From Mulatto Nation, an installation by Lezley Saar.
The mulatto/a embodied an alibi, an excuse for “other/otherness” that the dominant culture could not (cannot now either) appropriate or wish away. An accretion of signs that embody the “unspeakable.”
—Hortense Spillers, “Notes on an Alternative Model: Neither/Nor,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture
According to the racial zodiac, 2000 is the official Year of the Mulatto. Pure breeds (at least the black ones) are out and hybridity is in. America loves us in all of our half-caste glory.
—Danzy Senna, “Mulatto Millennium” (Salon.com, 1998)
But let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color too.
—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
During a recent graduate seminar on 20th Century American Autobiography and Memoir, I found myself obliged, in the interest of civility, to swallow a fit of temper. For me, the seminar was another instance of reading a “black” writer in a class of all “whites”—an instance in which I felt the conflicting burdens to “represent” and to resist tokenism. In the end I was forced to identify, in a roundabout way, with Richard Wright, whose Black Boy was under discussion. I did finally speak up when the question arose as to how pertinent Wright’s observations are today.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll start from the beginning.
The seminar began with a discussion of “Irishness,” occasioned by a Joan Didion article. Several students spoke of their “Irish” family experiences. I wanted to speak up, in part to counter a reading of Wright’s autobiography as supporting the notion that black families do not have stories (a notion that belies a pervasive assumptions about black familial dysfunction as a cultural attribute distinct from poverty and racism).
But I did not speak. Why not? For one thing, I’m accustomed to resisting the impulse to represent all “black” people in these settings. For another, I dread, and loathe, the questions (often unspoken) that accompany the revelation of racial makeup: “But you don’t look/talk/act black?” “What are you doing here in the ‘white’ world?” “What is it like to be you?” And then there is the silence that often accompanies the revelation that my father is an AF-AM, my mother a WASP. I can interpret this silence in a number of ways: disgust, shame, guilt, boredom, the sense that “they” are in the presence of a walking talking taboo, a cipher, an aberration, a “mule.”
Now I’ve come around to the real reason for my decision to vocalize my identification with Wright. There it is, that word: mulatto. An ugly word. Give me a basketful of racist, sexist, homophobic epithets over this word any day. Many such mean-spirited words have fallen out of use, and others have been “reappropriated,” as they say.
Mulatto has not. It is still in circulation, and, I believe, cannot, be absorbed into some kind of hip counter-lingo. It is, in its pseudo-scientific definition, an incredibly debasing word, and yet, it was uttered during this seminar by a student who presents himself as an astute reader of non-white literatures, who “gets” postcolonial theory.
The context in which it was uttered is even more telling. Although the subject at hand was Black Boy, my well-intentioned classmate (I will be generous) thought it pertinent to cite James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which is not autobiography but a “passing novel,” which examines the problems of racial identity. My fellow student compared Johnson’s rejection of his “people” to Wright’s distancing from the “Negroes” he criticizes, in the cold scientific language of the sociologist, only differentiating between the two by saying, “Of course, Johnson isn’t even black. He’s a mulatto.”
This was the provocation that forced me to “identify.” Because I, too, am a mulatto. What? Does this mean that I accept the use of this term? Is this a personal reappropriation? No. I use it because I am hyperaware that every time I do “identify” as the child of a “black”/“white” union, I run the risk of having it flung in my face by some well-meaning person who has never considered the implications of the word. Again, this is generous. I find it hard to believe that in the “Academy,” or anywhere else for that matter, so few have figured out that mulatto means mule, then stopped to ponder what this signifies.
Mulatto is a word with history. It drags along with it the most insidious doctrines of essentialist, racist pseudo-science. The men initially circulated the term were no less advocates of a master race theory than Hitler and his eugenicists. Those (of whom, I imagine, my enlightened classmate is one) who would shrink from hearing blacks—or Chinese, or Mexicans, or name-your-racial-scapegoat—described as subhuman, as “monkeys,” might rather freely use mulatto.
