In the play Mulatto, how is the minor theme of African Americans challenging the notion of knowing their place addressed through the characters and the situations they face?

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In Langston Hughes’s play Mulatto, Hughes challenges the notion of Black people “knowing their place” because the characters disobey Colonel Thomas Norwood’s dictates and try and take charge of their situations.

The play starts with Robert challenging his place in Norwood’s racist order. Norwood doesn’t want Robert driving into town without his permission, yet Robert does just that. While in town, Robert asserts his place by arguing with the woman at the post office over his box of damaged radio tubes.

Robert’s refusal to accept the roles and situations white people set for him leads to a confrontation with Norwood. Brandishing a gun, Norwood tries to put Robert in his place. Robert disarms Norwood and then strangles him to death. In a sense, this scene symbolizes Robert’s refusal to surrender to a racist role and situation. By killing Norwood, Robert eliminates the source of bigotry, which allows the other Black people on the plantation to escape their unjust positions.

Robert dies in the end, yet he still maintains control over his place and situation. Rather than let the mob of white people kill him, Robert puts his life in his own hands and kills himself.

Two other characters who challenge the notion of Black people knowing their place are Cora and Sallie. Cora creates a better situation for Sallie by telling Norwood that she’s in school to learn to sew and cook when she’s really studying typewriting so that she can hopefully get a job on her own. Finally, Cora’s mental disquiet at the end demonstrates how anguishing it can be to try and navigate different places and situations in a virulently racist society.

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