Mixed-race History: Some Hidden Information

‘White,”Mixed’ or’Other?’

Some Books and Articles Your Librarian Didn’t Tell you About!

“White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana” by Virginia R Dominguez, 1986 — Rutgers University Press.

Dominguez is one of the few serious researchers in the area of racial mixture and white racial identity. She shows the importance of individual choice in overcoming the legal manipulations and bogus statutes of the power elite. She is also one of the few scholars honest enough to see the connection between the Hispanics and non-Hispanics of interracial ancestry. Indeed, she notes that the use of the term “Hispanic” as a racial category is designed to help government avoid dealing with the reality of racial intermixture.

“The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color” by Gary B. Mills — Louisiana State University Press, 1977.

Mills shows the higher than expected status that mixed-blood Creoles had in antebellum Louisiana (as does Dominguez in White by Definition). Remember that whenever you hear references to “black” plantation owners in the antebellum South, someone is trying to steal history from racially mixed people (mulattoes, quadroons, etc.) and give it to blacks.

“Miscegenation and the Free Negro (sic) in Antebellum ‘Anglo’ Alabama: A Reexamination of Southern Race Relations” by Gary B. Mills in The Journal of American History, Vol. 6, No. 1, June 1981. Pp. 16-34.

Check pages 27 through 31 of this long articles and you will see where Mills shows that families of known racially mixed ancestry moved from “colored” to “white” status within a generation or two with the knowledge and consent of the white community. This information totally contradicts the myth of “passing.”

“Race and Kinship in a Midwestern Town: The Black (sic) Experience in Monroe, Michigan, 1900-1915” by James E. DeVries — University of Illinois Press.

DeVries plainly states that the white community of Monroe, Michigan accepted the mobility of part-black whites into the white community. This again contradicts the “passing” myth. DeVries, however, is too much of a “liberal” racist to admit that and offend black elites. He even goes so far as to suggest that the white community of Monroe was “racist” for accepting part- black whites into the white community. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t!

A quote from the book: “Crossing over was not the silent mechanism that some historians have indicated. It involved not only racial heritage but, ironically, family and personal identity. Could an individual known to have an African ancestry be regarded and defined as white? Yes, the interracial backgrounds and unions off the Fosters and Duncansons were matters of public knowledge. Each of the families had a long, continuous heritage in Monroe, and descendants residing in the community today beat no stigma of race and are generally viewed as Caucasian.” (P. 150)

“Black (sic) Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South” by Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark — W W. Norton and Company.

Johnson and Roark found that a “white mulatto” member of a “free colored” plantation-owning family served in the Confederate Army with the full knowledge and acceptance of the white community. “White” status seemed to be more closely related to loyalty issues rather the strict “purity.” (p. 307).


“Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986” by David Montejano — University of Texas Press, Austin.

Montejano describes the great inconsistencies in defining Mexicans as either “white” or a separate “race.” Mexican-Americans faced segregation similar to a Jim Crow system. The recent PBS series Chicano! also illustrates this fact. The existence of a racially mixed ethnic group with numerous racial phenotypes and class distinctions confounds the efforts of white elites to establish clear racial boundaries. Mexicans are a mixture of Indian (predominately), Spanish and black (from the slaves brought to colonial Mexico by the Spanish). Though they usually fail to mention the third element in their ancestry, many Mexicans have clearly Negroid facial feature and hair texture.

“Colored and Catholic: The Lebanese in Birmingham, Alabama” by Nancy Faires Conklin and Nora Faires. In “Crossing the Waters: Arabic -Speaking Immigrants to the United States Before 1940” edited by Eric J. Hooglund — Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

This article relates the efforts of Lebanese immigrants in Alabama to establish “white” status and make themselves an exception to the Jim Crow laws. The Lebanese were too dark for their claim to “white” status to go unquestioned. You might say they were unknowing victims of the degradation of “Anglo” mulattoes.

“Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans” by Ronald Takaki — Little, Brown and Company.

Takaki states that “In 1909 federal authorities classified Armenians as “Asiatic” and denied naturalized citizenship to Armenian immigrants.” Armenians had to go to court to have themselves declared “white.” South Asians also were also denied “white”status due to their dark skin colors (despite the efforts of Anthropologists who claimed that skin color in “Caucasians” range from very pale to very dark brown or almost black).

“Pocahontas: The Evolution of An American Narrative” by Robert S. Tilton — Cambridge University Press.

