The Tragic Mulatto
Works concerning the abuse towards Southern blacks were at their height especially during the Harlem Renaisssance, and such prominent works include Langston Hughes’ poem Cross and his play Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South. However, Hughes, in the mentioned literary creations, focuses not only on racist abuse and mixing during the period. Rather, it highlights as well the prejudices formed by black individuals against fellow blacks, focusing further on conflicts within their race (Bienvenue 341).
Ricks (101) defines for us the meaning of the term “tragic mulatto”. It usually refers to a character of mixed blood, with a white father and a black mother or otherwise, though the latter situation appears in rare literary plots. This character is shown as having conflicts because of this bi-racial history. A certain mixture of qualities seem to be intrinsic in him as he is unwilling to be a slave and pursuant of intellectual gain, because of his white blood, yet he is also illustrated as savage and emotional due to his black race.
Present in both Cross and Mulatto is a depiction of the white father’s abandonment of his children. As in Cross, a certain line seems to separate the situations of the parents as the persona says “My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack”. He also feels rejected and jealous since, assuming he lived with his mother, he never got the access his father had to that fine big house. Nevertheless, a sort of affection is suggested by his calling his father “my old man”. This recognition connoting that he had forgiven his father despite such desertion, is made stronger when he expresses that “If ever I cursed my white old man, I take my curses back”. Furthermore, the persona is in continual search for his true identity and place as he says in the last two lines: “I wonder where I’m going to die, being neither white nor black?”
Maintaining and Crossing the Race Line
The most striking difference observed between the two works is seen in the attitude of the persona and the play’s main character, Robert. The persona in Cross is submissive to his situation, showing how he maintains the race line and stays in his place. On the other hand, Robert is hostile and objecting. He has negative feeling both towards his bi-racial roots and towards his father. Bert calls his mother by her name “Cora” and always refers to himself as “Mister Norwood”, assuming his father’s surname despite the latter’s refusal to properly acknowledge him. He underlines his white ancestry and uses this as ground to demand equal treatment as that given to whites. This is seen in the incident in the post office where he, after being asked to wait longer than a white man, argues and walks out.
Despite this rejection of his black ancestry, however, he also despises the white part of him as he despises his father. This hatred can be seen as early as in the first lines of the play: “’I am your son, White Man!’ . . . You are my son! Like hell!’” Robert’s extreme dislike of his father can be greatly attributed to two grounds that estranged them (Bienvenue 343). The first is when he runs towards Colonel Norwood while he is in the presence of his white equals in the stable. He calls out to him saying “O, papa, Cora say de dinner’s ready, papa!” and the Colonel knocks him to the ground. Robert was said to be the Colonel’s favorite colored child, due to his resemblance of him, until this incident. The second reason is due to the work that his father has given to him. Although, Robert had finished college, he was assigned tasks that he deemed unworthy of him, considering his intellectual gain. He exclaims: “I’m a Norwood- not a field-hand nigger”. His father is once again angered by his behavior as he complains to Cora that the boy is setting a bad example for the other workers in the plantation, by being allowed to use the Norwood car. “Just because . . . I’ve been damn fool enough to send him off to school . . . he thinks he has the right to privileges . . .” he says. Robert’s resentment of his father leads to their penultimate argument later in the play. Robert chokes the Colonel who is unable to shoot him. As he kills this white part of him, he is anguished and commits suicide shortly afterward.
Let us now explore another character in Mulatto, Sallie, Robert’s sister. A difference can be observed in the treatment between the two children that can illustrate the consequences of “crossing the race line”. As Davis (200) says, “Sallie represents the maintenance of the South’s status quo”. She is given preferential treatment mainly because of her diplomatic behavior (Bienvenue 345). Inheriting her mother’s intelligence, she does not irritate his father as Robert does. Instead, she shows humility and gratitude for having been given the chance to study. Moreover, instead of denying her black ancestry, she acknowledges this, and addresses the Colonel not as a father, but as her master. Thus, she and Cora are excused from labors done by servants of lower levels. Sallie is able to enjoy privileges such as being allowed to stay in the big house and even having her own servant, Sam, also illustrating intracaste hierarchy. Had Robert behaved the same way, perhaps he could have maintained his position as the Colonel’s favorite child and subtly extracted the same pleasures.
