THE BLOG
09/04/2013 06:48 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

Quadroons for Beginners: Discussing the Suppressed and Sexualized History of Free Women of Color with Author Emily Clark

"As a historian, I knew that mixed race women and interracial families were everywhere in America from its earliest days. And I knew that most of the free women of color in antebellum New Orleans bore no resemblance to the quadroons of myth." - Dr. Emily Clark

As an American, I follow my roots like trails across the globe. My mother is from Kansas and is of German descent, and my deceased father was black with roots in North Carolina, and before then, Africa. Arguably you can trace all of us back to Africa. But my parents' union created me: a black American woman, a woman of color, a mixed kid, a mulatta, maybe an Oreo, definitely a myriad of identities and categories to embrace or resist.

Living in Harlem, I see so many mixed marriages, mixed kids everyday all the time. Traveling the South, I see so many kids with the telltale curly locks. Growing up in Metro Detroit in the 80s, I knew there were other black & white mixes like me. I just didn't know them. Only at college in Washington, DC, did I meet mixed girls and have them as friends. And not until my English, women's studies, and African-American history courses did I learn any American history about women like me.

Before college, maybe I'd encounter a definition of "miscegenation" - that very special crime of racemixing in segregated America. And maybe an explanation of the "one drop rule" that went on to create the classifications of "mulatto" and "quadroon" and "octaroon"--your label dependent upon which fraction of African was in your genealogy. But that was it. In my high school American History texts, I don't remember any acknowledgement of centuries of rape and consensual relationships between whites and blacks. None of my suburban history teachers lingered on the taboo. Maybe I didn't either. When I think of the mania around racemixing, and of the cultural trope of the "tragic mulatta"--the woman doomed because she is too white for the blacks, too black for the whites--it was easy to assume that the history of mixed-race women in America was simple in its sadness and injustice.

Yet there is nothing simple about the American Quadroon. Once she was the picture of irresistible beauty, the symbol of a city thought of as irredeemably "other", an earthbound goddess who conjured so much desire that white men made her concubines, and slavetraders scoured the states for enslaved girls that fit her description to fulfill buyer demand. That was the myth, the dominant story. But as Tulane historian Emily Clark writes in her richly-researched and compelling The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World (UNC Press), she was also a family-woman, marrying men of color, living the propriety dream in her New Orleans society. If her myth was simple in its power, her reality was rich and complicated--by no means a single story.

The minute I saw The Strange History of the American Quadroon had been published, I knew I had to read it. I've long been fascinated with Louisiana's free women of color, and I've always been curious about truth versus fiction when it comes to New Orleans's famed "Quadroon Balls" and the young, cultured women of color who became lifelong partners to white male suitors. Dr. Clark's work does not disappoint. Her scholarship clears away the smoke and pulls back the veils on much received wisdom, revealing just how empowered, and how impressive our women of color ancestors could be. I especially appreciate how she challenges the very notion that plaçage --a contracted concubinage--was an accurate description for the relationships between white men and their women of color partners, arguing instead that it may be misguided shorthand, a diminishment of lives and loves just as robust and red-blooded as any others. As Dr. Clark states below, she has never once found a signed plaçage contract--and she has looked.

Yes, The Strange History of the American Quadroon was a pageturner for me, for how could I not be hungry to keep reading when I felt that so much history was being revealed? Upon finishing, I asked Dr. Clark to share more about these hidden women, these heroines often unaccounted for when we think about the great American survivors or race in our country. I grew up in Michigan reading next to nothing about them in mainstream history texts. If you read Dr. Clark's work, you will be moved by the ways our ancestors coped with much that was raw and horrific in our nation's past, and how many did so with refinement and uncommon grace. For those who know little about free women of color, consider the following Quadroons for beginners. I thought I was past the "beginner" stage, but reading Dr. Clark made me realize I still had much to learn.

How do you define an "American Quadroon"?

