An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Seeds of Rebellion in Plantation Fiction: Victor Séjour's "The Mulatto"

Ed Piacentino, High Point University

Published: 
28 August 2007
Overview: 

This essay examines Victor Séjour's "The Mulatto" (1837), a short story acknowledged as the first fictional work by an African American. Through its representation of physical and psychological effects, Séjour's story, a narrative of slavery in Saint-Domingue, also inaugurated the literary delineation of slavery's submission-rebellion binary. The enslaved raconteur in "The Mulatto" voices protest and appeals to social consciousness and sympathy, anticipating the embedded narrators in works of later writers throughout the Plantation Americas.

Introduction

A little-known story first translated into English in 1995 by Philip Barnard for The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, "Le Mulâtre" ("The Mulatto") by Victor Séjour (1817-1874), a New Orleans free man of color, was initially published in the March 1837 issue of Cyrille Bisette's Parisian abolitionist journal La Revue des Colonies. La Revue was a monthly periodical of "Colonial Politics, Administration, Justice, Education and Customs" owned and sponsored by a "society of men of color." A recent immigrant to Paris, Séjour was in an amenable environment among kindred spirits who shared his sentiments about slavery.

La Revue's cover, according to Charles E. O'Neill, Séjour's biographer, features a "black slave in chains, with palms and waterfall in the background; kneeling on one knee, hands clasped in petition [and] ask[ing] 'Am I not a man and your brother?'" This illustration accentuates the journal's anti-slavery intent: to expose the "dissatisfaction with the slow, evasive parliamentary handling of poverty and oppression in the colonies" (O'Neill 14). In this iconic image, the slave expresses his humanity although secured by chains and kneeling in supplication.1 The slave proffers a plea for personhood and liberation that evokes the plight of the enslaved throughout the Plantation Americas, a zone, as George Handley notes, "of perplexing but compelling commonality among Caribbean nations, the Caribbean coasts of Central and South America and Brazil, and the U.S. South...." (Handley 25).

"Am I not a man and your brother?" Illustration on the cover of La Revue des Colonies 3 (1837): 376-392.  The story was originally published in this volume by Victor Séjour as "Le Mulâtre."
"Am I not a man and your brother?" Illustration on the cover of La Revue des Colonies 3 (1837): 376-392. The story was originally published in this volume by Victor Séjour as "Le Mulâtre." 

As a native of New Orleans and resident of the French Quarter, Séjour spoke French, attended private school, and was free but not white. When Séjour resided in New Orleans, free persons of color (gens de couleur) were numerous and did not enjoy political rights equal to those of whites (O'Neill 1). At nineteen, Séjour became an expatriate by choice, moving to Paris to continue his education and find work, and eventually joining forces with Cyrille Bisette, publisher of La Revue, and other members of the Parisian literary elite who helped him to start a formal writing career. In Paris, Séjour, a colonial mulatto, found a more open-minded milieu with less racial prejudice where he could exercise liberties not allowed in antebellum New Orleans. In 1837, a black man living in the United States could not have published as stark and haunting an antislavery revenge narrative as "The Mulatto." With this publication, the first African-American fictional narrative and the first of Séjour's works to appear in print, he launched a popular and successful literary career, with twenty of his plays produced on the Paris stage between the 1840s and 1860s.

"The Mulatto" is not set in the continental United States, but its location, Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) in the West Indies, is an important site of slavery and revolution in the African diaspora where plantation slaves experienced barbarous conditions eliciting comparison to Louisiana sugar plantations.2 Designating Louisiana as an "appendage of the French and Spanish West Indies," Thomas Marc Fiehrer perceives significant links between the two, including "shar[ing] the socio-economic expreience of the larger circum-Caribbean culture, (3–4), and Louisiana's becoming a major sugar producer as Saint-Domingue had formerly been. Louisiana, like Cuba, also experienced the "same cycle of expansion and intensification of slavery after 1800 which had occurred in Saint-Domingue between 1750 and 1794," and many planters, refugees, and free persons of color (many of who had migrated to Cuba first) found Louisiana a "politically desirable point of relocation . . . , afford[ing] . . . an ecosystem comparable to that of the [Caribbean] islands" (4). With the expansion of sugar-plantation slavery came familiar atrocities (10).

Although little known in its era, "The Mulatto" presents the binary of submission and rebellion that became a motif in U.S. based slave narratives and novelized autobiographies treating racialized sexual harassment and/or exploitation of mulattas such as Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl, antislavery novels such as William Wells Brown's Clotel or; The President's Daughter and Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman’s Narrative, and even late nineteenth-century southern local color stories with embedded former slave storytellers, such as Charles Waddell Chesnutt's Uncle Julius. In exposing the brutality of the slave system, such as the impact of miscegenation on persons of mixed race; the sexual violation of enslaved persons; and the physical and psychological brutalities of slavery — particularly the devastating effects on family life of whites as well as on blacks — "The Mulatto" deploys strategies for antislavery protest writing that will appear in antebellum slave narratives and anti-slavery novels and in postbellum fiction about slavery.

Major sites in Séjour's life and "The Mulatto." Illustration based on World Cyclopedia, circa 1820.

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Liberated Narrative Voice

"The Mulatto" features a frame narrator, a white man who functions as a sympathetic and tolerant sounding board to whom Antoine, an old man still presumably a slave and the story's embedded narrator, freely recounts a harrowing narrative of his friend Georges, a mulatto slave whose master is also his biological father.3 It is Georges's master-father, Alfred, against whom Georges directs retributive justice, killing him for allowing Georges's wife to be put to death for spurning Alfred's sexual advances. After poisoning Alfred's wife, Georges beheads his master with an ax and then takes his own life upon discovering that he has murdered his own father. Séjour's tragic narrative reveals that the slave, like his master, has succumbed to evil as his depravity stems from the corrupting effects of slavery.

Séjour's character, Antoine, a proud, imposing, elderly slave raconteur, creates a narrative that exposes the psychological tensions and physical violence brought about by the violation of the humanity of black slaves and which affects slave owners as well as their bondpersons. Antoine comfortably and confidently addresses a nameless white listener, an individual about whom he feels no rigid class or race barriers. Moreover, this man, who serves as the frame narrator, gives us Antoine's story of Georges apparently as it was told to him, an uncensored, melodramatic tale of the tragedy spawned by slavery, with his primary focus being on the victims of its inhumanities. Antoine's story of Georges, which evokes sympathy for the innocent black slave characters suffering under white oppression, exemplifies racial melodrama, anticipating the form that Linda Williams examines in Playing the Race Card: Melodramas in Black and White, From Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson. Williams, who views melodrama as typifying "popular American narrative . . . when it seeks to engage with moral questions," notes that the "moral legibility" of actions within racial melodramas depends upon the representation of victimized innocents who acquire virtue through suffering, a script intended to evoke the social consciences and emotions of readers (12, 17).