Tilton explores the role of Pocahontas and the “Indian Princess” legend in creating white elite identity and legitimizing the stealing of Indian lands. The claim of descent from an Indian Princess is very popular among many whites. Tilton argues that is a way of saying that we didn’t steal the land but inherited it.

Here’s another interesting quote from Tilton:

“…for many base wretches amongst us take up with negro women, by which means the country swarms with mulatto bastards, and these mulattoes, if but three generations removed from the black father or mother, may, by the indulgence of the laws of the country, intermarry with the white people, and actually do every day so marry. Now, if instead of this abominable practice which hath polluted the blood of many amongst us, we had taken Indian wives in the first place, it would have made them some compensation for their lands. …We should become rightful heirs to their lands and should not have smutted our blood…”

The Rev. Peter Fontaine of Virginia, 1757.

“Mixed-Bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Charles Curtis and the Quest for Indian Identity” by William E. Unrau — University Press of Kansas.

Unrau relates how mixed blood or “white Indians” were promoted by government as a “civilizing” influence on real or full-blood Indians. Charles Curtis is often listed as an “Indian” (1/8) Vice President of the U.S., but he was fully “white” in every caste or social sense. We should ask what is the difference, if any, between a “mixed blood Indian” and a part-Indian “white?” What is the role of a “mixed” elite (for either Indians or blacks) in reinforcing ideas of white superiority and institutions of white supremacy? Indeed, whenever blacks insist on claiming people who aren’t of Negroid phenotype for their “race” aren’t they really expressing an inferiority complex and a tacit belief that their genetic stock needs to be improved with the blood of their hatred but adored white “enemy?”

WHEN JESUS CAME, THE CORN MOTHERS WENT AWAY: MARRIAGE, SEXUALITY AND POWER IN NEW MEXICO, 1500-1846. By Ramon A. Gutierrez (Stanford University Press, 1991),

This is an excellent study of racial intermixture in New Mexico under colonial Spanish rule and the early days of the Mexican republic. Check out this passage regarding the origin of the word “mulatto”:

“Professor John Nitti of the University of Wisconsin’s Medieval Spanish Dictionary Project informs me that the word `mulato’ initially meant a racial mixture of any sort. Offspring of Spaniards and Moors were known as `mulatos’ in medieval Iberia, as were later mixtures between blacks and Indians, and between Frenchmen and Indians. Eventually `mulato’ came to mean specifically a mixture between a black and a white. `Mulato’ appears in New Mexican church records, though there is no evidence that the individuals classed as such had any black African ancestry”

Here’s a passage that reminds us of many of today’s Latino leaders:

“Don Pedro Pino, New Mexico’s representative to the 1812 Cortes at Cadiz, reported to that assembly that `In New Mexico there has never been any caste of people of African origin. My province is probably the only one in Spanish America to enjoy such distinction.’ Don Pedro was patently wrong, but advanced the claim to validate a myth he wished to perpetuate, namely that New Mexico’s nobility had preserved their honor and racial purity over the centuries.”


This book SHOULD be called “THE FREE MULATTO OR MULTIRACIAL…” However, Berlin would never have won the National Historical Society Book Award if he had been that honest. Most of the “free colored” caste could be called multiracial as opposed to “black.” The best thing about Berlin’s book is how he details the antebellum laws that acknowledged varying admixtures of black ancestry in the white population (as opposed to the “one drop” rule that really had its origins in the 20th century). Here’s an interesting passage:

“Fearful of pushing too many persons of both colors to the wrong sides of the color line, the South Carolina legislature never legally defined the Negro and left the problem of distinguishing between mixed-bloods and whites up to the courts. South Carolina jurists generally drew the line between white and black at somewhere between a quarter and an eighth Negro ancestry, but they also made legal passing contingent on social acceptability as well. .. Allowing the question of whiteness to turn on public acceptance as well as genealogy enabled many well-placed whites to free their mulatto children from their proscribed status.”

MEXICAN AMERICANS: LEADERSHIP, IDEOLOGY, & IDENTITY, 1930-1960. By Mario T. Garcia. (Yale University Press, 1989).

A really interesting history of Mexican American political leadership and its quest to fight racial discrimination against Mexican-Americans while pretending to be a pure “white” ethnic group. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) constantly went to court arguing that position. However, you’ll never see them denounced for “passing” by black or liberal elites.

