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New People, Old Words

On multiracial literature, from Fran Ross's Oreo to Danzy Senna's New People

Aside from snack food aficionados and novelists, hardly anyone uses the word “mulatto” anymore, at least not in the way Americans once did. Mulatto, an archaic word meant to define a mixed-race person with one black parent and one white one, is a vestige of a different time, the rare racial slur that’s fallen out of favor—dedicated racists are lazy thinkers, and so they tend to use inherited epithets. There are plenty of warranted reasons for why it has dropped out of the broader American lexicon: the people who used it regularly are dying out, bigots aren’t sticklers for specificity, and it’s not employed enough by black people to be MacGyvered into everyday language (in the way the n-word is). As such, mulatto is mostly a relic of academic texts, archival paperwork, slave narratives, the “race movies” of the early 20th century, and historical novels. It’s become so forgotten in the wider public imagination that, according to Google searches and Urban Dictionary, some people apparently confuse the word with Milano, the Pepperidge Farm snack cookie. That’s not to say that there are not black people, or people who identify otherwise, who don’t still use it liberally.

The comedian Eric Andre, who’s half Haitian-American and half-Jewish, uses the word in “Ranch It Up,” a recurring segment of his self-titled bizarro Adult Swim talk show. In his skits, Andre frequently says a catchphrase, “Buzz me, mulatto!” in a frat-boy drawl, usually to a white man on a lunch or smoke break. The absurdist nature of the joke is heightened by his use of “mulatto.” Most of the time the respondents don’t seem to understand what the word means or, for that matter, anything else that comes out of his mouth; “mulatto” becomes yet another nonsense word perplexing their ears. Andre’s deployment of the term serves to at once conjure it out of the past and make it meaningless.

Danzy Senna wields “mulatto” for dark humor in ways that feel true to the surreality of race and its consequences.

In a manner distinct from Andre’s use of the word, writer Danzy Senna wields “mulatto” for dark humor in ways that feel true to the surreality of race and its consequences. In Senna’s novel New People, she turns the word into a caustic, comic adjective. A fortysomething biracial documentary filmmaker was born in “the Era of Mulatto Martyrs.” Names like Thelonious, Joaquin, Cheo, Tuesday, Indigo, and Quincy are reserved for “the culturally elite mulatto spawn,” the first of which, for a biracial couple, will be like the messiah of Mulatto Nation. Mulatto-squared.” This is a book in which mulatto and quadroon, the latter used to refer to a person with one black grandparent, are thrown around on occasion by the book’s third-person narrator.

New People is an achievement in so many ways. It succeeds, to begin with, in capturing the psyche of a woman worn down by expectation. It also convincingly distills the essence of an “intentional community” in bohemian black Brooklyn. And it manages to send up the literary tropes of biracial representation, in particular that of the “tragic mulatto,” a mixed-race person who’s traumatized by their inability to fit neatly into distinct racial categories and their attendant social schema. Senna plugs that legendary trope into the classic humor machine. In New People, the “tragic mulatto” plus time equals comedy. Here, the humor is wry, and it yields an effect similar to Andre’s performance art pranks: to bring outmoded notions of biracial identity back into our minds while also rendering them “authentically nothing,” a description Senna uses in her foreword to Oreo, Fran Ross’s comic bildungsroman. In describing the well-educated multiracial people who assembled in Brooklyn with her in the late 1990s, she writes: “We were demi-teint—half-tone—a shade of blackness that had been formed in a clash of disparate symbols and signifiers, nothing pure about us.”

The characters in New People could be described the same way. It is the winter of 1996, and twenty-seven-year-old Maria lives in a utopian vision dreamed up by her dreadlocked, half-Jewish fiancé Khalil. Both, the omniscient narrator offers, are biracial and “the same shade of beige.” Maria and Khalil are moored in Brooklyn, caught up in the midst of the so-called “Brooklyn Renaissance”—a Harlem Renaissance-inspired movement of black creatives and intellectuals, captured, among other places, in Diane Paragas and Nelson George’s documentary Brooklyn Boheme; Bulletproof Diva, a book by Lisa Jones; and Trey Ellis’s classic manifesto “The New Black Aesthetic.”

Like those works, New People is a document. The book’s title doubles as the name of a documentary that features Maria, Khalil, and two other biracial people. “Together they look like the end of a story,” says the narrator. Indeed, endings feature heavily, ironically enough, in a book ostensibly about new beginnings. The documentary’s director Elsa, who’s also biracial, intends for the couple to represent the future. She wants to close the documentary with the couple’s marriage, as it fits symbolically with her vision. “It will,  Elsa says , suggest the ending of an era, the beginning of a new one, like the way those apocalypse movies end with the birth of a baby. That will be implicit, that a new race will be born from these New People.”

Khalil, who has Maria met at Stanford University, is a computer programmer with an idea for an online community he’d like to turn into a multimillion dollar company. Maria, the adopted daughter of a black feminist academic, is following in her mother’s footsteps, writing her dissertation on the ethnomusicology of the Peoples Temple cult. The couple are set to be married the spring after the novel begins, in Martha’s Vineyard, that paragon of black American elitism, where they will eat healthy, guilt-free soul food, and “break a glass (Jewish) and jump the broom (black).” According to Khalil’s younger sister, Lisa, the wedding will be attended by “all the Niggerati,” the term Wallace Thurman coined for the black literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance.

