In 10th grade, I auditioned for the role of Julie in the musical Show Boat, one of the most famous portrayals of the tragic mulatto trope. I was cast, instead, as Queenie, the mammy. I deserved the part of Julie. I had a good singing voice. But there were no black people in my school to play the part of Queenie.
My first personal tragic mulatto moment.
Playing the mammy in Show Boat made me realize something my black mother had always told me and I never believed: the world did not see me as Julie, trying to manage two different backgrounds. It saw me as black. Specifically, white people saw me as black.
On Wednesday, I spoke with Mat Johnson, the author of Loving Day, a new novel that explores the mulatto experience—one that Johnson sees as a subset of the black experience. And one that the United States didn’t recognize until 2000, the first year the Census collected data on people of more than one race.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CM: In its review of your book, The New York Times says the main character embodies W.E.B. Dubois’ theory of “double consciousness,” a concept that captures the complicated nature of black identity. DuBois writes:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
What was the first time you remember feeling that twoness?
MJ: I always felt that kind of bifurcated existence, but I didn’t have any words for it. And when I read DuBois when I was a senior in high school, I remember instantly getting it. You know that great thing when you instantly get it? For the most part, what I’ve been talking about with the mulatto experience has been a more extreme version of the African American experience in general. I still look at the mulatto experience as a type of African American experience, and that question of double consciousness, that’s it right there. It’s just more extreme.
CM: When I read The Souls of Black Folk for the first time, I was around the same age, and I remember thinking that DuBois differs from me only in that he wasn’t fair like me. My twoness has a physical manifestation: my body. And DuBois’ twoness derived from being the only black person in a sea of white people.
MJ: My biggest goal with this book is to demystify the conversation about being biracial. It’s not new, and it’s not really that different. But because we have so many taboos around it, we fetishize it almost as this kind of unique thing.
CM: You grew up in the Mount Airy and Germantown sections of Philadelphia. Mt. Airy has long been recognized for its diversity—in the 1950s, civil-rights groups and community-based organizations worked together to prevent redlining and panic selling.
What was it like to grow up a mulatto boy in an area that is also known for its successful racial integration?
MJ: Well, it’s funny because I look back on my childhood and I, like others, feel my mixed experience was very solitary. But when I look back at Mt. Airy there were four mixed kids in my class of 20. We weren’t really naming it, it was just there as part of the reality. Also, the Jewish influence on the book had everything to do with Mt. Airy. The white community that decided not to succumb to white flight was largely the Jewish community, and the Germantown Jewish center was at the center of that.
CM: The five mulattos in your grade: did you feel like you were a little crew of mixed race kids, or did you feel black?
MJ: When you come in and you name something, you make it real, and we didn’t really have a name. We weren’t thinking along those lines, but if we did it would be black. We were black. It was either, “You’re black” or “You’re not trying to pay attention to any of that.” My cousin and I used to say that we were interracial. And that wasn’t even the right term! But we didn’t know.
CM: People still stay doing that also.
MJ: I have smart people talking to me all the time who mess that up.
CM: Right, and that’s hard when within the mulatto experience there are varying shades…
MJ: Right! And the only thing we have in common as a group is that everybody has a different interpretation of their identity and tends to be very arrogant about it, myself included. When the book was coming out I thought, there are black people who are going to be annoyed that I’m talking about it at all. And there are going to be white people who are going to be cluelessly and arrogantly smug, like, “Why are we even talking about this at all? We’re all just people.” But the people who are going to be really pissed are the mixed people! And it’s going to be over tiny variations.
CM: I don’t personally pass as white. And I’ve always wondered about others who can. Do you ever choose to intentionally pass as white?
MJ: Every single time I get pulled over by a cop. And I feel guilty as I’m doing it, but you have never met a whiter man than me pulled over by a police officer. I mean, I sound like Gomer Pyle.
When I moved to New York I wondered what would happen if I stopped playing up my black identity. And I basically just let that go. I didn’t cut my hair in a way to look blacker. Didn’t have facial hair in a way that made me look blacker. I wore clothes that were more ethnically generic, just generally bland preppy. And I went through this whole period. It was maybe like a month where I just let that disappear.
CM: Did you do it as an experiment?
MJ: Yes. There was part of me that was still my high school, my middle school self that was still in there saying, “You have to prove who you are,” And so I thought, “I’m too old for that, just let go.” I even dated a white girl, which I’d never done in the States. And one night I was walking through SoHo and we were headed down the street, this guy almost bumped into me and he was drunk and not looking up and he said, “Watch where you’re going, you wannabe Anglo motherfucker.” He was Afro-Latino. The sad thing is that I was like, “Yes!” Even when I was at my whitest, I’m not crazy.
People always say, “You look white,” or, “I thought you were white,” and you think to yourself, maybe I do look white, and the only reason anybody ever thinks I don’t look white is because I actively try not to betray that. And so to have that recognized in a dark alley by an angry irate drunken dude was like, “If he can get it, then I am who I am.”
Identity is in three parts: Who you feel like you are, your actual ancestral connection, and the community part, which is how people look at you and treat you. And so I have the first two but it was my third part that was more tenuous.
