"Le Mulâtre" ("The Mulatto") is a short story by the American-born free person of color Victor Séjour. It was written in French, Séjour's first language, and published in the Paris abolitionist journal Revue des Colonies in 1837. It is the earliest extant work of fiction by an African-American author, and was noted as such when an English translation appeared in the first edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature in 1997.
Before the importance of French literature by writers of color from New Orleans was recognized, histories of African-American fiction had conventionally begun with "The Heroic Slave" by Frederick Douglass in 1852, and "The Two Offers" by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in 1859 had been considered the first African-American short story. French literature flourished from the late 18th and into the early 20th century in Louisiana, and the francophone literary community among people of color was intellectually rich and sophisticated—a reality obscured by the identification of American literature with writing in English. The literary dynamism of New Orleans prepared Séjour to enjoy a successful career as a dramatist in Paris, where he emigrated to escape racial restrictions in the U.S.
"The Mulatto" has been described as "a gothic revenge tale revolving around the psychological conflicts of a mulatto searching for the identity of his father." It is one of the earliest works of fiction driven by the psychological trauma of American slavery.
The Revue des Colonies was an abolitionist journal edited in Paris by Cyril Bissette from 1834 to 1842. Its contributors were mainly free persons of color. Bissette published "Le Mulâtre" in the March 1837 issue, not long after the 19-year-old Séjour arrived from his native New Orleans to further his education and career.
A Louisiana state law passed in 1830 restricted the dissemination of "seditious" writing, and Séjour's story detailing the injustice and cruelty of slavery was not published there, though it may have circulated privately through family connections. An English translation of "Le Mulâtre" was not published until 1997, when Philip Barnard's edition was included in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Another translation, by Andrea Lee, appeared in the Multilingual Anthology of American Literature in 2000.
Structure and setting
The main story takes place in Saint Domingue before the Haitian Revolution, and is told in third person. The narrative frame, however, is post-revolutionary: the first-person narrator, a visitor to the place, identifies Saint Domingue as "now the Republic of Haiti". This visitor, addressed as "Master," is presumably white. The "I" of the introduction hears the story told by an "old negro," Antoine, who is a contemporary of the mulatto protagonist of the events related. The author gives Antoine license to tell the story from a nearly omniscient point of view, but the story ends without returning to its initial narrative setting.
The story is set specifically in Saint Marc, the city from which Séjour's father had emigrated to New Orleans. Some of the writer's relatives still lived in Haiti, including a nephew, Frédéric Marcelin, who was a political activist and writer of the Romantic movement. The elder Séjour was a free mulatto whose parents were a white man and a free woman of color. Victor's mother was also a free woman of color, and his own baptismal record identifies him as a "free quadroon". "The Mulatto" is the only extant work by Séjour to be set in the "New World".
The setting established by the narrative frame—both the time of day and the site—enhances the story's themes. It begins as dawn is turning the black mountains white ("Les premiers rayons de l’aurore blanchissaient à peine la cime noire des montagnes"). Werner Sollors offers the interpretation that dawn and dusk are points in the 24-hour cycle that are neither night nor day, but both. The Classical goddess of the dawn, Eos to the Greeks, Roman Aurora, had myths associating her with Aethiopia, and was the mother of a black son, Memnon. Characters named Aurora, Aurore or Dawn in fiction on biracial themes—including The Quadroon by Mayne Reid, The Grandissimes by George Washington Cable, The Foxes of Harrow by Frank Yerby, and "The Black Madonna" by Muriel Spark—are symbolically situated between night (black) and day (white).
The first-person narrator as a visitor describes the verdant landscape as picturesque and exotic, expressive of "the sublime diversity of God's works." But Antoine, as he begins to take over the narrative, points to the dominant man-made structure, "an edifice that ... in its peculiarity resembles a temple and in its pretense a palace". Here the rentiers and idlers would gather to play billiards and smoke Cuban cigars along with plantation owners in town to buy slaves. As in gothic literature by white writers, a grand human façade contrasts with the beautiful otherness of nature and masks a horror within. The description of this "edifice" as a temple, surrounded by fields "like young virgins at the foot of an altar," marks the violation of the black female body as a form of sacrifice.
Genre and themes
"The Mulatto" is a melodrama with the gothic elements of curses, suicide, murder, and the monstrous. It is an example of how European artistic forms were adapted for transatlantic slave-owning culture. Melodrama in a domestic setting was particularly transferrable to interracial questions of family legitimacy:
"Dramas of patriarchal right, and hyperbolic investments in moral polarities of good and evil, virtue and villainy, are about investing the family with new symbolic potency ... . In the context of Saint-Domingue and Louisiana, and in 'Le Mulâtre,' the symbolic crisis of the Law of the Father and of social legitimacy is lived literally and viscerally. The colonial family romance here really means killing the father, as the conflict between slave and slave master is, so often, a family drama too."