SLAVES OF THE WHITE GOD: BLACKS IN MEXICO, 1570-1650. By Colin A. Palmer (Harvard University Press, 1976).

The author details the black slavery in Mexico and the ancestry that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans pretend doesn’t exist.

BETWEEN RACE AND ETHNICITY: CAPE VERDEAN AMERICAN IMMIGRANTS, 1860- 1965. By Marilyn Halter (University of Illinois Press, 1993).

Struggle of Cape Verdean (Portuguese/African) Americans to establish their identity in the United States and their relationship with “white” (still pretty dark) Portuguese.


The origins, persecution and re-emergence of a Southern multiracial ethnic group. Kennedy provides fascinating accounts of the politics of racial classification.

CREOLES OF COLOR OF THE GULF SOUTH. Edited by James H. Dormon. (University of Tennessee Press, 1996).

How multiracial Creoles have maintained their ethnic identity despite oppression.


This book is interesting to students of racial classification because of the racist smear campaign conducted during Harding’s presidential campaign in 1920 – that he was part Negro. Russell provides fascinating detail on this campaign, an issue that the Harding family is still sensitive about. Harding won anyway.

THE SWEETER THE JUICE: A FAMILY MEMOIR IN BLACK AND WHITE. By Shirley Taylor Haizlip. (Simon and Schuster, 1994).

Haizlip starts out as a devoted believer in the “one drop” myth who wonders why she and her mother are the only “white” members of her “black” family. She decides to trace her mother’s missing relatives, imaging them to be “blacks” who are “passing” as white. She’s forced to change her mind as she encounters white relatives who remain “white” despite the revelation of their partial black ancestry. Haizlip herself moves more toward a multiracial as opposed to a purely “black” identity.

THE LIVES OF JEAN TOOMER: A HUNGER FOR WHOLENESS. By Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge.. (Louisiana State University Press, 1987 — 1-800-861- 3477).

Falsely labeled as a “black” author because of his book of poetry and short stories, CANE (which deals almost exclusively with multiracial people), Toomer fought a life-long battle to be recognized for what he truly was. His theories of a “universal man” beyond racial demarcation makes him an important dissenting voice against the hypodescent status quo.
Also see The Jean Toomer Pages

DESEGREGATING THE ALTAR: THE JOSEPHITES AND THE STRUGGLE FOR BLACK PRIESTS, 1871-1960. By Stephen J. Ochs. (Louisiana State University Pres, 1990).

Readers should know that there is a movement among black and liberal American Catholics to create a “black Catholic” history that rightfully belongs to multiracial Americans. Louisiana Creoles are the victims of this attempt to create “black” Catholics, but the most prominent victims are three brothers born to an Irish-American father and a mulatto mother in antebellum Georgia. James Augustine Healy was bishop of the diocese of Portland, Maine from 1875 until his death in 1900. Patrick Francis Healy served successively as professor, prefect of studies, vice-rector, and, from 1874 to 1882, as rector of Georgetown University. Alexander Sherwood Healy served as rector of Holy Cross Cathedral and, for a few months before his death in 1875, as pastor of St. James Parish in Boston. Ochs admits that the Healys did not identify with blacks but with their Irish heritage and were not considered “black” by others. Indeed, not only were the Healy brothers only one-quarter “black” and of caucasian phenotype, but it was their Irish father who reared them as Catholics and paid for the educations that allowed them to rise to such high positions in their Church. Nevertheless, hypodecent fanatics like Ochs claim that “blacks” deserve all the credit.

THE MISSISSIPPI CHINESE: BETWEEN WHITE AND BLACK by James W. Loewen. (Waveland Press, 1988).

Loewen describes how the Chinese moved from “colored” to “white” in Mississippi by agreeing to the demands of the white elite that they cut all ties with part-black Chinese and those married to “colored” wives. You’ll never see the Chinese denounced for “passing” in black or liberal publications.

CHINESE IN THE POST-CIVIL WAR SOUTH: A PEOPLE WITHOUT A HISTORY. By Lucy M. Cohen. (Louisiana State University Press, 1984).

How the Chinese used their in-between status to intermarry with both whites and “colored” in the South.

WHITE BY LAW: THE LEGAL CONSTRUCTION OF RACE. By Ian F. Haney Lopez. (New York University Press, 1996).

How is “white” defined in the U.S.? The definition varies tremendously. Lopez concerns himself mainly with immigration issues and how East Asians, South Asians, Latinos, Armenians, Arabs and others made legal efforts to prove themselves “white” in order to gain U.S. citizenship.

