PROLOGUE: Evolution of a Color Term and an American City’s Alienation
Let the first crossing be of a, pure negro, with A pure white. The unit of blood of the issue being composed of the halt of that of each parent, Will be a/2 + A/2. Call it, for abbreviation, h (half blood).
Let the second crossing be of h and B, the blood of the issue will be h/2 + B/2 or substituting for h/2 its equivalent, it will be a/4 + A/4 + B/2 call it q (quarteroon) being ¼ negro blood.
—Thomas Jefferson, 1815
Travelers have long packed a bundle of expectations about what they will encounter when they visit New Orleans. Long before jazz was born, another presumably native-born phenomenon drew visitors to the Crescent City and preoccupied the American imagination. The British traveler Edward Sullivan observed succinctly in 1852,”I had heard a great deal of the splendid figures and graceful dancing of the New Orleans quadroons, and I certainly was not disappointed.” Sullivan’s fellow country-woman Harriet Martineau provided more-disapproving intelligence on New Orleans quadroons some fifteen years earlier: “The Quadroon girls of New Orleans are brought up by their mothers to be what they have been; the mistresses of white gentlemen.” Frederick Law Olmsted observed of the city’s quadroon women just five years before the outbreak of the Civil War that they were “one, among the multitudinous classifications of society in New Orleans, which is a very peculiar and characteristic result of the prejudices, vices, and customs of the various elements of color, class, and nation, which have been there brought together.”
The Civil War did not much alter advice to visitors about New Orleans quadroons. The “southern tour” in a guidebook published in 1866 includes New Orleans quadroons in its itinerary. Admitting that “the foregoing sketch of society and social life in New Orleans, I need hardly remind my reader, was penned long before the late rebellion had so changed the aspect of every thing throughout the South,” the entry reassures its readers that they may nonetheless expect to encounter survivals of the quadroon in the postbellum city. “The visitor will, however, be surprised as well as delighted at the extent to which the manners and customs of ‘the old regime’ are still perpetuated among the descendants of the early settlers in the Crescent City.” Twenty-first century travel literature upholds the practice of enticing tourists to New Orleans with tales of the quadroon. “The quadroons (technically, people whose racial makeup was one-quarter African) who met here were young, unmarried women of legendary beauty,” a popular travel website explains. “A gentleman would select a favorite beauty and, with her mother’s approval, buy her a house and support her as his mistress, ‘the entry continues, concluding with a guarantee that traces of this peculiar tradition could be found only in one place in America. “This practice, known as plaçage, was unique to New Orleans at the time.”
Passages like these give the impression that New Orleans was the sole place in America where one could encounter beautiful women produced by a specific degree of procreation across the color line, women whose sexual favors were reserved for white men. The reality was, of course, more complicated than that. Women whose racial ancestry would have earned them the color term quadroon lived everywhere in nineteenth-century America.‘ Today, the most well known of them is undoubtedly Virginia-born Sally Hemings, who bore her owner, Thomas Jefferson, seven children. Sally Hemings was the daughter of white planter John Wales and an enslaved woman he owned named Betty Hemings. Betty was the daughter of an enslaved woman named Susannah and a white slave-ship captain named John Hemings. Sally Hemings came to Monticello as the property of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wales Skelton, who was, like Sally, the daughter of John Wales.
Sally Hemings ancestry qualified her as a quadroon under Thomas Jefferson’s own rubric, but when he sat down in 1815 to clarify to an acquaintance the legal taxonomy of race in his home state of Virginia, he did not take the living woman best known to him as his example. Instead, he eschewed the vivid register of language and enlisted the symbolic representation of algebra to illustrate the genetic origins of the physical and legal properties of the woman who bore most of his children and was his deceased wife’s half sister. In a virtuosic and bizarre display of what one scholar has called a “calculus of color,” Jefferson presented a tidy mathematical formula to define the race and place ot the quadroon. The complicated, messy identity and status of Sally Hemings were tamed by the comforting discipline of symbolic logic. Flesh and blood, love, shame, and fear were safely imprisoned within the cold confines of mathematics. Unnamed, Sally Hemings mother was reduced to a/2 + A/4 = h (half-blood). Sally herself was a/4 + A/4 + B/2. “Call it q (quateroon) being ¼ negro blood,” Jefferson instructed (see Figure 1).
