Mixed Race Stereotypes in South African and American Literature by Diana Adesola Mafe (review)
Research in African Literatures
Volume 46, Number 2, Summer 2015
Tru Leverette, Associate Professor of English
University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Florida
Mafe, Diana Adesola, Mixed Race Stereotypes in South African and American Literature: Coloring Outside the (Black and White) Lines (New York, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
In her recently published study, Diana Adesola Mafe explores the literary trope of the tragic mulatto through a comparative analysis of American and South African novels. Her work is both useful and timely, filling a gap in the literary study of colouredness and the transnational study of mixed race literature. Through this transnational lens, Mafe argues that the advent of the “age of Obama” and the renewed celebration of race mixture in the United States coincide with South Africa’s post-apartheid efforts to imagine itself as a Rainbow Nation. This celebration in both nations, however, overlooks important historical realities that are often explored through the literary figure of the tragic mulatto. Acknowledging that mulattos have often been “called upon to embody historic national moments” (1), Mafe asserts “a reading of South African fictions alongside American counterparts reveals the ongoing relevance of the tragic mulatto, which functions not only as a dated cliché and cautionary tale but also as a radical embodiment of possibility and a vehicle for social critique” (2). Indeed, Mafe illustrates through her analysis that the tragic mulatto has long functioned as a trope through which American and South African writers have critiqued race, identity, national belonging, and state-sanctioned racism.
Mafe begins her study with the introduction “Tainted Blood: The ‘Tragic Mulatto’ Tradition,” wherein she introduces the celebration of mixture within the contemporary sociopolitical contexts of the United States and South Africa. She also begins to address the tragic mulatto as a historical type. Acknowledging that, in the United States, the tragic mulatto trope developed as an abolitionist tool, Mafe briefly explores its origins in antebellum and postbellum literature. Additionally, she presents a justification for her comparative study, arguing “the tragic mulatto is a provocative keystone for analyzing these American and South African texts, which might otherwise have little else in common. When read alongside each other, these fictions expose mutual histories of stigmatization and marginalization for the mulatto figure” (14).
In chapter one, “God’s Stepchildren: The ‘Tragedy of Being a Halfbreed’ in South African Literature,” Mafe offers a history of miscegenation in South Africa and the United States, allowing her to trace the origins of the coloured and mulatto populations, respectively, in each nation. Having delineated this history, Mafe then turns her attention to the use of colouredness in South African fiction, which, she asserts, was not offered in-depth characterization until the twentieth century: “This development is inextricable from the emergence of colouredness as a ‘new’ social identity, mounting national interest in race categorization, and a literary shift from exploring Anglo-Boer relations to exploring black-white relations” (34). Through analyses of Sarah Gertrude Millin’s eugenicist novel God’s Step-Children and Peter Abrahams’s The Path of Thunder, Mafe establishes the literary origins and original uses of the tragic mulatto trope in South African literature. Throughout, she draws parallels with and highlights divergences from the use of the trope in American literature, in particular Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing and James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.
In her next chapter, “‘An Unlovely Woman’: Bessie Head’s Mulatta (Re) Vision,” Mafe turns her analysis to the life and work of South African writer Bessie Head, specifically her novel A Question of Power, arguing “this text is a startling conceptualization of the mulatta that parallels but also challenges the efforts of earlier American writers” (59). Mafe explores the stereotype of the beautiful tragic mulatta and Head’s inversion of it through the presentation of an ugly protagonist, simultaneously exploring the novel’s ironic use of madness and its presentation of female sexuality. Since depictions of the tragic mulatta typically position her between the demands of white female respectability and the stereotype of black female passion, Head’s protagonist “destabilizes the exotic and erotic iconography of the mulatta, which is remarkably consistent in the American tradition” (63).
Turning from the tragic mulatta, in chapter three Mafe analyzes presentations of the mulatto man’s sexuality, again torn between “‘white’ propriety and ‘black’ passion” (86) and his filial relationship to his white father. In “‘A Little Yellow Bastard Boy’: Arthur Nortje’s Mulatto Manhood,” Mafe reads the father-son dynamic in…