The Trope of the Mulatta Woman in the Cottage in Nineteenth-Century African American Literature

By Barnes, Paula C. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Trope of the Mulatta Woman in the Cottage in Nineteenth-Century African American Literature


Barnes, Paula C., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

In 1853, William Wells Brown publishes what is considered to be the first novel by an African American writer, Clotel; or, the President's Daughter where he introduces the image of the tragic mulatto--a character of mixed heritage who is consequently torn between the two races and whose life ends tragically--to African American literature. (1) Of the six mulatta characters in the novel, there is one whose life does not end tragically: the novel ends with Clotel's daughter, Mary, living in France and re-united with her former slave lover. In 1858, Brown publishes a play, The Escape, or A Leap for Freedom, which also features a mulatta who, like Mary, is not a tragic mulatta figure. Moreover, more contemporary interpretations of Clotel have rejected the protagonist's status as a tragic mulatta. Although Clotel commits suicide, her act can be read, so argues one of these critics, "less as victimization than as a powerful political statement." (2) What is evident from a close reading of Brown's work is that all of his mixed-race female characters are not tragic mulattas; however, as Barbara Christian notes, "the mulatta [is at] the center" of Brown's work. Consequently, also in Brown's work is an alternate depiction of the mulatta: a slave woman placed in a cottage in an isolated setting at the behest of a white male who is most often her owner. This pattern becomes "the trope of the mulatta in the cottage." This trope is repeated and revised, to use Henry Louis Gates' terminology, not only by Brown but also by Harriet Jacobs' in her slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), and by Hannah Crafts' in her fictionalized The Bondwoman's Narrative (c. 1853-61), thereby firmly establishing it in the African American literary tradition.

The Mulatta in the Cottage: Clotel's Story

The image of the mulatta in the cottage is presented, and then twice revised in Clotel; the basic trope occurs with the quadroon protagonist, Clotel, for whom the work is named. The daughter of a miscegenational relationship between a master and his mistress, Clotel, who is being raised by her mother to become a lady, attracts the attention of the young white Horatio Green who promises to make her the "mistress of her own dwelling." (4) When Clotel, along with her mother, Currer, and sister Althesa, is placed on the auction block at the death of their owner, she is purchased by Horatio, who keeps his promise by providing her with "a beautiful cottage," whose description and setting are essential to the trope:

   About three miles from Richmond is a pleasant plain, with... a
   beautiful cottage surrounded by trees so as scarcely to be seen.
   Among them was one far retired from the public roads, and almost
   hidden among the trees. It was a perfect model of rural beauty. The
   piazzas that surrounded it were covered with clematis and passion
   flower. The pride of China mixed its oriental looking foliage with
   the majestic magnolia, and the air was redolent with the fragrance
   of flowers. The tasteful hand of art had not learned to imitate the
   lavish beauty and harmonious disorder of nature, but they lived
   together in loving amity, and spoke in accordant tones. The gateway
   rose in a gothic arch, with graceful tracery in iron work,
   surmounted by a cross, round which fluttered and played the
   mountain fringe, that lightest and most fragile of vines. (5)

The only descriptor of the cottage dwelling is that is "beautiful"; however, the narrator is meticulous in describing its setting. Located approximately three miles from Richmond, "almost hidden" and enclosed in the iron gate, the cottage is isolated, yet set amidst trees, flowers, and lush foliage--"a perfect model of ... beauty," it evokes the Garden of Eden. As noted by Blyden Jackson, Clotel and Horatio exist in a "small, private Elysium." (6)

The basic trope, as presented in Clotel's story, is comprised of three elements: 1). …

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