NEW PEOPLE: Miscegnation and Mulattoes in the United States by Joel Williamson

NEW PEOPLE: Miscegnation and Mulattoes in the United States

Email this review


Mulattoes interest Professor Williamson (History, Univ. of North Carolina) not just for their own peculiar status, but for what that status reflects of American race relations. Relying on census records, case studies of communities, and the personal records (diaries, letters) of select families and individuals, he effectively demonstrates that in the transition from a largely separate mulatto elite in the early 1800s to its physical and cultural blending into the larger black population by the 1930s, a ""new people"" was created. With reference to most Latin American societies where fine distinctions of color are made, he asks why all shades of brown and even many shades of white were lumped together here as black. In answer, he points out that this was not always the case--that in Colonial Virginia, for example, settlers at first did not know how to socially-type the emerging gradations of color, then in 1662 settled on a law that declared the mulatto children of slave mothers to be slaves and of white mothers to be sold as servants. Major differences in the social status of mulattoes developed in the post-revolutionary era between the upper South (North Carolina and above) and lower South regions: in the upper South mulattoes were quite numerous but, when free, mostly poor farmers (offspring of unions with poor whites), while in the lower South they were fewer in number but relatively more favored. Usually the offspring of plantation owners or overseers, these mulattoes were given special treatment when slaves (they lived close to or in the plantation house, and learned special skills), and were respected as an important go-between class when free. But Williamson rightly sees first the growing commitment to slavery, then the hostility during Reconstruction (when the mulatto leadership substituted for the hated Yankees), as terminating the earlier variety in racial acceptance; by 1930 (in most states), anyone who had a drop of Negro blood was defined as black. But the mulatto leadership itself had been moving closer to the black masses, first as social and political missionaries to the South, then in the North as the cultural and political vanguard of the Harlem Renaissance. Largely through the efforts of the writers and politicians, by 1930 ""Brown America"" had emerged: ""The mulatto elite had, in fact, dissolved itself willingly into the Negro elite, and the Negro elite would lead in the 'fire next time.' "" Careful and imaginative historiography, good if occasionally difficult reading.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Free Press/Macmillan