In both cases, racial “others,” meaning non-whites are classed as species distinct from the “non-other.” This wisdom was received from convenient interpretations of the Old Testament as from hack sciences like phrenology, or the “facial profiling” of 18th-century Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper: “blacks” and “whites” were two separate species, made by God to inhabit separate spheres. The children of “blacks” and “whites”—should they, God forbid, ever take it into their heads to interbreed—would naturally be sterile and aberrant, hence, “mules.” Virginia Elise Lemire, in “Miscegenation”: Making Race in America (University of Pennsylvania Press 2002), a thorough history of American interracial hatred and fear, writes:
[M]iddle-class Americans, a group well versed in horticulture and animal husbandry, [understood that] organisms from different species would not naturally mate. That abolitionism was bringing together apelike black men with white women meant that it was violating the fundamental boundary of nature: that of species.
That’s the short history. The word “mulatto” accumulated another, particularly American, resonance when the products of such violations of nature, became the central figures of racial fear in white supremacist works like the novels of Thomas Dixon, or D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (based on Dixon’s novel, The Clansman) about which Dr. David Pilgrim, of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, writes, “Indeed, the Klan of the 1920s owes its existence to William Joseph Simmons, an itinerant Methodist preacher who watched the film a dozen times, then felt divinely inspired to resurrect the Klan which had been dormant since 1871.” Griffith’s film, one of many popular representations of the “tragic mulatto,” underlines the fear of the mulatto, as the “unspeakable” sign of interracial desire (and rape), and the poster child for cultural hatred.
Why is this word still in use? According to such “official” prescriptions of proper usage as the Columbia Guide to Standard American English (Columbia University Press 1993), words like “mulatto” (that is, “half-breed,” “octoroon,” and “quadroon”) are “now deemed offensive by many people.” The entry ends with, “Avoid these words.” Of course, no lexicographer has ever put a stop to atrocious, humorous, and politically charged uses and abuses of offensive or obsolete words. A colleague informed me recently that she spotted the word “mulatto” on a billboard in Harlem. Looking up in shock, she drew a crowd. The billboard was removed the following day.
“Why,” a confused reader might wonder, “can’t this word be reabsorbed—you know, how, like, black people call each other nigger?” Yes, dear hearts, there are such things as stupid questions. This one warrants a critical engagement.
First, allow me to digress. I recall a white acquaintance recently remarking on “how black people call light-skinned blacks ‘high-yellow,’” among other things. In response, I told him that racial prejudices are inherited from the dominant culture. Such linguistic markers of difference do not originate in communities of color but are integral to the kind of thinking that assigns a racial essence to each individual, that must find signifiers to attach to every “other” (meaning every “non-white”). As Antonio Benitez-Rojo, in The Repeating Island (Duke University Press, 1992) writes of Caribbean culture:
The high regard for mestizaje [mixture, mulattoeness], the mestizaje solution, did not originate in Africa or Indoamerica…. It involves a positivisitic and logocentric argument, an argument that sees, in the biological, economic, and cultural whitening of Caribbean society a series of successive steps toward “progress.”
This “solution” represents a “positivistic” reading of racial mixing, as opposed to negative readings by Dixon, Simmons, and Griffith. Yet both versions of mulattoeness are produced by the same “logocentric” thinking, the kind of thinking that figures race not as a color spectrum but as a gray scale, on either end of which are the absolute values of “black” and “white.” Everything in-between in a non-color, or a step toward “whiteness” or “blackness.” (As a side note, look at how this language is firmly “embedded” in the neo-imperial American psyche: Steven Cambone, assistant to Donald Rumsfeld, refers to the secret torture “apparatus” in Iraq as “the black special-access program” that releases intelligence “into the white world” [Seymour Hersh, “The Gray Zone,” New Yorker, 24 May 2004]).
High-yellow, then, is code for “not-black-enough” or “white-but-not-quite,” carrying a host of negative associations: race traitor, “wannabe,” tragic mulatto. Such identification perpetuates grayscale thinking about race, situating mixed-race people on a scale of degrees of “whiteness” or “blackness.” Édouard Glissant, in his Poetics of Relations (University of Michigan Press 2000), observes,
Exclusion is the rule in binary practice (either/or), whereas poetics aims for the space of difference—not exclusion but, rather, where difference is realized in going beyond.
