We Must Be Alive: Among the Wild Mulattos & Other Tales by Tom Williams
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
In his 1991 hit song, Black or White, Michael Jackson meditates on racial equality, singing, “I’m not going to spend/My life being a color.” However, Jackson’s well-documented, complicated relationship with his African American appearance speaks to the contrary. In a way, Jackson’s transformation from his natural skin tone to an eerie, bleached white speaks not just of his profound personal battle with identity, but a broader problem in America as a whole. The simple fact is, that as a result of systematic white supremacy, many African Americans do spend their lives “being a color.” This troubling issue forms the central motif of Kentucky-born writer and academic Tom Williams’ short story collection, Among the Wild Mulattos & Other Tales.
The burdens of oppression, violence, and inequality shouldered by black Americans weigh heavy. But how are bi or multiracial people affected — the shades of grey, if you will, in the simplified divisions of ‘black’ and ‘white’ — and how are they recognized and represented in cultural phenomena like literature? Here, Williams attempts to address these matters in their multifarious forms.
Almost 7% of American adults — around 9 million as of the 2013 Census — are genetically comprised of more than one race. In June, the Pew Research Center published Multiracial in America: Proud, Diverse and Growing in Numbers. Of the 1,555 participants of Pew’s survey, only 60% claimed to feel proud of their multiracial heritage, and 55% reported experiencing racist slurs, jokes, and threats due to their mixed parentage.
The findings of the PRC study demonstrate the complexity of racial identity, and how the degree to which people struggle depends in no small part on the race to which they most identify. Participants with a biracial black and white background reported receiving a notable quantity of racial profiling and discrimination, aligning with the many prejudices targeted against black Americans. However, despite such a parallel, many multiracial individuals do not report a sense of connection with people of the same racial mix, indicating a lack of strong shared biracial identity.
Author of The Mimic’s Own Voice and Don’t Start Me Talkin’, and currently Chair of English at Kentucky’s Morehead State University, Williams explores in detail the experience of biracial Americans in a contemporary environment that claims, albeit falsely, to be ‘post-racial.’ The eponymous ‘mulatto’ is a term traditionally denoting a person with one black and one white parent, or sometimes referring to someone with mixed black and white ancestry. Not commonly used today, mulatto is regarded as at best archaic and at worst a racial slur, which is reasonable considering the etymology of the word is based in the Latin mūlus, or mule, the infertile offspring of a horse and donkey.
Perhaps unsurprising given his own mixed race heritage, Williams is explicitly concerned with representations of biracial identity, using fiction to consider the ways in which biracial individuals navigate a world that is unsure whether to treat them as black or white. The majority of these stories are located in the Southern and Midwestern states, where racism remains rife, and racial tension is high. One character, in ‘Who Among Us Knows the Route to Heaven?,’ describes his reception as a biracial child in 1970s Ohio as “(o)dder than two-headed calves, stranger than Uri Geller,” and when watching TV at that time, that “(n)ever once did I see a face or family that looked like mine.” It is this alienation that Williams is most curious about, and the steps some biracial people feel forced to take to in order to counteract it.
Thematically, the collection ranges from a twist on the tortured writer trope in the opener, ‘The Story of My Novel: Three Piece Combo With Drink,’ to Doestoyevskian doubling in ‘The Lessons of Effacement,’ and the relationship between image and identity in ‘Movie Star Entrances’ and ‘The Finest Writers in the World Today.’ The cord tying these narratives together is identity; a notion encompassing our sense of self, how we are perceived, our manipulations of these perceptions, and those aspects beyond our control.
Despite Williams’ concentration on representing biracial characters, his stories share a universality that prevents them from alienating readers of other races. ‘The Finest Writers in the World Today’ focuses less on race, exploring the strange phenomenon of celebrity impersonators. Williams humorously imagines the consequences of a lookalike agency — ’Cause Celebs’ — introducing the doubles of famous writers; a group not traditionally celebrated for their appearance, but for their talent. It is discovered that the popularity of these doubles comes not from their ability to imitate, but from the ability to represent an author without all the troublesome drinking, arrogance, or ridiculous demands. Dead writer? No problem, a “plain creepy” William Burroughs, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez (“the manager of a Mexican restaurant near Clintonville”) double can step in. As authors do experience a huge amount of celebrity — recent examples include Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — Williams’ satire cuts close to the bone.
