Hughes's Message in Mulatto

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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.

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,...

(This entire section contains 2013 words.)

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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 like you.’’ In fact, despite himself, when Robert tells Norwood that he liked him until he beat him, Norwood betrays some emotion. Norwood says, ‘‘(A little pleased) So you did, heh?’’ Given the racial politics in the American South at the time, however, Norwood can never admit that he has feelings for Robert, or that Robert is too much like him. As a result, he sends Robert away as a child. Cora says, ‘‘That’s why he sent him off to school so soon to stay, winter and summer, all these years.’’

But this backfires on Norwood, since Robert ends up getting more education than any of the other children. The play emphasizes the fact that many white Southerners viewed the education of African Americans in negative terms. Higgins says about Robert, ‘‘That’s one yellow buck don’t know his place, Tom, and it’s your fault he don’t—sending ‘em off to be educated.’’ Norwood gives many excuses as to why he has sent his mulatto children to school. He tries to pass it off as a favor to Cora, saying that he does not want her children to be as ‘‘dumb as the rest of these no-good darkies—need a dozen of ‘em to chop one row of cotton, or to keep a house clean.’’ However, as Robert notes, Norwood is not doing them any favors if he expects them to fulfill the stereotypical African American roles when they return from school. Robert says, ‘‘No, I’m not going to work in the field. What did he send me away to school for—just to come back here and be his servant, or work in his hills of cotton?’’ In fact, unknown to Norwood, a quiet revolution has been going on amongst his mulatto children. Cora says about Bertha, ‘‘She ain’t workin’ in no kitchen like de Colonel thinks. She’s in a office typewriting. And Sallie’s studyin’ de typewriter, too, at de school, but yo’ pappy don’t know it.’’

So, even though Norwood thinks he has everything under control and knows what is going on, he does not realize that some of his mulatto children— and even Cora—are scheming behind his back in an attempt to achieve equality with whites. Robert has seen what this equality can look like since he has witnessed African Americans ‘‘in Atlanta, and Richmond, and Washington where the football team went—real colored people who don’t have to take off their hats to white folks or let ‘em go to bed with their sisters.’’ As a result of being exposed to this more progressive culture through his education, Robert tries to get others to accept him in his hometown, starting with his father. William says to Cora as he is talking about how Robert tried to shake Norwood’s hand, ‘‘Just like white folks! And de Colonel just turns his back and walks off. Can’t blame him. He ain’t used to such doings from colored folks.’’ At this point, African Americans like William are too afraid to challenge white men like Norwood, or the status quo that keeps them in power. However, Robert is not afraid. Higgins says, ‘‘Comes in my store and if he ain’t waited on as quick as the white folks are, he walks out and tells the clerk his money’s good as a white man’s any day.’’ White men such as Higgins realize that people like Robert can be dangerous because they help inspire other African Americans to want equality with whites. Norwood’s failure to realize this has hurt his reputation and limited his opportunities for advancement in the white community. Higgins says, ‘‘You been too good to your darkies, Norwood. . . . Maybe that’s the reason you didn’t get that nomination for committeeman a few years back.’’

Through the act of killing his father, Robert realizes, once and for all, that whites ultimately do not have power over all African Americans. Robert says, ‘‘He didn’t want me to live. Why didn’t he shoot? (Laughing) He was the boss. Telling me what to do. Why didn’t he shoot, then? He was the white man.’’ Robert then realizes that he can steal his father’s weapon, and use it against other whites, and he feels empowered by this. Robert says, ‘‘Niggers are living. He’s dead. (Picks up the pistol) This is what he wanted to kill me with, but he’s dead. I can use it now.’’

While Robert is getting ready to fight, most of the other African American characters are getting ready to flee. William comes to Cora frightened, and she tries to reassure him. ‘‘Ain’t nothin’ gonna hurt you. You never did fight nobody. Neither did I, till tonight. Tried to live right and not hurt a soul, white or colored.’’ However, in the course of trying to reassure William, she realizes that, even though she has lived in peace and tried to do everything right by yielding to the wishes of whites, in the end it has gotten her nothing. Her children are posing as whites to earn a living, working like slaves, or being hunted down. She realizes that African Americans will only stay repressed for so long because, once they realize, as she is now, that submitting can get one nowhere, they may be more apt to fight, like Robert. Cora says, ‘‘White mens, and colored womens, and little bastard chilluns—that’s de old way of de South—but it’s ending now.’’

In fact, other African American characters start to realize that they can break out of their submissive lifestyles. For example, although Sam is terrified and panics at first when Robert kills Norwood, thinking that he is going to be punished, too, Sam eventually realizes that he is free to leave. Sam says, ‘‘I don’t have to stay here tonight, does I? I done locked up de Colonel’s library, and he can’t be wantin’ nothin.’ . . . I’s gwine on a way from here.’’

In the end, Hughes is not advocating that African Americans commit violent acts against whites, although it may appear at first that this is his message. Actually, he intends the opposite. He wants to show that, when it comes to racial con- flicts, nobody wins. If whites try to repress African Americans, they will eventually rise up against whites, using their own weapons against them. As Robert’s actions demonstrate, whites are not invincible, and can be killed just as easily as African Americans. In addition, since whites in this time period feel it is okay to sleep with white women, they are inadvertently producing a number of mulatto children. In the case of mulattos like Robert, white America could literally be creating the means of its own destruction. Like Robert, some of these children may share the characteristics of their white fathers. In Norwood’s case, these qualities—including stubbornness and pride—ultimately lead to his own death at the hands of his son, after Norwood denies him.

Norwood’s denial underscores the denial of African Americans and mulattos by most whites in this time. As a result, Hughes’s play has wider implications. As Arnold Rampersad notes in his entry on Hughes for African American Writers, the play uses a tragic drama to illustrate the tragic qualities of race relations, especially ‘‘in the segregated South, with its denial of the humanity of blacks and their essential part in the nation, and the disaster awaiting the republic as a result of that denial.’’ The stage notes at the very end of the play, when the white mob breaks into the house and charges up the stairs after Robert, indicate Hughes’s global view of racial conflict. ‘‘(The roar of the mob fills the house, the whole night, the whole world.)’’ Hughes is saying that both whites and African Americans had better be careful because racial conflicts will inevitably lead to violence and tragedy for both races.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Mulatto, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.

Hughes's Examination of Race Relations in the United States

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Langston Hughes, a major U.S. writer, came into prominence in the 1920s as a poet with exceptional gifts. He is still most well known as a poet although he published prolifically in numerous literary genres, including short fiction, children’s fiction, literary criticism, and drama. Mulatto, one of many plays Hughes wrote during the 1930s, was first staged in 1935 and was well received by audiences who appreciated its trenchant treatment of race relations in the United States.

The term mulatto, which is no longer used in the United States, in the 1930s referred to a person of mixed African and European descent. It originated in the country as a term to describe mostly the children of Euro-American men and slave women, and gradually expanded in meaning to refer to all persons of mixed African-European descent. Mulatto characters appeared quite often in literary works in the pre-Civil Rights era for a number of reasons. On the one hand, as in Mulatto, the special problems of such persons were a concern. For example, if the mulatto is both white and black, with which ethnicity and culture should he or she identify? Given the strict separation of races at the time, it was difficult for such persons to identify as both. They felt therefore that they were forced to deny a part of themselves and consequently were often depicted as tragic figures, torn by conflicting allegiances and a general sense that they belonged nowhere–and a special term, the ‘‘tragic mulatto,’’ was coined. Cora’s children are the principal mulatto characters in Hughes’s play.

On the other hand, mulatto characters allowed writers to explore a number of major contradictions in pre-Civil Rights U.S. culture. One of these contradictions was that, since many mulattos ‘‘passed’’ as white and succeeded in white society (severing ties to the black population usually with great guilt, however), they gave the lie to the racist belief that blacks–or anybody with so much as ‘‘one drop’’ of black blood, as racist thinkers said–was inferior. Further, insofar as the mulatto embodies so perfectly the intersection of white and black, he or she symbolizes U.S. culture: it is a culture whose distinction is the way in which it is an amalgam of the cultures of all of its diverse peoples. Yet, the dominant white culture in the U.S. pretended that African Americans and other ethnic minorities contributed little to U.S. culture.

