Saturday, April 11, 2009

Biracial and Multiracial Children's Place in Slavery era America

     Politics have President Barack Obama. Sports have Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter. The glamorous world of modeling has Adriana Lima, Naomi Campbell, and Miranda Kerr. The music industry has Tina Turner, Beyoncé Knowles, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz and Nicole Scherzinger. The movie industry has Halle Berry, Johnny Depp, and Keanu Reeves. Some deceased people of mixed lineage have influenced and still continue to shape our culture. Malcolm X. Bob Marley. Jimi Hendrix. Our everyday lives are filled with images of and stories about these famous and powerful people with biracial, multiracial, mulatto, or Creole heritage.

     Historically, there are also prominent people of mixed heritage. Alexandre Dumas, père – the author of such literary classics as The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and The Black Tulip – was the grandson of the Marquis de la Pailleterie and Marie Cessette Dumas, a black slave of Santo Domingo (Encyclopedia Britannica). Similarly, his son Alexandre Dumas, fils – playwright of La Dame aux camellias (“Camille” in English and the basis of the opera La Traviata) and considered to be one of the founders of the “problem play” (Encyclopedia Britannica) – naturally had the same heritage as his father. Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – also known as Queen Charlotte, the queen consort of King George III of England and mother of George IV – was directly descended from a black branch of the Portuguese Royal Family (Cocom). Alessandro de Medici – first duke of Florence, patron of the arts, first black head of state in the modern western world – was the son of a black serving woman and Giulio de Medici (who later became Pope Clement VII) (Cocom).

     American history, too, has important figures of mixed heritage. Crispus Attucks, an Indian-African-white sailor, is remembered as the “first martyr of the American Revolution” (Foner 160). One of the most eminent human-rights leaders of the 19th century is Frederick Douglass, who is half-black and half-white. Booker T. Washington, who is also half-black and half-white, became recognized as the nation's foremost black educator and the most influential spokesman for African Americans between 1895 and 1915 (Britannica). Another man of half-white and half-black descent is the American writer William Wells Brown, who is considered to be the first African-American to have his novel published (Britannica).

     These rises to prominence by mulattoes were very isolated cases. At this point in history, whites had the notion that their race is superior to that of the Indians or the blacks. The whites were to have the upper hand in everything, while the blacks, whom Thomas Jefferson had proclaimed to be “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” were to be slaves deprived of citizenship and the benefits of being an American (Foner 238). The Indians were savages, moved from one place to another and forced to adopt the ways of the whites or face extermination (as if their race were nothing more of a pest). These racial divisions were clear-cut, and interracial marriages and partnerships were highly disapproved of and even illegal.

     Author Lalita Tademy, while researching for her book Cane River (a book that takes a look “at the evolving relationships between blacks and whites – particularly the complex bonds between slave owners and slaves”), found that while there were black codes that dictated how to behave towards slaves, these codes were often ignored (Slavery in America). White men were not supposed to father slaves’ children, but slave women were forced to comply with sexual advances by their masters on a very regular basis as they “owe to [their] master a respect … without bounds, and an absolute obedience ... and complete power over [their persons]” (Foner 349). J. William Harris found that “of the children living with mothers alone, about one in six had white fathers..." (Harris 127). These children were then faced with the stigma of being neither white nor black. As William Wells Brown once wrote,

The nearer a slave approaches an Anglo Saxon in complexion, the more he is abused by both owner and fellow slaves. The owner flogs him to keep him ‘in his place,’ and the slaves hate him on account of his being whiter than themselves. (HistoryNet)

So what did parents do to protect their biracial child against the cruelty of society?

     Ms. Tademy writes:

There were no legal requirements for how these children were to be taken care of … whether they were to be acknowledged. It was [on] a case-by-case basis. It was what the individual man decided he was going to do … [what] he could afford to do. Most of the time, he was married. Very, very seldom was it a case of having children and having those children live under the same roof as the only acknowledged children of the man. Very often, the children produced by a white man on his own plantation ... ended up being servants to his legitimate children by a white wife. But again, a lot of this was by practice, not by law.... (Slavery in America)

Emancipated slaves, some of whom evidently could have
passed for whites.

     Most fathers usually denied that a slave’s light-skinned offspring was his, even though sometimes the resemblance could not be doubted. And because of the 1662 law that “provided in the case of a child one of whose parents was free and one slave, the status of the offspring followed that of the mother,” (Foner 52), these children consequently became their father’s property, subjected to his whims regardless of the fact that they carried the same blood.

     Case after case of paternal negligence can be found. Frederick Douglass had written that his father is “shrouded in a mystery I have never been able to penetrate” (Douglass 51) in his autobiographical book, My Life and My Bondage. William Wells Brown’s father was the cousin of his owner and, except for soliciting a promise that his boy would never be sold, was never a part of the young boy’s life (HistoryNet). John Parker, an active participant of the Underground Railroad in Ohio, likewise suffered from inattention from his white father (Ohio History Central).

     Since these mulattoes were property, they were treated as such and oftentimes sold to other slave holders. The Youth’s Companion, one of the best-known magazines for children, had printed “White Slaves,” which contains this excerpt:

The poor white children of the slave mother are sold like brutes to the highest bidder, by their worse than brute father, while their free born brothers and sisters, who are not whiter than they in complexion, or purer in heart, inherit the father's wealth, and enjoy the blessings of that freedom which is the choicest earthly gift from God to man. Thus slavery degrades and makes fiendish the dearest relations and the purest instincts of humanity. (MerryCoz)

Anti-slavery writers of the time also wrote of this sickening practice. In Lydia Maria Child's Anti-Slavery Catechism, she wrote of a young Northern physician who had moved to the Deep South and fell in love with his new friends' maid, who was a beautiful, modest white girl. After they had gotten married and had moved into their house, the physician received a visit from a Mr. J who claimed that his wife was in fact a slave. After presenting proofs of his story, Mr. J demanded of the physician $800 for his slave or suffer to see his wife being auctioned. After he paid the demand, he talked to his wife, who broke down and disclosed that Mr. J was her father (Talty 12).