In a footnote, he adds, “No matter how much diversity there is in the variables created within such a system, it is always dependent on information stored in a yes/no/yes form.” In other words, “If you’re white, you’re right, if you’re black, step back” (or, “If you’re white, you’re a blight, if you’re black, you’re on track”). Exclusionary thinking does not allow for free play within a range of differences. It assumes, instead, a taxonomy, assigns all differences a nomenclature, like rungs on an evolutionary ladder, each one a step from some atavistic throwback towards the perfectible. Signifiers like mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, and so on encompass the discourses of eugenics and imperialism, the founding discourses of Western racist thinking.
And yet, these words, just like the histories they conjure up, will not simply vanish. But, personally, I, unlike some others, have no wish to see a “Mulatto Nation”—a new cultural stronghold from which mixed-race folks can hurl opprobrium down on lesser peoples and formulate their own “chosen people” stories and eugenic mythologies. I would prefer to “go beyond” historical divisions. But, we find, history is not left behind so easily. As with my experience of the resurgence of the word “mulatto,” I have found a corresponding interest in the term.
In a web expedition in search of different versions of “mulattoeness,” I came across two sites that illustrate the lengths to which people will go to appropriate the offending word, or to parody such an attempt. One, “The Mulatto People”, maintained by a young man named Richard “Warbird” Miller, calls for the formation of a “Mulatto culture,” in which “Mulatto People” will realize the day when “all multi-racial people—mulattoes, as well as the mestizoes, hapas, osrouges, etc.—will someday be recognized as autonomous groups.” He has even designed a flag, a black, white and gray version of the Dominican flag, and has a page for “Mulatto Recipes” (only for “self-identified mulattoes,” username and password required).
In an editorial essay, “Mulattoes: From History to Destiny,” “Warbird” documents the history of “Mulatto culture,” citing “One-Droppism” as its cultural nemesis. Clearly, this essay and others like it agitated some readers. In an apologetic letter preceding the site’s homepage, “Warbird” explains his motives thusly:
I do not “behave” like a black person nor a white person. Since I obviously do not look white, whites do not have an issue with this—obviously, no one is calling me a “wigger”. The problem comes in when blacks around me complained that I “talk like a white boy” (I just speak proper English, that’s all), or acted as though I lived a sinful lifestyle because I wasn’t into hip-hop or didn’t sport urban gear.
“Warbird”‘s attempt to claim, or reclaim, a mulatto identity is a reactionary response to the very kinds of thinking that engenders the mulatto, the “not-this-or-that.” Made aware that he is neither “black” nor “white” enough, he is driven by the logic of binary exclusion to embrace an essential racial identity that seems to be an unintentional parody of what he believes constitutes culture—a flag, a “legitimate” history, a collection of recipes.
For a useful alternative, see Lezley Saar’s Mulatto Nation, an online version of an art installation at The List Gallery at Swarthmore College last year. It is a fiercely satirical imagining of just such a country, where Saar—“historian and professor emerita from MU [Mulatto University] and a lifelong outspoken activist for the Mulatto Movement”—“traces the history of the Mulatto Nation from its bumpy beginnings to its conflicted present.” Of the five sections in her “history,” the first, titled “Birth of a Nation,” includes such seminal events as the 1773 “Mulattoville Tar Party,” at which plastic white baby dolls roll around in tar (“Lillyskins Revolt” is the headline). Saar’s accomplished paintings—illustrating, among other things, “The Tom Jones is Black Theory” and “Sister Mule-Head” (an anthropomorphized figure with arms spread in Christ-like submission)—show the influence of Frida Kahlo, in darkly humorous representations of divided selfhood.
The installation’s postmodern, parodic re-presentation of stigmatized racial transgression trumps empty political rhetoric as an effective way confronting social taboos. “Mulatto Nation” also skewers the fallacious assumption that a politically recognized racial identity (an “uneasy sanctuary,” writes Ralph Ellison) frees one from the ontological insecurities, and political and ethical responsibilities that confront all people, regardless of their color.
Deeply ironic, Saar’s work speaks from a sort of existential nakedness, and “gets beyond,” to use Glissant’s (translated) phrase, the binary logic and language that damns “Warbird”‘s representation of “mulattoeness” to the dustbin of revolutionary polemic. Both of these versions of “mulattoeness” use language in surprising and banal attempts to solve the riddle of the mulatto. In Saar’s, racial identity, as a historical safe haven, becomes an absurd proposition.