Bert is a ‘‘tragic mulatto’’ in Hughes’s play, a character driven mad by his conflicts, so mad that he ends up murdering his white father and ensuring his own demise. Further, through the relationships of Colonel Norwood and Cora, and Colonel Norwood and Bert, Mulatto dramatizes the tragedy of Southern culture in general at the time, which was the way that blacks and whites were drawn to each other only to be torn apart by the pernicious notion that Europeans must remain removed from their African counterparts. Hughes’s play illuminates the complex workings and effects of a culture infected by racism. It lays bare the doubleness of such a society for African Americans, who would perform obedience and subservience in the presence of whites and in private express themselves truly. It shows also how blacks might internalize racist tenets. Bert, it is clear, even as he defends his blackness and believes in racial equality, believes also that his whiteness somehow makes him better than other blacks. Further, Hughes explores the means and repurcussions of rebellion at the time in the rural South, showing how Cora rebels successfully because she does so undercover, how Colonel Norwood is taken to task for crossing the ‘‘color bar,’’ and how Bert is told that in rebelling he is not only endangering his own life, but also the well-being of all other blacks in the surrounding community.

Cora and Colonel Norwood are the first characters to appear on stage in Hughes’s play. The colonel calls for Cora, she responds to his call formally, ‘‘Yes, sir, Colonel Tom,’’ and so the audience concludes that Cora is the colonel’s housekeeper. Yet over the course of their conversation about Cora’s child Sallie (who needs to be taken to the train station), the audience learns the complicated truth of the couple’s relation. Sallie is the colonel’s child also, as is Cora’s son Bert who will drive Sallie to the station. The central revelation and first shock of the play are thus delivered. The colonel and Cora are akin to husband and wife; yet Cora must behave in public as if she were his employee, displaying submission, deference, and calling him ‘‘sir.’’

Hughes underscores the outrageousness of such an arrangement, as well as its demeaning and diffi- cult nature for Cora and the children, as the problem of Sallie’s luggage is discussed. The household servants have been removing Sallie’s suitcases from the upper level of the house down a narrow back stairway and side exit. However, Sallie has a trunk that does not fit into the narrow stairway and so a servant asks if it can be taken down the main stairway and through the front door. The colonel is alarmed, instructing the servant to use the main steps but then to remove the trunk through the back door: ‘‘Don’t let me catch you carrying any of Sallie’s baggage out that front door here.’’ Sallie lives within the colonel’s main house, not in servant quarters, and so she is somehow different from an employee; yet in other ways the colonel treats his daughter as he treats his household servants. The colonel’s daughter, the mulatto Sally, inhabits a border world, not quite white, not really black, and the colonel is conflicted. How much should he love his daughter and where does she belong in his life? What he does not do is publicly recognize her as his daughter. She does not have his name and her parentage remains an unspoken ‘‘secret’’ in the community.

The opening events of the play present Colonel Norwood as a hypocritical, conflicted, but fairly typical southern white with firm racist beliefs, a view that is confirmed when a new character, Higgins, is introduced. Higgins is an old friend of the colonel who comes visiting to report on Bert, who caused a scene at the town’s post office that morning. Bert demanded a refund of postal charges since the goods arrived destroyed. The local whites view his assumption that he deserves fair treatment as presumption, the attitude of an African American rebelling against his lowly place in the scheme of things. Higgins blames Bert’s pride on the colonel asserting that ‘‘You been too decent to your darkies, Norwood. That’s what’s the matter with you. And then the whole county suffers from a lot of impudent blacks who take lessons from your crowd. . . . Guess you know it. Maybe that’s the reason you didn’t get that nomination for committeeman a few years back.’’ Higgins is pressuring the colonel, telling him that his crossing of the color bar is eroding white power. He is attempting to draw the colonel more tightly into his fold of southern whites, who maintain the strictest of distance between the two populations.

Bert, if for different tactical reasons, is also taken to task for threatening the status quo, most often by his mother. We learn, for example, that Cora has been telling the colonel that the girls are learning the basics and cooking at school, but in fact they are becoming professionalized. Cora not only intends that her daughters will not be domestics, she also lies to the colonel as to what he is paying for in schooling the girls. Cora may feel some genuine fondness for the colonel, but she will never view him as a true friend, because she understands that their interests are fundamentally divergent. Thus, when she lectures Bert to curtail his openly rebelliousness acts, this is not because she feels he is wrong. Rather, she understands that the colonel, in reaction, would likely cease contributing to the children’s education, including Bert’s. Furthermore, she tells Bert that in acting the way he does he is inciting the colonel to crack down on his black employees generally:

Hard as I’s worked and begged and humbled maself to get de Colonel to keep you chilluns in school, you comes home wid yo’ head full o’ stubbornness and yo’ mouth full o’ sass for me an’ de white folks an’ ever’body. You know can’t no colored boy here talk like you’s been doin’ to no white folks, let alone to de Colonel and that old devil of a Talbot. They ain’t gonna stand fo’ yo’ sass a-tall. Not only you, but I ‘spects we’s all gwine to pay fo’ it, ever colored soul on this place.

Cora understands, in short, that open rebellion at the time in the rural South endangers not only the well-being of the agitator, but others as well, and that Bert must learn, like she has, duplicity and caution.

Bert’s story exemplifies the sufferings of mulattos and underscores the way in which racism not only demeans those who are discriminated against, but also those who discriminate, eroding their humanity. Hughes shows that the colonel has feeling for his son, as he is touched when Bert tells him how he used to ‘‘like’’ him, before he beat Bert for calling him ‘‘papa’’ in front of whites, an event which led to the colonel establishing a stricter distance between them. Hughes’s stage notes say that the colonel is to respond as if ‘‘pleased’’ by Bert’s confidence: ‘‘So you did, heh?’’ Yet, despite this and other evidence of the colonel’s feelings for his son, he has every intention of denying them: ‘‘Nigger women don’t know their fathers. You’re a bastard.’’ Bert tells his father to refer to his mother respectfully, but then also says: ‘‘Oh! But I’m not a nigger, Colonel Tom. I’m your son.’’ Bert’s calling of his father ‘‘Colonel Tom’’ shows his untenable, painful position, the way in which he must speak to his father as to a stranger and superior. He yearns to be publicly recognized and accepted by his father, viewed and embraced as his ‘‘son.’’ He demands respect for himself and his mother, yet he finds it all too easy to say that he is not a ‘‘niggers,’’ exhibiting a part of himself swayed by the notion that to be white is to be different in a superior way. This attitude contradicts his otherwise egalitarian views, the way in which he declares that blacks and whites are and should be considered human equals: ‘‘I’ve learned something, seen people in Atlanta, and Richmond, and Washington where the football team went—real colored people who don’t have to take off their hats to white folks . . .’’ Bert is confused and angrily rebellious, and the rural South is an unsafe place for the rebellious. If the offending person did not escape or find protection with the courts, they could become the target of white supremacist vigilantes, who taking the law into their own hands, hanged them. Higgins refers to four such hideous crimes: ‘‘They’ve broke [the jail doors] down and lynched four niggers to my memory since [the jail] been built.’’

The conclusion of Hughes’s play is forceful. Bert is definitively rejected by his father and in a fury of hurt and anger kills him. This act seals his fate. A group of whites organize to find him and lynch him, Bert knows what is in store for him, and he kills himself. Lengthy monologues delivered by Cora punctuate the final events of the play. They are a lyrical if tragic blending of past and present, fantasy and reality, hope and dream, a mixing of registers that points to Hughes’s dream of reconciliation.

Source: Carol Dell’Amico, Critical Essay on Mulatto, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.

Intracaste Prejudice in Langston Hughes’s Mulatto

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It is obvious that Langston Hughes’s 1935 play Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South concentrates on the unrelenting abuse that Southern blacks suffered at the hands of whites in the first part of the twentieth century. Continually, grotesque white characters come in and out of the play like ogres, ready to pounce upon nonwhite victims at the slightest provocation. But while such racist abuse is perhaps the most prominent feature of this story of racial mixing in the Deep South, it is certainly not the only concern to which Hughes calls attention. Like many writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes is also concerned with prejudice within the black race. Mulatto displays, as effectively as any Renaissance work, the peculiar situation of blacks’ harboring prejudices against fellow blacks. In this essay, I will examine how intracaste prejudice, as harbored and projected by Robert Lewis, the tragic mulatto of the play, contributes significantly to his tragic experience.

