This episode was played really well -- and played pretty close to the race line. Neither have iconic images as old as the archetypical bi-racial character in Imitation of Life, the 1959 classic with the tragic mulatto, nor has the sheer election of Barack Obama pressed Americans to tackle the race question head on. In the thick of those two eras stands a time when television seemed to have more gall around "difference".
In this episode of The Jeffersons, the tragic mulatto speaks out, embodied in Jenny’s brother who drops in for this episode to trace out the race line more acutely than George Jefferson in his taunts towards the bi-racial couple upstairs, the odd, old-world neighbor. The show regularly shores up ratings via those slapstick/teachable moments when George, Louise, or their maid Florence falter over the class line—they’z done moved on up. Into this steps the half-blood neighbor’s kid returning home from life beyond this culture’s particular color line, and what he says is phenomenal.
According to Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum, the tragic mulatto “is the antithesis of the mammy caricature” who knew her place on “the bottom rung” of the gender, race, and class hierarchy in America. Moreover, in the system of slavery, mixed-race slaves as cotton and tobacco pickers of North America were considered “pure Black”, whereas the cane cultivators of the rest of the New World established a wider, more nuanced racialized gender and class hierarchy. Whatever the case, this new racialized body of the mulatto was ripe for subordination into the sickest of racist fantasies: “All slave women (and men and children) were vulnerable to being raped, but the mulatto afforded the slave owner the opportunity to rape, with impunity, a woman who was physically White (or near-White) but legally Black.” Ferris State’s comprehensive website corroborates an oft mentioned opinion expressed by my own grandfather—a former sharecropper from Alabama—who dismisses the mass worship of fair skin, dismissing tragic mulattos as “symbols of rape and concubinage”. Much of the tragedy around which pop cultural portrayals of mulattos inevitably rotate around tropes of sexual exploitation, and a lack of understanding and acceptance of one’s ordained place in society. It is here where The Jeffersons attempts to dislodge this common portrayal and open up public discourse to own own fantasies rather through allowing the mulatto to speak directly on these issues.