The Octoroon: A tragic Mulatto enslaved by 1 drop

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with theImage of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Though it would hardly seem likely at first glance, this pallid image of slavery directly addresses the condition of black bondage. To all appearances, the young woman seen here represents a white captive. Except for her chains, she could pass for a conventional likeness of Venus, the classical goddess of love. As indicated by the inscription on the base of the statue, she is instead an octoroon—that is, an exceptionally light-skinned person of mixed race, technically defined as one-eighth black and the rest white.

The condition was reached by gradual degrees of miscegenation, or racial mixing, until the complexion of an individual often became indistinguishable from a person of “pure” white ancestry. In race-conscious societies, the prospect of racial mixture could threaten the precarious stability of the dominant order. The position of the octoroon along the edge of this fragile divide afforded some degree of maneuverability, often termed “passing.” Before the abolition of slavery, however, such light-skinned mulattoes faced the even more likely prospect of a life in bondage.

This demure, pensive vision of miscegenation and its dire consequences was made by the popular British sculptor John Bell. Through artfully constructed layers of sentimentality and aesthetic contrivance emerges one of the primary justifications for the enslavement of a whole group of human beings: the notion of one drop of black blood, the “drop sinister,” by which a light-skinned person could be consigned to a life of bondage.

At the time of its presentation at the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1868, Bell stood at the height of his career. His work typically mixed the conventional standards of classical form with the emotive pathos of contemporary romanticism. The combination was a formula for success among critics and laypeople alike, who had become accustomed to viewing works of art as outlets for their own emotional sensibilities.

The Octoroon quickly garnered popular and critical acclaim. Before long it was widely reproduced on a smaller scale as one of Minton’s ceramic Parian-ware figurines, as well as in bronze replicas. Astereo photograph of the original allowed even those of modest means to view it with a convincing illusion of depth.

The aesthetic effect of the figure is essentially theatrical, encouraging the strongly empathetic participation of the viewer with both form and meaning. In fact, the subject seems to have been suggested to Bell by the arrival on the London stage in 1861 of The Octoroon, a highly popular play first produced in New York two years earlier by the widely celebrated playwright Dion Boucicault.

The drama tells the moving story of Zoe, the mixed-race daughter of a rich Southern judge and plantation owner by his black paramour. With the judge’s death, Zoe loses his protection, and her situation becomes precarious. She faces the horrible prospect of being sold at auction, most likely to share the fate of her mother as the mistress of a rich white man. The evil McClosky desires her for himself, opposed by the sincere love for her by George, the heir to the family fortune. In the American version, the tale ends tragically with Zoe’s suicide as she realizes that any future with George as man and wife could never be. British audiences disliked this unhappy ending, and the play was rewritten with the more optimistic “happily ever after” possibility of their union in another, more tolerant land.

Bell’s own distilled response to the theme of miscegenation in the play seems to have evolved rather quickly. The Octoroon debuted in London just several months after the beginning of the Civil War. By 1863, the London Art Journal reported that Bell’s statue was “well under way,” though its formal exhibition took place only several years later, in 1868.

Devoid of any actual references to plot or the character’s identity, the figure stands naked, chained and ready for sale to the highest bidder. In Bell’s mind the sentimentality and clamor of the stage were elevated to a higher conceptual plane that confronted the viewer with the image of Zoe in her most vulnerable state. By extension, the work seems to invite the viewer to ponder the very nature of chattel slavery and its implacable determination by race, just as the issue was being so tempestuously decided in the United States.

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