Before beginning my argument, I must stress that I am not supposing that, if Bert Lewis had been free of white racist views concerning blacks, he would not have experienced the problems with his father and with other whites that eventually lead to his death. No person of color possessing talents such as Bert’s would have gone unmonitored by whites in the area and era depicted in Mulatto. Bert is an intelligent, capable, insightful black man with leadership skills, and even if Bert were an Uncle Tom, he would have been a threat to all white racists who defend their notions of supremacy on an insecure belief in non-white inferiority. I must also stress that I am not exonerating the white racist characters—above all, Colonel Norwood—for their complicity in Bert’s tragedy. After all, if the racist regime established and maintained by people similar to Colonel Norwood, Fred Higgins, and the various members of the mob had not existed, a promising youth of Bert’s potential—not to mention his birthright—would likely have risen to the top of his society instead of being smashed to the bottom. In addition, it is clear that Colonel Norwood’s brutal treatment of Bert as a racial inferior and his rejection of Bert as a son bring about the main conflicts that propel Bert toward destruction. What I wish to show in this essay is that Bert has shut himself off from the reciprocal support, advice, affection, and acceptance of the black community, and that such rejection of his black side in favor of a white side that will not accept him figures directly in his downfall and makes his ‘‘exorcism’’ at the hands of whites all the more tragic.

The first information that the reader gets about Robert Lewis occurs in the opening description of the characters, in which Hughes notes that the youngest mulatto son of Colonel Thomas Norwood and his black mistress Cord Lewis ‘‘resent[s] his blood and the circumstances of his birth.’’ Hughes, interestingly enough, does not specify white or black blood here. Robert’s ‘‘blood’’ would seem to include both black and white, and it is plausible that the mixing of the two strains is ‘‘the circumstance of his birth’’ that Robert most resents. While it might seem from this initial description that Robert hates both bloodlines equally, the circumstances of the play reveal that he has a predisposition toward one side over the other.

Early exposition reveals that, since Bert’s return to the Norwood plantation, he has reminded both blacks and whites of his white parentage. Fred Higgins, in a condemning manner, informs Colonel Norwood how Bert is doing this among the townspeople, and William Lewis tells Cora how his brother is doing it among the plantation blacks. After Cora inquires how her grandchild Billy has come to speak boldly about his white grandfather, William says, ‘‘Bert’s the one been goin’ all over de plantation since he come back from Atlanta remindin’ folks right out we’s Colonel Norwood’s chilluns. . . He comes down to my shack tellin’ Billy and Marybell they got a white man for grandpa.’’ Furthermore, when Bert first appears in the play, he refers to himself as ‘‘Mister Norwood’’—defying the fact that he is an illegitimate son of the Colonel— and starts recounting what he believes to be the benefits of his white paternity. Thus, the earliest reports of Bert’s activity as well as the words that accompany his appearance show Bert’s insistence on publicizing his white lineage—not his black ancestry—in the expectation that people will treat him deferentially because of it.

In addition to his futile attempts to stress his whiteness over his blackness, Bert sets himself up for further frustration by harboring contempt for both blacks and whites in the area. Among whites, it is ironically his father—the person on whom Bert has built his white identity—against whom Bert holds the deepest grievances. But Bert’s rebellious contempt for Norwood is not surprising, since it results from almost a lifetime of abuse heaped upon Bert by a father who will not acknowledge the paternity of his mulatto offspring. More specifi- cally, Bert’s bitter feelings toward his father stem principally from two instances in which the Colonel had not treated Bert as a white son.

The first cause for Bert’s filial bitterness was a traumatic childhood episode that not only altered his relationship with his father but also affected his entire outlook on the racial politics of the South. Cora and William discuss this critical turning point in Bert’s life, an occurrence that took place long before the play begins:

Cora: [Bert] went runnin’ up to Colonel Tom out in de horse stables when de Colonel was showin’ off his horses—I ‘members so well—to fine white company from town. Lawd, dat boy’s always been foolish! He went runnin’ up and grabbed a-holt de Colonel and yelled right in front o’ de white folks’ faces, ‘‘O, papa, Cora say de dinner’s ready, papa!’’ Ain’t never called him papa before, and I don’t know where he got it from. And Colonel Tom knocked him right backwards under de horse’s feet.

William: And when de company were gone, he beat that boy unmerciful.

Cora: I thought sho’ he were gonna kill ma chile that day. And he were mad at me, too, for months. Said I was teaching you chilluns who they pappy were. Up till then Bert had been his favorite little colored child round here.

William: Sho’ had.

Cora: But he never liked him no more. That’s why he sent him off to school so soon to stay, winter and summer, all these years.

Colonel Norwood fails to ‘‘blacken’’ his son by slapping any notion of whiteness out of the child just as he fails to break any remaining filial bonds by imposing academic exile on the youth.

Norwood remains powerless to change Bert’s feelings of both kinship and whiteness because, prior to the episode in the stables, the Colonel himself had been the one who, through preferential treatment of his youngest son, had inadvertently encouraged such sentiments. (Core, after all, had not dared to stress to her children ‘‘who they pappy were.’’) Similar notions of whiteness and kinship to the Colonel had not surfaced among Norwood’s other mulatto children precisely because they had grown up ‘‘in their place,’’ enjoying none of the partialities lavished upon the Colonel’s ‘‘favorite little colored child.’’ Bert, on the other hand, the spit and image of Thomas Norwood, grew to recognize both his resemblance to his father and the special treatment that it elicited from the Colonel. By the time of the important white guests’ visit to the stables, Bert felt secure enough to proclaim publicly his relationship to the most prominent white man in the area, while at the same time denying any ties to blacks—referring, for example, to his mother as Cora instead of Ma. That Norwood publicly rejected the relationship and replaced the preferential treatment with brutality at the very moment when Bert was most sure about his identity accounts for both the trauma engendered by the episode and the intense hurt and indignation Bert felt from then on.

For Bert, the scene at the horse stables was very much like the crisis experience that many mixed bloods of American fiction encounter upon realizing that they are not part of the white class to which they have previously thought they belonged. It is through Cora and William’s retelling of the stables episode that the audience begins to sympathize with Bert’s plight and to understand, in part, his obsession with being recognized as Norwood’s true heir and, hence, as a white man. ordered by the ruling class to remove all notions of whiteness from his mind, after his white father has indirectly encouraged such notions, Bert still refuses to replace his self-concept of white scion with that of ‘‘yard rigger.’’ This stance propels him into and feeds the unending conflict of his life. William rightly tells his mother, ‘‘Bert thinks he’s a real white man hisself now.’’ As will be seen in other passages, the more Bert is forced to remember his blackness, the more he insists upon his whiteness.

The second cause of Robert’s filial belligerence is the type of work that his father has forced upon him since his return to the plantation after years of absence. Norwood himself recounts his degrading treatment of his intelligent, college-educated son, and offers his opinion of the youth in complaining to Cora about Bert’s use of the Norwood car:

He’s no more than any other black buck on this plantation—due to work like the rest of ‘em. I don’t take such a performance from nobody under me— driving off in the middle of the day to town, after I’ve told him to bend his back in that cotton. How’s Talbot going to keep the rest of those darkies working right if that boy’s allowed to set that kind of an example? Just because Bert’s your son, and I’ve been damn fool enough to send him off to school for five or six years, he thinks he has a right to privileges, acting as if he owned this place since he’s been back here this summer.

The fact that Norwood wishes to have Bert treated in the same fashion as the lowliest field hand, and not even as a house or yard servant, is made more clear as Norwood continues:

There’s no nigger-child of mine, yours, ours—no darkie—going to disobey me. I put him in that field to work, and he’ll stay on this plantation till I get ready to let him go. I’ll tell Talbot to use the whip on him, too, if he needs it If it hadn’t been that he’s yours, he’d-a had a taste of it the other day.

The indignation that Bert must be feeling under the harsh treatment that Norwood himself describes evokes a sympathetic response from the audience. For even if the Colonel does refuse to recognize Bert as a son, his blatant lack of good judgment in assigning an educated and highly capable ‘‘servant’’ to do the work of an unskilled laborer is foolish, if not unpardonable. Norwood’s action probably would have been viewed even by his landowning peers as a waste of potential, since Bert’s abilities could have been channeled into more profitable service. It would not have been out of the question— and it might even have been deemed appropriate— to have a black of Bert’s caliber (not to mention his relationship to the owner) in a supervisory position on the plantation.

