The tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries, starting in 1837. The "tragic mulatto" is an archetypical mixed-race person (a "mulatto"), who is assumed to be sad, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the "white world" or the "black world". As such, the "tragic mulatto" is depicted as the victim of the society that is divided by race, where there is no place for one who is neither completely "black" nor "white". This trope was also used by abolitionists in order to create a mixed-race, but white-appearing, slave that would serve as a tool to express sentimentality to white readers in an effort to paint slaves as "more human".
The related concept of the "tragic half-breed" or "tragic mestizo" involves the child of a white person and a Native American. Especially when such a person has a white mother and native father (and is thus excluded under most native tribes' matrilineal kinship from being considered legally native), the same basic tropes of dual societal rejection apply.
The female "tragic octoroon" was a stock character of abolitionist literature: a light-skinned woman, raised in her father's household as though she were white, until his bankruptcy or death has her reduced to a menial position and sold. She may even be unaware of her status before being so reduced. This character allowed abolitionists to draw attention to the sexual exploitation in slavery; and unlike the suffering of the field hands, did not allow slaveholders to retort that the sufferings of Northern mill hands were no easier, since the Northern mill owner would not sell his own children into slavery.
The "tragic mulatta" figure is a woman of biracial heritage who endures the hardships of Africans in the antebellum South, even though she may look white enough that her ethnicity is not immediately obvious. As the name implies, tragic mulattas almost always meet a bad end. Lydia Maria Child's 1842 short story "The Quadroons" is generally credited as the first work of literature to feature a tragic mulatta, to garner support for emancipation and equal rights. Child followed up "The Quadroons" with the 1843 short story "Slavery's Pleasant Homes", which also features a tragic mulatta character.
Writer Eva Allegra Raimon notes that Child "allowed white readers to identify with the victim by gender while distancing themselves by race and thus to avoid confronting a racial ideology that denies the full humanity of nonwhite women." The passing character, Clare Kendry, in Nella Larsen's Passing has been deemed a "tragic mulatta".
Generally, the tragic mulatta archetype falls into one of three categories:
- A woman who can "pass" for white attempts to do so, is accepted as white by society and falls in love with a white man. Eventually, her status as a bi-racial person is revealed and the story ends in tragedy.
- A woman who appears to be white and thus passes as being so. It is believed that she is of Greek or Spanish descent. She has suffered little hardship in her life, but upon the revelation that she is mixed race, loses her social standing.
- A woman who has all the social graces that come along with being a middle-class or upper-class white woman is nonetheless subjected to slavery.
A common objection to this character is that she allows readers to pity the plight of oppressed or enslaved races, but only through a veil of whiteness — that is, instead of sympathizing with a true racial "other", one is sympathizing with a character who is made as much like one's own race as possible. The "tragic mulatta" often appeared in novels intended for women, and some of the character's appeal lay in the lurid fantasy of a person just like them suddenly cast into a lower social class after the discovery of a small amount of "black blood" that renders her unfit for proper marriage.
In popular culture
This section needs additional citations for verification. (January 2016)
Literature featuring "tragic mulatto" and "tragic mulatta" characters in pivotal roles
- Le Mulâtre 1837 (French)
- Sab by Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, 1841.
- The Quadroons, 1842 short story by Lydia Maria Child (introduced the literary character of the tragic mulatto)
- Slavery's Pleasant Homes, 1843 short story by Lydia Maria Child
- Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, 1852 novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (published serially 1851–1852)
- Clotel; or, The President's Daughter, 1853 novel by William Wells Brown
- The Garies and Their Friends, 1857 novel by Frank J. Webb
- The Octoroon (Life in Louisiana) 1859 play, by Dion Bocicault
- A Escrava Isaura, 1875 novel by Brazilian author Bernardo Guimarães
- Iola Leroy, 1892 novel by Frances Harper
- Désirée's Baby, 1893 short story by Kate Chopin
- Pudd'nhead Wilson, 1894 novel by Mark Twain
- The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line by Charles W. Chesnutt (1899)
- The House Behind the Cedars, 1900 novel by Charles W. Chesnutt
- The Marrow of Tradition, 1901 novel by Charles W. Chesnutt
- The Clansman, 1905 novel by Thomas Dixon, Jr. (the source material for D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation).
- Summer, novel by Edith Wharton published in 1917
- Cross, poem by Langston Hughes published 1925
- Show Boat, 1926 novel by Edna Ferber (also the source material for the 1927 stage musical).