Maria spends her days in Harlem working on her Jonestown dissertation, an exhausting project that she may not be done with—but is ready to be done with. That distinction is a practical piece of insight about any creative work, but it’s also about race: we might be ready to be done with race, but it’s not done with us. In her spare time, she staves off planning her wedding and chips away at a separate project: tracking an elusive black poet who’s an associate of her soon-to-be sister-in-law. As with Khalil, Maria seems attracted to the poet as a man and as an idea. After all, her coupling with Khalil is forged out of an idea, one that seems to begin and end with their shared biracial heritage and their dream of utopian, culturally elite life. For Maria, Khalil is something of a hero, too, and she thinks “he is the one she needs, the one who can repair her.”

But Maria is coming undone. While she’s following the poet, a nebulous gray thing is haunting her, appearing at the most inopportune times. Whatever this gray thing is a metaphor for—anxiety, the untidiness of biracial identity, the brain’s gray matter—it signals her psychological breakdown. To the disdain of Khalil and their friends, Maria becomes increasingly more forgetful as the novel progresses. She can’t remember social events and even her fiancée’s impending cross-country business trip. While the gaps in her memory are unaccounted for, her foggy awareness of the present is supplemented by generous flashbacks to her past.

Given the dissonance between Maria’s experience of time in the past and present, the dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness narrative style employed by Senna becomes yet another dark joke: a pun on mental acuity and shifting political consciousness. There are sight gags as well as linguistic ones: Maria is mistaken for a Latina woman who works as a nanny for a depressive, aloof white woman with an adopted Chinese baby. One of Maria’s old Stanford boyfriends, a seemingly straight white man named Greg Winnicott, eventually becomes a queer Latino artist named Goya Alvarez. When Maria’s mother Gloria is dying of cancer in hospice, she becomes delirious and takes on several personalities, including a white British man named Nigel.

This humor reaches its apex at a shoot for the New People documentary. The director, Elsa, wants to get footage at the Universoul Circus, an all-black circus in town for a few days. A major revelation comes as a clown on stilts, donning a rainbow afro wig, wobbles across Maria’s sightline while she recites the Pledge of Allegiance, a suggestion made by Elsa so she doesn’t look blank on camera. The scene unfolds in slow motion. This is Senna’s sense of America in New People: a race carnival that moves like molasses.

Maria is a lot like Senna’s other protagonists, from her novels Caucasia (1998) and Symptomatic (2004): intelligent, biracial, and searching. Caucasia’s jarring opening lines present a theme that Senna strikes even harder in New People.

A long time ago I disappeared. One day I was here, the next I was gone. It happened as quickly as all that. One day I was playing schoolgirl games with my sister and our friends in a Roxbury playground. The next I was a nobody, just a body without a name or a history, sitting beside my mother in the front seat of our car, moving forward on the highway, not stopping. (And when I stopped being nobody, I would become white—white as my skin, hair, bones allowed. My body would fill in the blanks, tell me who I should become, and I would let it speak for me.)

New People’s Maria resists letting her body speak for her, even though she can’t help that it does. Her body gets her confused for a nanny, confused for a white woman. But that’s the beauty of the work: it becomes an outlet for Maria’s thoughts, even though this isn’t a first-person account. Just as this novel fits neatly into Senna’s oeuvre, it also chimes with and challenges the larger canon of works that take on multiracial identity. Maria’s pre-marital distress and ultimate dispossession make her a descendant of Helga Crane, the star of Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand. The carnival scene, along with Maria’s mental breakdown, recall something Adrienne Kennedy might have dreamed up in her elliptical 1964 play Funnyhouse of Negro, also about a young biracial woman who’s becoming mentally and emotionally unstable. Cane (1923), Jean Toomer’s celebrated book of high modernism, features several vignettes about multiracial people, and its formal tricks are echoed in New People. The lags in Maria’s consciousness function much like the abundant ellipses in Cane, which are also used to infer the unsaid. In both works, the gaps suggest a story that needs supplementing with something more than a body can fill in itself.

More than any other work, though, New People seems most directly inspired by Oreo, Fran Ross’s 1974 comic masterpiece.

Victor LaValle, Emily Raboteau, and Mat Johnson (including the 2015 novel Loving Day, which also features a kind of intentional community for biracial people, the Mélange Center) have all been minding those gaps in their own ways. New People shares traits with works by those authors: abundant humor; contemporary, complex biracial protagonists; and distinct allusions to earlier black writing movements (Johnson once had a blog called “Niggerati Manor”). More than any other work, though, New People seems most directly inspired by Oreo, Fran Ross’s 1974 comic masterpiece. The book, about a young biracial woman who goes off in search of her Jewish father, utilizes incredible experiments in form, including charts and formulas, lists and quizzes, which anticipate some of Senna’s digressions and asides. Its searing, comic investigation of biracial identity and the fraught nature of all identities in America makes it a ready precursor to New People. Indeed, for the “recovering oreos” she lived with in the ‘90s, Senna writes, “Each of us had experienced a degree of alienation growing up—being too black to be white, or too white to be black, or too mixed to be anything—and somehow at the same moment in time we’d all moved into the same ten-block radius of Brooklyn together. Oreo came to me in this context like a strange uncanny dream about the future that was really the past. That is, it read like a novel not from 1974 but from the near future—a book whose appearance I was still waiting for.”

With New People, Senna appears to have written the book she was waiting for. By the end of the novel, Maria is a bit of a tragic mulatto, but her tragedy doesn’t come from a tortured sense of her racial identity. Her issues are relatively commonplace: she’s stressed about her dissertation, still grieving her mother’s death, and is about to marry a man she’s not really in love with. That she could act out in frightening ways is also the setup to a punchline you might not expect: the tragic mulatto is just like you or anyone else going through run-of-the-mill trauma.