“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.