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The Tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries. The "tragic mulatto" is an archetypical mixed race person (a "mulatto"), who is assumed to be sad or even suicidal because he/she fails to completely fit in the "white world" or the "black world." As such, the "tragic mulatto" is depicted as the victim of the society he/she lives in, a society divided by race. Because of society's reluctance to acknowledge ambiguity in racial classifications, this character is particularly vulnerable.

The "tragic mulatta" figure is a woman of biracial heritage who must endure the hardships of African-Americans in the antebellum South, even though she may look white enough that her ethnicity is not immediately obvious. As the name implies, tragic mulattas almost always meet a bad end. Lydia Maria Child's 1842 short story "The Quadroons" is generally credited as the first work of literature to feature a tragic mulatta, allegedly in an effort to garner support for emancipation and equal rights. Writer Eva Allegra Raimon notes that Child "allowed white readers to identify with the victim by gender while distancing themselves by race and thus to avoid confronting a racial ideology that denies the full humanity of nonwhite women." The passing character in Nella Larsen's "Passing" has been deemed a "tragic mulatta."

Generally, the tragic mulatta archetype falls into one of three categories:

  • A woman who can "pass" for white attempts to do so, is accepted as white by society and falls in love with a white man. Eventually, her status as a bi-racial person is revealed and the story ends in tragedy.
  • A woman appears to be white. It is believed that she is of Greek or Spanishmarker descent. She has suffered little hardship in her life, but upon the revelation that she is mixed race, she loses her social standing.
  • A woman who has all the social graces that come along with being a middle-class or upper-class white woman is nonetheless subjected to slavery.

A common objection to this character is that she allows readers to pity the plight of oppressed or enslaved races, but only through a veil of whiteness — that is, instead of sympathizing with a true racial "other," one is sympathizing with a character who is made as much like one's own race as possible. The "tragic mulatta" often appeared in novels intended for women, also, and some of the character's appeal lay in the lurid fantasy of a person just like them suddenly cast into a lower social class after the discovery of a small amount of "black blood" that renders her unfit for proper marriage.

Today's bi-racial peoples are divided as to whether they have to face particular difficulties. Some completely reject the idea while others do not. The environment seems to be one of the key factors. Even Halle Berry recently told the press that she spent most of her life "trying to fit in". On the other hand, there are others like Rebecca Walker who, in her memoir Black, White, and Jewish, continually states, "I was a Civil Rights Movement baby; I am not tragic." Multiracial writers and activists also have worked hard to challenge this trope.

Some writers have suggested that Barack Obama's controversies over Reverend Wright and Henry Louis Gates cast him as the Tragic Mulatto, torn between the demands of national leadership and loyalty to the black community.

Popular Culture

Literature Featuring "Tragic Mulatta" Characters in Pivotal Roles:

-A Escrava Isaura, a novel written in 1875 by Brazilian author Bernardo Guimarães

Films Featuring "Tragic Mulatta" Characters in Pivotal Roles:


-Imitation of Life

-Show Boat

Televisions Movies and Series Featuring "Tragic Mulatta" Characters in Pivotal Roles:

-Alex Haley's Queen, the acclaimed television series by Alex Haley offers a subversion of the "tragic mulatta" archetype, while referencing many of its elements.

-A Escrava Isaura has been adapted to Brazilian television twice, first in 1976 (as Escrava Isaura), and again in 2004.

-Angel (the television series) featured a tragic mulatta character (portrayed by Melissa Marsala) in its 2000 episode Are You Now or Have You Ever Been.

See also


  • The Tragic Mulatta Revisited: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Antislavery Fiction, by Eva Allegra Raimon

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