In Antoine's embedded narrative, the master Alfred is depicted as a vain, hideous and merciless villain and the slaves whom he exploits physically and emotionally—Laïsa, Georges's mother; Georges, his unacknowledged son; and Zelia, Georges's wife—all become lost innocents, unnecessary victims of the white man. As Antoine begins to talk, prefacing the story, it becomes clear that he can vent his discontent/ and outrage blatantly and speak honestly to the authorial narrator, even to the extent of adopting a cynically editorializing voice and using ideological discourse. In his encounter with this white man, Antoine's effectiveness as a functional mouthpiece and as a credible and reliable character is not diminished by such annoyances as dialect and and humiliatingly submissive behavior in his encounter with this white man, especially for today's readers who are knowledgeable of black portraiture in nineteenth-century American white-authored texts such as John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832), William Gilmore Simms's The Yemassee (1835), and Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus tales. Antoine preserves his dignity, consequently escaping reduction to a stereotype. After shaking hands with the white man, who treats him with dignity, Antoine receives a reaffirmation, an invitation to voice his stark, bitter recollections of the dehumanizing effects of slavery. Antoine's monologue begins with an undiluted tirade precipitated by his thoughts of the story he is about to tell of the ill-fated Georges and his master-father:

"But you know, do you not, that a negro's as vile as a dog; society rejects him; men detest him; the laws curse him. . . . Yes, he's a most unhappy being, who hasn’t even the consolation of always being virtuous. . . . He may be born good, noble, and generous; God may grant him a great and loyal soul; but despite all that, he often goes to his grave with bloodstained hands, and a heart hungering after yet more vengeance. For how many times has seen the dreams of his youth destroyed? How many times has experience taught him that his good deeds count for nothing, and that he should love neither his wife nor his son; for one day the former will be seduced by the master, and his own flesh and blood will be sold and transported away despite his despair. What, then, can you expect him to become? Shall he smash his skull against the paving stones? Shall he kill his torturer? Or do you believe the human heart can find a way to bear such misfortune?"

"You'd have to be mad to believe that," he continued, heatedly. "If he continues to live it can only be for vengeance; for soon he shall rise. . . and, from the day he shakes off his servility, the master would do better to have a starving tiger raging beside him than to meet that man face to face." (354)

Antoine's sobering revelation foreshadows the story of Georges, his mother, his wife, his master Alfred, and his master's wife, establishing a credible basis for the traumas both of slaves who have experienced the victimization and abuses of bondage, and of white masters depraved by unchecked power.

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Restricted Space:

Through Antoine, Séjour interjects commentary that accentuates that his narrative's hortatory intent. In this way, Séjour controls how he wants his dour tale to affect his readers. Georges is the product of a rape. His father is his white master Alfred, and his mother Laïsa is a young Senegalese woman whom Alfred purchases at a slave auction for his personal sexual gratification. Antoine emphasizes Laïsa's humanity, a humanity often violated or repressed because of her own helplessness in the institution of slavery. As his property, Alfred exploits Laïsa sexually. She retains no control over her body or her life's course. For example, just after she has been purchased, a tearful and frightened Laïsa unexpectedly encounters her brother Jacques Chambo from whom she had been separated and excitedly embraces him. The reunion of brother and sister, both orphans, and the sentiments connected with it are short lived when a cruel overseer lashes Jacques, forcefully separating him from Laïsa. Slaves evinced their humanity when they exhibited genuine emotions before their white oppressors, but white slaveholders who regarded their slaves as commodities, viewed such displays of feeling as subversive—a form of rebellion. These emotional outbursts had to be suppressed in order to force slaves to recognize their white-imposed, non-human status. Dysfunctional family relationships are representative of the place of fathers and mothers in slave societies. Both black slave women and men such as Séjour's Laïsa and Jacques become constructs of the white slave-holding patriarchy, which, in enslaving them, Hortense J. Spillers notes, "sever[s] . . . the captive body from its motive will, its active desire" (67). In further addressing the effects on the slave's identity, Spiller points out:

1) the captive body becomes the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality; 2) at the same time—; in stunning contradiction —the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor; 3) in this absence from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of "otherness" ; 4) as a category of "otherness," the captive body translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general "powerlessness," resonating through various centers of human and social meaning. (67)

 

American slave narratives, largely published after Séjour's story, appealed to readers by emphasizing enslaved humanity. This illustration, from Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1847), constructs a portrait of slave emotion expressed within and constrained by a system of power and family separation similar to the system depicted by Séjour earlier in "The Mulatto" (described above).

This lack of human acknowledgement is also seen in Georges, Laïsa's son, a mulatto who does not know who his father is and who consequently feels a sense of emptiness. While Georges likes his master "as much as one can like a man," and his master "esteem[s] him, but with that esteem that the horseman bears for the most handsome and vigorous of his chargers" (357), their dynamic is a consequence of the black-white binary dictated by the systemic structure of slavery. As a result, Georges experiences intense remorse, the result of being denied the identity of his own father, an identity his dying mother Laïsa refuses to disclose to him. After Laïsa's death, Georges, like his mother and her brother Jacques, is, in a figurative sense, an orphan.

Although Georges is seriously wounded saving his master's life from would-be murderers, Alfred tries to seduce Georges's wife, Zelia, during his convalescence. She resists Alfred's overtures, refusing to compromise her virtue for her master. As Antoine explains, Alfred, "instead of being moved by this display of a virtue that is so rare among women, above all among those who, like Zelia, are slaves, and who, every day, see their shameless companions prostitute themselves to the colonists, thereby only feeding more licentiousness" (359), allows his lustful desires to govern his actions. Zelia repeatedly resists him—a testament of the strength of Zelia's humanity and of her love for her husband— and causes Alfred, in his last desperate effort to seduce her, to lose his balance, striking his head as he falls. Tragically for Zelia, colonial laws dictated that the slave must be blamed and executed for her master's injury.4

Zelia's action, deemed rebellious within the dictates of the system of slavery, proves for the slave doubly devastating, resulting in her death as well as the destruction of her family. Georges pleads persistently and passionately to Alfred to spare his wife. When that fails, Georges angrily condemns his master as a "scoundrel," even threatening his life if Zelia is executed. Alfred, however, remains adamant. He shows no mercy. Alfred's recalcitrance precipitates his own murder and the murder of his wife at the hand of the vengeful Georges three years later. Only in the interval, after securing his two-year-old son and running away from his master, to a free space, "those thick forests that seem to hold the new world in their arms" and living among the Maroons, slaves, who, like Georges, "have fled the tyranny of their masters" (361), does Georges savor a semblance of what freedom means.

In Séjour's bleak story, there are no winners, for Georges also kills himself, since he apparently cannot live with the guilt and remorse. In avenging Zelia's death, Georges has also killed his own father, completing the destruction of his family. The story's concluding scene is strikingly symbolic. Georges severs his father's head with an ax just as Alfred tries to tell him that he is his father (364). The word "father" is severed, broken in two, a reminder that in a slave society normal paternal connections could not exist with slave children. Georges's action results in two children, one mulatto (his son) and the other white (Alfred and his wife's son), being orphaned. For both the slave boy and the free white boy of "The Mulatto," family is destroyed. Yet Alfred's child, by token of his race and class, will likely reap the benefits from his dissolved family. As Hortense Spillers comments, "the vertical transfer of bloodline, of a patronymic, of titles and entitlements, of real estate and the prerogatives of 'cold cash,' from fathers to sons and in the supposedly free exchange of affectional ties between a male and female of his choice—becomes the mythically revered privilege of a free and freed community" (74), of which the white child is beneficiary. Yet for the slave this takes on a different, constricted meaning: Georges and Zelia's orphan son will, as long as he remains in bondage, enjoy no privileges. Séjour conflates magistricide and patricide, so that in killing his master and father, Georges has killed part of himself. In terms of the rebellion-submission binary, Georges's act of ultimate rebellion is equated to his ultimate self-submission as an enslaved man. In other words, Georges's submission is the result of the oppressive and destructive effect of his enslavement on his mind and his spirit. For Georges, submission and rebellion as possibilities for manhood are inextricably linked, if irreconcilable.

