REIMAGINING THE TRAGIC MULATTOOn James Baldwin, Adrian Piper, and TJ Demos
Decide Who You Are #1: Skinned Alive
Adrian Piper, 1991
By Ada Griffin
27 May 2019
27 May 2019
To be a child of the diaspora
is to live haunted
between home that does not want you
and home that does not belong to you.
It is to be the star
in a tale of vagabondry
that is often not romantic at all,
roaming too many worlds
but being a stranger in every one.
It is the tragedy of ambiguity,
of having to convince everyone that
you belong somewhere,
even when you don’t know where that
It is to always be on the edge of
rupturing from dizziness.
It is to make a map of your body . . .
It is to say that you are of a people
and wonder with bitter sadness
if they would ever say
that they are of you.
Being a child of the diaspora
is to say the word home
and always hear the word
– Key Ballah, “Children of the Diaspora”
In “Passing for White, Passing for Black,” the artist Adrian Piper writes about the experiences of growing up as the American child of one Black parent and one white one. Her recollection of the typical mixed kid identity crisis reflects the turmoil of growing up straddling racial categories, as she gives examples of the kinds of isolating conversations she has had regarding her racial identity. “These exchanges are extremely alienating and demoralizing, and make me feel humiliated to have presumed a sense of connectedness between us,” Piper summarizes, in a story of being ridiculed and accused of lying about her race by both white and Black people. Piper describes growing up identifying with both sides of her family, but being shocked by the rejection she experienced from others. Her accounts include useful examples of the ways in which mixed-race people are expected to fulfil certain rigid stereotypes, most famously that of the Tragic Mulatto.
James Baldwin is well known for writing extensively about interracial couples, describing the tension and complexity of those relationships in many of his stories and essays, but he fails to address the future children of many of them. In This Morning, This Evening, So Soon, the mixed-race child is someone to be pitied, a naive character ignorant of the trauma his father predicts. The biracial character that the narrator plays is engulfed by rage for his Black mother and his white father. In The Devil Finds Work the mulatto characters that Baldwin critiques are race-traitors, betraying their own, consumed by lust for whiteness. This limited number of people are some of the only examples of mixed-race characters in the last two decades of Baldwin’s writing. All of them are encased in fear. All of them are imagined from the outside in. All of them are less than whole. Reading Baldwin, I feel disappointed by the lack of depth in which the very few biracial characters who are mentioned are rendered. In his writing I see my parents, but I cannot fully see myself.
In The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin criticizes The Birth of a Nation, the overwhelmingly racist Klan propaganda that was the first film to ever be screened at the White House. Baldwin writes in great detail about two multiracial characters in the film, and introduces us to his take on the Tragic Mulatto in a wry and sarcastic tone. Baldwin boldly centers these characters while questioning their believability, writing: “The plot is entirely controlled by the image of the mulatto, and there are two of them, one male and one female. All of the energy of the film is siphoned off into these two dreadful and improbable creatures . . . they are related to each other only by their envy of white people.” Both characters are portrayed as deeply enamored by white characters, and Baldwin characterizes their lust for whiteness as manifesting in a form of hatred. This trope, the desire to be white or at least in close proximity to whiteness (and tragedy in the failure to do so), is a common stereotype of mixed people based on the long history of passing as white in order to take advantage of spaces they would not otherwise be able to move through. Despite her personal objections to passing as white herself, Piper sympathizes, writing: “the decision to pass may be more than the rejection of a black identity. It may be the rejection of a black identification that brings too much pain to be tolerated.” This is a kind of power and a kind of betrayal.