MAKING ETHNIC CHOICES: CALIFORNIA’S PUNJABI MEXICAN AMERICANS. By Karen Isaksen Leonard. (Temple University Press, 1992).

When men from India’s Punjab province were not allowed to bring women with them from India due to racist immigration laws, they intermarried with Mexican women. A multiracial Punjabi-Mexican American ethnic group was the result.


The author describes how her multiracial Chinese and European American family thrived in Los Angeles, California despite anti-miscegenation laws. Marriages between family members of Chinese ancestry and “whites” were conducted in nearby Mexico and then the couples moved back to California. California obviously did not prosecute couples who evaded its anti-miscegenation laws the way Southern states did.

THE TEMPLE BOMBING by Melissa Fay Greene (Addison-Wesley Publishing Compnay, 1996).

The title refers to the infamous bombing of Atlanta’s oldest and most prominent synagogue on October 12, 1958 by white supremacists. However, the books is also a social history of Southern Jews, their marginal position in Southern race relations, and their constant fear that their “whiteness” (the “passing” theme) could be challenged.

SCENES IN RED, WHITE AND BLACK: THE EUGENIC ASSAULT ON AMERICA by J. David Smith. (George Mason University Press, 1993).

Smith shows the 20th century link between anti-miscegenation laws and the eugenics movement. Forced sterilization of the institutionalized, racial registration and restricting miscegenation were all linked to the idea of “improving” the [white] gene pool. The best part of the book is the hidden history of the minority of fanatical racial purists who wanted to ban all non-caucasian ancestry (with the exception of small amounts of American Indian ancestry possessed by white elites such as the descendants of Pocahontas) from the white “race.” Special emphasis is placed on Virginia and the men whose names are unknown but should go down in infamy: Walter Plecker (who headed Virginia’s bureau of vital statistics and delighted in hunting down “impure” whites and Indians) and Virginia aristocrat John Powell of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs. Showing the link between black nationalism and white racism, Smith details the friendship between John Powell and Marcus Garvey (both believed in promoting racial purity).

THE RAMAPO MOUNTAIN PEOPLE. By David Stephen Cohen. (Rutgers University Press, 1974).

Also called “Jackson Whites,” this is the story of a multiracial community of Dutch, Indian and black ancestry that has existed since colonial times.

AMBIGUOUS LIVES: FREE WOMEN OF COLOR IN RURAL GEORGIA, 1789-1879. By Adele Logan Alexander. (University of Arkansas Press, 1991).

While the author slavishly subscribes to hypodescent, she provides good historical detail on how the privileged social and educational opportunities of Southern multiracials were due to their often close ties with whites fathers and other relatives (as opposed to the myth of the callous white rapist slavemaster “breeding” more slaves). These privileges created the myth that mulattoes and mixed-whites were the “flower of the colored race.” These “mulatto elites” filled the “Negro” colleges and universities and reinforced the idea that intelligence comes from “white blood.” When you recognize this history, you can see why the NAACP makes the ridiculous claim that losing non-blacks to a “multiracial” category will somehow destroy all the progress that “blacks” have made. Many of them probably still have the tacit belief that intelligence comes from “white blood.”

WOMEN OF COLOR, DAUGHTER OF PRIVILEGE: AMANDA AMERICA DICKSON, 1949-1893. By Kent Anderson Leslie. (University of Georgia Press, 1995).

This book should be read with AMBIGUOUS LIVES. The biography of an “elite mulatto lady” who inherited her white father’s plantation and became the richest “colored” woman in the U.S.

INDIAN SLAVERY IN COLONIAL TIMES WITHIN THE PRESENT LIMITS OF THE UNITED STATES by Almon Wheeler Lauber (reprinted 1970 by Corner House Publishers).

This work, originally published in 1913, proves that extensive Indian slavery existed side-by-side with Negro slavery in colonial America in virtually all the colonies.


The history of the Lumbee Indian tribe of North Carolina (now officially the largest Indian tribe east of the Mississippi) should be required reading for the study of racial intermixture in the United States. Listed as “free colored” (a generic term for “non-white”) during the antebellum period, they fought a long and constant battle against the state of North Carolina for the right to call themselves “Indians” instead of “Negroes.”