- Mulatto, poem by Langston Hughes published 1927
- The White Girl, 1929 novel by Vara Caspary
- Passing, 1929 novel by Nella Larsen
- Dark Lustre, 1932 novel by Geoffrey Barnes
- Light in August, 1932 novel by William Faulkner
- Imitation of Life, 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst
- Father and Son, short story by Langston Hughes published 1934
- Mulatto: A Play of the Deep South, 1935 play by Langston Hughes
- Lost Boundaries, 1940 book by William L. White
- The Wind From Nowhere, 1943 novel by Oscar Micheaux
- The Barrier, 1950 opera by Langston Hughes and Jan Meyerowitz
- African Morning, 1952 short story by Langston Hughes
- Band of Angels, 1955 novel by Robert Penn Warren
- To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960 novel by Harper Lee
- A Soldier's Play, 1981 play by Charles Fuller
- Devil in a Blue Dress, 1990 novel by Walter Mosely
- The Human Stain, 2000 novel by Philip Roth
- Island Beneath the Sea, 2009 novel by Isabel Allende
- The Vanishing Half, 2020 novel by Britt Bennett
Films featuring "tragic mulatto" and "tragic mulatta" characters in pivotal roles
- The Birth of a Nation (1915)
- Within Our Gates (1920)
- The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920)
- The Virgin of the Seminole (1922)
- Scar of Shame (1926)
- The House Behind the Cedars (1927)
- Veiled Aristocrats (1932)
- Imitation of Life (1934)
- God's Step Children (1938)
- The Betrayal (1948)
- Angelitos negros, 1948
- Lost Boundaries, 1949
- Pinky (1949)
- Il Mulatto, 1950 Italian film released as "Angelo" in the United States
- Show Boat (1951)
- Band of Angels (1957)
- Kings Go Forth (1957)
- Imitation of Life (1959), remake of the 1934 original (with nonminor changes)
- Shadows (1959)
- I Passed for White (1960)
- Flaming Star (1961)
- The Black Klansman (1966), a.k.a. I Crossed the Color Line
- Angelitos negros (1970), remake of the 1948 original
- A Soldier's Story (1984)
- Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
- The Human Stain (2003)
Television movies and series featuring "tragic mulatto" and "tragic mulatta" characters in pivotal roles
- Alex Haley's Queen, the acclaimed television series by Alex Haley, offers a subversion of the "tragic mulatta" archetype, while making reference to many of its elements.
- A Escrava Isaura has been adapted to Brazilian television twice, first in 1976 (as Escrava Isaura), and again in 2004.
- Angel (the television series) featured a tragic mulatta character (portrayed by Melissa Marsala) in its 2000 episode "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been".
- Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine character Worf. Orphaned at the age of 5, Worf, a Klingon, was adopted and raised by human parents along with a human brother, Nikolai. Throughout both series franchises, Worf frequently struggles with his identity. Additionally, Worf's son, Alexander Rozhenko, is 3⁄4 Klingon and 1⁄4 human, largely raised by Worf's human parents.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine character Tora Ziyal. She is the daughter of Cardassian Gul Dukat and his Bajoran mistress, Tora Naprem. Ziyal is portrayed as caught between Cardassian and Bajoran cultures and belonging in neither. She briefly finds a home on Deep Space Nine until she dies tragically at the hands of Gul Dukat's second in command, Damar. As a recurring character, Ziyal plays a pivotal role in the story arc of the series.
- Star Trek character Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan.
- Star Trek: Voyager character B'Elanna Torres also is often tormented by her existence as a Human/Klingon hybrid.
- In Power Rangers Mystic Force, the Troblin (half Troll, half Goblin) Phineas is despised by both Trolls and Goblins.
Video games featuring "tragic mulatta" characters in pivotal roles
- Assassin's Creed: Liberation, the first PlayStation Vita installment of the Assassin's Creed series, has the playable character, Aveline, subvert the trope, according to Kotaku writer Evan Narcisse.
- Lincoln Clay of Mafia III fits this trope, being of Dominican and Italian ancestry.
- The 1973 song "Half-Breed" by Cher tells the story of a child rejected by both white and Cherokee society. Although Cher appeared on the single's artwork in a native headdress, and her mother Georgia Holt at one time claimed Cherokee ancestry, her dark hair and complexion instead came from her Armenian father.
- Biracial identity development
- Good hair (phrase)
- Mary Mildred Williams
- One-drop rule
- Passing (racial identity)
- White slave propaganda
- La belle juive
- Pilgrim, David (November 2000). "The Tragic Mulatto Myth" (also: ). Jim Crow: Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris State University. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
- Cedric J. Robinson, Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film Before World War II
- Ariela J. Gross, What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, p. 61. ISBN 978-0-674-03130-2
- Kathy Davis. "Headnote to Lydia Maria Child's 'The Quadroons' and 'Slavery's Pleasant Homes'."
- Werner Sollors, Interracialism p. 285 ISBN 0-19-512856-7
- Maurice Broaddus (March 23, 2009). "Worf's Journey of Blackness Part I". mauricebroaddus.com.
- "Ziyal, Tora". StarTrek.com. Retrieved 2017-02-07.
- Evan Narcisse. "I'm Surprised By How "Black" Assassin's Creed Liberation Feels". Kotaku. Archived from the original on 2012-11-03.
- Raimon, Eva Allegra (2004). The Tragic Mulatta Revisited: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Antislavery Fiction. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0813534828.