29 February 2012

Mulatto History Month

Mulatto historian Carter G. Woodson, an attendee at Chicago's 1915 Exposition of Negro Progress (celebrating 50 years of Emancipation), was so inspired by the crowds' enthusiasm that he went on to promote the very first 'Negro History Week' in February 1926.  A roaring success, this yearly event was expanded to an entire month in 1976, when President Gerald Ford urged all Americans to 'seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.'

But what is a Black American?

Let us take a moment to gaze upon the visages of those individuals held up as most honorable and praiseworthy during this month.  First, 'Negro History Week's' creator, Mr. Carter G. Woodson himself:


Our first 'black' president needs little introduction, but what of our first 'black' Secretary of State?:

Our first 'black' female Secretary of State:

First 'black' Attorney General:

First 'black' Cabinet Member (HUD):

First 'black' State's Attorney General:

First 'black' elected Congressman:

First 'black' governor:

First 'black' elected governor:

First 'black' mayor:

First 'black' elected mayor:


First 'Black' to command a U.S. ship:

First 'Black' to graduate from West Point:

First 'black' colonel:

First 'black' general:

First 'black' four-star admiral:

First 'Black' to be awarded a Medal of Honor:

First 'black' Secret Service agent:

First 'black' female pilot:


Blood bank researcher and first 'black' American Surgery Board member:

First 'black' cardiologist

First 'black' physician to author a medical textbook:

First 'black' M.D.:


First 'black' man to earn a B.A.:

First 'black' woman to earn a B.A.:

First 'black' man to earn a Ph.D.:

First 'black' woman to earn a Ph.D.:

First 'Black' to graduate Harvard:

First 'black' female college professor:

First 'black' Ivy League president:


First 'black' licensed lawyer:

First 'black' federal judge:

First 'black' circuit court chief justice:

First 'black' Supreme Court Justice:

First 'black' female State Supreme Court justice:

First 'black' female federal judge:


First 'black' female judge:


First 'black' president of the American Psychological Association:

First 'black' Roman Catholic bishop:

First 'Black' to conduct a major symphony orchestra:

Topeka NAACP president and launcher of Brown vs. Board of Education:

First 'black' woman to earn a U.S. patent:

First 'black' female bank president:

Nor must we forget some of Black History's greatest pioneers.  Again, its creator, historian Carter G. Woodson:

Legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass:

'The Great Accommodator' Booker T. Washington:

Sociologist and historian W.E.B. Dubois:

When the white-ordered 'one-drop rule' held sway, Mulattoes were forbidden from claiming their European heritage.  Today, in a perfect inversion, the Afro-American community has seized hold of this same 'one-drop rule' in order to label even those octoroons with no visible African admixture 'Black.' 

Fashion, too, has changed.  Once, nearly anyone who could 'pass' for White did; today it has become well-considered to possess any and all DNA other than European.  But in many places and times, Mulattoes have functioned as a separate caste, proud of their difference, proud to be Something Else.  Alice Walker's daughter Rebecca, on our current president:
"Of course Obama is black. And he's not black, too," Walker said. "He's white, and he's not white, too. Obama is whatever people project onto him ... he's a lot of things, and neither of them necessarily exclude the other."

Christopher Hitchens, on Nov. 4, 2008:
"We do not have our first black president.  He is not black. He is as black as he is white."

The identity of 'Mulatto' has fallen out of fashion in the U.S.; this blog does not see why it should.  From his nearly 400-page 1918 investigation of 'The Mulatto in the United States', E.B. Reuter came to the following conclusion:  

According to the strictness or the looseness of the definition of full-blooded Negro that is used, and the high or low degree of superiority that is accepted as the test, the twenty per cent of mixed-bloods among the American Negroes have produced eighty-five per cent or upwards of the race's superior men.

Our quick visual perusal of 'Black History Month's' great men and women may or may not lead us to a similar conclusion.  But it is worth remembering that 'biracials' or 'mulattoes' have been discouraged for many years now from celebrating or even acknowledging their European blood and heritage.  This blog takes the position that that is an unfortunate state of affairs.  Sane racial policy would come back to a more finely-graded categorisation of the ethnic groups in America.  We shall leave Mr. Reuter with the final word:

In any study and discussion of the race problem, scientific accuracy as well as a decent regard for simple truth requires that the writer indicates whether his discussion has to do with full-blooded Negroes or with the men of mixed blood.  The failure to make this simple and elementary distinction, more than any other one thing, has made the vast bulk of the literature relating to the Negro in America either worthless or vicious.