While this situation, perpetuated by the systemic structure of slavery, is dismal for Georges, there exists a third alternative in Antoine, the narrator. Having lived for seventy-plus years, Antoine has succumbed to neither magistricide nor suicide as a response to slavery; instead, he tells stories about slavery. These stories provide an outlet for voicing commentary as a counterpoint to the tragic outcome of Georges's master-slave story. The narrator's stories also alert his white listener, and Séjour's readers, to the destructive consequences of slavery.

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Clotel's Rebellion

The submission-rebellion binary that Séjour employed in "The Mulatto" illuminates one consequence of the racial double standard as exercised in the sexual violation of enslaved persons and its corrosive effect on family life. This binary also appears, with some modifications, in subsequent African-American slave narratives and anti-slavery novels of the antebellum period. Examples abound in literature of mixed-race women as victims of racialized sexual exploitation, typically stemming from the systemic structure of slavery. One example is found in William Wells Brown's novel Clotel; or, the President's Daughter (1853).

"The Death of Clotel."  Illustration from William Wells Brown's novel, Clotel ; or, the President's Daughter, 1853. Image from Documenting the American South, a digital publishing initiative at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"The Death of Clotel." Illustration from William Wells Brown's novel, Clotel ; or, the President's Daughter, 1853. Image from Documenting the American South, a digital publishing initiative at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In Clotel, the authorial narrator bitterly protests the separation of members of a slave family. Clotel, who is a quadroon and can pass for white, is separated from her family, her mother Currer and her sister Althesa, and is sold at auction to a white man desiring her for his mistress. The notion of family unity and cohesiveness is violated as each of these three female slaves is sent to different places under different sets of circumstances. As in Laïsa's case, the auctioneer promotes Clotel as a highly desirable object, emphasizing her beauty, purity, and nobility of character as her principal selling points, traits making her marketable as a sexual commodity.

As a slave, Clotel, like Laïsa and Georges's wife, Zelia, has no rights, no choice regarding how she is treated, where she will live, or what will happen to her. Although her white master Horatio Green seems fond of Clotel, making her his mistress, and moving her to an apparently idyllic space in Virginia, and although the couple has a daughter during their relationship, Green, who marries a wealthy white woman from a prominent family, succumbs to his wife's jealousy and his father-in-law's demands that he sell Clotel. In placing his social and political aspirations above the love he may feel for Clotel, Green acts expediently, allowing his father-in-law to sell his slave mistress. Her sale forces her from her former refuge and separates her from her beloved daughter. Clotel’s tenuous security continues to be threatened, as she is sold two additional times. Her second new master attempts to seduce her with "glittering presents" and the likelihood of ensuing rape should she resist. Like Zelia in "The Mulatto," Clotel rebels against the space in which her humanity remains in jeopardy. Facing sexual exploitation, Clotel flees. In Chapter XIX, Clotel's rebellion becomes a successful, albeit momentary, escape in which, although ably impersonating a white invalid gentleman, she gives in to her maternal instincts. She forgoes her autonomy by returning to Virginia, intending to reunite with her daughter. Clotel has returned to a space where she is regarded as property, without control over how she will be used. While Clotel's escape—her rebellion against her master— has been skillfully executed, she feels that she cannot live a life of freedom in a place removed from her dear daughter. Her rebellion, if she continued to pursue her freedom, then, would become the equivalent of her family's destruction.

Zelia succumbs to the systemic structure of slavery that makes rebellion against the master the equivalent of self-immolation. In contrast, Clotel temporarily escapes this fate by rejecting her freedom and returning to Virginia in hopes of a mother and child reunion. Clotel risks re-enslavement, a return to oppressive conditions in place where, if recaptured, she will be forced back into bondage. Yet Clotel's actions do not bring about reunion. Recaptured and incarcerated in the District of Columbia — the seat of national government symbolizing the liberties that slaves are denied — Clotel confronts her imminent sale in the New Orleans market. There, she will likely be sexually exploited and never see her daughter again. Her rebellion suppressed, Clotel escapes once more, but when faced with recapture, chooses to jump to her death off a Potomac bridge.

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Local Color:

Another variation in fictional depictions of the effects of oppression on slaves emerged during the postbellum period, the heyday of the local color story. Often, local color set in the Mid and Deep South employed a frame and an embedded narrative, the latter recounted by an elderly African-American male and former slave. In this raconteur, we find a more restrictive binary pattern than Séjour used in "The Mulatto." Local color stories generally follow two patterns. Derived from stories slaves told, they can be allegorical beast fables, treating power struggles and survival under an oppressive system comparable to slavery. These stories are predicated on an inequitable double standard, with the power structure under the control of predacious animals. Examples are the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris. A second type presents a more direct rendering of slavery's brutalities and exploitation, such as Charles Chesnutt's conjure stories as told by the loquacious Uncle Julius. 

Cover of Charles W. Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman, containing his collected Uncle Julius stories, "The Goophered Grapevine," "Po' Sandy," "The Conjurer's Revenge," and "Mars Jeems's Nightmare," 1899. Image from Documenting the American South, a digital publishing initiative at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Cover of Charles W. Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman, containing his collected Uncle Julius stories, "The Goophered Grapevine," "Po' Sandy," "The Conjurer's Revenge," and "Mars Jeems's Nightmare," 1899. Image from Documenting the American South, a digital publishing initiative at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Chesnutt's "The Goophered Grapevine" (1887) features a multi-dimensional and affable storyteller in Uncle Julius, who still resides in the same place where he had been a slave. Uncle Julius speaks in quaint and comical dialect, creating an impression quite different from Séjour's straightforward, serious, and outspoken Antoine. In the conciliatory, non-controversial conventions of local color, Chesnutt portrays Uncle Julius as polyvocal, assuming competing poses and agendas. Julius is an entertainingly imaginative raconteur whose story involves the supernatural, folkloric, amusing, and outlandish descriptions. He is a cunning con artist and economic opportunist, a simple primitive, and a subdued social critic—contradictory postures reflecting amiability and rebelliousness. Like Séjour's Antoine, Julius, in telling his story of imagined spaces, works within the binaries of rebellion and submission, white and black, domination and abjection. Through him, Chesnutt dilutes and mellows the underlying serious social implications of Julius's embedded tale, establishing a comfort zone distancing the story's enslaved characters from implied readers. While Julius's story of Henry, the victimized slave, does focus on a dehumanizing aspect of slavery (Henry is economically exploited by his greedy master who commodifies him in his restricted space as a slave), the manner in which Julius tells the story is divertingly entertaining. Julius's narrative focuses principally on Henry's predicament rather than on the slave's interior self. It neither engages the sensibility nor arouses the moral consciousness of the frame narrator, a man from Ohio seeking to purchase the former plantation to whom Julius relates his story, or that of the implied reader.

Chesnutt used the rebellion-submission binary in several other conjure tales. In "Po' Sandy," Julius's story gains him temporary use of the old schoolhouse, a space for religious services. In "The Conjurer's Revenge," Julius gains power within his present space, shrewdly employing a tale to circumvent his white employer's buying a mule, and to set up a scam where he purchases a defective horse instead. In "Mars Jeems's Nightmare," Julius again makes a small gain, winning his white female listener’s sympathy so that she gives his unreliable grandson a second chance to continue to work for her family. The outcomes of these tales exemplify Chesnutt's manipulation of frame plots, creating opportunities within imagined spaces. Julius, although gaining some material advantage, remains oppressed. Moreover, the subtexts of his embedded narratives prove ineffectual in inciting understanding and empathy.