Dr. Clark: There are really two versions. One is the virtually unknown historical reality, the married free women of color of New Orleans who were paragons of piety and respectability. The other is the more familiar mythic figure who took shape in the antebellum American imagination. If you asked a white nineteenth-century American what a quadroon was, they would answer that she was a light-skinned free woman of color who preferred being the mistress of a white man to marriage with a man who shared her racial ancestry. In order to ensnare white lovers who would provide for them, quadroons were supposedly schooled from girlhood by their mothers to be virtuosos in the erotic arts. When they came of age, their mothers put them on display at quadroon balls and negotiated a contract with a white lover to set the young woman up in a house and provide enough money to support her and any children born of the liaison. The arrangement usually ended in heartbreak for the quadroon when the lover left her to marry a white woman. If this sounds like a white male rape fantasy, that is exactly what it was. There is one other key characteristic of the mythic American Quadroon: she was to be found only in New Orleans.

What did it mean to be a free woman of color in antebellum New Orleans?

Dr. Clark: There's no simple answer to that question. If you were born after 1790 to parents who had themselves been born in New Orleans, you were likely to marry a free man of color and have children and see them grow up to marry and have children. In the 1820s you would have been as likely to marry as white women in the city. But the story was different for women who were refugees of the Haitian Revolution and their daughters. Different practices in pre-revolutionary Haiti, known as Saint-Domingue, coupled with the economic and social trauma of dislocation made it less likely that these free women of color would marry.

One thing that both native-born and refugee women shared, however, was the burden of a racist legal system that stigmatized them, discriminated against them, and made it easy to humiliate them.

New Orleans became world famous for its "Quadroon Balls". In your book, you argue that many descriptions of these balls were just repetitions of one 1826 eyewitness account. What was it really like to attend a quadroon ball? How did these balls change over time to accommodate tourists looking for the legend?

Dr. Clark: The earliest reliable account of a quadroon ball that we have comes from a German count who visited New Orleans in the 1820s. He describes an extremely sedate affair where the young women were "well and gracefully dressed, and conducted themselves with much propriety and modesty. Cotillions and waltzes were danced, and several of the ladies performed elegantly." Ten years later a man visiting from Virginia describes women dancing in their night garments, which suggests that the "propriety and modesty" of the 1820s had been replaced by something very different, a spectacle that catered to the sexual fantasies aroused by the earlier accounts. By the 1840s the quadroon balls had moved to a rowdy dancehall near the docks. Male patrons were warned that they were likely to be robbed if they took money in with them and evenings often ended in violent brawls.

Let's talk plaçage. Why would a free woman of color enter into such a relationship?

Dr. Clark: Let me say first that "plaçage" as a notion is as problematic as the mythic quadroon. There was really no such thing -- even the term itself comes from a 20th-century Haitian practice, not from 19th-century New Orleans. There was no system of mothers brokering placements for their daughters with white men they had met at a quadroon ball. Instead, there was a broad range of relationships between free women of color and white men that originated in a variety of ways and often lasted for life. For an enslaved woman in late colonial New Orleans, entering into a sexual relationship with a white man who was not her owner could sometimes be a path to freedom, as it was for one of the women I write about, Agnes Mathieu.

For women already free, a life partnership with a man, white or black, offered better prospects for economic stability than remaining a single mother -- and we have to remember that nearly all women of this era became mothers. Some of the mixed couples that I write about -- Samuel Moore and Dorothée Lassize, for example, were entrepreneurial teams. For the Haitian refugee women who arrived in New Orleans in the massive influx of 1809, a liaison with a white man -- even a temporary one -- could represent an expedient survival strategy. In at least one well documented case, a free woman of color and a white man underwent a sacramental wedding even though the laws of Louisiana prohibited their legal marriage to one another. Most of the men in these relationships, by the way, never abandoned the free black mothers of their children. They went to their graves legal bachelors.

The legal prohibition against interracial marriage in antebellum Louisiana was an attempt to stigmatize free women of color who made families with white men. I feel that we somehow do the same when we lump them all together under the imaginary rubric of plaçage.

You write of the ménagère relationship in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) as precursor to "plaçage." Please tell us about the difference between the two roles for women of color.