Nonetheless, Cora and William implicitly condone Norwood’s disciplining of Bert, however unjust and / or unwise, following the youth’s return to the plantation. Cora, for example, observes that

De Colonel say he’s gonna make Bert stay here now and work on this plantation like de rest of his riggers. He’s gonna show him what color he is. Like that time when he beat him for callin’ him ‘‘papa.’’ He say he’s ‘‘wine to teach him his place and make de boy know where he belongs. Seems like me or you can’t show him. Colonel Tom has to take him in hand, or these white folks’ll kill him around here and then— oh, My God!

Because Cora views Norwood’s intervention as necessary for Bert’s protection, she can accept the Colonel’s manner of discipline. Above all, she and William believe that Norwood’s actions will be more effective than theirs in saving Bert’s life, for Cora and William realize that they cannot bring Bert to the fundamental realization that surviving as a black person in their part of Georgia means living within the confinements imposed by white society. The two have repeatedly reminded Bert of this reality, but in vain. Rather than see Bert die at the hands of a white mob for refusing to follow the racial codes of the area, Cora and William would prefer to have him under the protective, if punitive, discipline of the most powerful white man in their locale. Furthermore, recognizing that Bert considers himself better than any other black in the area and, hence, that he will not listen to their advice, Cora and William view the tight reins that the Colonel attempts to impose on Bert as the only means of insuring the youth’s continued existence. To their way of thinking, if Colonel Norwood can ‘‘break’’ Bert and put him ‘‘in his place,’’ then perhaps Bert will be with them a little longer. They, like Norwood, fail to see that Bert cannot function in or tolerate a system that denies his rights and capabilities and that confines him to a position that he considers beneath his dignity.

While it could be argued that Bert’s indignation arises over the injustice of his particular work assignment as well as the injustices of the entire Southern labor system, Bert’s feelings seem more clearly to be governed by the racial preferences on which he has based his identity. As Bert tells his mother of the labor his father has imposed on him, ‘‘He thinks I ought to be out there in the sun working, with Talbot standing over me like I belonged in the chain gang. Well, he’s got another thought coming! (Stubbornly) I’m a Norwood—not a field-hand rigger.’’ While Bert’s reaction to the work is, in large part, justifiable, considering his intelligence and education, the intense indignation that he feels springs from something deeper than the injustices done to his capabilities. He is in no way sensitive to the indignation that other blacks must feel in being relegated to certain types of demeaning labor and barred from more rewarding forms of work. Bert is enraged over the summer assignment above all because it places him in the role of what he considers to be the lowest of all blacks—the field hand. This reduction in status is especially cloying since Bert not only considers himself not black but a Norwood heir. Bert goes on to assert that he is not going to do the work assigned to him, work which he views as being as much beneath his capabilities and his training as it is beneath his (white) race and his (assumed) name. Thus, Bert’s protest is framed in terms of pride and self-interest, not universal human rights.

After Colonel Norwood recounts his treatment of Bert, the attention shifts to Bert’s sister Sallie. Contrary to what Darwin T. Turner claims, the scene with Sallie is not a distracting digression from the action of the play; Sallie serves as a direct foil for Bert both in her character and in the better treatment she receives from Norwood. The Colonel allows Sallie to return to school after she has worked and resided in the ‘‘big house’’ during the summer, whereas Bert is prevented from returning to school and forced to live in a shack in the quarters. Sallie has even had servants such as Sam at her beck and call while on vacation, whereas Bert is ordered to ‘‘bend his back’’ in the field. When Norwood observes Sam carrying out Sallie’s luggage, he remarks, ‘‘Huh! Darkies waiting on darkies! I can’t get service in my own house. Very well.’’ Norwood’s comments regarding his half-white daughter’s privileges indicate resentment over the situation in his household, yet he allows the privileges to continue. Such preferential treatment of Sallie contrasts markedly with the abuse he heaps upon Robert, especially considering the fact that Bert was once Norwood’s favorite.

The discrepancies between Norwood’s treatment of Sallie and Bert are the direct result of each child’s behavior; and that behavior, likewise, is a direct result of how the mulatto offspring views his or her whiteness and blackness. Sallie treats her peculiar situation diplomatically. Above all, she does nothing to rile her father, and that improves her chances of getting what she wants from him. Sallie’s farewell words to Norwood indicate an astuteness that some might easily mistake for servile selfeffacement:

I just wanted to tell you goodbye, Colonel Norwood, and thank you for letting me go back to school another year, and for letting me work here in the house all summer where mama is. (Norwood says nothing. The girl continues in a strained: voice as if making a speech.) . . . You been mighty nice to your—I mean to us colored children, letting my sister and me go off to school. The principal says I’m doing pretty well and next year I can go to Normal and learn to be a teacher. (Raising her eyes) You reckon I can, Colonel Tom?

It is evident from this passage that Sallie knows that placating the man whom she cannot openly recognize as her father and assuming the role of a meek black servant around him and his ilk are the best means of getting what she wants from him and from the white world in general. And she gets it.

After Norwood offers a few lines that indicate that he has not been paying attention to Sallie, she continues, ‘‘. . . I want to live down here with mama. I want to teach school in that there empty school house by the Cross Roads what hasn’t had a teacher for five years.’’ Apparent in this passage is the fact that Sallie, though perhaps the whitest of Norwood’s offspring, does not deny her blackness. Rather, she openly acknowledges it—above all, by revealing her ambition to return to the area after graduation to teach black children who have been denied an education for years. Instead of scorning ignorant blacks, as Robert has done after receiving his education, Sallie wants to better herself in order to help the less fortunate members of her race. If the price to be paid for that opportunity is kowtowing at times to whites, the goal for Sallie is worth the seeming, yet actually disingenuous, self-effacement. As William tells his black mother about his sister, ‘‘Sallie takes after you, I reckon. She’s a smart little crittur, ma.’’

‘‘A smart little crittur’’ like her mother, Sallie has fooled the white world in the same way that Cora has. By disingenuously remaining ‘‘in their place,’’ Cora and Sallie have milked the white overlord for all that they can. Though the two might be referred to officially as the Norwood maids, neither undertakes many of the tasks of domestics. Rather, Cora and Sallie have domestics in their service and enjoy many of the luxuries that a white wife and a white daughter of a rich planter would. As long as they disguise their privileges under seeming servility to Norwood, as long as they forego the use of the front door and do not proclaim their true relationship to the Colonel (Core calls him ‘‘Tom,’’ but only in private), the benefits to be reaped from the white authority are innumerable. In the end, these advantages are invested in the future of the black community. Even though Sallie enjoys the white luxuries that other blacks do not have, she will return to the black community to teach black youth the skills necessary for getting ahead in American society.

On the other hand, Bert—like his white father, headstrong, stubborn, and as blind as he is proud— does not have the insight or the inclination to use covert means to secure benefits from the white world. This is not surprising, since everything Bert desires is overt: From whites he wants to be recognized as more white than black, and from his father he seeks public recognition as a legitimate heir. obsessed with these futile goals, Bert cannot direct his energies toward efforts that would prove more beneficial to himself and to other blacks. Nor can he content himself with the advantages to be sapped by the cleverly clandestine manipulation that some blacks have learned to exert upon their white bosses. on the surface, Bert’s cause might seem more honorable and sincere than Sallie’s or Cora’s, since what Bert openly demands is honesty from his father and equality with others of white parentage. But at its base, Bert’s campaign is egocentric and inconsiderate (to state it mildly) of blacks. Bert argues for better treatment for himself—not better treatment for all blacks—on the grounds that he is part-white. Furthermore, as a Norwood, he considers himself better than most full-blooded whites. However honest he may be in expressing what he wants, Bert is not working for the good of others. The same cannot be said for Sallie and Cora, however sly they may seem to be in procuring what they desire.

Bert’s obsessive sensitivity to being discriminated against in any fashion leads him into militant behavior that would not be accepted even from a white youth. When Fred Higgins comes to visit Norwood, Higgins complains that Bert nearly ran his car off the road and that Bert left a trail of dust in his wake, a lack of courtesy and respect that any older person might report to the parent of a child committing such an offense. Furthermore, Higgins discloses that Bert had been bickering with a postal worker over a policy of not providing refunds on money orders, a policy that probably would not have been breached even for a white customer. To make matters worse, Bert’s reckless driving in town poses a threat to both black and white lives. Higgins adds that Bert

comes in my store and if he ain’t waited on as quick as the white folks are, he walks out and tells the clerk his money’s as good as a white man’s any day. Said last week standing out on my store front that he wasn’t all nigger no how; said his name was Norwood—not Lewis, like the rest of his family—and part of your plantation here would be his when you passed out— and all that kind of stuff, boasting to the walleyed coons listening to him.