Hail said...

"to label even those octoroons with no visible African admixture 'Black.'"

The case of actor Wentworth Miller absolutely epitomizes the phenomenon you refer to.

Heliogabalus said...

This shows how the 1-drop rule (which I think only ever existed in the USA) screws things up. America's black elite is really a mulatto elite, and if different gradations of color had existed, or a more relaxed approach to race generally, they might now be considered a separate race or people from "pure" Afros. There's a precedent - the "free people of color" of Louisiana when it was still a French/Spanish colony. But then LA was absorbed by the Confederacy and the rest is history.
But NO, they had to get thrown into the same pot as all the other black folks. The practical result of this is that the mulattoes tend to form the most militant and race-conscious layer of blacks: think Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Jeremiah Wright, Eric Holder…the list goes on. One concludes that this militancy must be rooted in their insecurity - having to prove constantly that they're black enough, in a country where they can never be "really" white.

M.G. said...

The case of actor Wentworth Miller absolutely epitomizes the phenomenon you refer to.

Yes, and witness the passion that this stirs in some of the commenters on your post--It's not surprising, but this is a subject many people find it hard to talk about cool-headedly and detachedly. (I also thought of Soledad O'Brien.)

The practical result of this is that the mulattoes tend to form the most militant and race-conscious layer of blacks

Yes. You made me think of this quote from E.B. Reuter (1918):

The larger part of the present-day discussion of inter-race matters, the agitations for social and political rights and privileges, the fulminations against discriminations, the exaggerations of real and fancied wrongs, is not the work of Negroes. It is a small, widely scattered, light-colored and largely deracialized group of mulattoes who have not found their place in the bi-racial community life--who refuse to be Negroes and are refused the opportunity to be white--whose sentiments and attitudes find expression in the present-day agitations.

Hail said...

"mulattoes tend to form the most militant and race-conscious layer of blacks"

Yes. It even encompasses the truly heroic Mulattoes, such the noble peace prize winners among them.

Walter said...

Black looks are dominant; white looks are recessive. Some of the genes that code for black looks are probably quite old and quite "polished."

As Jonathan Kingdon in _Self-Made Man: Human Evolution From Eden to Extinction_ noted, a person can only be 1/16th black and still look black.

Thus, it's pretty natural that mulattoes will identify as black.

Heliogabalus said...

Walter: "it's pretty natural that mulattoes will identify as black"

Maybe so in the US context, given our history. But the larger question is, why don't they identify specifically as mulatto? That's the norm in Latin America, and in South Africa there are part-blacks (the "Cape Coloureds") who don't identify as black.

M.G. said...

Maybe so in the US context, given our history. But the larger question is, why don't they identify specifically as mulatto?

Exactly. A Mulatto may 'look black' to an ethnic Euro, but 'look white' to a Sub-Saharan African. Remember the first Afro-American Liberian settlers, many of whom were considered white exploiters by black West Africans. S. Africa's 'Cape Coloreds' were mentioned, and there have been mulatto castes all over the Western Hemisphere, from the British West Indies to Haiti to the "gens libres de couleur" in Louisiana that Heliogabalus already mentioned. Context is everything.

As for the U.S., in the past, when it was highly socially beneficial to be White, many of those who could 'pass' did so. Today, the racial spoils for Blacks are legion, and unsurprisingly those very same people (or rather those who look like them) now identify as 'Black'. (Though many sure seem to apply the 'paper bag test' to their own potential spouses.)

If all affirmative action incentives were removed, I'm just curious if many Mulattoes in the U.S. would come to embrace their mixed identity, instead of defaulting to 'Black' even in cases where they are of 75% or more European blood.

B322 said...

It's off the subject, but I have to say some of these surnames are excellent. "Alexander Twilight"?! Sounds like a character from a spy novel.

M.G. said...

It does sound delightfully sinister. Here they note that

Some historians believe that the name “Twilight” might have been chosen as an apt description of Ichabod Twilight's [Alexander's father] racial identity, which was somewhere between white and black—although legally he was black.

I feel Pinckney Pinchback (first 'black' governor) would be a tough name to carry, particularly if one adds in his middle initials (B.S.). Happily it doesn't seem to have held him back.