POWHATAN’S MANTLE: INDIANS IN THE COLONIAL SOUTHEAST. Edited by Peter H. Wood, et. al. (University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

This book also deals with Indian slavery. Important mention is made of uneven sex ratios among Indian and early black slaves, with women predominating among the former and men among the latter. Black and Indian intermixture probably far outnumbers black-white intermixture. Colonial merchants waged slave-raids against Indian tribes and “An inestimable number of Indains from many tribes found themselves either being shipped away as slaves from colonial ports or working as slaves in and around them.”


Emphasis on Indian slavery and intermixture with whites and blacks.

SOUTHEASTERN INDIANS SINCE THE REMOVAL ERA. Edited by Walter L. Williams (University of Georgia Press, 1979).

Good essays on the history of the Lumbees of North Carolina, the Houma of Louisiana, the Catawba of South Carolina and the Indians of Virginia in their struggle for ethnic survival and dignity within a white/black Jim Crow dichotomy.

SLAVERY AND THE EVOLUTION OF CHEROKEE SOCIETY, 1540-1866. By Theda Perdue (University of Tennessee Press, 1979).

THE CHEROKEES: A POPULATION HISTORY. by Russell Thornton (University of Nebraska Press, 1990).

CREEKS AND SEMINOLES. By J. Leitch Wright, Jr. (University of Nebraska Press, 1986).

The three books listed above contain important information on the social and legal implications of Cherokee intermixture with whites and blacks.

THE DEATHS OF SYBIL BOLTON: AN AMERICAN HISTORY by Dennis McAuliffe, Jr. (Times Books, 1994).

This book provides valuable information regarding the legal status and psychology of mixed-blood “white” members of Indian tribes. The author, a journalist, started out by investigating the death of his maternal grandmother, who was part-Osage Indian and an enrolled member of the tribe. Concentrate on the history and ignore the author’s attempt to impose a “one drop of Indian blood” rule on himself and his family – using the “one drop of black blood” myth to justify it. I note that in the many book reviews that appeared when the book was first published, McAuliffe’s historical research was praised but no one took his claim of being a white “Indian” seriously – quite the opposite of what happens when whites claim to be “black” (e.g., Gregory Howard Williams).

THE LIFE OF OKAH TUBBEE. Edited by Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr. (University of Nebraska Press, 1988).

This book is an introduction to the autobiography of a Choctaw Indian who was enslaved as a child. The book is marred by Littlefield’s racist introduction, in which he insists on referring to Tubbee as a “black” passing for “Indian.” Littlefield claims that Tubbee was born to a black slave mother and a white father who emancipated the mother and two older children (who later became prosperous members of the “free colored” community but kept Okah Tubee (then called Warner McCary) as the slave of his own mother and siblings. Littlefield, in his devotion to hypodescent, does not want to consider that Tubbee was most likely a Choctaw slave trying to claim his lost heritage.

LONG LACE; THE TRUE STORY OF AN IMPOSTER. By Donald B. Smith. (University of Nebraska Press, 1982).

This story is fascinating history as long as you ignore the racist (“black” passing for Indian) remarks of the author. Long Lance (born Sylvester Long) was born in North Carolina of Indian, white and black ancestry. If his ancestry had been Indian and white only, Smith would praise him to the skies for seeking out his Indian heritage. Smith, however, insists throughout the book that Long was only good enough for his small amount of black ancestry. Long Lance launched a career as a journalist and gained fame as a provocative writer and eloquent speaker for the cause of the North American Indian.

THE LUMBEE PROBLEM: THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN INDIAN PEOPLE by Karen I. Blu. (Cambridge University Press, 1980.)

How the multiracial people now called the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County, North Carolina fought the state’s attempts to classify them as “Negroes” and finally achieved recognition as Indians. Fascinating details on how Robeson County depends upon associations and social ties to “define” people since phenotype and “black blood” cannot be depended upon to determine racial classification in the county.


Forbes, a prominent scholar of Native American studies, explores the evolution of racial terminology and the changing meanings of racial terms such as “black,” “mulatto,” and “mestizo.” Forbes emphasizes the constant racial mixing that has occurred throughout the centuries between Native Americans, Africans and Europeans.


What is especially interesting to students of racial classification is how Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 (its infamous “one drop” law) was used to persecute Native Americans.

MANY TENDER TIES: WOMEN IN FUR-TRADE SOCIETY, 1670-1870. By Sylvia van Kirk. (University of Oklahoma Press, 1980).

THE NEW PEOPLES; BEING AND BECOMING METIS IN NORTH AMERICA. Edited by Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S.H. Brown. (University of Nebraska Press, 1985).

