By Katie Lebert
In 1853, William Wells Brown, a former slave, published what scholars believe to be the first novel written by an African American. His novel, Clotel; or the President’s Daughter, presents six mixed-race women torn between black and white worlds. Among them are an enslaved mother and her two “near white” daughters, both fathered by Thomas Jefferson. By the end of the novel, the mother has died of yellow fever while one daughter, who managed to pass as white, has two children who are re-enslaved. One commits suicide; the other dies of heartbreak. The second daughter, Clotel, is purchased by a white man and briefly lives as his common-law wife, only to jump to her death when threatened with re-capture after her escape.
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) Fellow Paula Barnes says that according to many critics, Wells Brown’s portrayal of these women introduced into African American literature the so-called tragic mulatto. But Barnes sees something in Brown’s characters beyond what, in subsequent years, became a stereotypical representation of mixed-race women as tragic, doomed.
Recently, she sat down with University of Virginia anthropology student Katie Lebert to talk about her fellowship, and share what we can learn from studying these women.
KL: What is the focus of your fellowship at VFH?
PB: One of the issues that some critics have with Wells Brown is his use of the tragic mulatto stereotype. He is credited as the first African American author to incorporate that. But a close reading of his work suggests that his characters are not necessarily representatives of that stereotype. As a result, I am arguing that his work also presents an alternative to the image of the tragic mulatto; that is, the trope of the mulatta woman in the cottage.
KL: What is the trope of the mulatta woman in the cottage?
The trope is the repeated image—in this case in African American literature—of a mulatta character that has been provided her own home by a white slave owner and then one way or another loses that home. There are additional factors that complicate the trope; however, these are its basic, central elements.
In the case of Clotel, as soon as people read about what happened to her, her mother, her sister or her nieces—there is an assumption that their situations are tragic—because they are women of mixed heritage who have white lovers (some willingly, many forced), and then end up dying or committing suicide. Wells Brown may have wanted sympathy for his female characters in Clotel—as he was writing before the end of slavery and advocated for abolition—but as a twentieth century reader, I don’t see Clotel or most of the other female characters as tragic. Instead, I see a mulatta slave seeking to take control of her life.
KL: What have other scholars had to say about mulatto women in literature?
PB: Due to the definition of the tragic mulatto that the African American poet and critic Sterling Brown created in 1937, most critics immediately perceive the female mulatto characters portrayed in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century as being tragic. While recent critics note that Wells Brown’s mulattas do not necessarily adhere to the stereotype, few are willing to definitively say they are not tragic mulattos.
In the criticism about mulatta characters in recent works of African American literature that address slavery, I have not seen any discussion of them as being tragic—probably because they do not commit suicide and therefore are not viewed from the tragic mulatta perspective. Once we place the nineteenth-century works, like Clotel, in relationship with the more recent works, however, we see that the earlier mulatta characters are similar, despite their suicides. They are not passive, hopeless women who eventually commit suicide; many of them take some kind of action. Consequently, there needs to be another way of characterizing them, and that’s what the mulatta woman in the cottage trope provides.
KL: Why do you think it is important to examine this topic?
PB: The reality is that there are families today who are the offspring of interracial relationships similar to the ones Brown wrote about. When I tell people that I’m writing about slave concubines, or black women who were kept by white men, inevitably many can relate to it. They begin to tell me stories about family members from the past, who lived through similar experiences. One way to get at and talk about issues of race is through the study of fiction.
KL: Why did you choose to pursue a fellowship with the VFH?
PB: Actually the fellowship pursued me. I was attending a poetry summer seminar at JMU, and Hilary Holladay was the major instructor for that seminar. Hilary at the time was the fellowships coordinator at VFH, and she told me about the program. So I applied and I came here in summer of 2011.
KL: How has the fellowship aided your research?
PB: It has given me the time to sit down and get the initial writing for my book completed. I came in the summers of 2011, 2012, and 2013, but now that I am here for the spring semester fellowship, I am really getting the work done. Just being able to come here, and work on nothing but the manuscript has helped me. And of course, the resources at the University of Virginia library and the Foundation—the office, and the interaction with other fellows—have also been very helpful. It’s a scholarly atmosphere all the way around.