Transcending the 'Tragic Mulatto': The Intersection of Black and Indian Heritage in Contemporary Literature

By Claire, Lindsey | Ethnic Studies Review, April 3, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Transcending the 'Tragic Mulatto': The Intersection of Black and Indian Heritage in Contemporary Literature


Claire, Lindsey, Ethnic Studies Review


The supposed plight of multi-racial persons is widely depicted in modern American literature, including the works of William Faulkner, whose stories follow the lives of multi-racial characters such as Joe Christmas and Sam Fathers, who, reflecting characteristics of "tragic mulatto" figures, search for acceptance in a racially polarized Mississippi society. Yet more contemporary literature, including works by Michael Dorris, Leslie Marmon Silko, Toni Morrison, and Clarence Major, reference the historical relationship between African Americans and American Indians, featuring multi-racial characters that more successfully fit the fabric of current American culture than do more "traditional" works such as Faulkner's. While an outdated black-white binary still lingers in American perceptions of race, increasingly, racial identity is now informed by self-identification, community recognition, and acculturation. As a result, black and Indian characters, as well as multi-racial authors, provide varied and insightful glimpses into the complexity of America's racial landscape.

The historic connection between African Americans and Native Americans has long been recognized by members of both groups and has recently attracted greater attention by scholars. Historians such as William Loren Katz and Jack D. Forbes have rightly called for further study of this important relationship, emphasizing the inaccuracy of a continued focus on a black-white nexus in discussions of race in America. Both Katz and Forbes have pointed toward contact between Africans and Natives of the Americas prior to the American colonial period, shared experiences of slavery at the hands of both Europeans and Natives,^1 the development of unique black Indian communities on the American frontier, and cooperation in revolts against European control as evidence of cultural affinity, amalgamation,^2 and shared senses of purpose among the two peoples, the basis of a kinship that endures in modern times. Echoing Edward Said's binary of "Orient" v. "Occident," widespread recognition of the rich interplay and exchange among various racial or ethnic groups in America nonetheless has historically been suppressed, as people with complex and dynamic heritages have been relegated into categories of "white" and "non-white." Forbes asserts:

The ancestry of many modern-day Americans, whether of 'black' or 'Indian' appearance, is often (or usually) quite complex indeed. It is sad that many such persons have been forced by racism into arbitrary categories which tend to render their ethnic heritage simple rather than complex. It is now one of the principal tasks of scholarship to replace the shallow one-dimensional images of non-whites with more accurate multi-dimensional portraits. (271)

Not surprisingly, one-dimensional, images of non-whites have been standard in American literature, particularly Southern literature, in which race is most often the dominant theme. In the Modern period, reflecting the Jim Crow era's stringent enforcement of black and white as opposite, polarized racial demarcations, this black-white binary is present in the works of both white and black writers, authors who situate themselves at either racial extreme. Among many examples are Richard Wright and William Faulkner, each of whom writes from his involvement in the horrific brutality that has characterized American, and particularly Southern, racism, but each writing from an opposite vantage point: Wright reflects his desperation and the physical and psychological hunger imposed by inescapable white oppression in works such as Black Boy, Native Son, and Twelve Million Black Voices, and Faulkner reports the guilt and sense of implicit responsibility for that oppression against Blacks in works such as Go Down, Moses, Light in August, and The Sound and The Fury.

Faulkner's works in particular impose this black-white polarity even in their portrayal of characters of mixed racial heritage, emphasizing that the two extremes cannot be reconciled.

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