Baldwin furthers this example to briefly explore the history of the mulatto, painting a very bleak picture of all mixed people. “Almost all mulattoes, and especially at that time, were produced by white men, and rarely indeed by an act of love,” Baldwin writes, additionally claiming that Black fathers of mixed children did not use the term to describe their offspring. Baldwin later moves into the etymology of mulatto, a term designed specifically for mixed Black and white people and based on the Spanish word for mule. Baldwin points to the sterility of mules with emphasis, as proof of a presumed desire by white fathers to commit infanticide of their brown children. Reading this I think about my father, who has objected many times to my siblings and I describing ourselves as mixed, a term too similar to mutt for his approval. My father instead calls us undercover, sometimes biracial, but always, irrefutably, Black. Hearing it from him as a child felt like some kind of gift, like some kind of proof. It felt like connection to a resilient, brave, and loving people. I remember being ecstatic on days when my dad would drop us off at school, thinking that the other kids might finally believe me. I also remember being asked dozens of times if we were together, at family dinners or movie theaters or coffee shops. I remember white strangers warning my mother that a strange man was playing with her children in the public park that my father managed. I remember the concern in too many white women’s eyes at a Black man walking down the street holding the hands of two little girls with blue and green eyes.
In Baldwin’s rendering, to be a mulatto is to be the product of violence, of betrayal, and of one (white) parent’s dominance over the other. It is a dangerous oversimplification, to say the least. In Brandale Mills’s study on the Tragic Mulatto stereotype in contemporary Hollywood, she writes about the history of the Tragic Mulatto on film and the ways in which the trope has changed and continued to present day. Her first definition of a Tragic Mulatto emerges very similarly to Baldwin’s, as “One of the most pervasive stereotypes of the postbellum period . . . a biracial woman who provoked sympathy from White audiences, not because she was Black but because she was an ill-fated White woman, trapped between the binaries of race.” Yet unlike Baldwin, Mills gives evidence of evolution in the function of the tragic mulatto trope, which in her eyes has been set to a new, still-problematic task. “Although this stereotype was a consistent recurrence in early Hollywood films, this conflicted biracial character has made a significant comeback in the media since the 1990s (Jones, 2008), serving as a rationalization for colorblind ideology.” Though she argues that the trope has fundamentally changed in this function, there are still aspects of the role which Mills reports has persisted, finding: “three themes of contemporary depictions of the tragic mulatto —- love liberates the tragic mulatto, the tragic mulatto still needs to be saved, and the feminist tragic mulatto.” Mills’s work proves that the role of the Tragic Mulatto is just as toxic as ever, still painting a very limited vision of what it means to be mixed-race and American. The persistence of this issue is why Baldwin’s take on the Tragic Mulatto is still relevant— why his failure to imagine new roles for mixed characters was and is a problem. It is clear that Baldwin does not believe in the myth of the Tragic Mulatto in Birth of a Nation, but he presents no alternative vision. He fails to imagine the future and he fails to recognize the present. He does not acknowledge that even though this portrayal of mulattoes is inaccurate, it is what many Americans, Black and white, believed and still believe.
So what kind of future does Baldwin imagine for his biracial characters? In This Morning, This Evening, So Soon, a Black father worries for his mixed-race son. His family has been harbored in the (relative) sanctuary of Paris, and he fears for his child the night before they cross the Atlantic to the United States. In one conversation between his Black sister Louisa and his white wife Harriet, I see myself and my mother at the dining room table.
Then she looks about the room as though she held a bottle in her hand and were looking for a skull to crack. I think it is because Louisa has never been able to talk like this to any white person before. All the white people she has ever met needed, in one way or another, to be reassured, consoled, to have their consciences pricked but not blasted; could not, could not afford to hear a truth which would shatter, irrevocably, their image of themselves. It is astonishing the lengths to which a person, or people will go in order to avoid a truthful mirror. Necessity is precisely the opposite: it is of the utmost importance that she learn everything that Louisa can tell her, and then learn more, much more. Harriet it is really trying to learn from Louisa how best to protect her husband and her son.
Reading this scene, I am sixteen or fourteen or twelve and my mother is sitting across the table from me asking me why I hate her. She tells me that she can see that I hate white people and she asks me why I must reject her and her (my) family in this way. This is another summer of Black bodies being killed on my computer screen, another summer of loss and anger and sadness too deep to name. I am confused about what she’s asking me, and yet I know she is not entirely wrong. I am angry. I could not claim to love whiteness or the systems of power that enable it to exist. I could not claim to be white, at least not in the way that she wanted. I struggled for years knowing that there was a part of me that carried that weight and guilt, that she was responsible for the conflict that caused so much of my confusion and pain. I could not then and cannot now understand the function of whiteness or understand why in the world she was asking me not to resent it. It is difficult growing up the brown daughter of a white mother. I wanted a mother who understood what it meant to feel like me, to look like me, to move through the world in the way in which I needed to. But being able to express this to her in whatever way I could, tears streaming down my bright red face as I tried to make her see what I did, helped me to understand that it wasn’t her fault. That she could not possibly have known. Being able to tell her the whole ugly truth in a way that I had never been able to express to any white person before made both of us stronger. I always loved my mother, even when I hated her. I knew that she would always love me. It made me able to tell the truth, and it made her able to hear it.
