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  • Blood Isn't Always Thicker Than Water:Delineating the Grotesque Gaze and Locating the 'Flesh' in Victor Séjour's "Le mulâtre" (1837)
  • Marshall L. Smith

IN "MAMA'S BABY, PAPA'S MAYBE: An American Grammar Book," Hortense Spillers posits flesh as a "primary narrative" that connotes its "ripped-apartness" and the vulnerable nature of this bodily substance.1 Representing a distortion vis-à-vis Spillers' take on the 'flesh,' the grotesque body equally focuses on apertures of the protected body that allow it both to affect and to be affected by its surroundings.2 This rupturing of borders creates a "dehiscence" that pops open the skin of the social, exposing the flesh of the matter that identifies the body as the materialization of illegal interracial sexual congress on the plantation.3 If we were to equate a taboo and miscegenation as a societal transgression made bare in the space of the American plantation with the metaphor of body and flesh, then a grotesque body seems applicable to the contradictions that spill out of the social confinement of the space of the plantation since it outgrows itself, transgresses boundaries while conceiving of a second body, a 'new skin.' Focusing on Victor Séjour's short story "Le mulâtre" (1837),4 this article considers the mulatto body as a space upon which normative gazes are directed. It also challenges the representation of the tragic mulatto figure as sterile and falling out of the bounds of filiation 'seen' through Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex. Can we map an Oedipal trajectory onto the mixed-race body in the space of the hemispheric American plantation? If not, what are the alternatives that could provide a resolution to the Oedipal conflict for this 'split' subject?

Victor Séjour's " Le mulâtre '' as emancipatory 'flesh' work

Lauded as the first short story written by an African American, Victor Séjour's "Le mulâtre" remained under the radar in the African American literary canon because it was initially written in the French language. A major historical discovery, the short story was translated by Philip Barnard in 1995 and appeared in the first edition of the Norton Anthology of African American literature in 1997. A condemnation of slavery written in French, this text anticipated many other anti-slavery narratives by African American writers, including Frederick Douglass' The Heroic Slave (1852) and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's "The Two Offers" (1859).5 Both works were considered to be the first short stories in African American literature before the translation of "Le mulâtre." Séjour [End Page 26] was a New Orleanian who emerged as a francophone writer during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when there was an active literary scene that included free people of color writing in the French language in Louisiana. He later moved to Paris and had a successful career as a dramatist, producing such works as Diegarias (The Jew of Seville), a five-act verse drama first performed in 1844. Initially published in the Paris-based abolitionist journal Revue des colonies in 1837 under the editorial direction of Cyrille Bissette, "Le mulâtre" has been touted as a tale of 'gothic revenge' centered on the emotional conflict of a mixed-race son in search of the identity of his unknown father. In fact, it is one of the earliest emancipatory 'flesh works' of fiction highlighting the psychological trauma of slavery on the enslaved, as well as the violent transgressions that took place in the space of the plantation.6

The mixed-race body presents the violent and veiled consanguineous relations of plantation America and defies borders of systemic order by refusing to adhere to concise definitions of race. In fact, nineteenth-century French writer and aristocrat-cum-ethnographer Arthur de Gobineau referred to the hybrid races as "horror excited by infinite mixture."7 Abjection as defined by Julia Kristeva is our reaction to a breakdown of meaning where the borders between self and other become blurred, inciting horror.8 Though Kristeva frames the revulsion of the female body as viewed by the male gaze, the mixed-race body incites a similar revulsion, rupturing our notions of racial purity and signifying alternative...