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Conclusion

With its early publication date and its tragic portrait of slavery's atrocities and effects in the plantation space of the French West Indies, Victor Séjour's "The Mulatto," is an important literary text. Séjour depicts African bondage in Saint-Domingue, a subject that would become a major concern in nineteenth- and twentieth-century writing. At nineteen, Séjour's parents sent him to Paris to further his education, pursue broader opportunities, and cultivate his talents. Assimilated into French society and the Parisian literary culture and living without the race-based constraints of his native New Orleans, Séjour passed the rest of his life in France, distinguishing himself as a dramatist. In "The Mulatto," his only short story, Séjour tapped into the subject of African bondage, possibly inspired by his father, Juan Francois Louis Séjour Marcou's Haitian experience and that of other free men of color and former slaves from the French West Indies.

Drawing-engraving of Victor Séjour.  From Diogène, March 8, 1857.
Drawing-engraving of Victor Séjour.  From Diogène, March 8, 1857.

In "The Mulatto," Séjour wrote of submission and rebellion in Saint-Domingue. He wrote in the language of his newly-adopted country, employed an embedded black slave narrator to recount the grim story-within-the-story, and published his fictional account in a Parisian anti-slavery journal sponsored by free men of color like himself.

"The Mulatto" anticipated renditions of grisly and melodramatic scripts featured in abolitionist narratives (autobiographical, fictional, or some combination of the two), but Séjour's story was all but unknown in the U.S. before Philip Barnard's English translation appeared in 1995 in the Norton Anthology of American Literature. The new publication of "The Mulatto" places it amid African Diasporic, post-colonial, US southern, and New World Studies. These fields of scholarship have encouraged the discovery and reappraisal of writers with origins in various locales, but who, like Séjour, adopted new nationalities and loyalties even as they were forgotten in their native countries. This analysis of "The Mulatto" suggests the connections among African bondage texts that cross cultures and societies, texts that expose the effects of slavery, of submission and rebellion, as they narrate this history. 

About the Author:

Ed Piacentino, a professor of English at High Point University in North Carolina, has published widely on the literature and culture of the American South. His numerous essays and reviews appear in such journals as the Southern Literary Journal, Southern Quarterly, Mississippi Quarterly, American Literature, Southern Studies, Studies in American Humor, American Quarterly, and Studies in Short Fiction. Professor Piacentino has authored or edited three books—T. S. Stribling: Pioneer Realist in Modern Southern Literature (1988); The Humor of the Old South, which he co-edited with M. Thomas Inge; and The Enduring Legacy of Old Southwest Humor (2006). He also serves as associate editor of Studies in American Humor. His current projects include an edition of the dialect letters of C. M. Haile, antebellum journalist and humorist and an anthology of antebellum southern humor, which he is co-editing with M. Thomas Inge.

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Recommended Resources

Text

Bonner, Thomas. "Victor Séjour (Juan Victor Séjour Marcou et Ferrand)." In Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Trudier Harris and Thadious  M. Davis, 237–241. Detroit: Gale, 1986. (Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 50)

Brown, William Wells. Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter. New York: Penguin, 2003. (Originally published in 1853.)

Chesnutt, Charles W. "The Goophered Grapevine." Charles W. Chesnutt: Selected Writing. Ed. SallyAnn H. Ferguson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001: 118-28.

Daut, Marlene. "'Sons of White Fathers': Mulatto Vengeance and the Haitian Revolution in Victor Sejour's 'The Mulatto.'" Nineteenth-Century Literature 65, no. 1 (2010): 1–37.

Dayan, Joan. Haiti, History and the Gods. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Dessens, Nathalie. From Saint-Domingue to New Orleans: Migration and Influences. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.

Fiehrer, Thomas Marc. "The African Presence in Colonial Louisiana: An Essay on the Continuity of Caribbean Culture." In Louisiana's Black Heritage, edited by Robert R. MacDonald, John R. Kemp, and Edward F. Haas. New Orleans: Louisiana State Museum, 1979: 3–31.

Geggus, David Patrick. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Handley, George B. "A New World of Oblivion." In Look Away! The U. S. South in New World Studies, edited by Jon Smith and Deborah Cohn. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004: 25-51.

O'Neill, Charles E. Séjour: Parisian Playwright from Louisiana. Lafayette, LA: Center for Louisiana Studies, 1995.

Piacentino, Edward J. "Slavery through the White-Tinted Lens of an Embedded Black Narrator: Sejour's 'The Mulatto' and Chesnutt's 'Dave's Neckliss' as Intertexts." Southern Literary Journal 44, no. 1 (2011): 121–143.

Séjour, Victor. "The Mulatto." Translated by Philip Barnard. In The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd Edition, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 2004: 353-65. (Originally published as: "Le Mulâtre." La Revue des Colonies 3 (1837): 376–392.)

Smith, Jon and Deborah Cohn. "Introduction: Uncanny Hybridities." In Look Away! The U.S. South in New World Studies, edited by John Smith and Deborah Cohn. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Spillers, Hortense J. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." Diacritics 17 no. 2 (1987): 64-81.

Williams, Linda. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas in Black and White, From Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Women & Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989

Web

Bob Corbett. "The Haitian Revolution of 1791–1803: An Historical Essay in Four Parts." Webster University. http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/haiti/history/revolution/revolution1.htm.

John R. Nemmers. A Guide to the Slavery and Plantations in Saint Domingue Collection. 2004. University of Florida Smathers Libraries. http://web.uflib.ufl.edu/spec/manuscript/guides/stdomingue.htm.

Haitian Immigration: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. http://www.inmotionaame.org/print.cfm?migration=5&bhcp=1.

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Note: The date of Philip Barnard's translation referenced in the conclusion of this essay was corrected from 1997 to 1995 and three resources were added to this essay's "Recommended Resources" on November 26, 2013.

"The Mulatto" by Victor Séjour:

Courtesy of Philip Barnard, translated 1995.

Section I

The first rays of dawn were just beginning to light the black mountaintops when I left the Cape for Saint-Marc, a small town in St. Domingue, now known as Haiti. I had seen so many exquisite landscapes and thick, tall forests that, truth to tell, I had begun to believe myself indifferent to these virile beauties of creation. But at the sight of this town, with its picturesque vegetation, its bizarre and novel nature, I was stunned; I stood dumb-struck before the sublime diversity of God's works. The moment I arrived, I was accosted by an old negro, at least seventy years of age; his step was firm, his head held high, his form imposing and vigorous; save the remarkable whiteness of his curly hair, nothing betrayed his age. As is common in that country, he wore a large straw hat and was dressed in trousers of coarse gray linen, with a kind of jacket made from plain batiste.

"Good day, Master," he said, tipping his hat when he saw me.

"Ah! There you are . . .," and I offered him my hand, which he shook in return.

"Master," he said, "that's quite noble-hearted of you . . . . But you know, do you not, that a negro's as vile as a dog; society rejects him; men detest him; the laws curse him. . . . Yes, he's a most unhappy being, who hasn't even the consolation of always being virtuous. . . . He may be born good, noble, and generous; God may grant him a great and loyal soul; but despite all that, he often goes to his grave with bloodstained hands, and a heart hungering after yet more vengeance. For how many times has he seen the dreams of his youth destroyed? How many times has experience taught him that his good deeds count for nothing, and that he should love neither his wife nor his son; for one day the former will be seduced by the master, and his own flesh and blood will be sold and transported away despite his despair. What, then, can you expect him to become? Shall he smash his skull against the paving stones? Shall he kill his torturer? Or do you believe the human heart can find a way to bear such misfortune?"

