Exotic, seductive, and doomed: the antebellum mixed-race free woman of color has long operated as a metaphor for New Orleans. Commonly known as a “quadroon,” she and the city she represents rest irretrievably condemned in the popular historical imagination by the linked sins of slavery and interracial sex. However, as Emily Clark shows, the rich archives of New Orleans tell a different story. In The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World, Clark investigates how the narrative of the erotic colored mistress became an elaborate literary and commercial trope, persisting as a symbol that long outlived the political and cultural purposes for which it had been created. Untangling myth and memory, she presents a dramatically new and nuanced understanding of the myths and realities of New Orleans’s free women of color.
In the following excerpt from The Strange History of the American Quadroon (pp. 146-149), Clark shows how fiction associated the trope of the tragic mulatto with New Orleans, while sensationalized travel writing generated the myth of the plaçage complex, suggesting that mixed-race women entered relationships as concubines.
By the 1850s the foreign qualities that designated New Orleans the natural habitat of the American quadroon were understood without the botanical and sartorial signifiers that accompanied the figure in its earlier appearances. The distinguishing physical markers of the orientalized quadroon herself, however, assumed a canonical quality. The “masses of glossy black hair, waving along the brows and falling over the shoulders in curling clusters,” of Mayne Reid’s 1856 quadroon heroine, Aurore, could have belonged to Ingraham’s Azèlie. And Reid’s depiction of Aurore’s eyes upheld the convention that made them the centerpiece of a quadroon’s distinction. “The eye I fancied, or remembered well—better than aught else,” Reid’s white lover relates. “It was large, rounded, and of dark brown colour; but its peculiarity consisted in a certain expression, strange but lovely. Its brilliance was extreme, but it neither flashed nor sparkled. It was more like a gorgeous gem viewed by the spectator while at rest. Its light did not blaze—it seemed rather to burn.” Marie St. Vallé, the quadroon mother in James Peacocke’s Creole Orphans, conformed to the model set by Ingraham’s Azèlie. “Her form was of that voluptuous, flowing mould, whose every action is grace,” and her eyes, of course, “were large and dazzling, as ebon as her hair.” And Marie shared one other signature trait of her literary forebears. “As she entered the room, a smile illuminated her beautiful face and showed her pearly teeth.”
Mayne Reid’s Aurore served as the prototype for the most famous tragic mulatto of them all, Zoe, in Dion Boucicault’s melodrama, “The Octoroon; or Life in Louisiana.” The play opened in New York in 1859 to immediate notoriety North and South and has been frequently revived, including an Off-Broadway spinoff staged in 2010. Zoe is the daughter of a quadroon slave and a white father who has freed her. She and a young white man, George Peyton, are in love with one another, and the wealthy belle of a neighboring plantation, Dora Sunnyside, is in love with George. The evil overseer, Jacob M’Closky, desires Zoe for himself and uncovers an obscure obligation of her father’s that not only renders her a slave but requires that she be auctioned to settle the debt. Zoe is taken to the New Orleans slave market, where M’Closky bids for her against Dora, who has nobly sold her own plantation so that George’s beloved will not be sold into sexual slavery. After Zoe is sold to M’Closky for the outrageous sum of $25,000, she commits suicide with poison. The scene of the apparently white Zoe on the auction block was the dramatic highpoint of the play, and with each restaging of the play New Orleans grew more powerfully linked to the figure of the tragic mulatto.
Through the medium of the fictional quadroon, New Orleans was imaginatively construed as a place apart in the American polity, the only place in the nation where the strange fruit bred of slavery and white desire grew and met its inevitable, tragic destiny. Tragic mulattos did occasionally turn up in other locales. Richard Hildreth’s novel The Slave (1840) and Emily Preston’s Cousin Franck’s Household (1853) were set in Virginia, and John Townsend’s Neighbor Jackwood in Vermont. The majority, however, were situated in New Orleans, giving the impression, to the antislavery reading public at least, that this was the place within the United States that was most, if not exclusively, tainted by the most odious features of slavery. In New Orleans, fathers sold their daughters into slavery, saw them auctioned off to settle debts, or died before they could free their children, condemning them to lives of misery in the fields or worse. New Orleans, with its population of beautiful quadroons, became the place to buy and sell women who, except for the “remarkable and undefinable expression of the eyes, which always betrays their remote Ethiopian descent,” appeared to be white. New Orleans was the only place in the United States where a man could purchase the makings of his own harem.
