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MULATTO AMERICA by Stephan Talty

MULATTO AMERICA

At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture: A Social History

By Stephan Talty

Pub Date: Jan. 10th, 2003
ISBN: 0-06-018517-1
Publisher: HarperCollins

Freelance journalist Talty examines encounters between white and black America that created what he labels a “mulatto culture.”

The author begins with pre–Civil War accounts of whites who were kidnapped or sold by their families into slavery. Using both court records and memoirs, he defines this tiny population (perhaps 30 abductions a year), noting that children were the preferred targets because adults had voting records and memories to prove their whiteness. Once the children were regarded as “black,” Talty shows, their appearance and memories were entirely discounted. One slave trader confessed on his deathbed that, “in August 1774, he had purchased an entire boatload of Irish natives and sold them in the South, advertising them as light-skinned blacks,” because in that category they would bring a higher profit than as indentured servants. These slaves had to prove they were Caucasian in “trials of whiteness.” At about the same time, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher was offering near-white children in anti-slave auctions held to raise ransom money to free the youngsters. White audiences responded to these demonstrations very favorably, although at actual sales in the South, lighter-skinned captives “could disrupt slave auctions and unnerve an entire town.” From here, the text moves on to the antebellum South and examines the effect of fundamentalist Christianity on blacks, looking specifically at conversion narratives, observing that it was traditional for black converts to describe themselves as becoming “white” upon entering heaven. An essay on interracial relationships rediscovers wonderful stories of whites drinking their paramours’ blood in order to circumvent the “one-drop” rule; another piece discusses W.E.B. Du Bois’s role in creating a movement that led whites (for possibly the first time) to envy black culture. In these opening chapters, Talty does a splendid job of unraveling fact, fiction, and legend. The remaining six pieces, which focus on such cultural movements as jazz, hip-hop, and disco, are slightly less engaging.

An interesting, if uneven, blend of literary journalism.