Even when filtered through Higgins’s racist language, it is apparent that Bert’s belligerence stems from the fact that he wants to be treated the same as a white man not because he feels that all blacks should be treated equally with whites but because he is part-white himself. Also implied in Higgins’s paraphrasing is Bert’s sense that he is different from his non-white relatives and more affiliated with Norwood than they are. They may be Lewises, but he is a Norwood. That Bert haughtily considers himself apart not only from other blacks but even from members of his own family is further revealed when he and Cora discuss his upcoming meeting with the Colonel:

Robert: Maybe he wants to see me in the library, then.

Cora: You know he don’t ‘low no colored folks in there ‘mongst his books and things ‘cept Sam. Some o’ his white friends goes in there, but none o’ us.

Robert: Maybe he wants to see me in there, though.

It is a curious elitism derived from an awareness of his paternity, his resemblance to his father, and his individuality that causes Bert to expect as his lot more than might be due him even if he were a full-blooded white man.

Hence, when Cora reminds Bert that his sister Bertha is passing for white up North, he responds bitterly—not from any disapproval of what Bertha is doing but from the fact that she has surpassed him on the color and social scales. His uncharacteristically terse response, ‘‘I know it,’’ indicates embarrassment: He, the true heir of Colonel Thomas Norwood, has not been able to achieve what a female Lewis has; he is too yellow to pass for white, too rusty at the elbows, as Norwood will remind him in their climactic confrontation.

Bert’s hyper-elitist stance and his hypersensitivity to any racial prejudice directed toward him also blind him to the rather exceptional privileges that he has been granted—no matter how enmeshed with racial inequality and parental rejection or abuse these privileges may be. The Colonel tells Bert in a last-ditch (albeit stern and patronizing) attempt to end the conflict between them,

. . . to Cora’s young ones I give all the chances any colored folks ever had in these parts. More’n many a white child’s had. . . Sent you to college. Would have kept on, would have sent you back today, but I don’t intend to pay for no darky, or white boy either if I had one, that acts the way you’ve been acting. (emphasis added)

Implied in the Colonel’s last statement is an explanation of his previous disciplining of Bert through the summer work assignment—an explanation that might be lost on the audience if not highlighted for discussion. Norwood has treated Bert in a harsh manner over the summer as much for the latter’s filial disrespect as for his disregard of other people. Norwood’s discipline has also been intended as a chastisement aimed at calming Bert down, at making him realize what he has been offered, and at stopping him from striving after what he cannot attain. While Norwood is far from admirable in both his role of father and that of plantation owner, he has given Bert more advantages and more leeway than many other white men would give the mulattos or even the white children they have fathered.

It is also interesting to note that Norwood, despite his harsh treatment of Bert, has still cut the youth some slack. For example, early in the play Norwood warns that he will let Talbot use the whip on Bert if he needs it, but Bert has long been behaving in a way that Talbot would have returned with violence had it not been for the Colonel’s intervention. Norwood’s Freudian slip accounts for why he has been postponing Talbot’s punishing Bert: Bert is a ‘‘rigger-child of mine, yours, ours,’’ Norwood tells Cora. However much Norwood may refuse to acknowledge this fact outwardly, it is still an operating factor in his treatment of Bert. It may even account for Bert’s ‘‘exile’’ having been academic rather than overtly punitive. Equally operant is the affection for Cora that Norwood cannot suppress.

In his final argument with Bert, the Colonel reveals perhaps the most remarkable privilege that someone of his racist bent could extend to Bert:

I don’t usually talk about what I’m going to do with anybody on this place. It’s my habit to tell people what to do, not discuss it with ‘em. But I want to know what’s the matter with you—whether you’re crazy or not. In that case, you’ll have to be locked up. And if you aren’t, you’ll have to change your ways a damn sight or it won’t be safe for you here, and you know it—venting your impudence on white women, parking the car in front of my door, driving like mad through the Junction, and going, everywhere, just as you please. Now, I’m going to let you talk to me, but I want you to talk right.

Even though the Colonel belittles Bert in this invitation to dialogue, he is interested in learning why Bert is behaving in a way that the Colonel cannot understand. In addition, one cannot help noticing some parental concern on Norwood’s part when he says that, if Bert does not change his ways, ‘‘it won’t be safe for [him] here.’’ Perhaps Norwood’s eventual banishment of Bert is intended as much as a protection of the mulatto son as a removal of an ugly problem. Unfortunately, Norwood’s telling Bert to ‘‘talk like a nigger should to a white man’’ does not facilitate communication; and the pride of both father and son breaks off dialogue, refuses compromise, and results only in continued conflicts for Bert with Norwood, with the whites of the area, and even with the local blacks.

Bert’s prejudice against what he considers the lowest type of black is clearly seen in William’s account of what Bert has been telling the Norwood plantation hands:

. . . you can’t talk to him. I tried to tell him something the other day, but he just laughed at me, and said we’s all just scared riggers on this plantation. Says he ain’t no rigger, no how. He’s a Norwood. He’s half-white, and he’s gonna act like it.

It is William above all who receives the brunt of Bert’s prejudicial criticism. After William chides Robert for using the front door of the Norwood mansion (mainly because of the repercussions William fears such ‘‘impudence’’ might visit upon his family and the other Norwood blacks), Robert, whose natural speech approximates standard white, mimics his brother and inflicts a racial slur: ‘‘Yes, like de white folks. What’s a front door for, you rabbit-hearted coon?’’ It is evident in this passage that Bert detests his brother’s behavioral resemblance to ‘‘Uncle Tom’’ blacks. That William, the darkest of Norwood’s mulatto children, is not ashamed of the complacent lifestyle that he has adopted by choice is made clear when he retorts, ‘‘Rabbit-hearted coon’s better’n a dead coon any day.’’ Bert continues to defend himself, reminding William that they themselves are ‘‘only half-coons.’’ Then the younger brother reveals what is at the center of his difficulties: ‘‘. . . I’m gonna act like my white half, not my black half.’’ Clearly, Bert believes that any step toward self-improvement and strength is characteristic of whites and that selfdenigration and cowardice are the lot of blacks, who are by nature Uncle Tomish—although Bert makes a major exception in the case of his mother. For Bert, proof of such correlations is to be found in looking at the skin and behavior of himself and his darker brother.

There can be no doubt as to Bert’s grievances against his blackness and his wishing to disaffiliate himself from blacks. Even when he says, a few lines later, ‘‘I might stay here awhile and teach some o’ you darkies to think like men . . . ,’’ he is speaking as would a white man who considers himself superior to his black listeners. That Bert is thus condescending toward his elder brother—and even to his mother, who is also listening—implies a rejection of them. Bert continues to blast his family’s conformity:

You can do it if you want to, but I’m ashamed of you. I’ve been away from here six years. (Boasting) I’ve learned something, seen people in Atlanta, and Richmond, and Washington where the football team went— real colored people who don’t have to take off their hats to white folks or let ‘em go to bed with their sisters . . . Back here in these woods maybe Sam and Livonia and you and mama and everybody’s got their places fixed for ‘em, but not me. (Seriously) Nobody’s gonna fix a place for me. I’m old man Norwood’s son. Nobody fixed a place for him. (Playfully again) Look at me. I’m a ‘fay boy. (Pretends to shake his hair back) See these gray eyes? I got the right to everything everybody else has. (Punching his brother in the belly) Don’t talk to me, old slavery-time Uncle Tom.

Although Bert speaks about ‘‘real colored people’’ in this passage, he seems to bring them into the argument for the benefit of his mother and William, whom he considers far more ‘‘colored’’ than himself. What prompts Bert into demanding better treatment for himself is, again, not a belief in equality for all but indignation over the fact that he, the son of the most prominent white landowner in the area, an ‘‘[o]fay boy’’ with gray eyes, is treated like what he considers a common black. As in his other loud demands for better treatment for himself, Bert here voices, more than anything else, his feelings of superiority—a superiority that he bases on his independence, his education, his travels, and, above all, his paternal ancestry and resemblance to whites.

