“Mulatto,” written by Langston Hughes in the summer of 1926, appeared both in The Saturday Review of Literature and in Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), a collection of Hughes’s work. Hughes said that the poem is about “white fathers and Negro mothers in the South.”
The opening voice in “Mulatto” is that of the son, who says, “I am your son, white man!” The child stands in judgment of the father’s use of the mother’s body. The white father renounces the mixed-blood son (lines 5 and 6): “You are my son/ Like hell!” The next twenty lines of “Mulatto” re-create the image of the white man exploiting the Negro woman. The white man asks twice within the sketch, “What’s the body of your mother?” He has answered the question rhetorically, that the boy’s mother’s body is a toy.
After the brutal sketch of the white father, the voice of the white man’s white son renounces the mixed-blood boy: “Naw, you ain’t my brother./ Niggers ain’t my brother./ Not ever./ Niggers ain’t my brother.” Racism has pitted father against son and brother against brother. Another voice, probably the father’s (though it could be the white son’s), tells the mulatto, “Git on back there in the night,/ You ain’t white.” The final words are spoken by the mulatto boy to the white man. He repeats his opening words. “I am your son, white man!”
The poem is lyrical and contrasts the warmth of the southern landscape and nights with the searing heat of anger and racism. Though the jazz syncopation in “Mulatto” is not so evident as it is in Hughes’s later poems, the musical quality of the poem marks it as distinctly Hughes’s.
Hughes’s first autobiography, The Big Sea, in two especially memorable passages, touches on the idea of a child of mixed racial background. In the first, Hughes is surprised that in Africa he is considered white. In the second, Hughes tells the story of a mixed-blood boy who greets the ship as it harbors in Africa. The child wants to know if the sailors have anything in English for him to read, and he longs to go to England. The boy’s father, Hughes learns, is a white man, then living in England. The boy’s mother is a black woman whom his father has left behind. The child, accepted by neither blacks nor whites, hungers for the other half of his family and heritage. “Mulatto,” written after Hughes’s journey to Africa, seems a sort of synthesis in his treatment of the family destroyed by the deformed values of racism.
“Mulatto” is praised by critics for its craftsmanship and the powerful delivery of the theme. Several critics consider it the masterpiece of Fine Clothes to the Jew.
Hughes’s play Mulatto begins in the Big House on a Georgia plantation, a setting that does not change throughout the play. Colonel Thomas Norwood, the white plantation owner is frustrated that Sallie Lewis, the youngest of his mulatto children by his African American housekeeper Cora, has not left yet to catch the train that will take her to school for the semester. He discusses his frustration with Sam, his personal African American servant. Another of Norwood’s mulatto children, Robert, whom Cora calls Bert, is supposed to drive Sallie to the station, but Bert has driven to town to get some radio tubes without Norwood’s permission. Norwood says that Bert should be in the fields picking cotton and threatens to have him whipped.
Sallie, a very light-skinned mulatto who could pass for white, comes down to say goodbye to Norwood. She thanks him for sending her to school and he is pleased to hear that she is learning cooking and sewing. She says she wants to become a teacher and Norwood dismisses the idea, saying that he will probably send her north to live with her older sister whom he thinks is a cook. Robert arrives from town and picks up Sallie. At the same time, Fred Higgins, a county politician, arrives and warns Norwood that Robert was causing problems in town. Robert picked up his package of...
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