Séjour's treatment of the "tragic mulatto" trope is unusual in that the protagonist is male rather than a beautiful woman. While it was common for stories employing this trope to end in the death of the mulatto, Séjour complicates his audience's response to the protagonist by having him commit patricide as well as suicide. The themes of slavery and "miscegenation" are thus imbued with oedipal conflict. Sollors sees "The Mulatto" and American slavery literature in general as having an inherent kinship with Greek tragedy in focusing on the violent disruption of family; in particular, "the biracial heir ... may be denied his birthright and inheritance by his father and hence have to engage in a quest for recognition." The character doomed by biracialism is a theme that recurs in later African-American literature, including the short story "Father and Son" by Langston Hughes and the play he adapted from it, The Mulatto.
Séjour's heavy reliance on dialogue points toward his forthcoming career as a noted playwright. It has been argued that Sejour's play The Jew of Seville, set in 15th-century Spain, allows him to deal with racism and the concept of blood purity while evading the potential censorship that a more direct and contemporary treatment of slavery was likely to provoke. "Purity of blood" statutes (limpieza de sangre) had imposed a lesser political and social status on conversos, those who had converted to Christianity from Judaism or Islam or who had descended from converts, making ancestry a liability the individual could not overcome. Séjour may have seen parallels to the "one drop rule" in American society. The Jew of Seville was Séjour's first play, accepted in 1843 for production at the Comédie Française. Around the same time, two other plays on Paris stages featured a mulatto character. Like the protagonist in Séjour's earlier short story, the character in The Jew of Seville who plays the "mulatto" role of mixed identity also commits suicide, and the family is destroyed. Although the grand, classically constructed drama may seem removed from the abolitionist passion of "The Mulatto," historical distance allows Séjour to show that categorizations by "blood" are socially constructed and subject to change. The historical perspective also highlights that 1492—the year in which Jews were expelled from Toledo, and one of the acts in the anti-Semitic background of Séjour's play—was the year in which the New World was "discovered" by the expedition sponsored by Spain. Séjour can thus be seen as linking traditions of racism in the New and Old Worlds in order to criticize them.
At the time of his death in 1874, Séjour had written a play called L'Esclave ("The Slave"), but the manuscript has never been found. In 1861, a journal reported that Séjour was planning a play about the abolitionist John Brown, but this work too remains unknown.
The story Antoine tells compresses several years of horrific and lurid events into about 5,500 words. The instigating action is the sale at auction of a beautiful Senegalese woman, Laïsa. In a display of his superior wealth, a 22-year-old planter named Alfred outbids other potential buyers who covet her beauty. Alfred compels Laïsa to share his bed, but when he fails to deprive her of her pride and self-containment, he grows bored and sends her to live in one of the poorest cabins on the plantation. There she gives birth to his child, whom he never acknowledges.
The boy, Georges, grows up on the plantation without ever learning who his father is. Laïsa refuses to reveal his identity, fearing that Alfred would kill the child to protect his own public image, but she gives Georges a pouch that she says contains a portrait of his father. Georges promises his dying mother that he won't look inside until he turns 25. Georges' high moral character is indicated by his keeping his promise.
A band of brigands has been terrorizing planters in the area, and Georges learns that his master will be the next target. He tries to warn Alfred, who suspects Georges of being part of the plot. Georges nevertheless defends Alfred against four assailants, and is himself seriously wounded. Alfred finally recognizes Georges' loyalty, and has him carried home to his cabin to be cared for. But while demonstrating his gratitude with frequent visits, Alfred becomes desirous of Georges' young and beautiful wife, Zélie, who like Georges is a mulatto. Zélie is virtuous and dignified, and rejects Alfred. He finally lures her into a situation where he can attempt to rape her, but she pushes him away so forcefully that he falls and sustains a head injury. Zélie knows at once that by the Code noir she will have to die: "Any slave who strikes his master, his mistress, the husband of his mistress, or their children, causing bruises or effusion of blood shall be punished by death." Although Georges begs Alfred to pardon her, Zélie is executed by hanging. Georges escapes to the depths of the forest, where he joins the slave rebels or Maroons and bides his time.