This formulaic representation renders race as a kind a chemical compound comprising elements that act on one another in ways that multiply, mix, or cancel one another out to produce predictable results. Just as the combination of the elements of hydrogen and oxygen in the proportions represented by the formula 2H2 + O2 = 2H2O will always produce H2O—water—Jefferson’s calculus of race was meant to be precise, immutable, reliable, knowable. With detached precision, Jefferson produced theoretical mulattos and quadroons devoid of the untidy human elements of desire and power that destabilized the living expressions of his mathematical calculations. He may have been driven to abstraction by the disturbing situation of his own reproductive life, but larger historical currents probably played as important a role in his recourse to symbolic logic.
More than two decades before he drafted the chilling equations of 1815, Jefferson produced his well-known observations on race in Notes on the State of Virginia. The black people Jefferson references in Notes are not abstract symbols but corporeal examples, their differences from “whites” mapped on their bodies and projected onto their sensibilities. The observations in Notes are evocative, almost sensual passages, dense with palpable detail. Here, race is human, organic, expressive, a thing whose qualities can be described, but whose essence cannot be defined. Race slips the porous boundaries of words and threatens to overwhelm with its immeasurable meaning. Jefferson’s calculus of 1815, by contrast, imprisons race within the abstract forms and structures of mathematics, subjecting it to universal rules that prescribe and predict comforting certainties that can be anticipated, managed, even controlled.
The dissonance between Jefferson’s qualitative disquisition on blacks in Notes on the State of Virginia and his algebraic calculations of 1815 begs questions about more than the incongruities in the mind and life of one man. It points to a widespread and enduring tension in the American imagination over the symbolic expression and meaning of race that intensified and accelerated with the outbreak of widespread, violent slave rebellion in the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue in 1791. Jefferson’s own disquiet over the events that convulsed Saint-Domingue for the next thirteen years is clear in his correspondence, public and private. He spared his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph none of his fearful assessment in the early months of the violence. “Abundance of women and children come here to avoid danger,” he told her in November of 1791, having written to her earlier that the slaves of Saint-Domingue were “a terrible engine, absolutely ungovernable.” He gave lull vent to the enormity of his fears to his colleague James Monroe two years later. “I become daily more and more convinced that all the West India Island will remain in the hands of the people of colour, and a total expulsion of the whites sooner or later take place,” he wrote in the summer of 1793. “It is high time we should foresee the bloody scenes which our children certainly, and possibly ourselves (south of the Potomac), have to wade through and try to avert them.” Later that year he wrote to Governor William Moultrie of South Carolina to warn him that “two Frenchmen, from St. Domingo also, of the names of Castaing and La Chaise, are about setting out from this place [Philadelphia] for Charleston, with design to excite an insurrection among the negroes.” These men were neither former African captives nor French émigrés dedicated to the cause of racial equality, but the products of sexual relations between the two. “Castaing,” Jefferson advised Moultrie, “is described as a small dark mulatto, and La Chaise as a Quarteron, of a tall fine figure.”
Jefferson and his contemporaries did more than worry about the Haitian Revolution and the mixed-race people who seemed bent on spreading it. They acted with new urgency to insulate themselves from the threat of slave rebellion and racial reordering in the Atlantic world by means of policy and ideas. The revolution in the French colony of Saint-Domingue that culminated in the establishment of the slave-free black republic of Haiti in 1804 produced a new urgency in attempts to define and manage race throughout the Atlantic world. Race was the basis for the system of chattel slavery that fueled the Atlantic economy. If if could not be imaginatively codified and its mechanism understood, manipulated, controlled, slavery was imperiled. Jefferson’s algebra was one of a range of symbolic strategies Americans deployed in response to racial anxieties magnified by the Haitian Revolution. The American quadroon was another. Both were equally fanciful reductions of a complex reality.
