In September 2014, a couple of months after participating in a family reunion of the “Other Madisons,” President James Madison’s African-American descendants, I collected a sample of my saliva in a little plastic vial and then sent it to 23andMe for DNA analysis. A few weeks later, I learned that I am 64.7% sub-Saharan African and 33.7% European. The rest of me is a drop or two Asian. None of this was surprising. My skin color can be described as coffee with plenty of cream; my hair is very curly, my nose a little broad, and my lips a little full. I am the typical black American woman whose enslaved female ancestors did not escape the “attention” of white plantation owners, their sons, overseers, or other white men. I suppose I could call myself multiracial or multi-ethnic or mixed-race, but I don’t. Both of my parents had white ancestors but embraced the black community that nurtured them and found strength in the black traditions that inspired them. I am Black.
Who is mulatto?
For centuries, people around the globe have created names to identify the offspring of parents of different ethnic or racial backgrounds. One of the most controversial, especially in the United States, is “mulatto,” which Wikipedia defines as “a person who is born from one white parent and one black parent, or to persons of two mulatto parents,” though the term is sometimes applied to persons of any mixed ethnicity or race.
The origin of the term
The etymology of “mulatto” is usually believed to have been derived in the 16th century from the Spanish and Portuguese term mulato, which comes from the Latin m?lus, meaning mule, the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey. Some scholars believe that the word originated centuries earlier with the Arabic term muwallad, referring to individuals born and reared in a community but considered to be and treated as outsiders.
Its significance in the U.S.
In the United States, “mulatto” is now used mostly in historical contexts. It is sometimes viewed as pejorative but at other times complimentary. Being “half-assed” is always bad; looking white, or part white, is sometimes bad. (The merits of “passing” or being able to “pass,” especially during and after the social movements of the ‘60s, is a topic for another blog).
Audrey Smedley, a professor of anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Race in North America: Origins of a Worldview, writes that the first mulatto child in America was born in 1620, one year after the arrival of the first Africans. In my Internet search, I was not able to find this child, but his or her existence makes sense. America’s poor laborers, whatever the color of their skin, worked together, socialized together, lived together, and made love together.
Starting with Virginia in 1662, the southern colonies adopted the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, which, unlike English common law, stated that children were born into the status of their mother. Thus, children born to enslaved mothers were slaves, regardless of the status or color of their fathers; while children born to white mothers were free, even if the fathers were black and enslaved. Not only did the doctrine relieve labor shortages in the colonies, it also legitimized the rape of slave women by white men. White fathers were no longer required to acknowledge, support, or emancipate their illegitimate children by slave women. Men could sell their children or put them to work.
The “Other Madisons”
According to my family’s oral history, James Madison allowed his wife, Dolley, to sell his enslaved mulatto son, Jim. What do I think of that? I have mixed thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, selling ones’ own child is unforgiveable, but on the other hand, I feel sympathy for Madison. He lost out on the blessings of fatherhood, and he alienated himself from his only direct descendants, the “Other Madisons.”