December 5, 2021

Mulatto Image in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun

From the first moment in which men and women wrote literature, it became a way of expressing their identity: culture, family inheritance, national and regional ties and personality. This act of writing was especially relevant for African American slaves during the 18th century: slaves who could read and write narrated their personal stories acquiring, in the eyes of the audience, the status of human beings erased from them through the institution of slavery.

Many novels continued with this aim during the Harlem Renaissance: not with an abolitionist purpose, but describing the life experience of African American citizens and the racist structure they were involuntarily part of. In this way, writing became a tool for social denounce to achieve racial equality.

Throughout this essay we are going to analyse the way in which mulatto image is explained through the phenomenon of “passing” in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and Plum Bun (1929), and why this phenomenon is a failure in both novels.

But, what is “passing”? From my point of view, the concept of “passing” in both novels does not refer to “passing from one racial group to another” but to “pretending to belong to one racial group solely”, hiding half of the character’s racial heritage. The mulatto protagonists (the unnamed protagonist in The Autobiography and Angela Murray in Plum Bun) both have black African and white ethnic origins although they have assimilated the social values of their nurture environment (the black one).

At a certain point in both novels, the crash with the African American way of life happens, which leads them to “pass” for whites. But, what are the reasons which lead the two protagonists to pass? It depends on the idealised image the protagonists have built about the white community. They pretend to be white to belong to a community in which they hope to gain acceptance and a better life. As Gallego points about Angela Murray, “her mother’s example is determinant in the protagonist’s life, since “it was from her mother that Angela learned the possibilities for joy and freedom which seemed to her inherent in mere whiteness” (14)” (2003: 158). By the occasional passing that her mother does to an splendid white world, Angela learns the advantages which she could obtain passing herself.

This episode creates a parallelism between the events narrated in The Autobiography and Plum Bun and the Harlem Renaissance literary movement. Although Angela Murray deliberately abandons the community that raised her, we get to know her reasons, as regards the social status of black population in the 20s. The leit motif of the Harlem Renaissance, “Primitivism”, foregrounds  the way in which society, embodied in the audience, regarded black population: not as independent and active citizens, but as exotic, naïve and innocent creatures coming to heal a paternalistic white world, as it was sick and needed to be saved from itself. In this way, we understand the treatment that the black population received, and we grasp why both characters look for a better life in the white world: it is all a fight for survival and a purchase of happiness. This thought is expressed in words of the unnamed protagonist after witnessing a lynching: “shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals”.

Why does passing fail then? The failure of the phenomenon of passing occurs in the novels because, in order to be accepted, the protagonists cut ties with their black inheritance, which destroys their current identity. As they do not have a black identity anymore, they have to build a new one within the white community: they build a false identity based on what white society expects from them, and as a result they do not construct a healthy identity because they do not have a past, either inheritance or self aims. Again, the unnamed protagonist is the spokesman of the dissatisfaction caused by the loose of identity remembering his “black” childhood: “when I sometimes open a little box in which I still keep my fast yellowing manuscripts, the only tangible remnants of a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent, I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage”. In this quotation is condensed the failure of passing, which explains why characters experiment a feeling of dissatisfaction and fear at the end of the novels.

This idea leads us directly to the concept of “tragic mulatto/a”. The name itself is self-explanatory: “tragic mulattoes” end their lives tragically, although passing characters have an opportunity to succeed in their social and personal lives. This is caused by the fact that the tragic mulatto/a convention developed mostly during the 19th century, when slaves did not have the chance to live out of the slavery structure, and so, of passing. When slavery ended, mulattoes saw in passing from their black social environment to a white one an opportunity of success. In The Sweeter the Juice (1992) by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, we read about a successful passing, although this is not the situation for our protagonists.

The concept of “double consciousness”, coined by W. E. B. Du Bois, is also related to the idea of passing (W. E. B. Du Bois is explicitly named in The Autobiography). Mulatto characters are what W.E.B Du Bois call “the third self”, an embodiment of the double consciousness image (black and white ethnicity joined together). Passing characters are in between these two consciousnesses: a fusion of two cultures (the Western and the African ones), a “third self” that does not have a place in white society.