CM: My mother has a story she tells me, you might get a kick out of it. When my mom tried to join Jack and Jill, a cultural organization for black children, it had this unwritten rule that you weren’t accepted if you were darker than a paper bag. Much later, when I was about three or four years old, I attended the Dance Theater of Harlem, and my white father was approached by another parent and asked whether I might be interested in joining a club for black youth called Jack and Jill. My father came home so excited and told my mom. She took one look at him, said, “Oh, hell no.” Hearing that story years later was interesting for me. I had this intense desire to be darker, to look more like my mom so that I could have the right to feel the anger I felt on her behalf.
Have you ever had that desire? To be blacker? And how did it manifest?
MJ: Jack and Jill is not like that anymore, but it has that legacy. And there’s this weird thing, too, where you have the larger issue of complexion in the African American community. On the one hand it’s very coveted in a culture heavily governed by white supremacy, and on the other hand you have all this resentment towards it. I definitely wanted to be darker in the sense that I wanted the world to see me as I saw myself.
CM: You wished your hair was curlier?
MJ: Yeah! I was ashamed it was straight. I would shave my hair. I went to college and people still had hi-top fades, and I always had a fade. But then for years I would just always shave my hair because i hated that it was straight. In 2007 I grew out my hair and didn’t even shape it to make it look like something it wasn’t. And it was scary!
CM: Well, it’s interesting and feels almost counterintuitive, right? Another time when I was in middle school, this bully, this girl noticed that I had befriended two black girls who presented as black, talked black. They had become good friends of mine, I really liked them. Most of my other friends in middle school were white or mixed. So this bully girl comes up to me and she says, “You gotta pick, are you white or black?” And obviously I was old enough to know how silly that question was, but I’ve come back to it a lot in my life because there are times where I really wish I was black. I’ve never wished I was white, but there are times where I really wish I was blacker. And that’s really bizarre and counterintuitive given the colorism you spoke of that exists both within the black community and obviously within the greater white supremacist model going back to slavery that the lighter you are the better, cleaner, smarter and most importantly the more beautiful you are.
I’m wondering what you make of that.
MJ: On some level it should be obvious: you want to fit into the larger community. But the thing that makes it exceptional is that the larger community is heavily discriminated against by mainstream society. But that doesn’t change what happens on a smaller, local, emotional level.
CM: But even when I’m in predominantly white settings, which I have to say I have been most of my life, I have never wanted to be white, I’ve never had that desire.
MJ: Well yeah, when you’re in those settings, that’s when it hits you more! One of the things I’ve never told anybody: a couple years ago I was at a black writing function and I interacted with someone at the function and got that feeling that I’ve had so many times where that person wanted me to prove my blackness. And she asked me all these questions and I just shut it down. I didn’t play any of the games. I didn’t change the intonation of my voice or drop a dog whistle in there. I didn’t do any of it. I was like, “Fuck it, I can’t be bothered, I’m too old for this shit.”
And then later I was in a lounge area and I was talking about that feeling, about how annoying it is. And I was talking to all these people who are like, “Yeah I totally know what you’re talking about, you have to jump through all these hoops so I can stamp your black passport.” And I look around and every one of them was mixed, but all black-identified. I just looked around and was like, “You and you and you,” and oh my God, it was like this mulatto miracle! And I think out of that moment, that’s when the community thing hit me. I’m never in a room full of people who all identify as the same way I do. That’s never happened. And I thought, “Oh shit this is my tribe!”
CM: Well that’s so funny. I have a group of friends who are all mulattos. And about two years ago we started the mulatto listserv. It’s just a casual email chain where we share articles, music, and jokes.
MJ: You gotta put me on it!
CM: I know! But so, it’s the first time I’ve ever felt completely at home, even though it’s this virtual space. One of the members—the only one I didn’t know very well at the time—met up with me at a dinner party in Boston. All of the people we were with were white. And we were just chilling on the side, laughing. We decided that we’d get a pair of tattoos. Mules, for our mulatto pride. Many believe the world “mulatto” is derived from mule: the offspring of a donkey and horse. At the time it felt sort of insignificant and silly. But now it feels much weightier. We were branding ourselves, we were creating a clan. You explore that a bit in your book when the father teaches his daughter about being black, about being mulatto.
I was wondering, do you think “mulatto” will ever be its own racial category entirely?
MJ: Well, I’m not the mulatto messiah. To me, this experience is a first- or second-generation experience, and that’s part of a larger African American experience. The larger African American community—even though it doesn’t really acknowledge this—could be considered a mulatto community. And so I feel like the mulatto thing is an early generation experience. And so I don’t know where that goes.
CM: Well it’s kind of temporary identity, right? You’re a first-generation mulatto but after that, unless you intermarry with another mulatto it’s kind of a wrap for that specific experience one way or the other.
MJ: And even if you do intermarry, what does that mean? And I just don’t think any of that has been defined. We’ve just started looking at this in a different way relatively recently. And we’re still having to negotiate a slave past that’s very present in this discussion. The reason we have this discussion in the way that we have it is because of centuries of oftentimes rape and denial of European heritage. They weren’t going to acknowledge how the baby got there. So we have to deal with all that. To me, it has become important to sometimes be in an environment where I get to ethnically be in a majority. And it’s something white people have every day. And it’s something that a lot of black people have every day, too. I never have that.
So if I’m going to get that, I have to create it.
Originally this book was supposed to be called Mulattotopia, but my editor was like, “No one will be able to Google that, there’s no way you are doing that.” But I’m happy that it’s Loving Day, because Loving Day to me is going to be this day once a year where I have an excuse to hang out with a lot of people who also have the same ethnic situation.
You can buy Loving Day here