This missing link — the ability to feel anger and hurt and isolation and tragedy and to move through it anyway — is one of the most crucial aspects of surviving as a mixed person in America. It is something that Baldwin misses completely in his writing, something that he never experienced. Baldwin comes closest in The Devil Finds Work, writing: “To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love.” This love is the best thing that my mother has ever given me. It is the best thing that I have ever given her. And in Baldwin’s work, it is nowhere to be seen.
So what would the reimagined mulatto look like? Adrian Piper struggles to answer this question in the conclusion of her essay, where she writes that “there is no ‘right’ way of managing the issue of my racial identity, no way that will not offend or alienate someone, because my designated racial identity itself exposes the very concept of racial classification as the offensive and irrational instrument of racism it is.” Piper empowers the multiracial identity and through it sees a way to conceptualize the fallacy of race in America, a missed opportunity in the case of Baldwin that would help solidify his opinions on the lie of whiteness. She knows that the expansion of mixedness comes parallel to the dismantling of racism, and she is right. Another helpful lens for imagining new mixed-race possibilities in artwork and theory is the strategy that T.J. Demos employs in The Migrant Image. Though Demos writes about the image of the migrant and the diasporic individual, not that of multiracial people, the framework he identifies can be broadly and aptly applied to more expansive theories of mixed identities. Both migrants and mixed people know what it is like to exist on the inside and the outside simultaneously. Demos reminds us that:
It is important to avoid reading dislocation, in any of its guises, exclusively in the negative, as solely melancholic or chaotic, as if its identity were metaphysically rooted . . . travel also holds the capacity to unleash a creative flight into the experience of multiplicity beyond the fixed categories of identities, mediums, and conventions. In this sense, its transformative experience may inspire both critical and creative energies, complicating the existential vulnerability and material destruction it otherwise may bring.
In the same way, the perspective of multiracial people cannot be projected as just tragic. Yes, mixed-race people can feel excluded from one or multiple racial/ethnic categories at times, but we also are granted the privilege of access and identity within multiple spaces and multiple histories. There is power in this perspective. Demos ends this chapter of The Migrant Image on a positive trajectory, where he imagines expanding the definition of the migrant as I propose expanding the definition of the mulatto. Trade countries for races and the sentiment remains the same. “Far more radical is universalizing the migrant as the condition of being human, and determining a politics of equality on that basis,” Demos argues. But the discussion of his liminal subject does not stop there. Demos continues by imagining how those policies of equality may yet take place:
Far from designating a completely disempowered status, this approach sees migration taking on a certain agency, an autonomy, and a potentiality . . . Conceiving of this eventuality may be unlikely in today’s political environment. But this unlikelihood is exactly where artistic practice may assume its most radical role: to imagine alternatives otherwise impossible to contemplate, unleashing an imagination that may yet produce material effects.
Piper shares a very similar theory of the liminal person as universal in her rejection of racial categories. In her artwork and in her critical theory, Piper uses the multiracial perspective as a window. She imagines a future full of mixed children and a present that is more similar than we are willing to recognize. Piper argues:
Since we are almost all in fact racial hybrids, the ‘one-drop’ rule of black racial designation, if consistently applied, would either narrow the scope of ancestral legitimacy so far that it would exclude most of those so-called whites whose social power is most deeply entrenched, or widen it to include most of those who have been most severely disadvantaged by racism.
As she and Demos illustrate, the first step to creating a future in which the liminal becomes the universal is through art, and imagination. Their future mulatto is not restricted by Baldwin or anyone else’s definition of what it means to be hybrid.