Tragic Mulatto: Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s The Price of Blood

The Price of Blood, by Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1835–1907); 1868; Oil on canvas
Image Source: Morris Museum of Art

This is how these men, born in the 19th century, remembered their fathers:

Frederick Douglass wrote, “My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.” [1]

William Wells Brown wrote “I was born in Lexington, Ky. The man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all the infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose. My mother’s name was Elizabeth. She had seven children, viz.: Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Millford, Elizabeth, and myself. No two of us were children of the same father. My father’s name, as I learned from my mother, was George Higgins. He was a white man, a relative of my master, and connected with some of the first families in Kentucky.” [2]

• Henry Bibb wrote

I was born May 1815, of a slave mother, in Shelby County, Kentucky, and was claimed as the property of David White Esq. He came into possession of my mother long before I was born. I was brought up in the Counties of Shelby, Henry, Oldham, and Trimble. Or, more correctly speaking, in the above counties, I may safely say, I was flogged up; for where I should have received moral, mental, and religious instruction, I received stripes without number, the object of which was to degrade and keep me in subordination. I can truly say, that I drank deeply of the bitter cup of suffering and woe. I have been dragged down to the lowest depths of human degradation and wretchedness, by Slaveholders.

My mother was known by the name of Milldred Jackson. She is the mother of seven slaves only, all being sons, of whom I am the eldest. She was also so fortunate or unfortunate, as to have some of what is called the slaveholding blood flowing in her veins. I know not how much; but not enough to prevent her children though fathered by slaveholders, from being bought and sold in the slave markets of the South. It is almost impossible for slaves to give a correct account of their male parentage. All that I know about it is, that my mother informed me that my fathers name was James Bibb. He was doubtless one of the present Bibb family of Kentucky; but I have no personal knowledge of him at all, for he, died before my recollection. [3]

Henry Bibb’s father was Kentucky state senator James Bibb.

3 Abolitionists Douglass Brown Bibb
African American Abolitionists Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Henry Bibb
Image Source: From their Narratives; see book citations at the bottom of this post

Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Henry Bibb had at least two things in common. They were outspoken opponents of slavery. And they were the sons of white men who abandoned them, and their mothers, to a life of bondage.

As such, they might have been able to relate to Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s painting, The Price of Blood. The Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, which owns the painting, provides this description:

Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s painting The Price of Blood directly addresses the atrocities of the slave trade. A well-dressed man, who is wearing his hat as if he is a visitor, stands, reading a piece of paper, behind the table on which there are stacks of gold. The man seated in the foreground is wearing a smoking jacket and slippers, which indicates the scene must be taking place in his home. Behind him a painting depicting the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac hangs on the wall. At the left, a young man of mixed race who is not well dressed, with a tattered straw hat and no shoes, stands assertively and looks away from the event taking place. Looking closely, one may notice that the seated man and the young boy have similar facial features—so similar that they must be related.

The old man is selling his mixed-race son into slavery. The gold on the table is the price of his blood.

Of note is that, this painting was created after the Civil War. Thomas Satterwhite Noble was a Kentuckian who fought for the Confederacy. But he grew-up in the Lexington, Kentucky area, which was the site of a slave market; his experiences there may have led him to detest the institution, despite his support for the pro-slavery Confederate regime.

This image of a male mulatto makes for a different rendering of the classic “tragic mulatto” trope. As noted in Wikipedia, “in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries… the tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character… an archetypical mixed-race person who is assumed to be sad, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the ‘white world’ or the ‘black world.'” Commonly, the tragic mulatto was a female (“Tragic Mulatta”) “who endures the hardships of African-Americans in the antebellum South, even though she may look white enough that her ethnicity is not immediately obvious… A common objection to this character is that she allows readers to pity the plight of oppressed or enslaved races, but only through a veil of whiteness — that is, instead of sympathizing with a true racial ‘other,’ one is sympathizing with a character who is made as much like one’s own race as possible… As the name implies, tragic mulattas almost always meet a bad end.”

The (real) lives of Douglass, Brown, and Bibb did not adhere that narrative. Their tragedy came from being rejected and abandoned by their white fathers, and being dehumanized and emasculated by enslavement. But they were able to gain redemption via self-liberation from slavery and the embrace of a freedom quest for their race – the black race. They were not seeking sympathy based of their “whiteness”; rather, they sought to eliminate the unrighteous degradation that was placed upon their blackness.

But  Douglass, Brown, and Bibb were lucky. They were able to escape bondage, and make lives for themselves as free men who advocated for the freedom of others. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of men toiled in captivity and obscurity after being sold down the river by men who treated their own flesh and blood like so much livestock. Tragic stuff, indeed.

DID YOU KNOW: Wikipedia, citing The Norton Anthology of African American Literature Second edition, notes that “the earliest work of fiction by an African-American writer…  was the short story ‘Le Mulâtre’ (‘The Mulatto’), written by Victor Séjour (1817–74) and published in 1837… Séjour was born free in New Orleans and moved to France at the age of 19.”  Wikipedia says that Séjour’s story “has been described as ‘a gothic revenge tale revolving around the psychological conflicts of a mulatto searching for the identity of his father.’ It is one of the earliest works of fiction driven by the psychological trauma of American slavery.”

[1] From the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself; online at the North Carolina at Chapel Hill DocSouth site; text may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use.

[2] From the Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself; online at the North Carolina at Chapel Hill DocSouth site; text may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use.

[3] From the Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself; online at the North Carolina at Chapel Hill DocSouth site; text may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use.

See also this post: The Octoroon, a Tragic Mulatto Tale of the Old South

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