As we have pointed above, both characters actively choose to adhere themselves to the white consciousness. They have a privileged place in black society (as whiteness is highly valuated, and they possess part of it) but they prefer to fully live the white society, where they do not find a place.

This is subsequently revealed as an irony because, although Angela Murray and the unnamed narrator idealise the white world, white characters are mostly presented as imperfect by the narrator: they do not recognise their black sons and daughters as their own because they reject black citizens (mulattoes idealise the society that rejects them). But, although they do not have the opportunity of passing, black characters in both novels are also responsible for the idealisation of white society, as they consider whiteness as beautiful and the most desirable possible status possible. As the mother of the unnamed narrator points out: “no, I am not white, but you – your father is one of the greatest men in the country”. We conclude that both, white and African Americans, support passing as a way of deviating from the non- desirable status that black ethnicity is regarded as.

The destruction of the idealized white world has also to do with the loneliness that Angela and the unnamed narrator experiment when they pass: they are afraid of being discovered and cannot confess their real identity. Although the unnamed protagonist of The Autobiography tells his secret to his wife is “in constant fear that she would discover in me some shortcoming which she would unconsciously attribute to my blood rather that to a failing human nature”. The fear is always present for him due to her wife’s unconscious racist prejudices. As Gallego points out, the destruction of the idealised white world “invert(s) the primitivist stereotype of amorality usually ascribed to African Americans” (160).

This disillusion makes the characters valuate their black inheritance and feel a necessity of contact with their African American families at the end of the novel, considering them more honest. Angela realises that her sister is “leading an utterly open life, no secrets, no subterfuges, no goals to be reached by devious ways” (243) while she is living a fake life,  and the unnamed narrator feels to “have been a coward, a deserter, and I am possessed by a strange longing for my mother’s people” (99).

As we have mentioned the particularities of The Autobiography and Plum Bun when dealing with mulatto image, we also have to do it as regards the concept of “double consciousness: in the case of Angela, it does not only mean to belong to the African and Western cultures, but also being woman and black. In this respect, Angela is what in gender studies is defined as “the other of the other”. If black men are “the other” (the unnamed protagonist) in relation to white men, black women are “the other of the other”, in relation to both white and black men. This is the key point that makes us interpret the two novels in a different light: Angela chooses her white inheritance not only to overcome racial inequality, but to overcome the gender one as well. Nevertheless, as we have analysed in relation to the case of racial inequality, “passing” is not a solution for gender inequality either.

In light of these observations, we have proved that as Gallego points out “race (is) merely a social and cultural construction” because, being the protagonists mulattoes, they do not have any difficulty accepting the colour of their skin but, as we pointed at the beginning, with the social status tied to it, which constructs the way in which people consider and position them within the group. That is what motivates them to look for a better life through passing. As The Autobiography and Plum Bun demonstrate, the act of holding an alien identity with the aim of belonging to a group is to negate oneself. And, as any natural state of affairs blocked, it naturally goes back on place to gain the flow and harmony lost.

 

Primary sources:

  • Byrd, Rudolph P. (ed.).The Essential Writings of James Weldon Johnson. 1912. New York: Modern Library, 2008.
  • Fauset, Jessie Redmond. Plum Bun. 1928.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

 

Secondary Sources:

  • Singh, Amritjit. ; Skerrett, Joseph T., Jr.  and Hogan, Robert E. (eds.) Memory, Narrative and Identity: New Essays in Ethnic American Literatures. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994.
  • Gallego, Mar. Passing Novels in the Harlem Renaissance: Identity Politics and Textual Strategies. Münster: FORECAAST (Forum for European Contributions to African American Studies), 2003. Volume 8.
  • Mclendon, Jacquelyn Y. The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
  • Davidson, María de Guadalupe. The Rhetoric of Race: Towards a Revolutionary Construction of Black Identity. València: biblioteca Javier Coy d’estudis nord-americans, 2006.

 

by Maria Cobano, an English and American Literature graduate passionate about books and languages. She was born in a small sunny city in the South of Spain, and her curiosity about arts and literature has driven her from Spain to Italy, to England. Among her personal interests, she numbers travelling, fashion, food & wine.

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