is revealed by the appearance of her brown-skinned brother. Depressed, and believing that her skin is becoming darker, Solaria drinks poison. A more realistic but equally depressing mulatto character is found in Geoffrey Barnes’ novel Dark Lustre (1932). Alpine, the light-skinned “heroine,” dies in childbirth, but her white baby lives to continue “a cycle of pain.” Both Solaria and Alpine are repulsed by blacks, especially black suitors.
Most tragic mulattoes were women, although the self-loathing Sergeant Waters in A Soldier’s Story (Jewison, 1984) clearly fits the tragic mulatto stereotype. The troubled mulatto is portrayed as a selfish woman who will give up all, including her black family, in order to live as a white person. These words are illustrative:
Don’t come for me. If you see me in the street, don’t speak to me. From this moment on I’m White. I am not colored. You have to give me up.
These words were spoken by Peola, a tortured, self-hating black girl in the movie Imitation of Life (Laemmle & Stahl, 1934). Peola, played adeptly by Fredi Washington, had skin that looked white. But she was not socially white. She was a mulatto. Peola was tired of being treated as a second-class citizen; tired, that is, of being treated like a 1930s black American. She passed for white and begged her mother to understand.
Imitation of Life, based on Fannie Hurst’s best selling novel, traces the lives of two widows, one white and the employer, the other black and the servant. Each woman has one daughter. The white woman, Beatrice Pullman (played by Claudette Colbert), hires the black woman, Delilah, (played by Louise Beavers) as a live-in cook and housekeeper. It is the depression, and the two women and their daughters live in poverty — even a financially struggling white woman can afford a mammy. Their economic salvation comes when Delilah shares a secret pancake recipe with her boss. Beatrice opens a restaurant, markets the recipe, and soon becomes wealthy. She offers Delilah, the restaurant’s cook, a twenty percent share of the profits. Regarding the recipe, Delilah, a true cinematic mammy, delivers two of the most pathetic lines ever from a black character: “I gives it to you, honey. I makes you a present of it.” While Delilah is keeping her mistress’s family intact, her relationship with Peola, her daughter, disintegrates.
Peola is the antithesis of the mammy caricature. Delilah knows her place in the Jim Crow hierarchy: the bottom rung. Hers is an accommodating resignation, bordering on contentment. Peola hates her life, wants more, wants to live as a white person, to have the opportunities that whites enjoy. Delilah hopes that her daughter will accept her racial heritage. “He [God] made you black, honey. Don’t be telling Him his business. Accept it, honey.” Peola wants to be loved by a white man, to marry a white man. She is beautiful, sensual, a potential wife to any white man who does not know her secret. Peola wants to live without the stigma of being black — and in the 1930s that stigma was real and measurable. Ultimately and inevitably, Peola rejects her mother, runs away, and passes for white. Delilah dies of a broken heart. A repentant and tearful Peola returns to her mother’s funeral.
Audiences, black and white (and they were separate), hated what Peola did to her mother — and they hated Peola. She is often portrayed as the epitome of selfishness. In many academic discussions about tragic mulattoes the name Peola is included. From the mid-1930s through the late 1970s, Peola was an epithet used by blacks against light-skinned black women who identified with mainstream white society. A Peola looked white and wanted to be white. During the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, the name Peola was an insult comparable to Uncle Tom, albeit a light-skinned female version.
(Dr. David Pilgrim’s entire article, including a discussion on of Dorothy Dandridge, can be found here)