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Date of Graduation
Master of Arts (MA)
Department of History
Gabrielle M. Lanier
This thesis investigates the way people of mixed “racial” ancestry—known as mulattoes in the 18th and 19th centuries—navigated life in deeply racially divided society. Even understanding “mulatto strategies” is difficult because it is to study a group shrouded in historical ambiguity by choice. Nonetheless, this paper will seek to identify the beginnings of this group’s history by looking at the two centuries before emancipation, but specifically the six decades prior, known as the antebellum period. As addressed in the paper’s introduction, the term “mulatto” is not commonly used today, and many consider it offensive. Similar terms such as quadroon and octoroon have faced similar fates. While this paper is not seeking to “reclaim” these words, using such terms allows for a specificity when talking not about all Americans of mixed-race, but specifically those of mixed black/white ancestry.
The paper’s main thesis is that in antebellum America, mulattoes often were able to manipulate the racial hierarchies around them to their advantage. How mulattoes fit into these hierarchies depended on the region, as it outlined throughout the paper, with hierarchies and notions of slavery and freedom changing from place to place, with mulattoes seeking to make the most of their circumstances in all instances. In the midst of illustrating this, it was also be shown how colorism played a factor in society, with such tensions stemming from white prejudice, but also emerging in the works of both mulattoes and blacks. Ultimately, the main focus of this paper is not a particular person or place, but a color, and how people’s lives were affected by this color. Though the paper is focused on American mulattoes, another aspect of this paper will be looking at those American mulattoes who emigrated to Liberia. While no longer geographically in America, their story helps illustrate the pervasiveness of American colorism, even in an environment without direct white control.
Brooks, Alexander, "Under cover of lightness: How mixed-race Americans navigated the racial codes of Antebellum America" (2020). Masters Theses, 2020-current. 48.