Dr. Clark: It's a precursor in the sense that people who observed examples of the ménagère among the Haitian refugees in New Orleans misread it and created from it a prototype for the imaginary system of plaçage. A ménagère was a free woman of color hired to keep house for a planter in pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue. She was hired formally, with a contract that stipulated what she would be compensated in pay and things like housing and healthcare. Many of these contracts survive in the archives for Saint-Domingue. Sometimes, but not always, a ménagère became the sexual partner of her employer, often for life. When visitors to New Orleans described the way relationships between free women of color and white men worked, they often spoke of a contract that was negotiated. I've never encountered such a contract in the archives of New Orleans -- and I've looked! -- but ménagère contracts are mentioned in several lawsuits brought by Haitian refugee women against the white men who did not honor the contract once the couple came to New Orleans. To a visitor to New Orleans in the 1810s and 1820s, there was no difference between the French-speaking free women of color born in the city and those who were Haitian refugees. A garbled, vaguely understood impression of the immigrant ménagère became the archetype for all of the city's free women of color for the Anglophone observers who wrote the seminal accounts of the New Orleans quadroon.

Tell us about the "fancy trade". How common was it to purchase light-skinned enslaved women for sex and domestic service? How much do we know about how these women fared? How does this practice connect to Storyville, and later day New Orleans's culture of prostitution? (Or does it?)

Dr. Clark: We don't really know how common this practice was. It is a hard thing to pin down in terms of real numbers. There are some court cases that illuminate the seamy workings of the trade in "fancy maids." They reveal that there were several slave traders from the upper south who specialized in bringing light-skinned enslaved women to New Orleans. And that suggests that these men scoured the upper south in search of women who looked like what people expected to find in New Orleans, the home of the quadroon. The picture that comes through from the court cases is grim: teenaged girls, some of them in very poor health, kept in squalid living conditions. Emily Landau has written an excellent book, Spectacular Wickedness, that discusses the link between the quadroon/"fancy maid" fantasy and the popularity of brothels that featured light-skinned women of color in Storyville, the red light district in post-bellum New Orleans.

How is the quadroon myth alive today?

Dr. Clark: Take one of the popular horse-drawn carriage tours of New Orleans and I'll bet you that you'll hear about the quadroons and their balls. A hotel in the city that occupies the site of one of the ballrooms in which dances for free women of color were held promotes itself with advertising copy about quadroon balls. In a way, the city of New Orleans is itself seen by the rest of the country as a quadroon, a city given over to the exotic, transgressive qualities that defined the myth.

What drew you to the history of quadroons? Why did you feel compelled to devote your attention to their stories?

Dr. Clark: The short answer is Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans was misrepresented and maligned by so many in the storm's aftermath, and much of that sprang from people's perception that the city was not really American. The myth of the quadroon was part of that: supposedly she only existed in New Orleans, could only survive in New Orleans because it was the only place that could tolerate such a supposed aberration from American racial and sexual norms. But as a historian, I knew that mixed race women and interracial families were everywhere in America from its earliest days. And I knew that most of the free women of color in antebellum New Orleans bore no resemblance to the quadroons of myth. The women I write about can't set the record straight about themselves and the city they lived in. In the aftermath of the storm, I couldn't not take on that work.

As a high school student in Michigan in the late 80s, I remember learning precious little about mixed race people, and absolutely zilch about free women of color. Do you think it's important for history curricula to include their stories? If so, what should textbook makers stop the presses and include right this minute?

Dr. Clark: Yes, I do think it's important. The system of slavery depended on a pair of binaries: slave or free, black or white. Mixed race people challenged that binary at every turn, and still do. I think that one of the reasons that free women of color are absent from the history taught in schools is in part because their stories have for so long been presumed to be universally tragic and shameful. The presumption has been that sexual exploitation defined their experience, and that's a topic that has a hard time finding space in school curricula.

Every enslaved woman and many free women of color did find themselves vulnerable to rape and sexual aggression from white men. But that is not the whole story. Some free women of color formed life partnerships or married and lived the kinds of settled, respectable, secure lives that were supposed to be attainable only by white women in antebellum America. When school textbooks talk about the 19th-century cult of true womanhood, I'd like for them to note that some of the women who exemplified it best were free women of color living in New Orleans.

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