The importing of human beings into the US from Africa to be sold as slaves was outlawed in 1808, after which the slave markets of the southern states traded in black people born in America. The rules of New World slavery decreed that a person’s status was derived from that of the mother, not the father. A slave owner’s children by an enslaved woman were, firstly, assets. Neither Frederick Douglass nor Booker T. Washington considered himself mixed-race, because of the one-drop rule that determined how much black blood made a person black. They loathed the thought of their slave-owning white fathers. Douglass never saw his mother’s face in the daylight, because she was always going to or coming back from the fields in the dark.
What outraged white southerners about Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not only that Harriet Beecher Stowe asserted that black people were better Christians than white people; she was also frank about the immorality of the white man’s relations with the black women in his power. But Stowe had as much trouble as Lincoln in imagining the social destiny of mixed-race people who were pink enough in fact to pass for white (a problem central to Mat Johnson’s brilliantly satirical new novel Loving Day).
In his book The Negro in American Fiction (1937), Sterling Brown called James Fenimore Cooper’s Cora Munro in The Last of the Mohicans “the mother of all tragic mulattoes.” The landfill of American literature includes numerous nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels and plays—by white authors—sometimes condemning, but mostly sorrowing for those racial outcasts who don’t fit in with the black masses but won’t ever be accepted by white society either. “Miscegenation” and “mulatto” are terms of denigration, and the beautiful, doomed mulatto—usually a woman—typically dies after she is exposed before the unsuspecting white man who is about to marry her.
William Wells Brown wrote his fugitive slave narrative and went on to publish in London in 1853 the first novel by an African-American, Clotel; or The President’s Daughter. Clotel is the child of Thomas Jefferson by his mulatto housekeeper, a suggestion of the gossip about Sally Hemings in historical black America. In Brown’s first edition, Clotel leaps to her death in the Potomac rather than be taken back into slavery and concubinage. However, her daughter is reunited in France with the blue-eyed black man she had loved when they were both in bondage. In the edition of Brown’s novel published in 1867, Clotel turns down marriage to a white man in order to become a nurse for Union troops.
Brown named the three possible fates for the mulatto in American literature: death, exile, or renunciation. In the novels of Frances E.W. Harper and Pauline Hopkins, late-nineteenth- century black writers, the black heroines with rosebud mouths who could have passed for white are proud to choose service to their race as teachers over marriage to white men. Black writers were reinterpreting stereotypes.
In James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a black man who has succeeded in passing for white his entire life, a widower and successful businessman with children, writes his confession, because denying his true racial identity has cost him his soul. In Nella Larsen’s bleak comedy of manners, Passing (1929), the decision to pass is understood as an individual solution to a mass problem, racial discrimination; but the black woman looking at the reckless acquaintance whose white husband does not know he is married to a black woman does not give her away. Larsen, herself something of a tragic mulatto, had sophistication, but passing as a subject in popular culture was the stuff of melodrama. “Once a Pancake,” Sterling Brown called his review of Fannie Hurst’s best seller Imitation of Life (1933), which was twice made into a film.
By that time passing seemed obsolete. The carnage of World War I undermined Social Darwinism; fear of racial mongrelization seemed extremist as a theme. After all, not every mixed-race person looked white; not everyone was desperate to be white; and much Harlem Renaissance writing stresses the varieties of blackness, the different skin tones on display in the ghetto streets. If either you or the law said you were black, then blackness was a shared condition, no matter how light-skinned you were.
Nevertheless, in 1935, Langston Hughes was hopeful of Broadway success with his play Mulatto. That old southern problem: What does a white man do with his black son by his beloved mistress now that his son has grown up and refuses to accept his place as a black man? The son kills his father and his mother holds off the lynch mob as her son prepares to kill himself. In novels and plays about passing, effortful attempts are sometimes made to say that these unions had been loving, if socially impossible.
But the unions that produced the unhappy offspring have already taken place, offstage. There is a reason Faulkner’s mulatto characters are silent men. Hughes included stories about passing in his collection The Ways of White Folks (1934), but he also dealt with interracial romance, which was daring. Then the Communist Party brought interracial sex into American literature in a way that the libidinous Jazz Age had not, apart from the writings of Jean Toomer. In 1934, the Party’s Harlem branch sent its white male comrades to dancing classes so that the black women would have guys to dance with at Party socials, because the black men got so busy with the white women comrades.