The old negro fell silent a moment, as if awaiting my response.

"You'd have to be mad to believe that," he continued, heatedly. "If he continues to live, it can only be for vengeance; for soon he shall rise . . . and, from the day he shakes off his servility, the master would do better to have a starving tiger raging beside him than to meet that man face to face." While the old man spoke, his face lit up, his eyes sparkled, and his heart pounded forcefully. I would not have believed one could discover that much life and power beneath such an aged exterior. Taking advantage of this moment of excitement, I said to him: "Antoine, you promised you'd tell me the story of your friend Georges."

"Do you want to hear it now?"

"Certainly . . ." We sat down, he on my trunk, myself on my valise. Here is what he told me:

"Do you see this edifice that rises so graciously toward the sky and whose reflection seems to rise from the sea; this edifice that in its peculiarity resembles a temple and in its pretense a palace? This is the house of Saint-M*** . Each day, in one of this building's rooms, one finds an assemblage of hangers-on, men of independent means, and the great plantation owners. The first two groups play billiards or smoke the delicious cigars of Havana, while the third purchases negroes; that is, free men who have been torn from their country by ruse or by force, and who have become, by violence, the goods, the property of their fellow men. . . . Over here we have the husband without the wife; there, the sister without the brother; farther on, the mother without the children. This makes you shudder? Yet this loathsome commerce goes on continuously. Soon, in any case, the offering is a young Senegalese woman, so beautiful that from every mouth leaps the exclamation: 'How pretty!' Everyone there wants her for his mistress, but not one of them dares dispute the prize with the young Alfred, now twenty-one years old and one of the richest planters in the country.

" 'How much do you want for this woman?'

" 'Fifteen hundred piasters,' replied the auctioneer.

" 'Fifteen hundred piasters,' Alfred rejoined dryly.

" 'Yes indeed, Sir.'

" 'That's your price?'

" 'That's my price.'

" 'That's awfully expensive.'

" 'Expensive?' replied the auctioneer, with an air of surprise. 'But surely you see how pretty she is; how clear her skin is, how firm her flesh is. She's eighteen years old at the most. . . .' Even as he spoke, he ran his shameless hands all over the ample and half-naked form of the beautiful African.

" 'Is she guaranteed?' asked Alfred, after a moment of reflection.

" 'As pure as the morning dew,' the auctioneer responded. But, for that matter, you yourself can. . . .'

" 'No no, there's no need,' said Alfred, interrupting him. 'I trust you.'

" 'I've never sold a single piece of bad merchandise,' replied the vendor, twirling his whiskers with a triumphant air. When the bill of sale had been signed and all formalities resolved, the auctioneer approached the young slave.

This man is now your master,' he said, pointing toward Alfred.

" 'I know it,' the negress answered coldly.

" 'Are you content?'

" 'What does it matter to me…him or some other . . .’

" 'But surely.. ..' stammered the auctioneer, searching for some answer. " 'But surely what?' said the African, with some humor. 'And if he doesn't suit me?’

" 'My word, that would be unfortunate, for everything is finished. . . .'

" 'Well then, I'll keep my thoughts to myself.'

"Ten minutes later, Alfred's new slave stepped into a carriage that set off along the chemin des quepes, a well-made road that leads out into those delicious fields that surround Saint-Marc like young virgins at the foot of the altar. A somber melancholy enveloped her soul, and she began to weep. The driver understood only too well what was going on inside her, and thus made no attempt to distract her. But when he saw Alfred's white house appear in the distance, he involuntarily leaned down toward the unfortunate girl and, with a voice full of tears, said to her: 'Sister, what's your name?'

" 'Laïsa, ' she answered, without raising her head.

" At the sound of this name, the driver shivered. Then, gaining control of his emotions, he asked: 'Your mother?'

" 'She's dead. . . .'

" 'Your father?'

" 'He's dead. . . .'

" 'Poor child,' he murmured. 'What country are you from, Laïsa?'

" 'From Senegal. . . .'

" Tears rose in his eyes; she was a fellow countrywoman.

" 'Sister,' he said, wiping his eyes, 'perhaps you know old Chambo and his daughter. . . .'

`Why?' answered the girl, raising her head quickly.

" 'Why?' continued the driver, in obvious discomfort, 'well, old Chambo is my father, and . . . '

" 'My God,' cried out the orphan, cutting off the driver before he could finish. 'You are?'

" 'Jacques Chambo.'

" 'You're my brother!'

" Laïsa!'

" They threw themselves into each other's arms. They were still embracing when the carriage passed through the main entrance to Alfred's property. The overseer was waiting. . . . 'What's this I see,' he shouted, uncoiling an immense whip that he always carried on his belt; 'Jacques kissing the new arrival before my very eyes. . What impertinence!' With this, lashes began to fall on the unhappy man, and spurts of blood leaped from his face. "

Section II

"Alfred may have been a decent man, humane and loyal with his equals; but you can be certain he was a hard, cruel man toward his slaves. I won't tell you everything he did in order to possess Laïsa; for in the end she was virtually raped. For almost a year, she shared her master's bed. But Alfred was already beginning to tire of her; he found her ugly, cold, and insolent. About this time the poor woman gave birth to a boy and gave him the name Georges. Alfred refused to recognize him, drove the mother from his presence, and relegated her to the most miserable hut on his lands, despite the fact that he knew very well, as well as one can, that he was the child's father.

" 'Georges grew up without ever hearing the name of his father; and when, at times, he attempted to penetrate the mystery surrounding his birth, his mother remained inflexible, never yielding to his entreaties. On one occasion only, she said to him: 'My son, you shall learn your name only when you reach twenty-five, for then you will be a man; you will be better able to guard its secret. You don't realize that he has forbidden me to speak to you about him and threatens you if I do. . . . And Georges, don't you see, this man's hatred would be your death.'

" 'What does that matter,' Georges shouted impetuously. 'At least I could reproach him for his unspeakable conduct.'

" 'Hush. . . . Hush, Georges. The walls have ears and someone will talk,' moaned the poor mother as she trembled."

A few years later this unhappy woman died, leaving to Georges, her only son, as his entire inheritance, a small leather pouch containing a portrait of the boy's father. But she exacted a promise that the pouch not be opened until his twenty-fifth year; then she kissed him, and her head fell back onto the pillow. . . . She was dead. The painful cries that escaped the orphan drew the other slaves around him. . . . They all set to crying, they beat their chests, they tore their hair in agony. Following these gestures of suffering, they bathed the dead woman's body and laid it out on a kind of long table, raised on wooden supports. The dead woman is placed on her back, her face turned to the East, dressed in her finest clothing, with her hands folded on her chest. At her feet is a bowl filled with holy water, in which a sprig of jasmine is floating; arid, finally, at the four corners of this funereal bed, the flames of torches rise up. . . . Each of them, having blessed the remains of the deceased, kneels and prays; for most of the negro races, despite their fetishism, have profound faith in the existence of God. When this first ceremony is finished, another one, no less singular, commences. . . . There are shouts, tears, songs, and then funeral dances!"

