The tragic mulatto was a stock character in white American fiction from 1842 till at least 1959. She – most often it was a she – was nearly all white but part of her was black. She would hide or deny her blackness through most of the story but in the end it would catch up with her and her life would end in tragedy.
The most famous tragic mulattoes were Peola in “Imitation of Life” (1934) and Dorothy Dandridge, both on film and off.
Whites do not seem to write about tragic mulattoes much any more, but it still comes up, as in “The Human Stain” (2003). The ideas behind it are still there. Barack Obama, for example, could wind up being read as one by whites: being part white he held such promise, but his blackness proved his undoing.
Even today some whites see biracial people (mulattoes) as having a divided soul: being neither truly black nor truly white, it is hard for them to be at peace with themselves and the world.
In most cases it does not work that way. Because of the One Drop Rule in America a white person who is part black is seen as all black. Blacks will accept him as one of their own but whites will not. To whites his blackness is a stain, a sign that he is not quite right inside. That is why Malcolm X, Barack Obama, Halle Berry, Alicia Keys and other Americans who are partly or even mostly white see themselves as black.
To think they could or would have divided loyalties you would have to be white or be someone who has never found himself at the wrong end of the white American world.
Yet in all the stories the mulatto is torn between the two worlds.
The moral of the tragic mulatto is the One Drop Rule. Trying to pass for white always ends in tragedy. You might fool the world for a while and even yourself, but in the end your one drop of blackness will come out and be your downfall. To be truly white you must be all white.
Tragic mulattoes hate their blackness and all things black. They want to be loved and accepted by whites. They want a white lover. They get one, but it never lasts.
The most famous tragic mulatto was the character Peola in “Imitation of Life” (1934), a film based on the book by Fannie Hurst. Peola became a byword among blacks until the 1970s.
Peola had a black mother but was light enough to pass for white. She was played by Fredi Washington, herself a light-skinned black woman who could have passed for white. Peola hated being black: she wanted to be white. But to do that she would have to turn her back on her own mother. She did. Her mother died of a broken heart. Peola came to the funeral and came to her senses – but it was too late.