Trope of the Tragic Mulatta

By Elizabeth Cali

The figure or trope of the “tragic mulatta/o” appears in African American literature as a character with mixed race ancestry. In light of US racial politics, the one-drop rule, and white supremacist political and social adherence to the fallacies of the “color-line,” this ancestry places a mixed-race or bi-racial character’s identity in question. This trope most often dramatizes the experience of a bi-racial character who physically appears white or can racially pass as white learning at some point in the narrative that they have African ancestry. The knowledge of one’s racial identity is represented as tragic in that it disrupts the character’s position in society and within their familial relationships, it prompts a reckoning with the sexual violence that so often resulted in the births of bi-racial children during slavery, and it presents the character with the ongoing struggle for social and political acceptance in white and black cultural, social, and political groups. The figure or trope is often represented as distressed or even suicidal in response to a perceived failure to fit in white or black communities and families.