Davis, Kathy. "Headnote to Lydia Maria Child's 'The Quadroons' and 'Slavery's Pleasant Homes'." The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women's Writings. Ed. Glynis Carr. Online. Internet. Posted: Summer 1997. http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/gcarr/19cUSWW/LB/HNQSPH.html.
With the publication of two short stories--"The Quadroons" in The Liberty Bell for 1842 and "Slavery's Pleasant Homes" in the volume for 1843--Lydia Maria Child invented the literary character type that would become known in the twentieth century as "The Tragic Mulatta." This heroine of much abolitionist literature is a light-skinned woman of mixed race. Typically, she is the daughter of an enslaved mother and a slave-owning father. Sometimes, she is ignorant of her mother's race and status--and therefore her own, as "the child follows the condition of the mother." Instead, she believes herself to be both "free" and "white" until events following her father's death expose her true condition. Remanded back to slavery and deserted by her lover, who is usually white, she dies the victim of male sexual predation.
Jean Fagan Yellin's discussion of Rosalie, the heroine of "The Quadroons," applies to the tragic mulatta in general:
[She] is pious, obedient, and domestic, hopelessly struggling to be pure, and notable for her beauty, sensitivity, and moral excellence. Like the patriarchal model of the true woman, she feels that her identity exists only in and through her relationship with the man she loves. . . . Her manners, aristocratic sensibilities, and polished language identify her as a model of patriarchal true womanhood; but her mixed racial heritage prevents her from achieving marriage, the traditional true woman's only goal. [She] persists in her piety and in her devotion to the . . . man with whom she is sexually involved, although her love, because unsanctioned, is impure. Obedient, yet denied the joys of true domesticity, [she] is doomed never to be a wife; her life is blighted, and she dies. (72)
This portrait of the mulatta heroine as sympathetic, helpless victim may have supported the sexist stereotype that persists even today, but it also illustrated the gross injustice served her at the hands of the white master. Clearly, such stories launched a serious critique of slavery, revealing how the "peculiar institution" licensed the sexual abuse of women, destroyed the family (by making rape and adultery profitable, for example, and by severing the natural bond between parent and child), and otherwise mocked the highest values the dominant culture claimed to hold dear.
According to Carolyn Karcher, "Slavery's Pleasant Homes" is a much more radical narrative than "The Quadroons," for its heroine, Rosa, loves a black man, the two enslaved lovers actively resist their owner, and Rosa dies not of yearning for a white man, but because one has viciously flogged her despite the fact that she is pregnant. "Slavery's Pleasant Homes" is "a story that portrayed the slaveholding elite . . . starkly [with] penetrating insights into the interlocking systems of racial and sexual oppression that turned the home into a harem," Karcher claims, a seditious story because it "champion[ed] the slave's right to rebel" (330).
An important motif in these stories is the incompetence of white fathers to protect and provide for wives and children. In "The Quadroons," it is precisely this which plunges Rosalie's daughter, Xarifa back into the depths of slavery. Not only is her own father inept and carelessly cruel--he refuses to remove the family to France where they might have been safe, he causes Rosalie's death of a broken heart, and finally, he kills himself during a drunken binge, orphaning Xarifa at a tender age--but Xarifa's problems can actually be traced back to her grandfather, the slaveowner who victimized her grandmother. As Anna Shannon Elfenbein remarks about the genre, "In story after story, [the father of] this near-white ingenue has not seen to things. His concern with attending to pleasure...betrays his daughter...to the auction block" (3).
