William Wells Brown 's Clotel, Or The President 's Daughter

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William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or The President’s Daughter could read as a pure romance if it were not a slave narrative; some parts still strongly resemble typical mid-nineteenth century romances, meant to appeal primarily to white women. All of the protagonists are women, the most prevalent being the eponymous Clotel and her sister Althesa, both of whom are mixed-race and born to Currer, a “bright mulatt[a],” and Thomas Jefferson (Brown 49-50). Clotel has “a complexion as white as most of those who were waiting with a wish to become her purchasers’ her features as finely defined as any of her sex of pure Anglo-Saxon” and, though Althesa’s color is not as explicitly described, she presumably has an appearance similar to her sister’s. The novel was a bestseller, quite a feat for being written by a fugitive, formerly enslaved Black man a decade before the end of slavery in the United States. Both Althesa and Clotel have children with free white men, but Althesa and her husband die young of the Yellow Fever and the father of Clotel’s children disowns her; Clotel later commits suicide rather than be lynched as a fugitive slave, leaving both Althesa and Clotel’s children to follow the condition of their mothers into slavery. Thus, the archetype of the “tragic mulatta” was born, a widespread trope specifically depicting a mixed-race woman who fails to fit into either white femininity or Black femininity and becomes depressed, potentially even suicidal, because of this. The mixed-race eponymous female protagonist of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “Natalie” blatantly fails to follow this pattern. The first paragraph mentions her “brown arms” and, later, “fair-haired, rose-tinted” Olivia appears, her description providing a clear contrast and mark... ... middle of paper ... ...men who exist in proximity to racial Blackness, are stronger and more independent, both traditionally masculine traits, than white women. These traits are often emphasized to rob women of color of their femininity, and Natalie is no exception to this. In reading the short story, the descriptors used for Olivia provoke more feminine images than those used for Natalie; for instance, Natalie is praised for being “plucky,” possessing “a man’s herculean strength,” “healthy,” and “stout,” while Olivia is initially described as a “rose-tinted creature” wearing “a flower-covered hat” (30, 32, 38). Despite the masculinization of Natalie, Dunbar-Nelson deserves credit for creating a story about a mixed-race woman that does not end with her in deep depression or dead, most likely by suicide, in a time when nearly all mixed-race women in fiction were archetypical tragic mulattas.

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