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A Look at Mulattos in Literature

(This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on Chesnutt)

The son of free North Carolinian mulattos, Charles Chesnutt was light-skinned, and on occasion he wrote about worries about skin color within the African American community.

Langston Hughes also addressed the issue:

My old man's a white old man And my old mother's black.

If ever I cursed my white old man I take my curses back.

If ever I cursed my black old mother And wished she were in hell,

I'm sorry for that And now I wish her well.

My old man died in a big fine house My ma died in a shack.

I wonder where I'm gonna die, Being neither white nor black!
-Langston Hughes, "Cross"

Overview of the Site:

Both of these two authors, Charles W. Chesnutt and Langston Hughs, wrote about the lifetime experiences of mulattos. These pages will show you how other authors have used mulattos in their literature by focusing on the historical aspect of their lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

1.Site presents pictures from late 19th and early 20th centuries 2.Provides a look into the literature of the time concerning mulattos 3.List of the resources used

Studies on Mulattos in Literature:

Go Down, Moses: The Miscegenation of Time
Arthur F. Kinney

The Mulatto in the United States
Edward Byron Reuter

Who is Black?
F. James Davis

William Falkner

In the book, Go Down, Moses: The Miscegenation of Time, which is a look at William Faulkner's book, Go Down, Moses, the author talks about Faulkner's relationship with mulattos in his own ancestry. He talks about Faulkner's great-grandfather, Colonel William Clark Falkner, the "old colonel"-not being the owner of the plantation, but nevertheless he did buy and sell slaves. But, it is said that the Faulkner household in Ripley in the years after 1851 was unusual in 1850 all of the slaves were of a dark black color, but in 1860 they were all mulatto.

The author states that what that plantation held in 1860, was Colonel Faulkner's own "shadow family" which is to say that Faulkner's own ancestors practiced miscegenation. It is recorded that Colonel Faulkner had at least one child (probably more) by a negro slave named, Emeline.

Edward Byron Reutur

"It would be quite normal except for the illegitimate children that the women of the mxed-blood race bear to white men. These, however, cannot all be counted as substitutes for children of a mixed blood father. They are usually born before the girl forms a regular sexual union with one of her own class and are in general to be looked upon as extra matrimonial additions to the class. Such relations seem generally not to bar to the girl forming a regular matrimonial alliance with one of her own class and in some cases at least gives her a decided prestige." Edward Byron Reutur, The Mulatto in the United States, p. 94. This excerpt explains how the black women that the masters chose to be their mistresses, were looked up to by the other slaves and were seen as having a high status on the plantation.

In contrast with the mulatto elites' custom of tracing their ancestry to the founding fathers or the illustrious white families, Malcom Little replaced his English surname with an "X." The "X" in Black Muslim names symbolizes breaking away from the past.

Charles W. Chesnutt

Uncle Wellington's Wives The short story, "Uncle Wellington's Wives", Chesnutt writes about a mulatto man who wishes to leave the South and start anew as a white person in the North. One way he must go around this is to forsake his negro wife and go seek a white wife in the North. Uncle Wellington finds out that to achieve this dream he must divorce his negro wife. Upon going to a lawyer he finds out that since he never renewed his vows after the war, according to the government, his marriage does not exist. The story goes on to tell how Uncle Wellington runs away from his negro wife to the North, and there finds a white women, whom he marries, and comes to find out that he was really loved and accepted in the South with his Negro wife. So at the end of the story, Uncle Wellington returns to his former wife.

From this story we see how easy and yet hard it was to pass for white. Hard not only as to not be caught, but hard to leave friends and family members, as in Uncle Wellington's case.

"The Passing of Grandison"

Another story of Chesnutt's, that has to do with passing as white is, "The Passing of Grandison." At the beginning of the story Dick Owens, the master's son, has tried to do something worthy of his fiancÚ's love. He decides, after hearing about a man who risked his life to save a slave by taking him to the North, and seeing how his fiancÚ was so amazed, Dick decided to try out this adventure himself. Dick's father disagrees with the slave that he wants to take with him on his trip to the North, and instead must take a very loyal slave named, Grandison. Throughout the entire trip, Dick tries to get Grandison to run away and even gives him opportunities to escape, but Grandison will not comply. Finally, Dick takes him to Canada and tries to convince Grandison that he is practically free in Canada and if he ran away Dick could not stop him. But even in this Grandison stays, until to Dick's liking, he just disappears one day.

Dick soon returns home to tell his fiancÚ the wonderful news about his kindhearted deed and how heroic he was for setting Grandison free. They are soon married and an unexpected visitor arrives. Grandison tells the family how he was kidnapped by abolitionists and how they beat him and how he escaped and made his way back to the master's plantation. After hearing this the master is very pleased, but Dick is rather embarrassed and can't believe what Grandison has done. A few weeks later Grandison, his wife, his family, and his friends are all gone and last seen crossing over into Canada.

"The Passing of Grandison" is a literary piece that tells how the white plantation owners looked upon their slaves and how they saw them as too dumb to ever consider escaping. This story shows that the negro slaves were not as dumb as the master's thought.

"Increasingly racially mixed, but defined as black regardless of the amount of white ancestry, the slaves were denied both an African identity and a white identity." F. James Davis, Who is Black?, p. 124

(These photos appeared in "The Tragedy of the Mulatto" by Ray Stannard Baker in The American Magazine in April 1908. To go to the article's site, click here.)

Alex Haley

Author of the acclaimed novels, Roots and Queen, Alex Haley discovered his black ancestor's village of Juffure in The Gambia, West Africa, the place where Kunta Kinte, his ancestor (main character in Roots) was captured and taken into slavery in America. Some have wondered why Haley didn't search quite as diligently over his white ancestry as over his black. One reason is that Haley knows shamefully well about some of his ancestors from the British Isles. Another reason could be how we are all so accustomed to the one drop rule that it seems natural for Haley to identify only with his African roots. In the novel, Queen, Alex Haley gives the reader a look into the life of his mulatto grandmother named, Queen. We read that Queen was the daughter of the young master and his negro slave, Easter. Queen was raised in the "big house" by the master's wife and learned how to be a servant to the master's daughter. By living in the house, and because Queen did not look black like the other slaves, she was easily mistaken as a white person, but was always reminded that she was still half black. Throughout Queen's life she is accused of being white, so that later on she decides to pass as poor white. At the end of her life, Queen goes back to her black roots and comes to terms with the truth that she is a mulatto.