Another particularly strong story, ‘Movie Star Entrances,’ scrutinizes our obsession with how we are perceived, and is accordingly one of the most relatable narratives. The protagonist, Curtis, is a shy and timid employee of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts; a self-described “biracial suburbanite,” whose childhood in Des Moines left him desperate to “find a place where his presence was not so spectacular, where he might be among others like him.” With a work party looming, and a special lady’s attention to attract, the self-conscious Curtis turns to a very odd agency to re-invent himself.
Run by Ramon and Miriam, an entertainingly odd couple, Movie Star Entrances promises an extreme makeover, which thoroughly convinces the bashful Curtis. However, despite their extraordinary efforts at transforming him, he finds that his brief moment in the spotlight is not enough to change his perception of himself, and “his tawny…undistinguished skin.” Williams hits the right balance between humor and melancholy, the story a reminder of the sadness and frustration that can arise from growing up without a sense of place — in this case due to race, but applicable to anyone that has struggled with identification or self-confidence.
Williams’ shines when he allows his characters to interact with the uncanny, absurd, troubling, and bizarre, epitomized in the disturbing ‘Ethnic Studies’. A group of men — Javier, Teng Lo, Amos, and our unnamed narrator, all in “the general family of brown” — are offered $500 a pop by a university professor to engage in a highly problematic demonstration of racial variety that is reminiscent of the 19th and 20th century ‘human zoos;’ degrading exhibitions emphasising the differences between ‘primitive’ peoples and white Europeans and Americans. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable and exploited, the men retaliate, putting on a display of racial stereotypes that highlight the absurdity and racism of objectifying of people of color. As thus still, unfortunately, all too common — whether the use of black backing dancers by a white performer, or the wearing of traditional native American headdresses by white teenagers at music festivals — Williams brings us uncomfortably close to how little we’ve advanced from the abhorrent racist practices of our white predecessors.
While Williams’ characterization is generally strong, and he generates authentic, engaging personas, what is glaringly absent is positive female representation. Frequently, the women in these stories are background props, or fulfil an archaic, rather sexist role, such as object of desire, lover, or girlfriend. Only once, in ‘The Finest Writers in the World Today’ does a woman take a vaguely central role, but rather than being celebrated, her confidence and drive to succeed are portrayed as arrogance and obsession. More bothersome is the puzzling vignette ‘A Public Service,’ which takes the form of a kind of marketing spiel for a pornographic website focusing on larger women’s bottoms, imaginatively named ‘rearview.com.’ While it’s clear that Williams’ is attempting to engage in a commentary on the objectification of women:
Denigrating women. Invading their privacy. Who told you that shit? We’re showing women, real women single moms, widows, divorcees…But we’re respectful, We don’t show faces so nobody knows just who it is who’s carrying around all that sugar.
What he produces instead is a rather uninspired, directionless vignette. For female readers, the story serves no purpose aside from an unnecessary reminder of the misogynistic, patriarchal society we must live in.
Although the thorough exploration of this collection is enlightening, at times entertaining, and often disquieting, Williams’ explicit repetition of the biracial motif becomes somewhat tiresome, with almost all of the stories mentioning that the protagonist is ‘biracial,’ in no varying terms, within the first few pages. This degree of exposition leaves the reader feeling vaguely patronized, as if their powers of deduction would be too weak to figure this out without guidance. However, the closing story — the eponymous ‘Among the Wild Mulattos’ — with its depiction of an isolated, biracial utopia for those desiring to escape the whitewashed landscape of America, provides some reinvigoration.
Despite its flaws, this collection forms a fairly vital function: enriching and positive representation of biracial Americans in contemporary literature. What it lacks in gender and geographical diversity, it makes up for in diligence and unwavering focus. While Williams’ reiteration of biracial protagonists can appear excessive, this does, in fact, remind us of the need for such attention; it is not just our society that is dominated by white people and culture, but art and literature, too.