The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World by Emily Clark
This study of the history of the quadroon in lived reality and in fiction is not only a welcome addition to the literary history of miscegenation along the Atlantic seaboard; it is also long overdue. Despite critics’ intense interest in the representation of mixed-race figures in both black-and white-authored early American literature and its relation to the cultural surround in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there has been precious little attention to the important distinctions between such tropes as the tragic mulatto and the equally alluring and fated New Orleans quadroon, regarded as having one-quarter African ancestry. Indeed, even in so touchstone a work as Werner Sollors’s Neither Black nor White yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature, the latter figure is too often conflated with the former in the service of broader discussions about America’s anxiety about racial intermixing in the years before the one-drop rule became firmly established.
By contrast, Emily Clark’s thorough and illuminating The Strange History [End Page 329] of the American Quadroon precisely situates the appearance of the quadroon figure in the Atlantic world both politically and geographically. At the center of Clarke’s explanation of the literary and political function of the quadroon is the tension in the early American imagination over “the symbolic expression and meaning of race” (3). The founding generation also perceived a general threat to the entire southern slave system with the slave rebellion that erupted in Saint Domingue in 1791, a revolt that culminated in the Haitian Revolution thirteen years later and the emigration of thousands of free blacks of mixed race to Washington dc, New Orleans, and elsewhere in the new Republic. The establishment of a free black republic of Haiti, Clark argues, produced “a new urgency in attempts to define and manage race throughout the Atlantic world” (5). The American quadroon was one of a number of symbolic strategies deployed to manage the racial anxieties intensified by revolutionary currents in Haiti, Clark explains. Like the mathematical formulas an uneasy Thomas Jefferson delineated in 1815 to provide a legal taxonomy of race, the literary quadroon constituted a “fanciful reduction of a complex reality” (5).
Even though mixed-race women could be found anywhere after the importation of the first Africans to Jamestown in 1619, they remained unacknowledged until the Haitian Revolution prompted thousands to set sail from the Caribbean to American shores, according to Clark. The figurative quadroon emerged as a necessary vehicle through which to neutralize the threat embodied in biracial procreating women: “The foreign females of color who migrate to the United States from the blood-soaked shores of Haiti could be mastered and controlled by white American men” (6). Narratives of sexual triumph could counter whites’ fear that black rebellion would spread to the American mainland. Furthermore, although her literal presence was pervasive, the quadroon’s emblematic existence could be imaginatively contained geographically. New Orleans, a city considered peripheral to the early Republic, became that imaginative space. It could operate as a permanent colonial outpost within the United States, thus calming anxieties about racial intermixture, Clark asserts.
Much of The Strange History of the American Quadroon is concerned with providing correctives to stock myths about sexuality and marriage that derive from typical quadroon narratives. The requisite elements of such accounts—both fictive and reportorial—include sexually precocious free women of color who do not marry but instead choose white men to seduce or to accede willingly to male seduction, often at infamous “quadroon balls” from which black men are excluded. These women then enter into relationships with the men under terms often negotiated by their mothers, which include exclusivity in return for a house and provisions for any children that result from the union. [End Page 330] Frequently, such New Orleans concubines are depicted as the wealthy off-spring of their white fathers who are poised in public but sexually voracious in private. In lived reality, Clark informs us, such dances were not a common practice in New Orleans black culture but came to New Orleans from Haiti. More important, the model for the overly sexualized literary quadroon likely derives from the fact that an 1806 territorial law forbade free men of color from emigrating to New Orleans, causing a shortage of marriage partners for free women of Dominguan ancestry in the early decades of the nineteenth century. By contrast, native New Orleanians of mixed-race heritage could—and did—marry and raise families. Indeed, they did so at accelerating rates after the Haitian Revolution, partly as a means to distinguish themselves from the refugees.
In her research comparing rates of marriage among Dominguan women of color and native mixed-race free women of New Orleans, Clark is unerringly precise. However, when it comes to distinguishing between the symbolic meaning of the tragic mulatto and the New Orleans quadroon, her terms are not always clear. In one passage she suggests that the aim of antislavery tragic mulatto fiction was to “snuff out” the prurient desire aroused by quadroon narratives, but elsewhere she lists examples of both figures interchangeably, so that the mulatta characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin are made to seem equivalent to nonfiction accounts of foreign temptresses, such as in Joseph Holt Ingraham’s The Quadroon; or, St. Michael’s Day (148, 162). These conflations occur despite Clark’s close attention to the symbolic importance of the quadroon historically, arising from whites’ need to quell fears of rebellion after the Haitian uprising (195). The trope of the tragic mulatto, by contrast, is more accurately associated with abolitionist politics.
Still, The Strange History of the American Quadroon successfully elucidates the links between the American quadroon narrative and the city of New Orleans as “an alienated American site” (134). Clark argues convincingly that although the city had been part of the United States since 1803, “the lurid mythology of its quadroons begged the question as to whether it properly belonged” (161). In Clark’s deft hands, then, we understand the importance of the Crescent City portrayed as the unique locus of the quadroon, an isolated cultural artifact that works to reveal the degree of internal colonization that some would argue still describes New Orleans two centuries later. [End Page 331]