The "Tragic Mulatta" Revisited: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Antislavery Fiction

Synopsis

Since its inception, the United States has been intensely preoccupied with interracialism. The concept is embedded everywhere in our social and political fabric, including our sense of national identity. And yet, in both its quantitative and symbolic forms, interracialism remains an extremely elusive phenomenon, causing policy makers and census boards to wrangle over how to delineate it and, on an emblematic level, stirring intense emotions from fear to fascination. In The "Tragic Mulatta" Revisited, Eve Allegra Raimon focuses on the mixed-race female slave in literature, arguing that this figure became a symbolic vehicle for explorations of race and nation-both of which were in crisis in the mid-nineteenth century. At this time, judicial, statutory, social, and scientific debates about the meaning of racial difference (and intermixture) coincided with disputes over frontier expansion, which were never merely about land acquisition but also literally about the "complexion" of that frontier. Embodying both northern and southern ideologies, the "amalgamated" mulatta, the author argues, can be viewed as quintessentially American, a precursor to contemporary motifs of "hybrid" and "mestizo" identities. Where others have focused on the gendered and racially abject position of the "tragic mulatta," Raimon reconsiders texts by such central antislavery writers as Lydia Maria Child, William Wells Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Harriet Wilson to suggest that the figure is more usefully examined as a way of understanding the volatile and shifting interface of race and national identity in the antebellum period.