The two books listed above are excellent histories of the origins, flowering, persecution and resilience of Metis (European and Native American) society in both Canada and the northwestern U.S.

ROBERT STAFFORD OF CUMBERLAND ISLAND: GROWTH OF A PLANTER by Mary R. Bullard (University of Georgia Press, 1995).

Robert Stafford was a wealthy Georgia planter who had several children by mulatto women and provided handsomely for them. The book provides fascinating information on how wealth could socially “whiten” people of known multiracial ancestry.

POOR RELATIONS; THE MAKING OF A EURASIAN COMMUNITY IN BRITISH INDIA 1773-1833 by Christopher Hawes (Curzon Press, 1996; may be purchased from University of Hawaii Press).

The Anglo-Indians were created by intermarriage and mating between British soldiers and Indian women. As early as the 1830s, Eurasians (later called Anglo-Indians) already exceeded the number of British civilians in colonial India. At the time of India’s independence, they outnumbered ALL British residents. Yet, there has been little historical attention to the development of this mixed-race community, the problems which it faced (social, economic and attitudinal) nor to the questions which its rise posed to British authority.

Hawes describes how the mixed-race experience in India is typical of the “European colonial adventure” worldwide. The social and legal experiences of mixed-race people is influenced by class status (especially the father’s status), birth within marriage versus the stigma of bastardy (British discrimination against people born outside of wedlock was especially harsh), and the conflict between the law and family ties.

Hawes’ research shows that the British as individuals had no real qualms about interracial marriage and, contrary to the hypodescent rule, wanted their biracial offspring to be British. The problem lay with British elites whose devotion to the new “scientific” racist doctrines resulted in oppression typical of the mixed-race experience:

a) The mixed-race communities are utilized to maintain colonial authority but denied the highest offices reserved for “pure” whites (with a few exceptions for multiracial persons of great wealth).

b) The colonial power fears that the mixed-race community will present a challenge to “white” authority and blur the lines between the “superior” European and the “inferior” non-European.

c) The mixed-race community (especially its educated elites) maintains its ambition to be treated as part of the European caste, but is subject to laws that prevent a full identification with the ruling nation to which it is bound by blood and culture.

“Eurasian populations…undermined, in the most public manner possible, concepts of colonial rule which depended ultimately on maintaining the illusion of the racial superiority of white European males. The consequent dilemma for Eurasian populations was how they might identify fully with their parent colonial societies, on which they were economically dependent and to which they were culturally bound. They shared in what has been termed the `imagined community’ of nationalism as fully as their European fathers and forefathers, but were denied participation on equal terms. In turn the predicament of colonial authority was how far should it go in acknowledging its children of mixed race. In practice it seems that there was an uneasy compromise in colonial societies between disavowal and acceptance. Parental responsibility and considerations of Eurasian utility to the regime were in tension with concepts of Eurasian political unreliability and the damage which full acceptance might do to perceptions of white prestige.”


Benfey spends less time on the famous French painter Edgar Degas and the alleged influence that New Orleans and his Creole relatives had on his work than he does in relating the story of one of Degas’ relatives: a brilliant “quadroon” engineer named Norbert Rillieux who invented an efficient steam-driven apparatus for refining sugar.

When you ignore Benfey’s racist use of the term “black” to describe people who are far from it, you find important information about the privileges and oppressions experienced by mixed-race Creoles in 19th century New Orleans. Rillieux (who is often falsely listed as a “black” inventor) was a highly respected professional whose predominate white ancestry allowed him to utilize his talents in a way that would not have been possible if he had been black.

One of Rillieux’s close friends and major supporter in Louisiana sugar circles was Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Confederate luminary who later served as Jefferson Davis’s Secretary of State. In a nice touch of irony, Benfey compares the image of the “mulatto” in American literature with than of the “Jew” in European literature:

“Almost white, almost free, `oriental,’ and effeminate, at once wealthy and a social pariah, the free man of color in his literary depictions occupies much the same place as the Jew in literary Europe. (The first article of the eighteenth-century `Code Noir,’ or Black Code demanded the expulsion of the Jews from New Orleans.) Jews and free men of color were difficult to detect; they often LOOKED like white citizens, and passed for such. It was against the radical `otherness’ of Jews and free people of color that the proper Englishmen and proper Louisiana Creoles respectively sought to define their own uneasy identity.”


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