Fictional quadroon heroines were all either enslaved or faced the threat of being sold into slavery. Even Ingraham’s Moroccan princess Azèlie, though born free and noble, grew up believing that she was not free, dreading being peddled by her mother to the highest bidder for sex. The living quadroons described by journalists and visitors to New Orleans, however, were understood to be free women of color who chose to ally themselves with white men in an arrangement that Ingraham described as “a system of concubinage that has been without a parallel even in Oriental countries.” The New Orleans quadroons could not be bought as slaves against their will, but they agreed to exchange their favors on specified terms. This system came to be known in the twentieth century as plaçage. Since it is impossible to find good evidence for the use of the term plaçage by antebellum New Orleanians, the assemblage of features that defined it for twentieth-century authors is referred to here as the plaçage complex. The plaçage complex played a role as important as that of the tragic mulatto in distinguishing New Orleans and its mixed-race women. Abolitionists, fed on the fictional fare of the tragic mulatto, expected New Orleans to be filled with “white” slaves catering to the sexual appetites of immoral men. Other visitors to the city, informed by sensationalized travelers’ accounts, hoped for a glimpse of one of its renowned kept women of color, and perhaps contemplated engaging one for themselves. The literature that generated this prurient anticipation was nearly as prolific as the fictional evocations of the tragic mulatto designed to snuff it out.
The plaçage complex was delineated in nonfiction with a repertoire of standard elements. Foremost among them was a belief that New Orleans free women of color did not marry but instead formed relationships with white men on a contractual or quasi-contractual basis. The women were presumed to have chosen this way of life because law forbade their marriage to white men and they held themselves above men of their own racial background. Such a partnership was generally described as having been brokered by a woman’s parents, with terms including a house and provision for any children born of the relationship. Once the terms of the arrangements were settled, the woman was known as a placée, and it was understood that she would restrict her sexual favors to the man who supported her. The term of the engagement might be for months or years, but the common assumption was that it lasted until the white lover married a woman of his own race. New Orleans placées were often portrayed as wealthy heiresses to the fortunes of their white fathers, well educated and accomplished. Demure and proper in public, they were renowned for the pleasure they brought their lovers in private.
The origins of the plaçage complex have their roots in the figurative and literal immigration of the Dominguan mûlatresse to New Orleans, as we have seen. Subsequent accounts of it in English echo one another so consistently that it is difficult to credit any of them as original. All the same, these are the sources that not only informed travelers who visited antebellum New Orleans but have served as the basis of historical examinations of the city’s free women of color. And as we shall see in the next chapter, this literature created a circular feedback phenomenon that fed the invention and proliferation of activities in New Orleans designed to satisfy the market for encounters with quadroons aroused by the earliest accounts. The discursive construction of the quadroon and the plaçage complex in nineteenth-century travel literature may be nearly as fanciful as the tragic mulatto’s, but it was equally constitutive of the image of New Orleans free women of color that took up residence in the antebellum American mind and remained rooted there in the twentieth century.
From The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World by Emily Clark. Copyright © 2013 by The University of North Carolina Press.
-  Reid, The Quadroon, 125-26. ↩
-  Peacocke, Creole Orphans, 10. ↩
-  “Letters from Mr. Bourcicault,” New York Times, February 9, 1860, http://chnm.gmu.edu/lostmuseum/lm/263/ (accessed January 25, 2012); “Pen Sketches for Sunday,” Daily True Delta (New Orleans), December 11, 1859, 1; “The Last of Mr. Bourcicault,” Daily Picayune (New Orleans), December 24, 1859, 15; “The ‘Octoroon’ at the Winter Garden,” New York Daily Tribune, October 24, 1861, 8; “‘The Octoroon’ Director Withdraws,” New York Times, June 18, 2010, Section C, 2. ↩
-  See Figure 11 and Chapter 6, below. ↩
-  Hildreth, The Slave, or Memoirs of Archy Moore; Pocahontas [Emily C. Preston], Cousin Franck’s Household; Trowbridge, Neighbor Jackwood. ↩
-  Ingraham, The Quadroone, ix, note 2. ↩
-  Ingraham, “The Quadroon of Orleans,” 265, suggests that many quadroons were actually enslaved, though they lived as free. ↩
-  Ingraham, The Quadroone, ix. ↩
-  See Chapter 2. ↩
-  On the repetitious nature of descriptions of the plaçage complex, see Aslakson, “The ‘Quadroon-Plaçage‘ Myth. ↩
-  Ibid. ↩