At present perspective
Now after the passing of seven decades since Hughes’ publishing of his works in the 1930’s, can it be said that racial discrimination has been alleviated or that individuals with bi-racial ancestry no longer face the same conflicts?
In a memoir written over ten years ago, a half-American, half-Kenyan shares his experience of being raced by a white family in Hawaii while his father lived in Kenya. When he was born, his parents were still studying at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Later on, his father left the States and returned to Kenya when he was only two. His mother remarried, causing him to be moved to Indonesia and sent back to his grandparents in Hawaii when he was ten. And it was there, under the care of his grandparents that Barack Obama’s strong character was molded.
In a poll, it was presented how Obama could have lost six percentage points during last year’s presidential elections merely for being black (Siemaszko, “Poll”). In another article (“Michelle Obama”), the question of his being “black enough” considering his being bi-racial was also raised. His wife, Michelle Obama, responded to this by saying “That has nothing to do with me or Barack — that has to do with the challenges we are facing in this country and we shouldn’t be surprised by them because we still haven’t worked through this stuff (emphasis mine).” By that last phrase, could she have been acknowledging that the issues of racism remain unsolved in the country? Her following words seem to pronounce so as she continues, “I don’t think there is a person of color in this country that doesn’t struggle with what it means to be a part of your race versus what the majority thinks is right.”
Langston Hughes’ Cross and Mulatto are works released during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. However, the heart of their focus was not simply on racism of whites against blacks. Hughes chose to look closer and illustrate for us intercaste hierarchy within the black community and perhaps how blacks are the cause of the degradation of their fellows.
The difficulties faced by the persona in Cross and the main character in Mulatto are both presented. Being a “mulatto”, an individual born to a white father and a black mother, both are in pursuit of their own identities. And seeing the end of both works, it may be that their searches were fruitless. However, a significant difference must be noted in their attitudes. The persona in Cross has forgiven his father and is now sorry for whatever offenses he had made both towards him and his mother. Meanwhile, Robert, the main character in Mulatto is aggressive about his situation and until the end of the play was not able to forgive his father. Furthermore, a considerable discrepancy in treatment can be observed between Robert and her sister Sallie. Where Robert id forced to do work in the plantation, Sallie is able to enjoy privileges that other white people may have, such as having a servant. This is a fitting illustration of the consequences of crossing the race line, as contrasted to remaining submissive to the circumstances.
Looking from present perspective, it may be that these difficulties, written years ago, are still present. However, whether today’s more liberal age will allow for the prevention of “mulattos” to end in the same tragedies is yet to be determined.
Bienvenue, Germain J. “Intracaste Prejudice in Langston Hughes ‘Mulatto’.” Indiana State University. African American Review 26. 2 (1992): 341-353.
Davis, Arthur P. “The Tragic Mulatto Theme in Six Works of Langston Hughes.” Phylon 16. 2 (1955): 195-204.
Ricks, Sybil. “A Textual Comparison of Langston Hughes ‘Mulatto,’ ‘Father and Sons,’ and ‘The Barrier’.” Black American Literature Forum 3. (1981): 101-103.
“Michelle Obama: Questions about husband being ‘black enough’ silly.” 1 February 2008. Electioncenter2008. 24 May 2009 http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/02/01/michelle.obama/
Siemaszko, Corky. “Poll: Barack Obama could lose six percentage points on election day for being black.” 22 September 2008. Daily News Website. 24 May 2009 http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/2008/09/22/2008-09-22_poll_barack_obama_could_lose_six_percent.html