Kathleen Collins’ use of the tragic mulatto trope subverts its racist origins and exposes the true tragedy of being other in America.
The Red Record
The tragic mulatto, like Sambo, Uncle Tom, Mammie, was created to erase the contextual history of slavery’s violent physical, emotional, economical, and mental affect on African descendants, thus absolving the white masters, and their beneficiaries, of any personal guilt or responsibility.
Uncle Tom’s CabinPinkyImitation of Life“the mulatto’s unhappiness” as “the anguished victim of divided inheritance,” as noted by Negro Character as Seen by White Authors Under the pen of the white writer, the algebraic equations of race, created by Thomas Jefferson, was applied with 1/2 of the mulatto being bound to the “savagery” of their black blood and 1/2 being the “intellectual prowess” of their white blood. The battle of these two “divided inheritance[s]” are always cancelled out, as in the one-drop rule, by their blackness, thus forever barring them from entering the purity of whiteness and access to humanity.
As the white writer used the tragic mulatto to perpetuate white-supremacist ideology, black writers like Williams Wells Brown, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson used the trope as a means to subvert it. No one did this more adeptly than Harlem Renaissance novelist, Nella Larsen.
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There is one story in particular where Collins reveals this disparity in a way that is as tragic as it is triumphant. It is in the story of “The Uncle” where a once talented olympian so light he could be “a real double for Marlon Brando,” is driven to such a deep depression after having to give up his dream that he “lost the will to struggle with life,” and “took to his bed for weeks at a time and cried day and night.” In this story Collins takes the classic tragic trajectory given to the mixed-race characters by white authors and presents it as a source pride. The Uncle’s ability to soak “his life in sorrow and [go] back to some ancient ritual beyond the blunt humiliation of his skin, with its bound-and-sealed possibilities” led the niece/narrator to classify him as “the bravest man [she] had ever known.” In the view of the narrator her Uncle was not tragic for the same reason Camus cautioned against viewing Sisyphus as totally tragic–the scorning of fate. The Uncle’s refusal “to overcome his sorrow as some affliction to be transcended, some stumbling block put in his way for the sake of trail and endurance,” serves to expose the tragic confinement of a racist society, but it also establishes a rebellion within the Uncle who refused “to strike out against it [his fate], go down in a blaze of responsibilities met and struggled with. No. He utterly honored his sorrow, gave in to it with such deep and boundless weeping,” it’s not the rebellion we’ve been conditioned to characterize as such, but neither is rolling a rock up a hill for eternity. The point is not in the choice the Uncle makes, the point is the fact that he made a choice; Collins restores an autonomy that has historically been refused black individuals in society and literature.
Collins employs elements of the tragic mulatto trope in a way that adds to the traditional way black writers have used it to subvert white-supremacist ideologies and, instead, expose white-supremacy as the true tragedy that affects and infects Americans who have historically existed in the margins. Collins illustrates the way this tragedy divides communities, forces black women to suppress their sexuality, and robs people of their lives and happiness. The tragedy is not in the characters, but in the world shaped and dictated by men who created hierarchies of humanity in algebraic formulas that arose from their raping of black women. It is these laws, this truth, and this tragedy that still haunts us today.