Bert’s dislike of William arises from Bert’s seeing in his brother too little of what he deems white and too much of what he detests in rural Southern blacks. In addition, Bert mocks the town blacks and reveals his scorn of them, just as he has mocked and scorned his brother. When he tells his mother about his encounter with the whites at the Junction that morning, he points out, pejoratively:

’Bout a dozen colored guys standing around, too, and not one of ‘em would help me—the dumb jiggaboos! They been telling me ever since I been here, (Imitating darky talk) ‘‘You can’t argue wid whut folks, man. You better stay out o’ this Junction. You must ain’t got no sense, nigger! You’s a fool.’’

Bert’s scorn for the locals is further revealed as he tells his mother, ‘‘Besides you, there ain’t nobody in this country but a lot of evil white folks and cowardly niggers.’’ obviously, one of Bert’s main grievances against the local blacks is that they are not ‘‘real colored people,’’ like the blacks he has seen in Atlanta, Richmond, and Washington—or even like his mother. But, again, Bert seems to distinguish between blacks here chiefly for his mother’s benefit. At the same time, he fails to realize that the local blacks refuse to band with him as much out of protest against his outrageous behavior as from fear of white retaliation. He asserts, in a typical refrain, that he is ‘‘half-white’’ and ‘‘no nigger,’’ and implies again that since he is the son of the richest white man in the county he is superior not only to blacks but also to most whites in the area. Elitism remains at the core of Bert’s scorn, his indignation, and his insistence on better treatment for himself.

Bert’s most vehement denial of blackness and his loudest acknowledgment that he is obsessed with being recognized as Norwood’s son occur during his penultimate conflict with his father. Bert and Norwood quickly become heated over Bert’s twofold insistence on recognition when they encounter each other in the hallway of the big house: Robert: . . . I’m not a nigger, Colonel Tom. I’m your son.

Norwood: (Testily) You’re Cora’s boy.

Robert: Women don’t have children by themselves.

Norwood: Nigger women don’t know the fathers. You’re a bastard.

(Robert clenches his fist . . .)

Robert: I’ve heard that before. I’ve heard it from Negroes, and I’ve heard it from white folks. Now I hear it from you. (Slowly) You’re talking about my mother.

Norwood: I’m talking about Cora, yes. Her children are bastards.

Robert: (Quickly) And you’re their father.

Perhaps what is most distressing to Bert in this exchange is that for the first time he hears his father denying his children’s paternity, something Norwood had not done vocally even when he had beaten Bert at the stables. But now the Colonel brutally echoes what blacks and whites have been telling Bert all along: that he is just a black bastard who cannot claim with any certainty who his father is. These words coming from Norwood’s mouth are especially damaging to Bert, since he knows that he is unquestionably the Colonel’s son and since he even considers himself legitimate because of Cora’s fi- delity to Norwood.

As his outrage continues to be fueled by Norwood’s taunting denials, Bert proceeds desperately:

Robert: How come I look like you, if you’re not my father?

Norwood: Don’t shout at me, boy. I can hear you. (Half-smiling) How come your skin is yellow and your elbows rusty? How come they threw you out of the post office today for talking to a white woman? How come you’re the crazy young buck you are?

Norwood now uses the stereotypes associated with mulattos to push Bert back into the ‘‘nigger night’’ (an image for the black world Hughes uses in his poem ‘‘Mulatto’’ and to disaffiliate the youth from the white world. Bert has what the white-racist views as the unquestionable physical markings of African ancestry—yellow skin and rusty elbows— that linger long after miscegenation has occurred. Norwood also views the youth as having the mental disorders some believe to result from the mixing of black and white blood.

Bert, incensed by his father’s stereotypic dismissal of mulattos and indignant over being thrown in with blacks of the lowest status, asserts that Norwood ‘‘had no right to raise that cane today when I was standing at the door of this house where you live, while I have to sleep in a shack down the road with the field hands. (Slowly) But my mother sleeps with you.’’

Norwood: You don’t like it?

Robert: No, I don’t like it.

Norwood: What can you do about it?

Robert: (After a pause) I’d like to kill all the white men in the world.

Norwood: (Starting) Niggers like you are hung to trees.

Robert: I’m not a nigger.

Norwood: You don’t like your own race? (Robert is silent.) Yet you don’t like white folks either?

At the same time that he is asserting his whiteness most vehemently, Robert is forced to view as never before his denial of his blackness. Norwood’s accusations of Bert’s denial of blackness—no matter how full of ludicrous stereotypes these accusations may be—halt Bert as much as Bert’s boast of killing all the white men in the world startles Norwood. (A boast, it should be noted, that occurs only after Bert is rejected summarily by the white father on whom he has built his white identity.) Instead of listening to Bert, on whom Norwood feels he has squandered many an indulgence that even white children could not expect from their fathers, Norwood links Bert to what whites consider the worst of blacks—the savage brutes, the would—be murderers, rapists, and insurrectionists that are hung from trees. As is evidenced by Bert’s momentary silence, Norwood’s remarks—as familiarly devastating as they are racist—drive an important message home: Bert cares for neither white nor black, nor anyone other than himself.

It is noteworthy that Robert ends up killing the person who gets him to recognize his prejudiced and self-supremacist stance. The last thing Bert tells his father before he starts choking the white man is that ‘‘I’m not your servant. You’re not going to tell me what to do. You’re not going to have Talbot run me off the place like a field hand you don’t want to use any more.’’ Similarly, Bert will, later in the play, not let the white mob murder him as they would a detested or scapegoat black. Insisting on being his father’s son, Bert follows his father in death. Having killed Norwood with his own hands, Bert will end his own life as well.

In a fleeting moment of truth immediately after killing his father, Bert finally owns up to his blackness—and to the repercussions of being black in Georgia. But it is too late for such realizations to save his life:

Robert: (Wildly) Why didn’t he shoot, mama? He didn’t want me to live. Why didn’t he shoot? (Laughing) He was the boss. Telling me what to do. Why didn’t he shoot, then? He was the white man.

Cora: (Falling on the body) Colonel Tom! Colonel Tom! Tom! Tom! (Gazes across the corpse at her son) He’s yo’ father, Bert.

Robert: He’s dead. The white man’s dead. My father’s dead. (Laughing) I’m living.

Cora: Tom! Tom! Tom!

Robert: Niggers are living. He’s dead. (Picks up the pistol) This is what he wanted to kill me with, but he’s dead. I can use it now. Use it on all the white men in the world, because they’ll be coming looking for me now.

Bert, in killing his white father, obviously feels that he has killed his own whiteness; for much of his identity as a white man has been tied up with being Colonel Norwood’s son. As Arthur P. Davis notes, ‘‘We sense that[,] with the death of the Colonel, the bottom has really dropped out of Bert’s world.’’ For the first time, Bert refers to his father and to himself as racial opposites. The white man, a phrase Bert uses repeatedly here to refer to his dead father, implies a distancing of his father from himself that Bert has heretofore not allowed. At the same time, in saying, ‘‘I’m living,’’ followed by ‘‘niggers are living,’’ Bert equates himself with blacks in a way he has not done previously. The equation, at this point, can bring with it only a recognition of doleful consequences. Bert knows that what awaits him, as the non-white killer of a white man, is a gruesome death at the hands of an angry white mob—an abuse that the white world reserves for those it considers the most contemptible of blacks. Unfortunately, Bert’s awareness of all the ramifications associated with being black in Georgia, as well as his identifi- cation with blackness, comes too late to do him any good. Rather than suffer the inescapable disgraces— torture, mutilation, hanging, burning—at the hands of whites, Bert kills what he has just recognized as his black self.

If any doubt remains as to which parental line Hughes depicts his tragic mulatto as preferring before the latter’s admission of his blackness, one need only go to Hughes’s 1927 poem ‘‘Mulatto,’’ in which the only words that the audience knows for sure that the title character speaks are: ‘‘I am your son, white man!’’ It is equally clear that the mulatto is trying to convince his white half-siblings of his kinship to them, for they tell him,

Naw, you ain’t my brother
Niggers ain’t my brother.
Not ever.
Niggers ain’t my brother.