Richard Wright, Chester Himes, William Gardner Smith, Ralph Ellison, Ann Petry—the immediate postwar generation of black writers, some of whom had served their literary apprenticeships at Party publications—and white novelists such as Lillian Smith and William Styron assaulted the ultimate taboo, writing fictions that concerned interracial intimacy, as a way of challenging the existing social order. To write about interracial love was considered one of the triumphs of American realism; it was seen as telling more of the truth about the black side of things. But for the succeeding waves of black novelists, from James Baldwin and Paule Marshall to Cecil Brown and Andrea Lee, the interracial love affair became a problem of black identity. This happened before black feminist theory in the late 1970s proclaimed the difference between the experiences of black women and white women and therefore helped to usher in the era of identity politics.
Black conservatives in the 1990s presented themselves as brave dissenters from a juggernaut black-militant, ghetto-determined definition of blackness. They complained about the conformism of black unity; they demanded that blackness be privatized, so to speak, because what they really didn’t like was the liberalism of a black voting bloc. But they were exploiting a crisis of black youth in integrated classrooms. Who you were supposed to be as a black person in these classes seemed too restrictive of what many felt they now contained.
The mixed-race children of the civil rights era and the Second Reconstruction of the 1970s have come of age. Stories about multicultural upbringings and dual heritages have been written for a while now, as autobiography and fiction. The target this time around is not the fantasy of Anglo-Saxon purity, but rather assumptions of black identity. The concerns are sometimes the same as those in the literature about being black and middle-class. What constitutes authentic blackness and who is entitled to say? Race is an unasked-for existentialism.
In Loving Day, “racial patriotism” is just one of the torments that Mat Johnson’s mixed-race narrator must confront. After a considerable absence, Warren Duffy has returned from Wales to his hometown, Philadelphia. Duffy’s mother was black. She died when he was a child. His white father, of Irish descent, has recently died, leaving Duffy a historic but derelict house on seven acres in Germantown, since the 1970s a depressed, mostly black neighborhood.
Duffy, who looks white, can sound black when he needs to. “People aren’t social, they’re tribal. Race doesn’t exist, but tribes are fucking real.” He left behind in Wales a failed marriage and a failed comic book shop—he drew comics himself. He must renovate and sell the Germantown property in order to pay off his former wife, but he also needs a home for the teenage daughter he never knew he had. If he can get her through her last year of high school and into college then he might begin to redeem himself in his own eyes.
The girl, Tal, has been passing for white without knowing it, brought up by her Jewish grandfather. Her mother has been dead for years. Duffy hadn’t seen her since they met as high school students. He stopped calling her and never learned she’d gotten pregnant. Tal’s fatally ill grandfather discovers that Duffy is back in Philadelphia. He hands over his granddaughter, who looks less like her maternal cousins the older she gets. “So, I’m a black. That’s just fucking great. A black.”
In Wales, Duffy had “never felt blacker.” “I don’t like feeling white. It makes me feel robbed. Of my heritage. Of my true self. Of my mother.” Tal enrolls in an ultra-hippie school for mixed-race students, the Mélange Center, a collection of trailers squatting in a public park. Duffy, with no prospects as a comic book artist, ends up teaching at the Mélange Center, which he calls “Mulattopia.” He is skeptical about its biracial cultural indoctrination of embracing all of one’s ethnic makeup. “Oreos” are black on the outside and white on the inside, but “Sunflowers” are yellow and light surrounding a black core:
There are mulattoes in America who look white and also socialize as white. White-looking mulattoes whose friends are mostly white, who consume the same music and television and books and films as most whites, whose political views are less than a shade apart from the whites as well. They ain’t here. Those mulattoes whose white appearance matches up with the white world they inhabit, those mulattoes aren’t coming to Mulattopia. The world already fits well enough for them.
Those mulattoes who look definitively African American and are fully at home within the African American community—they aren’t here either. Those mulattoes who look clearly black and hang black and are in full embrace of black culture—nope, they’re not here, nowhere to be found. If they were they would denounce this lot of sellouts. I know I would. I can hear them from the place they have in my consciousness.
Duffy carries a torch for the black woman who turned him down and married a black policeman instead—until he embarks on a passionate affair with his daughter’s dance teacher, a free spirit, a high yellow like himself. When Duffy meets her other boyfriend, he thinks:
He’s probably one of those white guys who think they’re enlightened just because they’ve realized the obvious fact that black women are beautiful. He’s probably one of those white guys who think poking their pink members in black women will somehow cure racism. I don’t trust interracial couples. I don’t even trust the one that made me: I think of who my father was, who my mother was, and have no idea why they first hooked up, let alone fell in love. I don’t know if I’m the by-product of a racialized eroticism or a romantic rebellion of societal norms. I’m fine with mixed-race unions that just happen, are formed when two people randomly connect. But there are other kinds of interracial couplings with suspect motivation, with connections based on fetishizing of black sexuality, or internalized white supremacy.
