Forward Passes

Loving Day

by Mat Johnson
Spiegel and Grau, 287 pp., $26.00
Carrie Mae Weems: May Flower, 2002; from ‘The Memory of Time,’ a recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The catalog is by Sarah Greenough, Andrea Nelson, and others, and is published by the museum and Thames and Hudson.
Carrie Mae Weems/Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Carrie Mae Weems: May Flower, 2002; from ‘The Memory of Time,’ a recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The catalog is by Sarah Greenough, Andrea Nelson, and others, and is published by the museum and Thames and Hudson.

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…


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