How Is the 'Tragic Mulatto' Literary Trope Defined?

Actress Susan Kohner in "Imitation of Life."
Universal Studios/Flickr

To understand the meaning of the literary trope "tragic mulatto," one must first understand the definition of "mulatto."

It is an outdated and, many would argue, offensive term used to describe someone with one Black parent and one white parent. Its use is controversial today given that mulatto (mulato in Spanish) means small mule (a derivative of the Latin mūlus). The comparison of a biracial human being to the sterile offspring of a donkey and a horse was widely acceptable through even the mid-20th century but today is considered objectionable for obvious reasons. Terms such as biracial, mixed-race, or half-Black are commonly used instead.

Defining the Tragic Mulatto

The tragic mulatto myth dates back to 19th century American literature. Sociologist David Pilgrim credits Lydia Maria Child with launching this literary trope in her short stories "The Quadroons" (1842) and "Slavery's Pleasant Homes" (1843).

The myth almost exclusively focuses on biracial individuals, especially women, light enough to pass for white. In literature, such mulattoes were often unaware of their Black heritage. Such is the case in Kate Chopin's 1893 short story "Désirée's Baby" in which an aristocrat weds a woman of unknown lineage. The story, however, is a twist on the tragic mulatto trope. 

Typically white characters who discover their African ancestry become tragic figures because they find themselves barred from white society and, thus, the privileges available to whites. Distraught at their fate as people of color, tragic mulattoes in literature often turned to suicide.

In other instances, these characters pass for white, cutting off their Black family members to do so. The mixed-race daughter of a Black woman suffers this fate in the 1933 Fannie Hurst novel "Imitation of Life," which spawned a movie starring Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, and Fredi Washington in 1934 and a remake with Lana Turner, Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner in 1959.

Kohner (of Mexican and Czech Jewish ancestry) plays Sarah Jane Johnson, a young woman who looks white but sets out to cross the color line, even if it means disowning her loving mother, Annie. The film makes it clear that tragic mulatto characters are not only to be pitied but, in some ways, loathed. While Sarah Jane is portrayed as selfish and wicked, Annie is portrayed as saint-like, and the white characters largely indifferent to both of their struggles.

In addition to tragic, mulattoes in film and literature have frequently been depicted as sexually seductive (Sarah Jane works in gentlemen's clubs), effeminate or otherwise troubled because of their mixed blood. Generally, these characters suffer insecurity about their place in the world. Langston Hughes' 1926 poem "Cross" exemplifies this:

My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.

If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.

My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?

More recent literature about racial identity flips the tragic mulatto stereotype on its head. Danzy Senna's 1998 novel "Caucasia" features a young protagonist who can pass for white but takes pride in her Blackness. Her dysfunctional parents wreak more havoc in her life than her feelings about her identity do.

Why the Tragic Mulatto Myth Is Inaccurate

The tragic mulatto myth perpetuates the idea that miscegenation (the mixing of races) is unnatural and harmful to the children produced by such unions. Rather than blame racism for the challenges biracial people face, the tragic mulatto myth holds race-mixing responsible. Yet, there is no biological argument to support the tragic mulatto myth.

Biracial people aren't likely to be sickly, emotionally unstable, or otherwise affected because their parents belong to different racial groups. Given that scientists acknowledge that race is a social construct and not a biological category, there's no evidence that biracial or multiracial people were "born to be hurt," as miscegenation foes have long claimed.

On the other hand, the idea that mixed-race people are somehow superior to others--more healthy, beautiful and intelligent--is also controversial. The concept of hybrid vigor, or heterosis, is questionable when applied to plants and animals, and there's no scientific basis for its application to human beings. Geneticists generally do not support the idea of genetic superiority, especially because this concept has led to discrimination against people from a wide range of racial, ethnic, and cultural groups.

Biracial people may not be genetically superior or inferior to any other group, but their numbers are growing in the United States. Mixed-race children are among the fastest-growing population in the country. Rising numbers of multiracial people don't mean that these individuals lack challenges. As long as racism exists, mixed-race people will face some form of bigotry.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "How Is the 'Tragic Mulatto' Literary Trope Defined?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, September 2). How Is the 'Tragic Mulatto' Literary Trope Defined? Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "How Is the 'Tragic Mulatto' Literary Trope Defined?" ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).