Hughes's Message in Mulatto

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2013

As many critics have noted, Mulatto is an extremely emotional play. The drama builds throughout the work, highlighting the race-driven conflicts that took place between African Americans and whites in the American South in the 1930s, and culminating in a tragic end. Ultimately, this highly charged drama has a purpose—to demonstrate that whites should accept African Americans as equals, since everybody loses in a race war.

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All of the conflict in the play at first appears to be caused by Robert, who instigates many fights with Norwood. However, it is Norwood’s genes and contradictory behavior which lead Robert to become who he is. Norwood is sympathetic to African Americans, and even seems to enjoy the exclusive relationship that he has with Cora. The Undertaker notes this at the end of the play, when he talks about the fact that Norwood, unlike Higgins or other white men, did not keep a harem of black women, ‘‘Just this one b—h far’s I know, livin’ with him damn near like a wife. Didn’t even have much company out here.’’ Cora’s relationship with Norwood is unusual for the times because she sleeps in the plantation house with him, whereas other African American mistresses often had to live elsewhere. When Cora is young, and Norwood first expresses interest in her, Cora’s mother tells her that she will not have to work much if she lives with Norwood. As Cora notes in one of her monologues at the end, ‘‘It all come true. Sam and Rufus and ‘Vonia and Lucy did de waitin’ on you, and me, and de washin’ and de cleanin’ and de cookin’.’’

Cora is so much like a white wife that Norwood even tells her his secrets. Cora remembers a time when a white mob hung a black man. She addresses the dead Norwood, saying ‘‘you sent yo’ dogs out to hunt him. Then next day you killed all de dogs. You were kinder soft-hearted. Said you didn’t like that \kind o’sport.’’ Although Norwood tries to act tough around his African American servants, he has a hard time dealing with the murder of any African American. In fact, when Robert angers him at the end of the first act, the stage notes indicate that Norwood opens a cabinet, ‘‘takes out a pistol, and starts toward the front door. Suddenly he stops, trembling violently, puts the pistol down on the table, and sinks, ashen, into a big chair.’’ When Norwood gets his gun, he is intending to chase Robert and kill him. However, he is unable to do it, most likely because of his feelings for Robert.

While Norwood has betrayed feelings for some of his African American servants, like Cora, he has an especially complex relationship with Robert. When Robert was little, as Cora notes, he was Norwood’s ‘‘favorite little colored chile round here.’’ However, when little Robert calls Norwood his father in front of some important white visitors, Norwood beats him and does not seem to like him anymore. However, as Cora notes, Norwood’s shunning of Robert affects Norwood himself. Cora says, ‘‘He had your ways—and you beat him! After you beat that chile, then you died, Colonel Norwood. You died here in this house, and you been living dead a long time.’’ Cora is saying that Robert is so much like Norwood that, when Norwood denies him, he denies his own happiness. As Deborah Martinson notes in her entry on Hughes for Dictionary of Literary Biography , ‘‘His white privilege and his subsequent ambivalence toward blacks rob him of his pride in his mistress and his children. Thus, racism separates him also from sympathetic human interaction.’’ Norwood is unable to accept the fact that Robert is his son in many ways. Cora says in one of her monologues to Norwood’s corpse, ‘‘He was always yo’ chile. Good-looking, and kind, and headstrong, and strange, and stubborn, and proud...

(The entire section contains 14611 words.)

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