The term quadroon was primarily descriptive for most of the eighteenth century, a color term applied to people whose genetic makeup was imagined to have been one-fourth African. Spanish and Spanish colonial artists began to attach qualitative meaning to the color terms in the second half of the eighteenth century in a genre known as casta painting. Casta paintings comprise multiple panels, usually in multiples of four, in each of which a man and woman of different races are shown with their child or children. Each scene is labeled with the color terms for the racial taxonomy being depicted. For example, a panel portraying a Spanishman and a black woman with their child is labeled “de Español y Negra: nace Mulata.” Such couplings between people imagined as occupying racial extremes were rendered in pejorative ways. As one scholar has noted, “The message is clear: certain mixtures—particularly those of Spaniards or Indians with Blacks—could only lead to the contraction of debased sentiments, immoral proclivities, and a decivilized state” (see Figure 2).
Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, a jurist and naturalist from the French Antilles, betrayed his anxiety over the uncontrollable nature of interracial procreation in a spectacularly detailed 1796 racial taxonomy that provides twenty combinations that produce a quadroon (see Figure 3). Elsewhere, he portrayed mixed-race women as dangerous beauties who seduced French men away from their proper loyalties and paved the way for the overthrow of the plantation regime in Saint-Domingue. Other late eighteenth-century writers likewise gendered the term quadroon and linked it to irresistible beauty. In his 1793 account of Surinam, John Gabriel Stedman succumbs to the powerful charms of a “young and beautiful Quadroon girl” and fathers a son on her.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Americans imagined the beautiful, seductive quadroon as a foreigner in the Caribbean who did not occupy American territory. In fact, of course, the quadroon was already well established in the bosom of the young republic under circumstances such as those at Monticello. This homegrown American quadroon was unacknowledged, however, both literally and figuratively. She, like Sally Hemings, remained in the shadows for nearly two centuries while Americans developed a complex symbolic strategy that kept her at an imaginative distance from the nations heart and heartland. When the Haitian Revolution drove thousands of mixed-race women from the Caribbean to American shores, the figure of the quadroon supplied something more accessible than algebraic abstraction to neutralize the threat embedded in mixed-race people. The foreign female of color who migrated to the United States from the blood-soaked shores of Haiti could be mastered and controlled by white American men. This fantasy of sexual triumph supplied an antidote to the terror inspired by the image of Haiti’s virile black men poised to export their war on slavery to the American mainland.
The émigré quadroon offered other advantages in the symbolic management of Americas mixed-race population. She was more easily contained and controlled than her domestic counterpart could be. The endemic American quadroon was geographically pervasive, but a limited range could be imaginatively imposed on the invader, quarantining the threat she posed. Anxiety over the destabilizing potential of procreation across the color line was assuaged if America ignored its own interracial population and practices, preoccupied itself with the migrant quadroon, and found a way to cordon off the newcomer from the rest of the nation. When the Haitian Revolution first drove the quadroon from the Caribbean to the United States, she surfaced in Philadelphia and created quite a stir. By the 1810s, however, she had migrated away from the city so closely associated with America’s founding and attached herself to a site comfortingly located on the geographic margins of the young republic: New Orleans.
Sequestering the quadroon figuratively in the Crescent City shaped American identity and historical narrative in subtle but powerful ways, effectively turning New Orleans into a perpetual colonial space in the national imagination. The subjection of eroticized women of color by white men is one of the key mechanisms and metaphors of colonialism. Historians and theorists have disputed the view of colonialism as a project limited to the empires of Europe and Asia, exposing the colonial enterprises of the United States not only in overseas sites such as the Philippines but within the nation’s continental borders. Native Americans and Mexican-descended inhabitants of the American West and Southwest are now widely recognized as the objects of episodes of domestic colonialism. In such instances, “mainstream” America defined itself and its values against an “other,”—usually a feminine, colored other. Slavery and racism, too, fit easily into the concept of domestic colonialism. The nation’s symbolic use of the figure of the quadroon has produced yet another instance of domestic colonialism, rendering New Orleans an internal alien barred by this presumably exceptional feature of its past from claiming a comfortable berth in the national historical narrative.
The acceptance of New Orleans as exceptional and its exclusion from the normative common history imagined to have been shared by the rest of America paradoxically secure some of the most prominent building blocks of American exceptionalism. 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. Americans have used the figure of the quadroon for more than two centuries not just to explain and explore race but to delineate an American past and polity that is as sanitized—and as unsatisfying—as Thomas Jefferson’s equation. The pages ahead tell the intertwined stories of the quadroon as symbol, the flesh-and-blood people this symbol was supposed to represent, and New Orleans, the city long imagined as Americas only home to both.