Three years later, Georges knows that Alfred is happily married and has become a father. He chooses this moment of happiness for his revenge. He enters the mansion by stealth, gives the wife poison, and forces Alfred to watch her die, taunting him. He then picks up an ax to behead Alfred. Only then does Alfred try to save himself by identifying himself as Georges' father—but too late. The head separates from the body in the middle of the word "father", a fatal syllable causing Georges at last to open the portrait pouch. When he learns the oedipal truth, he kills himself.
Although the story is presented as a melodrama—the villainous slave-dealer even twirls his mustache—it conveys the injustices of the Code noir and realities of how slavery disrupted family life. European legal and ethical traditions allowed Africans to be deprived of legal personhood and the right to control their own bodies; within this system, the Maroons who reclaimed their freedom became outlaws.
Georges begins as a potential hero, though the seeds of destruction are present from the beginning:
Georges had all the talents necessary for becoming a well-regarded gentleman; yet he was possessed of a haughty, tenacious, willful nature; he had one of those oriental sorts of dispositions, the kind that, once pushed far enough from the path of virtue, will stride boldly down the path of crime. He would have given ten years of his life to know the name of his father, but he dared not violate the solemn oath he had made to his dying mother. It was as if nature pushed him toward Alfred; he liked him, as much as one can like a man; and Alfred esteemed him, but with that esteem that the horseman bears for the most handsome and vigorous of his chargers.
Georges is instinctively drawn toward his natural father, who can only regard Georges as if he were a prized animal. Georges is Alfred's property rather than his heir, and by law can become the property of the half-sibling infant recognized as "legitimate". The mulatto, as he is called repeatedly throughout the story in place of his given name, is denied the oedipal knowledge of his identity that would prevent a tragic end.
Helpless to save his wife, Georges suffers the "tragedy of masculinity" that Antoine predicts as the fate of the enslaved "negro" male. Georges is subject to the patriarchal power denied to him even though he is a male head of family, as he is also denied the right to keep his family together and protect his wife and children. As Antoine harshly declaims at the beginning of the story, a slave's virtues as a man can never come to fruition: the institution corrupts virtue until it becomes monstrous, grotesque or destructive. Georges' heroic impulses are overwritten by gothic horror. He threatens to kill Alfred and drink his blood; his laugh becomes "infernal," his voice issues as if from a tomb, like "one of the damned."
Séjour's Georges may have been influenced by the "explosive rebel" named Georges in the play Marie, or, Slavery in the United States by Gustave de Beaumont, which had come out two years earlier. Georges was the interracial title character of an 1843 novel by Alexandre Dumas, who was a friend and patron of Séjour, with another character named Laïza. In English-language literature by African Americans, the figure of the mulatto is almost always a victimized female. Denied legitimate expressions of manhood, Georges exacts a horrific revenge that in the end consumes him.
Laïsa and Zélie
African Americans writing in French were far more explicit about sexuality than those writing in English at the time. In particular, the sexual exploitation of women of color by white men was often implied and indirect in 19th-century American fiction in English. Séjour describes the commodification of Laïsa's body in blunt terms, and is explicit about sexual assault and forced concubinage.
Laïsa and Zélie are presented as mirroring characters whose fate is determined by the sexual demands of the white master. Though "pure as the morning dew" before she is sold at auction, Laïsa is forced into concubinage that leaves her a "fallen woman". She is discarded, but allowed to live, as is her child, only because she keeps silent. By contrast, Zélie fights off the master's assault, preserving her virtue, at the cost of her death. By not keeping silent and instead informing her husband, she also sets in motion his eventual fate.
After the execution of his wife, Georges escapes with his young son and joins the Maroons, described by Séjour as "slaves who have fled the tyranny of their master". Georges already knows their watchword: Afrique et liberté, "Africa and freedom." Their use of the French Revolutionary rallying cry liberté, later codified into the motto liberté, egalité, fraternité, is a dramatic irony: white revolutionaries in France and America who fought for freedom in the 1770s and 1790s enslaved free Africans, and opposed the black-led Haitian Revolution of the same era. Séjour's contemporary readers may have viewed the familial bloodshed at the end of "The Mulatto" as prefiguring the Haitian Revolution itself, with the author casting Haiti as "the cradle of black freedom".
As a writer in exile, Séjour associated with radicals in the salons of Paris and via the Creole cultural triangle of Paris, New Orleans, and the Caribbean. His friends Cyril Bissette, Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas were known to New Orleans Creoles of color as inspirational figures.
- Frances Smith Foster, "Creative Collaboration: As African American as Sweet Potato Pie," in African-American Poets, vo.l 1, edited by Harold Bloom (Infobase Publishing, 2009), p. 91; M. Lynn Weiss, introduction to Victor Séjour: The Jew of Seville, translated by Norman R. Shapiro (University of Illinois Press, 2002), pp. xvii–xxiii.