Section III

"Georges had all the talents necessary for becoming a well-regarded gentleman; yet he was possessed of a haughty, tenacious, willful nature; he had one of those oriental sorts of dispositions, the kind that, once pushed far enough from the path of virtue, will stride boldly down the path of crime. He would have given ten years of his life to know the name of his father, but he dared not violate the solemn oath he had made to his dying mother. It was as if nature pushed him toward Alfred; he liked him, as much as one can like a man; and Alfred esteemed him, but with that esteem that the horseman bears for the most handsome and vigorous of his chargers. In those days, a band of thieves was spreading desolation through the region; already several of the settlers had fallen victim to them. One night, by what chance I know not, Georges learned of their plans. They had sworn to murder Alfred. The slave ran immediately to his master's side.

" 'Master, master,' he shouted. . . . 'In heaven's name, follow me.' "Alfred raised his eyebrows.
" 'Please! come, come, master,' the mulatto insisted passionately. " 'Good God,' Alfred replied, 'I believe you're commanding me.'

" 'Forgive me, master . . . forgive me . . . I'm beside myself . . . I don't know what I'm saying . . . but in heaven's name, come, follow me, because. . . .'

" 'Explain yourself,' said Alfred, in an angry tone. . . .

"The mulatto hesitated.

" 'At once; I order you,' continued Alfred, as he rose menacingly. "'Master, you're to be murdered tonight.'

" 'By the Virgin, you're lying. . . .'

" 'Master, they mean to take your life.'

" 'Who?'

" 'The bandits.'

" 'Who told you this?'

" 'Master, that's my secret. . . .' said the mulatto in a submissive voice.

" 'Do you have weapons?' rejoined Alfred, after a moment of silence.

"The mulatto pulled back a few of the rags that covered him, revealing an axe and a pair of pistols.

" 'Good,' said Alfred, hastily arming himself.

" 'Master, are you ready?'

" 'Let's go. . . .'

" 'Let's go,' repeated the mulatto as he stepped toward the door. "Alfred held him back by the arm.

" 'But where to?'

" 'To your closest friend, Monsieur Arthur.'

" As they were about to leave the room, there was a ferocious pounding at the door.

" 'The devil,' exclaimed the mulatto, 'it's too late. . . .'

" 'What say you?'

" 'They're here,' replied Georges, pointing at the door. . . .

" 'Master, what's wrong?'

" 'Nothing . .. a sudden pain. . . .'

" 'Don't worry, master, they'll have to walk over my body before they get to you,' said the slave with a calm and resigned air.

"This calm, this noble devotion, were calculated to reassure the most cowardly of men. Yet at these last words, Alfred trembled even more, overwhelmed by a horrible thought. He reckoned that Georges, despite his generosity, was an accomplice of the murderers. Such is the tyrant: he believes all other men incapable of elevated sentiments or selfless dedication, for they must be small-minded, perfidious souls . . . . Their souls are but uncultivated ground, where nothing grows but thorns and weeds. The door shook violently. At this point, Alfred could no longer control his fears; he had just seen the mulatto smiling, whether from joy or anger he knew not.

" 'Scoundrel!' he shouted, dashing into the next room; 'you're trying to have me murdered, but your plot will fail'—upon which he disappeared. Georges bit his lips in rage, but had no time to think, for the door flew open and four men stood in the threshold. Like a flash of lightning, the mulatto drew his pistols and pressed his back to the wall, crying out in a deep voice:

" 'Wretches! What do you want?'

" 'We want to have a talk with you,' rejoined one of them, firing a bullet at Georges from point-blank range.

" 'A fine shot,' muttered Georges, shaking.

"The bullet had broken his left arm. Georges let off a shot. The brigand whirled three times about and fell stone dead. A second followed instantly. At this point, like a furious lion tormented by hunters, Georges, with his axe in his fist and his dagger in his teeth, threw himself upon his adversaries. . . . A hideous struggle ensues. . . . The combatants grapple . . . collide again. . . . they seem bound together. . . . The axe blade glistens. . . . The dagger, faithful to the hand that guides it, works its way into the enemy's breast. . . . But never a shout, not a word . . . not a whisper escapes the mouths of these three men, wallowing among the cadavers as if at the heart of some intoxicating orgy. . . . To see them thus, pale and blood-spattered, silent and full of desperation, one must imagine three phantoms throwing themselves against each other, tearing themselves to pieces, in the depths of a grave. . . . Meanwhile, Georges is covered with wounds; he can barely hold himself up. . . . Oh! the intrepid mulatto has reached his end; the severing axe is lifted above his head... . Suddenly two explosions are heard, and the two brigands slump to the floor, blaspheming God as they drop. At the same moment, Alfred returns, followed by a young negro. He has the wounded man carried to his hut, and instructs his doctor to attend to him. Now, how is it that Georges was saved by the same man who had just accused him of treachery? As he ran off, Alfred heard the sound of a gun, and the clash of steel; blushing at his own cowardice, he awoke his valet de chambre and flew to the aid of his liberator. Ah, I've forgotten to tell you that Georges had a wife, by the name Zelia, whom he loved with every fiber of his being; she was a mulatto about eighteen or twenty years old, standing very straight and tall, with black hair and a gaze full of tenderness and love. Georges lay for twelve days somewhere between life and death. Alfred visited him often; and, driven on by some fateful chance, he became enamored of Zelia. But, unfortunately for him, she was not one of these women who sell their favors or use them to pay tribute to their master. She repelled Alfred's propositions with humble dignity; for she never forgot that this was a master speaking to a slave. Instead of being moved by this display of a virtue that is so rare among women, above all among those who, like Zelia, are slaves, and who, every day, see their shameless companions prostitute themselves to the colonists, thereby only feeding more licentiousness; instead of being moved, as I said, Alfred flew into a rage. . What!—him, the despot, the Bey, the Sultan of the Antilles, being spurned by a slave . . . how ironic! Thus he swore he would possess her. . . . A few days before Georges was recovered, Alfred summoned Zelia to his chamber. Then, attending to nothing but his criminal desires, he threw his arms around her and planted a burning kiss on her face. The young slave begged, pleaded, resisted; but all in vain. . . . Already he draws her toward the adulterous bed; already. . . . Then, the young slave, filled with a noble indignation, repulses him with one final effort, but one so sudden, so powerful, that Alfred lost his balance and struck his head as he fell. . . . At this sight, Zelia began to tear her hair in despair, crying tears of rage; for she understood perfectly, the unhappy girl, that death was her fate for having drawn the blood of a being so vile. After crying for some time, she left to be at her husband's side. He must have been dreaming about her, for there was a smile on his lips.

" 'Georges . . . Georges. . . .' she cried out in agony.

"The mulatto opened his eyes; and his first impulse was to smile at the sight of his beloved. Zelia recounted for him everything that had happened. He didn't want to believe it, but soon he was convinced of his misfortune; for some men entered his hut and tied up his wife while she stood sobbing. . . . Georges made an effort to rise up; but, still weakened, he fell back onto his bed, his eyes haggard, his hands clenched, his mouth gasping for air."

Section IV

"Ten days later, two white creole children were playing in the street.

" 'Charles, 'one said to the other: 'is it true that the mulatto woman who wanted to kill her master is to be hung tomorrow?'

" 'At eight o'clock,' answered the other.

" 'Will you go?'

" 'Oh yes, certainly.'

" 'Won't that be fine, to see her pirouetting between the earth and the sky,' rejoined the first, laughing as they walked off.