As Yellin makes plain, stories of the tragic mulatta frequently featured a white sister or friend, a would-be female liberator who "spoke to the concerns of the free women readers of The Liberty Bell who were wrestling with their duty to female slaves" (73). In the doubling of the female figures, stories like "The Quadroons" and "Slavery's Pleasant Homes" articulate two distinct, but related ideas: that patriarchy empowers men in ways that destroy the social fabric and that women, whether enslaved or "nominally free" (the phrase is Grimke's), are always the victims of patriarchal power. Some readers interpret this trope of sisterhood as a sign that these tales are ultimately more concerned with issues of white female identity and empowerment than with black women's lives. In this reading, the "black" female protagonists are little more than surrogates, mere vehicles for white women's meditations on the tabooed subject of their own vulnerability to sexual violence (Sanchez-Eppler).
This line of interpretation was begun by Sterling Brown, who, according to Werner Sollors, "appears to have been the first to call attention to the literary 'stereotype' of the 'Tragic Mulatto' in a systematic fashion . . . ." (223). Brown finds fault with white abolitionist's use of this type, which he sees as representing clearly racist ideas. Brown argued that white readers found the mulatta character pitiful and sympathetic primarily because she was nearly "one of them." That is, in portraying only these mixed race characters as tragic, white abolitionist authors implied that to be pitied a slave must have at least some white blood. As Brown put it, this "was a curious piece of inconsistency on their part, an indirect admission that a white man in chains was more pitiful to behold than the African similarly placed" (159). Until recently, most twentieth-century critics, including feminists like Barbara Christian, echoed Brown's condemnation of the tragic mulatta as they called for a more "authentic" representation of black women.
Jules Zanger and Hazel Carby are among those who interpret this figure more positively. Zanger understands the tragic mulatta as a symbol of the system as a whole. According to him, the nearly white skin of the mulatta signifies the pervasive and systemic nature of sexual violence under slaveocracy, as well as its persistance in time: it requires generations of violence to produce the white-skinned slave. Carby, too, emphasizes the signifying power of the image, its capacity to represent the arbitrariness of racial categories and to mediate between them. "As a mediating device," she writes, "the mulatto had two narrative functions: it enabled an exploration of the social relations between the races . . . and it enabled an expression of the sexual relations between the races, since the mulatto was a product not only of proscribed consensual relations but of white sexual domination" (xxi-xxii).
Thus, Child's stories of tragic mulattas pose many questions to us readers. What purposes did these tales serve in the abolitionist and feminist struggles for equality? They are fictional narratives, but do they also tell us about the lives of real women under slavery? If so, what? What are these stories' cultural and political connotations? What racial and gender stereotypes do they support? And finally, are both of Child's stories basically the same? Are Rosa and Rosalie simply the same character thrust into different situations?
Brown, Sterling. "Negro Character as Seen by White Authors." (1933) Rpt. Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America. Eds. James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross. NY: Free Press, 1968. 139-171.
Carby, Hazel. "Introduction." Iola LeRoy. By Frances E. W. Harper. (1892) Ed. Hazel Carby. Boston: Beacon P, 1987. ix-xxvi.
Christian, Barbara. "Images of Black Women in Afro-American Literature: From Stereotype to Character." (1975) Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. NY: Pergamon Press, 1985. 1-30.
Elfenbein, Anna Shannon. Women on the Color Line: Evolving Stereotypes and the Writings of George Washington Cable, Grace King, and Kate Chopin.. Charlottesville: UP Virginia, 1989.
Grimke, Angelina Emily. Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. (1836) NY: Arno Press, 1989.
Karcher, Carolyn. "Rape, Murder and Revenge in 'Slavery's Pleasant Homes': Lydia Maria Child's Antislavery Fiction and the Limits of Genre." Women's Studies International Forum 9.4 (1986): 323-32.
Sanchez-Eppler, Karen. Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body. Berkeley: U California P, 1993.
Sollors, Werner. Neither Black nor White Yet Both: Thematic Exploration of Interracial Literature. NY: Oxford UP, 1997.
Yellin, Jean Fagan. Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.
Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860." American Quarterly 18 (1966): 151-174.
Zanger, Jules. "The 'Tragic Octoroon' In Pre-Civil War Fiction." American Quarterly 18 (1966): 63-70.
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