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Eleanor Ross does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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In the United Statesfor example, the people identified as African Americans do not share a common set of physical characteristics. There is a greater range of skin colours, hair colours and textures, facial features, body sizes, and other physical traits in this category than in any other human aggregate identified as a single race.

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Lydia Mari introduced the literary character that we call the tragic mulatto 1 in two short stories: "The Quadroons" and "Slavery's Pleasant Homes" She portrayed this light skinned woman as the offspring of a white slaveholder and his black female slave. This mulatto's life was indeed tragic.

She was ignorant of both her mother's race and her own. She believed herself to be white and free. Her heart was pure, her manners impeccable, her language polished, and her face beautiful. Her father died; her "negro blood" discovered, she was remanded to slavery, deserted by her white lover, and died a victim of slavery and white male violence.

A similar portrayal of the near-white mulatto appeared in Clotela novel written by black abolitionist William Wells Brown. A century later literary and cinematic portrayals of the tragic mulatto emphasized her personal pathologies: self-hatred, depression, alcoholism, sexual perversion, and suicide attempts being the most common.

If light enough to "pass" as white, she did, but passing led to deeper self-loathing. She pitied or despised blacks and the "blackness" in herself; she hated or feared whites yet desperately sought their approval. In a race-based society, the tragic mulatto found peace only in death. She evoked pity or scorn, not sympathy.

Sterling Brown summarized the treatment of the tragic mulatto by white writers:. White writers insist upon the mulatto's unhappiness for other reasons. To them he is the anguished victim of divided inheritance. Mathematically they work it out that his intellectual strivings and self-control come from his white blood, and his emotional urgings, indolence and potential savagery come from his Negro blood. Their favorite character, the octoroon, wretched because of the "single drop of midnight in her veins," desires a white lover above all else, and must therefore go down to a tragic end.

Brown,p. Vara Caspary's novel The White Girl told the story of Solaria, a beautiful mulatto who passes for white. Her secret is revealed by the appearance of her brown-skinned brother.

The tragic mulatto myth

Depressed, and believing that her skin is becoming darker, Solaria drinks poison. A more realistic but equally depressing mulatto character is found in Geoffrey Barnes' novel Dark Lustre Alpine, the light-skinned "heroine," dies in childbirth, but her white baby lives to continue "a cycle of pain. Most tragic mulattoes were women, although the self-loathing Sergeant Waters in A Soldier's Story Jewison, clearly fits the tragic mulatto stereotype.

The troubled mulatto is portrayed as a selfish woman who will give up all, including her black family, in order to live as a white person. These words are illustrative:. Don't come for me.

If you see me in the street, don't speak to me. From this moment on I'm White.

I am not colored. You have to give me up. Peola, played adeptly by Fredi Washington, had skin that looked white.

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But she was not socially white. She was a mulatto. Peola was tired of being treated as a second-class citizen; tired, that is, of being treated like a s black American.

She passed for white and begged her mother to understand. Imitation of Lifebased on Fannie Hurst's best selling novel, traces the lives of two widows, one white and the employer, the other black and the servant. Each woman has one daughter. The white woman, Beatrice Pullman played by Claudette Colberthires the black woman, Delilah, played by Louise Beavers as a live-in cook and housekeeper.

It is the depression, and the two women and their daughters live in poverty -- even a financially struggling white woman can afford a mammy. Their economic salvation comes when Delilah shares a secret pancake recipe with her boss.

Beatrice opens a restaurant, markets the recipe, and soon becomes wealthy. She offers Delilah, the restaurant's cook, a twenty percent share of the profits. Regarding the recipe, Delilah, a true cinematic mammy, delivers two of the most pathetic lines ever from a black character: "I gives it to you, honey.

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I makes you a present of it. Peola is the antithesis of the mammy caricature. Delilah knows her place in the Jim Crow hierarchy: the looking rung. Hers is an accommodating reation, bordering on contentment. Peola hates her life, wants more, wants to live as a white person, to have the opportunities that whites enjoy.

Delilah hopes that her daughter will accept her racial heritage. Don't be telling Him his business. Accept it, honey. She is beautiful, sensual, a potential wife to any white man who does not know her secret. Peola wants to live without the stigma of being black -- and in the s that stigma was real and measurable. Ultimately and inevitably, Peola rejects her mother, runs away, and passes for white. Delilah dies of a broken heart.

A repentant and tearful Peola returns to her mother's funeral. Audiences, black and white and they were separatehated what Peola did to her mother -- and they hated Peola. She is often portrayed as the epitome of selfishness.

“race” and the reality of human physical variation

In many academic discussions about tragic mulattoes the name Peola is included. From the mids through the late s, Peola was an epithet used by blacks against light-skinned black women who identified with mainstream white society. A Peola looked white and wanted to be white. Fredi Washington, the black actress who played Peola, was light enough to pass for white. Rumor has it that in later movies makeup was used to "blacken" her skin so white audiences would know her race.

She had sharply defined features; long, dark, and straight hair, and green eyes; this limited the roles she was offered. She could not play mammy roles, and though she looked white, no acknowledged black was allowed to play a white person from the 's through the 's.

The plot is essentially the same; however, Peola is called Sara Jane, and she is played by Susan Kohner, a white actress. Delilah is now Annie Johnson. The pancake storyline is gone. Instead, the white mistress is a struggling actress. The crux of the story remains the light-skinned girl's attempts to pass for white. She runs away and becomes a chorus girl in a sleazy nightclub.

Her dark skinned mother played by Juanita Moore follows her.

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She begs her mother to leave her alone. Sara Jane does not want to marry a "colored chauffeur"; she wants a white boyfriend.

She gets a white boyfriend, but, when he discovers her secret, he savagely beats her and leaves her in a gutter. As in the original, Sara Jane's mother dies from a broken heart, and the repentant child tearfully returns to the funeral. Peola and Sara Jane were cinematic tragic mulattoes. They were big screen testaments to the commonly held belief that "mixed blood" brought sorrow.

If only they did not have a "drop of Negro blood. Were real mulattoes born to hurt? All racial minorities in the United States have been victimized by the dominant group, although the expressions of that oppression vary. Mulattoes were considered black; therefore, they were slaves along with their darker kinsmen. All slaves were "born to hurt," but some writers have argued that mulattoes were looking, relative to dark-skinned blacks.

Reutera historian, wrote:. In slavery days, they were most frequently the trained servants and had the advantages of black contact with cultured men and women. Many of them were free and so enjoyed whatever advantages went with that superior status. They were considered by the white people to be superior in intelligence to the black Negroes, and came to take great pride in the fact of their white blood When possible, they formed a sort of mixed-blood caste and held themselves aloof from the black Negroes and the slaves of lower status.

Reuter's claim that mulattoes were held in white regard and treated better than "pure blacks" must be examined closely.