The “Tragic Mulatto” the biracial children of slaves and slavemasters, as depicted in literature and movies, was typically characterized as seductive, sexually-perversed, violent, suicidal, filled with self-hatred.

‘Tragic Mulatto’: Past depictions give way to today’s biracial pride

It was nearly two centuries ago when writer Lydia Maria Child discussed what was a taboo topic in American life: the biracial children of slaves and slavemasters.

Hailed by some as a champion of excluded groups in American society, Child’s goal in a short story titled “The Quadroons” was to describe the horrors of how they were treated by whites. The mixed-race woman in the story was enslaved after others discovered her black heritage. In the end, she commits suicide.

In the 1934 film “Imitation of Life,” Fredi Washington, right, plays the daughter of Louise Beavers, left, and breaks her mother’s heart by passing as a white woman. (Universal Pictures)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

»MORE: Read the AJC’s full Black History Month Series

Other writers and filmmakers have told similar tales of woe, describing these characters as the “tragic mulatto” or “tragic mulatta.” The stories often deepened racial distrust between blacks and whites and among African-Americans.

According to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Big Rapids, Mich., the tragic mulatto was typically characterized — often by whites in stereotypical terms — as seductive, sexually perverse, violent, suicidal and filled with self-hatred.

The most infamous depiction of the tragic mulatto was in the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” in which a character “passes” for white, and leads blacks in a rampage against whites.

Fredi Washington, who starred in the original “Imitation of Life,” was more than just a Harlem Renaissance actress. Off screen she was an activist who worked to uplift the race.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

»MORE: Did Josephine Baker play the role of a “tragic mulatto?”

“If light enough to ‘pass’ as white, she did, but passing led to deeper self-loathing,” reads an explanation on the website of Ferris State University, where the Jim Crow Museum is based. “She pitied or despised blacks and the ‘blackness’ in herself; she hated or feared whites yet desperately sought their approval. In a race-based society, the tragic mulatto found peace only in death.”

Today, the term “mulatto” is considered extremely offensive. And “tragic” is far from the self-description of those who identify as biracial. About 2 percent of Americans identified themselves as multiracial in the 2010 U.S. census.

Black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux worked to counter the negative portrayals of biracial people in movies such as the 1920 silent film, “Within Our Gates,” in which the main character is encouraged to embrace her black heritage.Oscar Micheaux worked to counter the negative portrayals of biracial people in movies such as the 1920 silent film, “Within Our Gates,” in which the main character is encouraged to embrace her black heritage.

Pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux worked to counter the negative portrayals of biracial people in movies such as the 1920 silent film, “Within Our Gates,” in which the main character is encouraged to embrace her black heritage. (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Wikimedia Commons

»MORE: Oscar Micheaux: First black filmmaker fearlessly showed racial truths

In the mid-20th century, with few roles available for blacks in film, light-skinned actresses such as Dorothy Dandridge became stars for playing “tragic mulattas” who use their beauty to seek acceptance and love from whites, only to fail in the effort.

Such roles dwindled during the civil rights era. But more-recent cinematic roles have sparked discussions about whether they are variations of the “tragic mulatto” legacy.

Halle Berry won an Academy Award for her role in the 2001 film “Monster’s Ball.” Some argued that the roll harkened back to the Tragic Mulatto trope. 
Photo: AP

»MORE: How Bert Williams navigated race and color as a vaudevillian

One example, some say, is the character Halle Berry portrayed in “Monster’s Ball,” the 2001 film that made Berry the first black woman to win an Oscar for best actress in a leading role. Another example is the malevolent Sgt. Waters character in the 1984 film “A Soldier’s Story,” a murder mystery steeped in white vs. black — and black vs. black — racism.

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.

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