Quadroons for Beginners: Discussing the Suppressed and Sexualized History of Free Women of Color with Author Emily Clark
The Huffington Post
Stacy Parker Le Melle, Workshop Director
Afghan Women’s Writing Project
“As a historian, I knew that mixed race women and interracial families were everywhere in America from its earliest days. And I knew that most of the free women of color in antebellum New Orleans bore no resemblance to the quadroons of myth.” —Dr. Emily Clark
As an American, I follow my roots like trails across the globe. My mother is from Kansas and is of German descent, and my deceased father was black with roots in North Carolina, and before then, Africa. Arguably you can trace all of us back to Africa. But my parents’ union created me: a black American woman, a woman of color, a mixed kid, a mulatta, maybe an Oreo, definitely a myriad of identities and categories to embrace or resist.
Living in Harlem, I see so many mixed marriages, mixed kids everyday all the time. Traveling the South, I see so many kids with the telltale curly locks. Growing up in Metro Detroit in the 80s, I knew there were other black & white mixes like me. I just didn’t know them. Only at college in Washington, DC, did I meet mixed girls and have them as friends. And not until my English, women’s studies, and African-American history courses did I learn any American history about women like me.
Before college, maybe I’d encounter a definition of “miscegenation” – that very special crime of racemixing in segregated America. And maybe an explanation of the “one drop rule” that went on to create the classifications of “mulatto” and “quadroon” and “octaroon“—your label dependent upon which fraction of African was in your genealogy. But that was it. In my high school American History texts, I don’t remember any acknowledgement of centuries of rape and consensual relationships between whites and blacks. None of my suburban history teachers lingered on the taboo. Maybe I didn’t either. When I think of the mania around racemixing, and of the cultural trope of the “tragic mulatta“—the woman doomed because she is too white for the blacks, too black for the whites—it was easy to assume that the history of mixed-race women in America was simple in its sadness and injustice.
Yet there is nothing simple about the American Quadroon. Once she was the picture of irresistible beauty, the symbol of a city thought of as irredeemably “other”, an earthbound goddess who conjured so much desire that white men made her concubines, and slavetraders scoured the states for enslaved girls that fit her description to fulfill buyer demand. That was the myth, the dominant story. But as Tulane historian Emily Clark writes in her richly-researched and compelling The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World (UNC Press), she was also a family-woman, marrying men of color, living the propriety dream in her New Orleans society. If her myth was simple in its power, her reality was rich and complicated—by no means a single story…
…How do you define an “American Quadroon”?
Dr. Clark: There are really two versions. One is the virtually unknown historical reality, the married free women of color of New Orleans who were paragons of piety and respectability. The other is the more familiar mythic figure who took shape in the antebellum American imagination. If you asked a white nineteenth-century American what a quadroon was, they would answer that she was a light-skinned free woman of color who preferred being the mistress of a white man to marriage with a man who shared her racial ancestry. In order to ensnare white lovers who would provide for them, quadroons were supposedly schooled from girlhood by their mothers to be virtuosos in the erotic arts. When they came of age, their mothers put them on display at quadroon balls and negotiated a contract with a white lover to set the young woman up in a house and provide enough money to support her and any children born of the liaison. The arrangement usually ended in heartbreak for the quadroon when the lover left her to marry a white woman. If this sounds like a white male rape fantasy, that is exactly what it was. There is one other key characteristic of the mythic American Quadroon: she was to be found only in New Orleans…
Read the entire interview here.