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Not-So-Tragic-Mulatto's Low Point: Crossing the Color Line in 'The Jeffersons'

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Monday, Dec 7, 2009
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.
  


Indeed, the half-blood prince passed for white, and it felt good, as opposed to his half-muggle sister whose feelings are piercingly and prophetically resolved at her low point—indeed, all this for a sitcom. According to statistics, plenty of people cross the race line in both directions, for a variety of reasons, each year.  Some whites want to be black and some blacks want to be white, let alone the range folks who don’t share this particular aspect of American history, but are nonetheless confronted with the nearly ubiquitous, silent (i.e. hushed) and invisible (i.e. concealed) force of assimilation. Let’s just say that rock stars win billboards by putting on blackface music acts, and even Negroes decided to follow suit and whiten up their music in order to cross-over that same color line and gain access to wider/whiter side of Jim and Jane Crow. Major artists would have to break away from record label that forbade them from addressing the sorts of questions shows like The Jeffersons regularly addressed. If that ain’t ASSimilation!


At the center of this is the one-drop rule—but even that is ruled by the equation that there is, in fact, a color line. Moreover, the reality that people often cross to gain money and/or status simply attests to the fortitude and penetration of social inequality and respect for difference in our so-called multi-kulti modern, democratic societies.


“I voted for a Black man, give me my shoe polish, let’s party like it’s 1899,” said a tokenized commentator on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The recent strobes of minstrel shows cross old lines of appropriation, ridicule, and annihilation of the “other” all under the guise of genuinely thinking that Black people are nifty and cool. Rare are public tropes around race as sophisticated as one regularly saw in shows like the Jeffersons. Rarer are those shows that really address America’s bare spots—like crossing the race line, be it passing for one race or another, or just being bi (racial).


In Paris? “In Paris”, says the more Euro looking mulatto of the sibling to his dark sister—two kids born of the same family on either side of the race line. Nobody asked in Paris. Nobody cared if a light-skinned, straight-haired mulatto was white in Paris. Could just be Pied-Noir anyway. But when nobody asks about your roots, and you fail to ask yourself, you’re lost. The fair and handsome mulatto in this episode came home to find himself.


The story in this episode of The Jeffersons is far more advanced than the tragic mulatto who passed for white in Imitation of Life—the gutter rat selling her body, literally shaking and gyrating on stage the way that dominant female pop stars still do today. On these and those screens, the mulatto girl is merely a sex object, unable to cross the line, merely balance upon it, like high atop her haut-heels. In Imitation of Life, the handsome and strong, white boyfriend literally tossed the mulatto in the gutter as soon as he discovered she had a drop of “nigger” blood. 50 Cent must have adored such films in the past because he sure looks like Rerun, only this block of show from the mid-‘70s to early ‘80s were heftier on the sustenance. Fifty just brags about what he does to “these hoes”, ostensibly speaking about the troupe of light-skinned, weave-wearing, conked-out, near-naked faux mulattoes surrounding him in his videos—“Cancel that bitch!”


The mulatto passing for white in The Jeffersons expressed that being white felt ungrounded; people ought consider who they are, and understand their relationship to normative power. His existence was like a ho wearing stilettos: she thinks she’s wearing haute-couture, but really her classy clear talons stretch so long as to warrant their own nomenclature: she’s wearing haut-heels (pronounced ‘ho-heels’). Struttin’ in haut-heels is superficial, not the genuine thing- forgetting the craftsmanship that goes behind producing the real thing. Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.


“Crossing” defies honesty and denies us opportunities for genuine dialogue, like demonstrated in this episode of The Jeffersons. There are hard questions to be asked, but we’re all at fault for not opening our eyes. There is no color line, and the one-drop rule is false. The fact that people can cross the color line attests to its endurance as a socially constructed and reinforced belief. Without digesting the sorts of hearty questions asked in these “race” shows—such as Good Times, Sanford and Son or Diff’rent Strokes—then the line will continue to define our national character: swimming in denial (like forgetting that when you swipe, at some point you’ll have to pay).


Denying racism is no more empowered than succumbing to racial order of things—crushed under its weight through chronic poverty, or crossing the line, running away in shame. In playing a grittier, more Jive-infused version of the Dozens than in Rev. Lowery’s inaugural address, the sitcom reconciles this age-old issue. Won’t we, too?!

Tagged as: the jeffersons
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