Fundamentally, The Strange History of the American Quadroon aims to debunk the mythological, hyper-sexualized representations of female quadroons of popular historical sources. In doing so, she explains how the attraction of the quadroon transformed New Orleans into a place of the exotic “other,” resulting in the tourist-centered culture that the city is today. Cementing Clark’s arguments is the newly-formed black republic of Haiti, whose refugees introduced over 1,000 free blacks to the city and caused a demographic imbalance of free black men and women for the city’s marriage market. Clark argues that these free women of color, who emigrated from Haiti with few resources, informed the stereotype of quadroons as fortune hunters who were inspired by their mothers to become the concubines of rich, white men. This book, finally recovering the lives of free black women in New Orleans from their pervasive literary exploitation, powerfully changes the ways in which the general public and academics conceptualize issues of race and sex in American history.
Clark first traces the origins of the quadroon to early national Philadelphia. Political concerns reflected conflicting ideologies between merchant and elite classes, influenced by the city’s commercial ties to Saint-Domingue. Philadelphia, the largest port city at the end of the eighteenth century, saw an influx of around 2,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue in the 1790s as a result of the French and Haitian Revolutions. The term quadroon became an epithet of promiscuity intertwined with political and social anxieties over commercial interests and racial equality. Clark’s connection between Philadelphia and New Orleans rests upon her argument that fears of interracial violence and black rebellion, expressed most potently in the political and commercial capital of Philadelphia, became assuaged with the emigration of 9,000 Haitian refugees from Cuba to New Orleans in 1809. The Haitian quadroon abated fears of black insurrection because she was socially and sexually conquered by white masculinity. This argument, though backed by the fact that free black male refugees were not allowed into the city, is not satisfactory in light of the preventative laws passed in the United States in order to curb slave rebellions, which continued to occur throughout the early nineteenth century.
Clark’s most striking arguments describe the varied experiences of quadroon women of New Orleans, proposing that economic disadvantages upon arrival to New Orleans, as well as civil codes barring interracial marriage, led many emigrant quadroons to become the ménagère, or housewife, of white men of middling business and elite classes. This Haitian practice allowed free black and mixed race women to exercise autonomy of self and household; in public depictions, this practice became equated to the plaçage complex (a 20th century term) in which quadroons “were imagined as romantically tragic kept women” who were “dependent and defenseless” in their largely transient relationships with men who would go on to marry white women instead (66). In reality, Clark explains, many white men (whom she terms “bachelor patriarchs”) established long-lasting and exclusive relationships with quadroons, acknowledged parentage of their children, and lived with them as almost-normal families. However, many other free black women of mixed parentage became prostitutes or were sold as sex slaves in markets that helped romanticize quadroons as exotic and sexually alluring as New Orleans became increasingly marketed as a site of sex tourism.
Though her chapters are organized thematically, Clark traces the transformation of the quadroon, and therefore the culture of New Orleans, from the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth century. The quadroon ball, in particular, and its depictions in literature demonstrate the degradation and exploitation of mixed race women for the pleasure and entertainment of white men from all over the country. Women who once publicly courted the upper class in the antebellum period were increasingly put on show for the rabble and sold as tourist attractions in the postbellum period. Fundamental to this transformation were the popularized accounts, often hearsay, of the quadroon as an orientalized, seductive, lavish, or tragic character particular to the scapegoated city of New Orleans, a site that represented the racial and sexual sins of the rest of the country. Clark explores the travel narratives, abolition literatures, novels, and sociological discourses published by Karl Bernhard, Lydia Maria Child, Joseph Holt Ingraham, and Harriet Martineau, respectively, which perpetuated these mythologies. However, Clark also brings forward letters, baptismal records, marriage licenses, and wills from the New Orleans archives which alter this strange history of the American quadroon and the Crescent City. Contrasting these sources, Clark’s book powerfully proves the consequences of shifting the nastier bits of America’s past onto certain people and certain places.