Full-blooded white half-siblings are absent from the play Mulatto, but Colonel Norwood is all too similar to the white father of the poem, who tells his mulatto son, ‘‘You are my son! / Like hell!.’’ The father, or the half-siblings, or probably both then try to push the mulatto son back into the dark world of the ‘‘nigger night’’: ‘‘Git on back there in the night, / You ain’t white.’’ But the mulatto son is like one of the ‘‘yellow stars’’ against the ‘‘Southern night,’’ a similarity Hughes emphasizes by the way in which he places both son and stars in contrast to darkness in the poem:

A nigger night,
A nigger joy,
A little yellow
Bastard boy


The Southern night is full of stars,
Great big yellow stars.

The yellow child does not fit into the black world, just as the yellow stars are separate entities from the Southern or ‘‘nigger’’ night. Undoubtedly, such imagery further illustrates that Hughes is stressing in both poem and play that his mulatto figure is one who seeks whiteness over blackness and that this futile, lifelong attempt is what makes Hughes’s mulatto tragic, at least in these two works.

Arnold Rampersad notes that Hughes himself referred to Mulatto as an example of Afro-American defeatist literature. Clearly, Bert does not come to the resolution that the mulatto narrator of Hughes’s famous poem ‘‘Cross’’ does. Alive when the poem ends, the speaker of ‘‘Cross’’ forgives his white father in the first stanza and his black mother in the second; then, in the third and final stanza, he acknowledges with detached resignation that he himself is ‘‘neither white nor black’’ and does not know where his bloodline will lead him, on the other hand, Robert Lewis of the play Mulatto dies. Bitter to the end, ‘‘resenting his blood and the circumstances of his birth,’’ he hates his white father for not accepting him as a white son and rejects all that the race of his black mother has to offer. Bert has been forced to live in the shack but insists on dying in the big house. He must kill himself for the latter to happen.

Source: Germain J. Bienvenu, ‘‘Intracaste Prejudice in Langston Hughes’s Mulatto,’’ in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 1992, pp. 341–52.

Miscegenation on Broadway: Hughes’s Mulatto and Edward Sheldon’s The Nigger

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On 4 December 1909, at Broadway’s New Theatre, the curtain went up on a new three-act play written by Edward Sheldon. Although it bore the somewhat inflammatory title The Nigger and dealt with the intriguingly controversial topic of racial miscegenation, the play was apparently well received by the playgoing public—so well received, indeed, that it was published in book form by Macmillan in 1910, with a reprinted edition following in 1915. In 1909 Broadway enjoyed a lively season, and the competition was vigorous and stimulating. The Nigger’s big competition was The Fortune Hunter starring that scintillating star of the stage (and later the screen), John Barrymore. As far as race relations in America were concerned, 1909 was also an interesting year. For this was the year that a group of concerned white northern liberals—Oswald Garrison Villard, Joel Spingarn, and Mary Ovington White—met to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Joining them in this enterprise was the young black scholar, William E. B. Du Bois, whose Niagara Movement in 1905 and 1906 became a model for the NAACP. The NAACP’s founders were motivated to organize their association because of the ever-increasing turbulence in race relations throughout the nation. They were particularly concerned about preventing further race riots like those in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906 and in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908. So Sheldon’s play’s title blended with the racial climate of the times and evidently reflected white America’s interest in this aspect of black-white relations.

Almost twenty-six years later, on 24 October 1935, Langston Hughes’s Mulatto opened at Broadway’s Vanderbilt Theater. Like Sheldon’s play, Hughes’s two-act play dealt with the theme of miscegenation and enjoyed a relatively long Broadway run (270 performances) and then successfully toured the nation for eight months. This was considered to be a fairly remarkable achievement for a play in the middle of the depression. However, Mulatto’s publication history was quite different from that of The Nigger. Hughes’s play was not published in English until 1963, twenty-eight years after its first Broadway run. Ironically, during this time, the play was translated into three foreign languages—Italian, Japanese, and Spanish—and play proved popular in Italy, Japan, and Argentina. But there was no American publication of Mulatto until Webster Smalley’s Five Plays by Langston Hughes was published by Indiana University Press in 1963.

Between 1909 and 1935, some conditions and circumstances in America had changed and some had remained agonizingly constant. America’s racial climate had changed little. Blacks in the South were still voteless, powerless, and legally segregated; and blacks in the North lived, in the main, in poverty-stricken ghettos. In other words, although by 1935 Booker T. Washington had been dead for twenty years, the conditions about which he had prophesied blacks and whites could be as separate ‘‘as the fingers on the hand’’ still existed. One interesting item of evidence attesting to this state of affairs was that, in 1935, Hughes was not given complimentary orchestra seats to attend the opening of his play at the Vanderbilt because the theater management had ‘‘reservations’’ about seating blacks in the orchestra section.

Some things had changed. In New York City proper, blacks no longer lived in the Tenderloin and San Juan Hill areas in mid-Manhattan where they were to be found in 1909. After the infamous Tenderloin District riot in 1902, they had begun moving over into Brooklyn and then, after World War I, they had moved in great numbers into Harlem. By 1935 this area of Manhattan housed over 360,000 blacks and had become the most populous black metropolis in the world. In the early 1920s it had been a heavenly refuge, but by 1935 the refuge was rapidly becoming a ghetto. Another interesting change of circumstances occurred on Broadway. In 1909 there were no black playwrights on Broadway, whereas in 1935 at least one enjoyed a somewhat tenuous status on the Great White Way. Hughes’s status is termed ‘‘tenuous’’ because the production and staging of Mulatto proved to be a traumatic and discouraging experience for him. Indeed, the story of how Mulatto found its way to Broadway is evidence of the bizarre nature of a black playwright’s lot in the 1930s.

According to Faith Berry, Hughes, just prior to his departure for the Soviet Union in June 1931, gave Blanche Knopf a manuscript copy of Mulatto. At that time the author had no idea that four years would elapse before he could return to New York City and inquire about his manuscript. He returned to the States in the summer of 1933, but he came back to California via Vladivostock, Shanghai, and Tokyo. In California, Hughes stayed with friends in Carmel in order to complete his first volume of short stories, The Ways of White Folks. From Carmel, he traveled to Reno, Nevada and thence, in December 1934, to Mexico to assist in settling the estate of his father who had died in November 1934. Unfortunately, once in Mexico Hughes found himself stranded; his wealthy father had left him nothing, and he found himself without funds to return to the States. So he stayed in Mexico with friends until May 1935. Even then, he did not return to New York to inquire about the Mulatto manuscript. Instead, he accepted an invitation from his friend Arna Bontemps to visit with the Bontemps family in Los Angeles in the summer of 1935. As a consequence, Hughes did not return to New York City until late September 1935.

To his amazement, he found upon his return that Mulatto was not only in rehearsal but was scheduled for an October 1935 opening. He also discovered something else. When he attended his first rehearsal, he found that Martin Jones, Mulatto’s producer, had drastically revised the brief two-act plot. For instance, where Hughes had Sallie, Cora’s illegitimate mulatto daughter, leave to attend a northern college early in act 1, Jones, in order to retain a sex-cum-violence emphasis, canceled Sallie’s departure in act 1 so that she could be raped in act 2 to climax the racial violence at the end of the play. As a consequence, Hughes’s emphasis on the tragic consequences of miscegenation was somewhat diluted in the acted version of Mulatto. For there is no doubt that Hughes had intended to probe the psychological impact of miscegenation in his play just as he had done in his poetry (‘‘Cross,’’ ‘‘Mulatto’’) and in his short story, ‘‘Father and Son.’’ In other words, his emphasis had consistently been on the vitiating aftereffects of miscegenation and its accompanying evil, black concubinage. The South’s penchant for racial violence was certainly an important area of concern, but Hughes was primarily interested in the emotional stress and psychological insecurities of children born of forced interracial liaisons. In his view, they developed identity problems which, in turn, adversely affected their social behavior and their personal self-esteem.

Ironically, the changes introduced by Martin Jones in Hughes’s play script to gratify the tastes of Broadway playgoers reflect, in some respects, the story line of Sheldon’s The Nigger. That play, too, has an interracial rape scene and an off-the-set lynching. It also has an overly romantic love plot. The major difference, among several to be noted later, is that The Nigger is a tawdry melodrama with a happy ending; Mulatto is a tautly written drama with an unhappy ending.

A difference of less significance is that in Sheldon’s play the social and moral collapse of the Old Plantation South is writ large. This is in contrast to Hughes’s pointed analysis of a small unit of that South.