The other woman pulling Duffy into the unknown is the older Jewish director of the center itself, “the great matriarch of the new people.” The loopy faculty and other mixed-race students become less like a substitute family for his daughter in Duffy’s eyes and much more like a cult that will derail her life. He plots a desperate act to save her during celebrations of what the school proclaims as the national holiday of mixed-race Americans, “Loving Day”:
In 1958, eighteen-year-old Mildred Jeter got knocked up by her boyfriend, Richard Loving, a family friend six years older than she, and they decided the best thing to do next was get married. They drove up from Central Point, Virginia, to Washington, D.C., because Richard was a white guy and Virginia had a law called the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 that said white people and black people couldn’t get married.
Soon after they got back, the police raided their home in the dark of night, hoping to catch them in the act of fucking, because that was illegal too—which is really ironic when you reflect that the God of Virginia is Thomas Jefferson. They were sentenced to a year in prison, but allowed to have that downgraded to probation as long as they agreed to leave the state and never come back. Six years later, sick of not being able to see their family and broke in D.C., they decided to sue the State of Virginia. It took three years for the Supreme Court to rule in their favor, but it did unanimously, and Loving v. Virginia became the case that decriminalized interracial marriage in America.
Warren Duffy is irresistible in his masculine vulnerabilities, a seductive loser. The appeal of Loving Day is largely in his tone, the fluency of his despair, his flair as an analyst of race and of himself. “Half-European. Whiteness—that’s not really something you can be half of. That’s more of an all or nothing privilege, perspective thing.” But the black woman he used to love is someone who has made up her mind about what race is. Any discussion of it would be an attack on her reality. “Apparently not just black and white people are sleeping together,” Duffy says of the new mixed-race combos possible in America today. He tells her that black people get uncomfortable when they don’t get to have the final say on race in America, and she warns that he is lost in some “crazy Oreo shit,” because “quitting blackness” is of no help in a time of crisis, when black boys are being used for target practice by white cops and the prisons are “overflowing with victims of white judgment.”
Mat Johnson was born in Philadelphia in 1970. His first novel, Drop (2000), relates a young black commercial artist’s attempt to escape Philadelphia and make a life in England. Johnson himself is of mixed-race parentage. In his second novel, Hunting in Harlem (2003), he tried his hand at mystery writing, his hero an ex-con. In his third, Incognegro (2008)—a graphic novel that he created with the artist Warren Pleece, and based perhaps on the experiences of the head of the NAACP, Walter White—a black reporter in the 1930s light enough to pass for white investigates lynchings down South.
Johnson wrote a long, lively essay on the brutal suppression of a suspected slave rebellion in eighteenth-century New York, The Great Negro Plot (2007). His previous novel, Pym (2011), is an ambitious response to Edgar Allan Poe’s weird 1838 novel that has black people inhabiting the South Pole, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
Johnson is able to interrogate black history. In Loving Day, the one-drop rule is being undermined, shown to be anachronistic; nevertheless he makes it clear that all black people ought to abide in the ship, as black anti- colonialist societies in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century opposed to emigration to Africa urged. You could think of Mat Johnson alongside Wesley Brown, Paul Beatty, Colson Whitehead, John Keene, or Percival Everett. To call them black satirists or humorists wouldn’t quite cover it. In their ease with genre and their consciousness that the language they’re after is literary, they descend through the allegory of Ralph Ellison, not the realism of Richard Wright. But they have inherited Wright’s social vision, not Ellison’s. “I know you’re beige, but stay black,” a friend says to Warren Duffy.
Duffy’s father’s house is haunted. At first, Duffy thinks crackheads are trespassing, but soon Johnson makes it clear that Duffy and a few others have seen the ghosts of the black man and the white woman floating in the air, fucking, “the first interracial couple.” In the end, Duffy isn’t afraid of them. He sees what they are, were. “Just lovers. Just people.”
In 1857, Frank J. Webb, a black writer from Philadelphia, published in London The Garies and Their Friends, a novel about the fortunes of two families, one interracial, the other black. A white planter and his mulatto mistress move for the sake of their children from Georgia to Philadelphia, where racism can be just as violent as in the South. The son who passes for white dies of shame, rejected like a tragic mulatto heroine. His sisters who marry black survive.