Tragic mulatto

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The tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries, starting in 1837.[1] The "tragic mulatto" is a stereotypical mixed-race person (a "mulatto"), who is assumed to be depressed, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the "white world" or the "black world".[1] 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".

Tragic mulatta[edit]

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.[2] She may even be unaware of her status before being so reduced.[3] 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.[4]

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,[1] 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.[1]

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".[1]

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.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

Literature featuring "tragic mulatto" and "tragic mulatta" characters in pivotal roles[edit]

Films featuring "tragic mulatto" and "tragic mulatta" characters in pivotal roles[edit]

Television movies and series featuring "tragic mulatto" and "tragic mulatta" characters in pivotal roles[edit]

  • 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".
  • The television series, Quincy, M.E. included an episode, entitled, "passing," that subverts the tragic mulatta trope. A female character raised to believe she is white learns that her deceased father was passing all the time she knew him and that she has been mixed-race all of her life. Instead of viewing the news as tragic, she ends the episode saying, "Black is beautiful."


Video games featuring "tragic mulatta" characters in pivotal roles[edit]


  • 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Pilgrim, David (November 2000). "The Tragic Mulatto Myth" (also: [1]). Jim Crow: Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris State University. Retrieved 26 June 2012. {{cite web}}: External link in |type= (help)
  2. ^ Gross, Ariela J. (2010). What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-674-03130-2.
  3. ^ Kathy Davis. "Headnote to Lydia Maria Child's 'The Quadroons' and 'Slavery's Pleasant Homes'."
  4. ^ Sollors, Werner (2000). Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 285. ISBN 0-19-512856-7.
  5. ^ a b Robinson, Cedric J. (2007). Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film Before World War II. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press. p. 272. ISBN 978-0807858417.
  6. ^ Narcisse, Evan (November 1, 2012). "I'm Surprised By How "Black" Assassin's Creed Liberation Feels". Kotaku. Archived from the original on November 3, 2012.