At this point, one can almost hear violins sobbing beautifully in the background. But Sheldon is not through; and, after a few moments of well maneuvered suspense, he serves up, at the play’s end, his melodramatic pièce de résistance. The crowd has gathered before the Capitol Building, and Phil goes out to announce to all and sundry that he is a ‘‘nigger.’’ But the cheering crowd and the band’s playing of the national anthem drown out his words. In vain, he raises his hands for silence, but ‘‘the band crashes through the national anthem and the roar of voices still rises from below’’ as the curtain falls.

So Sheldon’s The Nigger suggests two truths about miscegenation. The first is that miscegenation could be borne and accepted especially if the racemixing had occurred during slavery time—a time when the superordinate white male master held full sway over his black female slaves to use and abuse as he wished. The second truth suggested is that there always existed the possibility that white men of high position and status could have ‘‘tainted’’ blood as a result of a grandfather’s sexual mésalliance. Undoubtedly, a play with these implications in 1909 reflected a Northern liberal bias and could not have been presented in Charleston or Richmond or Atlanta.

As has been suggested above, Hughes’s Mulatto differs from Sheldon’s play in many respects. It is shorter, has a more restricted focus, and is much more concerned with the psychological consequences of miscegenation from the black perspective and not with the sociological consequences from the white perspective. Moreover, Mulatto is much more than a ‘‘sociopolitical statement,’’ as Webster Smalleysuggests. The father-son conflict is intense throughout; in fact, the miscegenation theme is almost lost when Robert Lewis, the black illegitimate son, in a scene of Oedipal fury slays his white father, Colonel Norwood. At this point, race seems to be of little concern. Rather, the emphasis is on an aborted filial love and a callous and inhumane rejection of the offer of that love.

So Hughes’s play castigates a system that turned father against son, son against father, and made a mockery of the family as a unit. Slavery left blacks, once they were freed, poor, fearful, and illiterate; but, in Hughes’s view, slavery’s worst heritage was the psychological damage done to the mulatto boy or mulatto girl whose mother, like Cora in Mulatto, was forced to be her master’s concubine. Hughes could have explored the full dimensions of concubinage in slavery, had he written a third act in which Sallie, Cora’s daughter by Colonel Norwood, would also have been forced to become her own father’s concubine. Had Hughes devoloped his plot in this direction, his play would have revealed how incest was the most sordid aspect of the sexual victimization and depravity inherent in American slavery. But even without any mention of incestuos concubinage, Hughes’s play does stress the fact that white men often felt constrained by custom and tradition from recognizing their mulatto children.

It is also appropriate in this context to state that Hughes’s emphasis on the father-son conflict in Mulatto strongly suggests his own conflict with his father. The son of parents who divorced when he was a boy, Hughes had a harried childhood living with his poverty-ridden mother. When he went to live with his father in Toluca, Mexico, following his graduation from high school in Cleveland, Ohio, he found that he and his father were not compatible. According to the author’s own report in his 1940 biography, The Big Sea, his father had become a hard-driving, profit-seeking businessman who had no patience with his poetry-writing son and no sympathy for the plight of his fellow blacks in the States. Thus, when the young Hughes, in compliance with his father’s wishes, left Toluca to enroll, with considerable reluctance, as a first-year engineering student at Columbia University, the fatherson relationship was tense and embittered. And when the year at Columbia proved to be an academic disaster, Hughes eventually got a job on an Africa-bound freighter and never saw nor corresponded with his father again.

Another difference between Sheldon’s The Nigger and Mulatto is that Hughes’s play places considerable emphasis on the psychological dilemma of Cora, Colonel Norwood’s concubine and the mother of his three mulatto children—William, Robert, and Sallie Lewis. The longtime partner of the Colonels bed but never the wife of his bosom, Cora is torn between her mother’s love for her self-assertive and aggressive son Robert and her respect for the Colonel who is angered by his bastard son’s attitude and life-style. In the Colonel’s eyes, Robert does not behave the way a black bastard should behave; where he should have been obsequious and humble, Robert is aggressive and demanding. In fact, he demands the recognition that he is a Norwood who can walk into the Norwood front door and do anything that a white man can. Caught in a cross-fire of anger between father and son, Cora tries unsuccessfully to serve as peacemaker. Then, when the actual physical struggle takes place between Norwood and Robert and the son strangles the father, Cora’s first thought is to help her son escape the lynch mob that she is sure will be formed to track her son down. Scene 1, act 2, closes with Cora’s highly emotional soliloquy in which she converses with the Colonel’s corpse:

Don’t you come to my bed no mo’. I calls for you to help me now, and you just lays there. I calls for you to wake up, and you just lays there. Whenever you called me, in de night, I woke up. When you called for me to love, I always reached out ma arms fo you. I borned you five chilluns and now one of ‘em is out yonder in de dark runnin’ from yo people. Our youngest boy out yonder in de dark runnin’. (Accusingly) He’s runnin’ from you too. You said he warn’t your’n—he’s just Cora’s little yellow bastard. But he is your’n, Colonel Tom. (Sadly) And he’s runnin’ from you. You are out yonder in de dark, (Points toward the door) runnin’ our chile, with de hounds and de gun in yo’ hand . . . I been sleepin’ with you too long, Colonel Tom, not to know that this ain’t you layin’ down there with yo’ eyes shut on de flo’. You can’t fool me . . . Colonel Thomas Norwood, runnin’ my boy through de fields in de dark, runnin’ ma po’ lil’ helpless Bert through de fields in de dark to lynch him . . . Damn you, Colonel Norwood! Damn you, Thomas Norwood! God damn you!

As the play draws to a close and the sounds of the lynch mob pursuing her Bert grow louder, Cora, in another long soliloquy, bitterly recalls how her concubinage with the Colonel began: ‘‘Colonel Thomas Norwood! . . . Thirty years ago, you put yo’ hands on me to feel my breasts, and you say, ‘Yo’ a pretty little piece of flesh, ain’t you? Black and sweet, ain’t you?’ An’ I lif’ up my face, an you pull me to you, an we laid down under the trees that night, an’ I wonders if yo’ wife’ll know when you goes back up da road into de big house . . . An’ ah loved you in de dark, down thuh under dat tree by de gate, afraid of you and proud of you, feelin’ yo gray eyes lookin’ at me in de dark.’’ And at one point, she observes: ‘‘White mens, and colored womens, and lil’ bastard chilluns—tha’s de ol’ way of de South— but it’s ending now.’’

Mulatto ends when Robert takes his own life rather than be taken by the lynch mob. The last person on the stage is Cora. She stands quietly and does not move or flinch when Talbot, the white overseer, vents his frustration by slapping her. Her personal slavery as a white man’s concubine has come to an end, and Mulatto’s message also seems to be that no black person is truly free as long as one black woman is kept as a white man’s concubine.

Obviously, Hughes’s 1935 statement on miscegenation is far more psychologically penetrating and direct than Sheldon’s 1909 statement. The principal cause for this difference is not that the intervening twenty-four years bred a greater awareness in the body politic of the social and psychological implications of miscegenation and black concubinage. Rather, the difference in approaches stems from the fact that Hughes’s view is a racially interior view and Sheldon’s is the racially exterior view commonly held by Northern liberals in appraising Southern mores and racial practices. Indeed, Sheldon, in the end, presents miscegenation as just another regional foible bespeaking the legendary moral turpitude of the sinful South. Hughes, on the other hand, had, like many of his fellow blacks, some experiential proximity to the problem. His father, like Colonel Norwood, had abandoned him for selfish and appetitive reasons. Moreover, Hughes had had a much-revered great uncle, John Mercer Langston, who, like many other black race leaders of the nineteenth century (P.B.S. Pinchback, Francis and Archibald Grimke, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, William Wells Brown, and others) had a slave-master father (Ralph Quarles, a wealthy planter from Louisa County, Virginia). One can therefore conclude that because Hughes, in his own life and career, had been close to the problem, his play has an emotional tautness and psychological intensity Jacking in The Nigger. Sheldon had aesthetic distance from his subject, but this very fact robbed his play of the emotional intensity that differentiates good drama from melodramatic entertainment.

Source: Richard K. Barksdale, ‘‘Miscegenation on Broadway: Hughes’s Mulatto and Edward Sheldon’s The Nigger,’’ in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes, edited by Edward J. Mullen, G. K. Hall and Co., 1986, pp. 191–99.


Critical Overview