The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World by Emily Clark (review) [Wright]
Early American Literature
Volume 49, Number 1, 2014
Nazera Sadiq Wright, Assistant Professor of English
University of Kentucky
The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World unveils the historical genealogy of the American quadroon from its invention as a by-product of the Haitian Revolution and evolution as an alluring figure of sexual desire in New Orleans to its contemporary representation in film and media. Emily Clark tells a masterful story of the quadroon’s migration from the Caribbean to the United States, surfacing in Philadelphia, and settling in New Orleans. She begins with the revolution in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, a revolt that resulted in the establishment of Haiti in 1804. The American quadroon was a socially constructed formula created after the Haitian Revolution to reduce anxiety over race revolts in the Caribbean that threatened to reach American soil. The fictional quadroon, argues Clark, aided in the imaginative construction of New Orleans as a foreign city apart from the American polity. As with Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s black, female mistress kept hidden away like a secret, so too did Americans create “a complex symbolic strategy that kept the quadroon at an imaginative distance from the nation’s heart and heartland” (6). Clark insists that scholars consider New Orleans as a foundational scene of American history, arguing that “the presumption that the history of New Orleans and its quadroons is unique diverts the gaze of the rest of the nation away from its own unattractive Atlantic past, allowing it to remain firmly fixed on less-troubling founding scenes played out on the Mayflower and in Independence Hall” (9). The Strange History of the American Quadroon corrects this sanitization by examining the “intertwined stories” of the quadroon’s evolution as a cultural symbol, the actual people whom this racial classification represents, and the myth that New Orleans is the only home of the quadroon (10).
Using a dazzling array of materials carefully gleaned from archives and historical repositories, including collections at the Latin American Library at Tulane University, the Templeman Library at the University of Kent, and the Office of Archives and Records from the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Clark restores the quadroon to US cultural memory. The first chapter situates the quadroon in the American popular and political imagination through her appearance in the Philadelphia press in 1807. With Haitian refugees migrating to Philadelphia and other US cities after the Haitian Revolution, the image of the quadroon articulated white Philadelphians’ fear of a black republic as well as more generalized anxiety regarding the tenuous political landscape of a newly formed nation. The chapter begins with a detailed account of Haiti’s involvement in the quadroon’s migration to America and her embattled appearance in Philadelphia politics and print culture, arguing that the figure of the black woman “emerged as a charged rhetorical device” in the Philadelphia newspapers to represent the animosity between radical and conservative Democratic Republicans (35). This animosity resulted in the quadroon press war of 1807, which recounted Philadelphia’s unstable relationship with Saint Domingue as a conflict among political parties. The richness of this chapter rests in the way Clark synthesizes the history of the Haitian Revolution and its impact on Philadelphia commerce to demonstrate how this duality “conjured the quadroon as a political trope” (37). This chapter will be especially helpful to scholars invested in studying Haiti through the lens of early Philadelphian print culture.
In chapter 2, Clark reveals how American consciousness came to terms with the Haitian Revolution by displacing fear onto the body of the “menagere,” which Clark defines as a free black woman of color who engaged in sexual partnership with white men in New Orleans. This individual wielded significant economic influence, while being demonized as “an insatiable consumer who seduced white men, including American white men, tempting them away from their proper roles as faithful husbands and fathers” (53-54). In that the “menagere” was viewed as a dangerous, sexually irresistible figure who disrupted men’s natural attachments to white women, the free black woman of color threatened national consciousness as a “usurper of patriotic filiation” (54). Quadroon balls emerged in the context of this perceived threat. In these ballrooms, “men could take in the spectacle of quadroon…