     In cases when the mother is white and the father is black, under the 1662 statute, the status of the child was free - thus the start of the class of the free mulattoes. However, in 1691, another statute was passed (Virtual Jamestown), which states:

.... And for prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue … it is hereby enacted, that for the time to come, whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free shall intermarry with a negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever … and it is hereby enacted, That if any English woman being free shall have a bastard child by any negro or mulatto, she pay the sume of fifteen pounds sterling … and that such bastard child be bound out as a servant by the said Church wardens untill he or she shall attaine the age of thirty yeares....

The passage of such law condemned the illegitimate mulatto children to servitude to church for thirty years (admittedly better than field slavery, but bondage still nonetheless). Some mothers, on the other hand, perhaps out of the social stigma attached to out of wedlock pregnancies (and further exacerbated by the fact that it is the child of a racially inferior black), were driven to more desperate measures. Harriet Jacobs wrote in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl that:

In such cases [when the mother is white and the father is black] the infant is smothered, or sent where it is never seen by any who know its history. But if the white parent is the father, instead of the mother, the offspring are unblushingly reared for the market. (81)

Infants, the very embodiment of innocence, were subjected to such actions that can only be best described as horrific and perverse in nature - victims of racism even before they could say their first word.

     However, there were also accounts of paternal preference to their mulatto children. Usually, they were relegated to domestic duties, which was considerably better than working in the fields, as is the case of one Georgetown planter who had his mulatto children serve in his dining room (Edgar 307). Sometimes, too, they were provided for in their fathers’ will or paternal manumission may occur. Harriet Jacobs tells of a white man who, upon his death, “left six thousand dollars to his two sons by a colored woman, and the remainder of his property to his [white] orphan niece" (Jacobs 78). Land and slaves were provided to Isaac and Henry Glencamp, the mulatto sons of white planter Henry Glencamp of Charleston's St. Stephen's Parish, while the mulatto sons of Robert Collins who were living in the neighboring parish were given 540 acres of land and slaves (Koger 165). (It should be pointed out, however, that these manumissions and wills may be contested by the white legitimate heirs, as was the case with the will of the father of Samuel Townsend of Madison County, Alabama, who left his $500,000 estate to his two mulatto sons [Williamson 41]).

     The mestizo children of the Spaniards and the métis children of the French were slightly better treated compared to the mulatto children of the British. The mestizos directed the labor of the Indian population (proof that their Spanish blood was acknowledged - they were better than the Indians, but lower than the full-blooded criollos and the peninsulares) (Foner 95). In the 17th century, the children of French traders and Indian women were able to practice respectable employments such as guides, traders, and interpreters (Foner 78).

     In Louisiana, home of the Quadroon Balls, one of the conditions for high-born white men to enter into relationships with the placeés, Creole women renowned for their beauty, was the promise that their future children would be educated and well-provided for. The sons would often be sent to France (where the racial prejudice rampant in American society did not exist), while the daughters stayed to be educated in local convent schools. They were also added onto the wills and given substantial inheritances. Moreover, since some white men decided to free their black mistress to be able to manumit their children (Hood 13), these freed black mothers were given an opportunity to practice trade, and some managed the property given to them by their white “protectors” successfully and accumulated wealth which they then passed on to their children. (Creole History)

     The mestizos and the métis may be better off compared to the mulattoes, but their childhood experience is far from our modern ideal of childhood. The European parents almost always had their "proper" white families to keep their place in society, and their biracial children were almost always kept behind the scenes, their bastardry and heritage a cause of shame.

     George Orwell had written that “when the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys.” In my opinion, this phrase is quite applicable to racism and racial prejudices as well. In slavery era America, individuals did not have the freedom to indulge their love should it happen that the object of their affections was of the “wrong” race. White fathers could not acknowledge their offspring, while the children of slave owners did not have the freedom to expect the protection or love from their parent. The stigma surrounding mulatto parenthood was too disapproving, caused by racial divisions that the whites had put in place to ensure their tyranny would remain unchallenged, that what should be a parent’s basic right to love his or her child was denied to even the most elite whites; and a child’s basic right to be loved and protected was denied him. Because of a perceived superiority, inhumane and disgusting treatments of children were accepted.

     President Obama is looked up to by the diverse population of the United States to bring about the change that this country needs. People of all ages and races sing along with biracial and multiracial music artists. Sports enthusiasts of different backgrounds admire the sportsmanship of Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter. Adriana Lima and Miranda Kerr are considered to be beauty personified by people of different cultures and races. Have we really truly and finally moved on from the stigmas we have inherited from our forefathers? Pop culture would have us believe so, but the vestiges of the pain caused by the racial divisions implemented from long ago are still felt by everybody today - be it the whites, the blacks, the Native Americans, the Asians, the Latinos, and the multiracials and biracials.


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Talty, Stephan. At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture: A Social History, Reprint. HarperCollins, 2003

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Image Sources:

Kimball, M.H. "Emancipated Slaves." <>.

Emancipated slaves, some of whom evidently could have passed for whites.

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