William Wells Brown was born into slavery in Lexington, Kentucky in 1814. His mother, known only as "Elizabeth," was the slave of a prominent physician there named Dr. Young. Elizabeth had a total of seven children: Elizabeth, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Solomon, Milford, and William. Bought and sold several times before the age of twenty, William Wells Brown spent much of his young adulthood in St. Louis, where he was forced into work in the slave trade along the Missouri River. Finally in 1834, Brown escaped slavery and headed North. After gaining his freedom, Brown married Elizabeth Schooner and the couple had three children. Between 1834 and 1845, Brown relocated to Buffalo, New York where he served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He worked as a steam boatman on Lake Erie, where he would ferry escaped slaves to Canada (1).
By 1849, Brown traveled abroad to England, where he became a prominent speaker on the issue of Prohibition, and later, abolition. In keeping with the popular moral attitudes of the time, Brown often favored the tactic of moral suasion over violence to change the public's attitude. This approach for Brown was effective to denounce the U.S. definitions of democracy as they pertained to African Americans. He attended the International Peace Congress, bringing his three daughters with him. By 1854, he and his wife had separated, and later divorced: an event that drew some negative attention from critics. Nonetheless, despite his personal difficulties, Brown continued his abolitionist campaigning. He delivered over one thousand anti-slavery speeches and published the first travelogue--and the first novel--to have been published by an African American author. His own narrative of his life in slavery, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave was outsold by only one competitor, Frederick Douglass. A contemporary of Douglass's, the two shared a tense, even rancorous relationship throughout their respective careers (1).
Clotel, Brown's 1854 fictionalized account of the biracial daughter of Thomas Jefferson, is a significant work for a number of reasons. As mentioned above, it is considered the first novel to have been written by an African American. In Clotel, Brown introduces the figure of the 'tragic mulatta/mulatress': a woman who was "distinguished by her beauty, her idealism, her barely traceable African ancestry" who "proves herself an active and combative figure by the end of her story" (317). A marked consequence of the tragic mulatta's social positioning is that her disappointments in life and in love drive her to suicide.
*From Documenting the American South (www.docsouth.com)One may extrapolate that Brown, among others, engaged such a character to appeal to a broader range of readers that included the civic-minded and reformist society matrons of the North, as did such writers as Harriet Jacobs, to further the cause of abolitionism. The "Tragic Mulatta" exudes the characteristics of physical beauty that is designed to mirror her interior virtue, moral purity, and religious piety. Brown's employment of such a literary tactic, one concludes, is that this figure serves to underscore the multitude of ironies and hypocrisies of the slave trade. One notes this passage from "The Negro Sale" in which Clotel is waiting on the auction block to be sold, that the narrator observes, "There she stood, with a complexion as white as most of those who were waiting with a wish to become her purchasers; her features as finely defined as any of her sex of pure Anglo-Saxon; her long black wavy hair done up in the neatest manner; her form tall and graceful, and her whole appearance indicating one superior to her position" (Brown 329). In such a passage, Brown emphasizes that the woman situated on the auction block is no different in manner, physical aspect, or demeanor, than the daughters of the slave-traders themselves; yet because of her tenuous ties to African slavery, she is reduced to human chattel.
The Tragic Mulatta
The term is associated with the system of concubinage--or 'placage'--in which mixed race women of color would be placed in common-law marriages with males of European descent. Some who were fortunate might be later freed by their male purchasers. Quadroon balls were prevalent across the lower South, but mostly in New Orleans, LA., where the planter aristocracy had thrived well enough to support this system of "placement" (1). The term placage was derived from the French term placer, or 'to place.' Though the system did not last long (only from approximately 1760s to 1803), the system did allow women of mixed parentage to maintain some measure of control over their destinies and economic freedom; however the race- and gender-based exploitation of this tradition were obvious.
In some cases, women involved in placage were able to acquire significant social standing within their respective societies. One such woman was the noted 'voodoo queen' of Louisiana, Marie Leveau.
Despite the occasional success of 'mulatto' and 'quadroon' women who parlayed their circumstances as placees into lucrative careers, the literature that appeared later in the century would lead one to believe that the system was a deleterious one. The figure of the "Tragic Mulatta" was, since Brown, and a recurring theme in African American literary tradition. She reappears in such work as Francis E.W. Harper's Iola Leroy; Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition, and in Nella Larsen's novellas Quicksand and Passing; and in Jean Toomer's Cane as an instrumental figure through which the author examines the nature of race and racial construct in the American imaginary. As with many literary tropes that assume the nature of convention, the "Tragic Mulatta" has evolved to convey some or all of the following traits:
-She suffers early separation from her mother and family
-She is sold to a gentleman, either through slave auction or ‘fancy girl’ ball
-She is abandoned by her purchaser shortly after she gives birth
-She is neither accepted fully by black or white society
-She passes for white for a time, but when her true parentage is revealed, she is disgraced
Other works in popular culture that feature the Tragic Mulatta:
“The Quadroons” (1842), a short story by Lydia Marie Child
“Slavery’s Pleasant Homes” (1843) also by Lydia Marie Child
The Marrow of Tradition a novel by Charles Chesnutt
Clotel: Or, the President’s Daughter, a novel by William Wells Brown
Iola Leroy (1892) a novel by Frances E.W. Harper
The House Behind the Cedars (1900) a novel by Charles Chesnutt
Passing (1929) a novel by Nella Larsen
Light in August (1932) a novel by William Faulkner
Imitation of Life (1933) a novel by Fannie Hurst
“Mulatto” a poem by Langston Hughes
To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) a novel by Harper Lee