- Foster, "Creative Collaboration", p. 100.
- Werner Sollors, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature (Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 414, note 7.
- Werner Sollors, foreword, p. xii ff., and M. Lynn Weiss, introduction, in Creole Echoes: The Francophone Poetry of Nineteenth-century Louisiana (University of Illinois Press, 2004), p. xxiii ff.
- Caryn Cossé Bell, Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana 1718–1868 (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), p. 94.
- Foster, "Creative Collaboration", p. 100, note 8.
- Philip Bader, African-American Writers (Facts on File, 2004), p. 213.
- Bell, Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition, pp. 95–96.
- Bell, Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition, p. 97.
- Weiss, introduction to The Jew of Seville, p. xvii and note; Bader, African-American Writers, p. 213.
- Bell, Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition, p. 96; Maisha L. Wester, African American Gothic: Screams from Shadowed Places (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 72.
- Sollors, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both, p. 165.
- Bell, Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition, p. 96.
- Bill Marshall, The French Atlantic: Travels in Culture and History (Liverpool University Press, 2009), p. 210.
- Weiss, introduction to The Jew of Seville, p. xxii.
- Sollors, Neither Black Nor White But Both, pp. 37–38, 165.
- Wester, African American Gothic, pp. 71–72.
- Wester, African American Gothic, p. 74.
- Wester, African American Gothic, p. 90.
- Marshall, The French Atlantic, pp. 210–211.
- Marshall, The French Atlantic, p. 211.
- Weiss, introduction to The Jew of Seville, p. xxiii.
- Sollors, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both, p. 244.
- Weiss, introduction to The Jew of Seville, p. xxii.
- Sollors, Neither Black Nor White But Both, p. 165.
- Weiss, introduction to The Jew of Seville, p. xxix.
- Weiss, introduction to The Jew of Seville, pp. xxx and xxiv—xxv.
- Weiss, introduction to The Jew of Seville, p. xxix.
- Weiss, introduction to The Jew of Seville, p. xxiv.
- Marshall, The French Atlantic, p. 211.
- Weiss, introduction to The Jew of Seville, p. xix.
- Weiss, introduction to The Jew of Seville, p. xxx; Marshall, The French Atlantic, p. 211.
- Weiss, introduction to The Jew of Seville, p. xxxiii.
- Sollors, Neither Black Nor White But Both, p. 164; Marshall, The French Atlantic, p. 211.
- Weiss, introduction to The Jew of Seville, p. xvi.
- The following plot summary is based on the text itself and on the summary given by Sollors, Neither Black Nor White But Both, pp. 165–167.
- Sollors, Neither Black Nor White But Both, pp. 165–167.
- Lovalerie King, Race, Theft, and Ethics: Property Matters in African American Literature (Louisiana State University Press, 2007), p. 99.
- Wester, African American Gothic, p. 91.
- The translation is that of Philip Barnhard.
- King, Race, Theft, and Ethics, pp. 97–98.
- Leslie W. Lewis, Telling Narratives: Secrets in African American Literature(University of Illinois Press, 2007), p. 66.
- Lewis, Telling Narratives, pp. 34–35, 65–66.
- Wester, African American Gothic, pp. 73, 91; Lewis, Telling Narratives, pp. 34–35, 65–66.
- Sollors, Neither Black Nor White But Both, p. 414, note 8.
- M. Lynn Weiss, introduction to Creole Echoes: The Francophone Poetry of Nineteenth-century Louisiana (University of Illinois Press, 2004), p. xxxv; Lewis, Telling Narratives, p. 66.
- Weiss, introduction to Creole Echoes, p. xxxv.
- Wester, African American Gothic, pp. 74–75.
- Shirley Elizabeth Thompson, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans (Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 156, and interview with Maisha Wester in "'The Mulatto' by Victor Séjour," Books Unbound series, WFHB radio, starting at 48:10.
- Thompson, Exiles at Home, p. 156.
- Thompson, Exiles at Home, pp. 156–157.
- Text of "Le Mulâtre" (French)
- Ed Piacentino, "Seeds of Rebellion in Plantation Fiction: Victor Séjour's 'The Mulatto'": overview with bibliography, illustrations, diagrams, and a map, along with the English translation of Philip Barnard
- "The Mulatto by Victor Séjour," an audio program with a reading of Philip Barnard's English translation and discussion of the story's historical background and literary genre with Maisha Wester