Black Power White Power said...

Mae Jemison, the first 'Mulatto' in space is NOT a Mulatto! She doesn't even have one drop of white DNA!

She is 84% Subsaharan African, 13% North East Asian, and 3% Native American. She's descended from Chinese laborers.

But otherwise your point is excellent. Don't forget first 'Black' heart surgeon Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, and first 'Black' bloodbank operator Dr. Charles Drew (“the first African-American to earn an M.D. [at New York’s Columbia University]”).

M.G. said...

I was eyeballing it, and thought Jemison looked about half Asian, which I'd have thrown in the 'mulatto' pile. But I was wrong, she turns out to be mostly African-descended, so I've removed her. Thank you for the correction.

I've also added Williams, Drew, and first 'black' M.D. James McCune Smith. From his portrait I'd assumed Smith was mostly black, but the James McCune Smith website gives him a probable white father. It also notes that he, his wife and children were marked 'mulatto' in census records and that after his death, the census records his wife and children as 'white.'

Anonymous said...

rosa parks, and langston hughes were also mulatto

Anonymous said...

What about all of the "Native American" tribes that have failed to get recognition because they are in fact the early mulatto communities that claimed to be Indian. DNA has finally shed light on these people who try to distance themselves from Blacks starting 200 years ago. They cosistantly mix with White so as to erase the traces of AA ancestry. Specifically the Lumbee of NC.

Anonymous said...

The first black US patent recipient listed here is Sarah E. Goode. She was claimed to be born in Spain, but was not. She married a white man and passed for white. Also, the photograph here is not of her, but a white woman (emigrant from England, Mormon pioneer I think) with the same name.

M.G. said...

...the photograph here is not of her, but a white woman (emigrant from England, Mormon pioneer I think) with the same name.

Thank you kindly for the correction Anon; I've found and posted the right photo. From her Wikipedia page:

She was born Sarah Elizabeth Jacobs in 1855 in Toledo, Ohio, although she would sometimes say that she was born in Spain. Sarah Goode was the second of seven children of Oliver and Harriet Jacobs, both described in public records as mulattos. Oliver Jacobs, a native of Indiana was a carpenter.

Apparently her father and husband were both carpenters, and she opened a furniture store and later invented the folding bed/desk.

Anonymous said...

"Black looks are dominant; white looks are recessive. Some of the genes that code for black looks are probably quite old and quite "polished."

Nothing could be further from the truth and Blacks are kidding themselves to believe that their genes would be somehow "dominant". Mulattoes look very distinctively different from Sub Saharian Africans. Barack Obama looks nothing like his biological African father. Also would a man who would have looked like his African biological father really have been accepted as America's president? Only eye color and hair color are inherited in accordance to a dominant/recessive scheme. Skin color is inherited according an intermediate scheme. It would really be about time for many black people to stop claiming mulattoes and to accept themselves.

Thanks a lot for this article!I'm a mulatto who is not American at all but in the past I was bullied by black Americans into calling myself black. This was so awful that I don't deal with them anymore.

Anonymous said...

This is really quite devastating. As a mixed race person who identifies as Black, I see a horrible trend taking place that chooses to identify high achievers of color as Mulatto and the lowest of the lowest class of humans, Black. That makes me sad because mulattos in this country, particulary those prior to the 1900s are the result of rape in most cases. Just another way to discredit the Black race. It really is devastatingly sad because I believe many Black people will allow this separation to take place without challenging it. Your website is a great disservice. But alas... Who really wants to be Black in a world that despises us for who we are? As a professor at Columbia University recently stated in a lecture about race to her students, "It won't matter in 25 years anyway because the Black race simply won't exist." We can save the Elephants, but the Black race, oh well, that's another story.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
This is really quite devastating.... "It won't matter in 25 years anyway because the Black race simply won't exist." We can save the Elephants, but the Black race, oh well, that's another story.

This is one opinion, but many say the same about the White Race. This is becoming more apparent as many cultures and races intermarry because of love in our modern and yes, more open-minded world. As a 'mulatto' myself, who identifies with being black, I felt prejudice in the 60's and 70's by both blacks and whites. I married a white man, and our children strongly identify with both the African and European heritage. I agree your statements about our past history in this country, but moving forward- those who have strong bi-racial identities, and are educated will embrace strong cultural values, and they will be our next generation!