"Does it surprise you to hear two children, at ten years of age, conversing so gayly on the death of another? This is, perhaps, an inevitable consequence of their education. From their earliest days, they have heard it ceaselessly repeated, that we were born to serve them, that we were created to attend to their whims, and that they need have no more or less consideration for us than for a dog. . . . Indeed, what is our agony and suffering to them? Have they not, just as often, seen their best horses die? They don't weep for them, for they're rich, and tomorrow they'll buy others.. . . While these two children were speaking, Georges was at the feet of his master.

" 'Master, have mercy . . . mercy. . . .' he cried out,. weeping. . . . 'Have pity on her . . Master, pardon her. . . . Oh! yes, pardon her, it is in your power . . . oh! speak ... you have only to say the word . . . just one word . . . and she will live.'

"Alfred made no answer.

" 'Oh! for pity's sake . . . master . . . for pity's sake, tell me you pardon her . . . oh! speak . . . answer me, master . . . won't you pardon her. . . .' The unhappy man was bent double with pain. . . .

" Alfred remained impassive, turning his head aside. . .

" ‘Oh!' continued Georges, begging, 'please answer . . . just one word . . . please say something; you see how your silence is tearing my heart in two . . . it's killing me . . .

" 'There's nothing I can do,' Alfred finally answered, in an icy tone.

" The mulatto dried his tears, and raised himself to his full height.

" 'Master,' he continued in a hollow voice, 'do you remember what you said to me, as I lay twisting in agony on my bed?'

" 'No. . . .'

" 'Well! I can remember . . . the master said to the slave: you saved my life; what can I grant you in return? Do you want your freedom? 'Master,' answered the slave, 'I can never be free, while my son and my wife are slaves.' To which the master replied: 'If ever you ask me, I swear that your wishes shall be granted'; and the slave did not ask, for he was content/ that he had saved his master's life . . . but today, today when he knows that, in eighteen hours, his wife will no longer be among the living, he flies to throw himself at your feet, and to call out to you: master, in God's name, save my wife.' And the mulatto, his hands clasped, with a supplicating gaze, fell to his knees and began to cry, his tears falling like rain. . . .

"Alfred turned his head away. . . .

" 'Master . . . master . . . for pity, give me an answer. . . . Oh! say that you want her to live . . . in God's name . . . in your mother's name . . . mercy . . . have mercy upon us. . . .' and the mulatto kissed the dust at his feet.

"Alfred stood silent.

" 'But speak, at least, to this poor man who begs you,' he said, sobbing. "Alfred said nothing.

" 'My God . . . my God! how miserable I am . . .' and he rolled on the floor, pulling at his hair in torment.

"Finally, Alfred decided to speak: 'I have already told you that it is no longer up to me to pardon her.'

" 'Master,' murmured Georges, still crying, 'she will probably be condemned; for only you and I know that she is innocent.'

" At these words from the mulatto, the blood rose to Alfred's face, and fury to his heart. . . .

"Georges understood that it was no longer time to beg, for he had raised the veil that covered his master's crime; thus he stood up resolutely.

" 'Leave . . . get out,' Alfred shouted at him.

"Instead of leaving, the mulatto crossed his arms on his chest and, with a fierce look, eyed his master scornfully from head to foot.

" 'Get out! get out, I say,' continued Alfred, more and more angrily.

" 'I'm not leaving,' answered Georges.

" 'This is defiance, you wretch.' He made a motion to strike him, but his hand remained at his side, so full of pride and hatred was George's gaze.

" 'What! you can leave her to be killed, to have her throat cut, to be murdered,' said the mulatto, 'when you know her to be innocent . . . when, like a coward, you wanted to seduce her?'

" 'Insolent! What are you saying?'

" 'I'm saying that it would be an infamous deed to let her die. . . .

" 'Georges . . . Georges. . .

" 'I am saying that you're a scoundrel,' screamed Georges, giving full rein to his anger, and seizing Alfred by the arm . . . 'ah! she'll die . . . she will die because she didn't prostitute herself to you . . . because you're white ... because you're her master . . . you lying coward.'

" 'Careful, Georges,' replied Alfred, trying to take a tone of assurance. `Be careful that instead of one victim tomorrow, the executioner does not find two.'

" 'You talk of victim and executioner, wretch,' shouted Georges. . . . 'So that means she dies . . . her . . . my Zelia ... but you should know that her life is linked to your own.'

" 'Georges!'

" 'You should know that your head will remain on your shoulders only so long as she lives.'

" 'Georges. . . Georges!'

" 'You should know that I will kill you, that I'll drink your blood, if even a hair on her head is harmed.'

"During all this time, the mulatto was shaking Alfred with all his strength.

" 'Let me go,' cried Alfred.

" 'Ah! she's dying . . . she's dying' . . . the mulatto screamed deliriously. " 'Georges, let me go!'

" 'Shut your mouth . . . shut it, you scoundrel . . . ah! she's dying . . . well then, should the executioner put an end to my wife . . .' he continued with a hideous smile.

"Alfred was so agitated he didn't even know that Georges had left. He went directly to his hut, where his child of two years was sleeping in a light cradle made from lianas; taking up the child, he slipped away. In order to understand what follows, you must know that there was only a small river to cross from Alfred's home before one arrives in the midst of those thick forests that seem to hold the new world in their arms.

"For six long hours, Georges walked without a rest; at last he stopped, a few steps from a hut built in the deepest heart of the forest; you'll understand the joy that shone in his eyes when you realize that this tiny hut, isolated as it is, is the camp of the Maroons; that is, of slaves who have fled the tyranny of their masters. At this moment the hut was filled with murmurs; for a rustling had been heard in the forest, and the leader, swearing that the noise was not that of any animal, had taken his rifle and gone out. . . . Suddenly the underbrush parted before him and he found himself face to face with a stranger.

" 'By my freedom,' he cried, looking over the newcomer, 'you found our recess all too easily.'

" 'Africa and freedom,' Georges replied calmly, as he pushed aside the barrel of the rifle. . . . I'm one of you.'

" 'Your name.'

" 'Georges, slave of Alfred.'

"They shook hands and embraced.

"The next day the crowd clamored round a scaffold, from which hung the body of a young mulatto woman. . . . When she had expired, the executioner let her corpse down into a pine coffin and, ten minutes later, body and coffin were thrown into a ditch that was opened at the edge of the forest.

"Thus this woman, for having been too virtuous, died the kind of death meted out to the vilest criminal. Would this alone not suffice to render the gentlest of men dangerous and bloodthirsty?"

Section V

"Three years had passed since the death of the virtuous Zelia. For a time, Alfred was in extreme torment; by day, he seemed to see a vengeful hand descending toward his head; he trembled at night because the darkness brought him hideous, frightful dreams. Soon, however, he banished from his thoughts both the painful memory of the martyr and the terrible threat Georges had made; he married and became a father. . . . Oh! how gratified he felt, when he was told that his prayers were answered, he who had humbly kissed the church floor each evening, beseeching the Virgin of Sorrows to grant him a son.

"For Georges also, there was happiness in this child's arrival. For if he had hoped for three years without attempting to strike back at his wife's executioner; if he had lain sleepless so many nights, with fury in his heart and a hand on his dagger, it was because he was waiting for Alfred to find himself, like Georges, with a wife and a son. It was because he wished to kill him only when dear and precious bonds linked him to this world. . . . Georges had always maintained close ties with one of Alfred's slaves; indeed, he visited him each week; and that slave had never given Georges any news more important than that of the newborn's arrival. . . . He immediately set out for the house of his enemy. On his way he met a negress who was bringing a cup of broth to Madame Alfred; he stopped her, exchanged a few insignificant words, and went on. . . . After many difficulties, he managed to slip his way, like a snake, into Alfred's rooms; once there, hidden in the space between the bed and the wall, he awaited his master. . . . A moment later, Alfred entered the room, humming a tune; he opened his secretary and took out a superb jewel box, set with diamonds, that he had promised his wife, should she give him a son; but, filled with joy and happiness, he sat down and put his head between his hands, like a man who can't believe his unexpected good fortune. Then, on raising his head, he saw before him a kind of motionless shadow, with arms crossed on its breast and two burning eyes that possessed all the ferocity of a tiger preparing to tear its prey to pieces. Alfred made a motion to stand, but a powerful arm held him down in his chair.

" 'What do you want with me,' Alfred whispered, in a trembling voice. "'To compliment you on the birth of your child,' answered a voice that seemed to emerge from the tomb.

"Alfred shook from head to toe, his hair stood on end, and a cold sweat poured over his limbs.

" 'I don't know you,' Alfred muttered weakly. . . .

" 'Georges is the name.'

" 'You. . .

" 'You thought I was dead, I suppose,' said the mulatto with a convulsive laugh.

" 'Help . . . help,' cried Alfred.

" 'Who will help you,' rejoined the mulatto . . . haven't you dismissed your servants, haven't you closed your doors, to be alone with your wife . . . so you see, your cries are useless . . . you should commend your soul to God.'

" Alfred had begun to rise from his chair, but at these last words he fell back, pale and trembling.

" 'Oh! have pity, Georges ... don't kill me, not today.'

"Georges shrugged his shoulders. 'Master, isn't it horrible to die when you're happy; to lie down in the grave at the moment you see your fondest dreams coming true . . . oh! it's horrible, isn't it,' said the mulatto with an infernal laugh. . . .

" 'Mercy, Georges. . .

" 'And yet,' he continued, 'such is your destiny . . . you shall die today, this hour, this minute, without giving your wife your last farewell. . . " 'Have pity . . . pity. . .'

" 'Without kissing your newborn son a second time. . .

" 'Oh! mercy . . . mercy.'

" 'I think my vengeance is worthy of your own . . . I would have sold my soul to the Devil, had he promised me this moment.'

" 'Oh! mercy . . . please take pity on me,' said Alfred, throwing himself at the feet of the mulatto.

" Georges shrugged his shoulders and raised his axe.

" 'Oh! one more hour of life!'

" 'To embrace your wife, is that it?'

" 'One minute. . . .'

" 'To see your son again, right?'

" 'Oh! have pity. . . .'

" 'You might as well plead with the starving tiger to let go his prey.'

" 'In God's name, Georges.'

" 'I don't believe in that any longer.'

" 'In the name of your father. . . .'

" At this, Georges's fury subsided.

" 'My father . . . my father,' repeated the mulatto, tears in his eyes. `Do you know him . . . oh! tell me his name. . . . What's his name . . . oh! tell me, tell me his name . . . I'll pardon you . . . I'll bless you.'

"And the mulatto nearly fell on his knees before his master. But suddenly, sharp cries were heard. . .

" 'Good heavens ... that's my wife's voice,' cried Alfred, dashing toward the sounds. . . .

"As if he were coming back to his senses, the mulatto remembered that he had come to the house of his master, not to learn the name of his father, but to settle accounts with him for his wife's blood. Holding Alfred back, he told him with a hideous grin: 'Hold on, master; it's nothing.'

" 'Jesus and Mary ... don't you hear her calling for help.'

" 'It's nothing, I tell you.'

" 'Let me go . . . let me go . . . it's my wife's voice.'

" 'No, it's the gasps of a dying woman.'

" 'Wretch, you're lying. . . .'

" 'I poisoned her. . . .'

" 'Oh!'

" 'Do you hear those cries . . . they're hers.'

" 'The Devil. . . .'

" 'Do you hear those screams . . . they're hers.'

" 'A curse. . . .'

"During all this time, Alfred had been trying to shake free of the mulatto's grip; but he held him fast, tighter and tighter. As he did, his head rose higher, his heart beat fiercely, he steadied himself for his awful task.

" 'Alfred . . . help . . . water . . . I'm suffocating,' shouted a woman, as she threw herself into the middle of the room. She was pale and disheveled, her eyes were starting out of her head, her hair was in wild disarray.

" 'Alfred, Alfred . . . for heaven's sake, help me . . . some water . . . I need water . . . my blood is boiling . . . my heart is twitching . . . oh! water, water. . .'

"Alfred struggled mightily to help her, but Georges held him fast with an iron hand. Laughing like one of the damned, he cried out: 'No, master . . . I'm afraid not . . . I want your wife to die ... right there. . . before your eyes . . . right in front of you . . . do you understand, master; right in front of you, asking you for water, for air, while you can do nothing to help her.'

" 'Damnation . . . may you be damned,' howled Alfred, as he struggled like a madman.

" 'You can curse and blaspheme all you want,' answered the mulatto . . . 'this is the way it's going to be. . .'

" 'Alfred,' the dying woman moaned again, 'good-bye . . . good-bye . I'm dying. . .

" 'Look well,' responded the mulatto, still laughing. . . . 'Look . . . she's gasping . . . goodness! a single drop of this water would restore her to life.' He showed him a small vial.

" 'My entire fortune for that drop of water. . . .' cried Alfred.

" 'Have you gone mad, master. . .'

" 'Ah! that water . . . that water . . . don't you see she's dying . . . give it to me . . . please give it to me. . .'

" 'Here . . .' and the mulatto flung the vial against the wall.

" 'Accursed,' screamed Alfred, seizing Georges by the neck. 'Oh! my entire life, my soul, for a dagger. . .'

" Georges released Alfred's hands.

" 'Now that she's dead, it's your turn, master,' he said as he lifted his axe.

" 'Strike, executioner . . . strike . . . after poisoning her, you might as well kill your own fa—.' The ax fell, and Alfred's head rolled across the floor, but, as it rolled, the head distinctly pronounced the final syllable, '-ther . . . ' Georges at first believed he had misheard, but the word father, like a funeral knell, rang in his ears. To be certain, he opened the fateful pouch. . . . 'Ah!' he cried out, 'I'm cursed. . . .' An explosion was heard; and the next day, near the corpse of Alfred, was discovered the corpse of the unhappy Georges. . . ."

1837

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  • 1. Yellin, who treats this icon of the kneeling supplicant slave in chains in chapter 1 of her Women & Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture and who notes that such figures helped to serve the purposes of the abolitionist movement (5).
  • 2. Smith and Cohn reaffirm this claim, positing that the "New World, U.S., and southern cultures cannot be accurately delineated without reference to the similar influences of African American cultures across the borders of the southern United States" (4).
  • 3. Though the precise time period of Séjour's story is not clearly designated and while the setting is Saint-Domingue (Haiti), it is impossible to determine with certainty, even from the context, if Antoine, the embedded narrator in "The Mulatto," is still enslaved. According to Dayan in 1791 about three-fourths of the 50,000 people in Cap Français were slaves and that throughout Saint-Domingue the population was overwhelmingly slaves (146).
  • 4. Commenting on the Black Code and the kinds of punishment inflicted on slaves for acts against free persons in Saint-Domingue, Dayan notes: "Death for the slave who strikes his master, mistress, or the husband or his mistress. . . . Assault and battery against free persons are severely punished even by death if the person struck falls to the ground" (210).