My Coloured Thoughts: Last of the Mohicans and Perceptions of Mixed Race Peoples
Originally presented at the 1999 Southwest Graduate Literature Symposium on “Expanding’Literature(s)’, Challenging Boundaries” (Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, March 12-14, 1999).
Copyright © 1999, Zoë Ludski.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
But alas, to make me
A fixed figure for the time of scorn
To point his slow unmoving finger at
Othello act 4 sc. 2
Although Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans, is obviously outdated in its reflection of Native American people, the depiction of Cora, a women of mixed race, maintains its validity today. The text provides valuable insight into race issues surrounding multiracial people that is still pertinent and important today. Cooper is extremely perceptive in showing how Cora’s heritage affects her self perception and causes her to judge herself and others in light of visible characteristics such as skin colour.
Today’s discussions and literature on race issues present a wide range of feelings on the topic of mixed race. Currently in the United States there is a large movement supporting the creation of a multiracial category for the US census. This movement has considerable opposition, particularly from within the black American community. This situation is a reminder of the diverse opinions and contrasting views in regards to the issue of mixed race.
It is valuable to re-examine the character Cora in light of contemporary race theory in order to gain an insight into the past and present of mixed race people in America.
Cora’s multiracial heritage causes her to feel that her life is of less value than her family and friends, in particular, her sister, Alice.
During the 19ᵗʰ century, miscegenation — sexual relations between people of different races — was against the law. Not only was miscegenation illegal, it was interpreted as a violation against God and your country. In 1870 zoologist and paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope from the University of Pennsylvania wrote; “The greatest danger which flows from the presence of the negro in this country, is the certainty of the contamination of the race.” (Race and Mixed Race, p. 119) In 1867 Buckner Payne, a publisher in Nashville, wrote;
The states and people that favor this equality and amalgamation of the white and black races, God will exterminate. A man cannot commit so great an offense against his race, against his country, against his God as to give his daughter in marriage to a negro - a - beast. (Race and Mixed Race, p. 119)
It was scientifically accepted that people of mixed race would not live as long as mono-racial people, and that they were furthermore prone to physical ailments and mental confusion. “First of all one would come into the world in direct violation of Laws of Nature that kept animals within their own breeding purposes. Physically one would be something of a freak of nature.” (Race and Mixed Race, pp. 122-123) These beliefs would have been commonly held in the United States during the 19ᵗʰ century, so it is plausible to assume that Cora would have known that she was ‘a freak of nature’ and a ‘sin against God and country’. Munro, Cora’s father and a prominent General in the army, is a caring man who obviously loves Cora dearly. His morals and ethics are ahead of his time and yet he still hides his daughters true heritage from others. Undoubtedly Cora had been told to do the same. When Munro reveals Cora’s background to Heyward, his pain and embarrassment about his past miscegenistic relationship are revealed.
“There it was my lot to form a connection with one who in time became my wife and the Mother of Cora. She was the daughter of a gentleman of those isles, by a lady whose misfortune it was, if you will” said the old man proudly, “to be descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people.” (The Last of the Mohicans, pp. 187-188)
In the above passage Munro’s own confused thoughts on miscegenation are demonstrated. He disagrees with slavery and almost seems to support the idea of equality of races, and yet he knows that his society will not accept this. Therefore Munro hides his daughter’s heritage and his own previous marriage. Cora’s family think highly of her, and yet even this love and support are not enough to convince Cora that she is as valued as they are. The racism towards mixed race people is so strong, that it is firmly established in her mind that she is ‘a freak of nature’.
Heyward attempts to remain respectful towards his superior, and desired father-in-law, but it is later seen how he truly feels when he proposes to Alice. She questions him about his feelings towards Cora and he replies, “Your venerable father knew no difference between his children; but I — Alice you will not be offended when I say, that to me her worth was in a degree obscured. ... ” (The Last of the Mohicans, p. 308) Alice quickly cuts him off with support for her sister.
This treatment and forced hidden identity are extremely detrimental to Cora’s self confidence and self perception. No matter how others perceive her or even how she perceives herself, the most profound affect comes from her perception of how others perceived her. Cora is discerned as beautiful and intelligent by those around her. She is described as having a ... complexion [that] was not brown, but it appeared rather to be charged with the color of the rich blood, that seemed ready to burst it’s bounds. (The Last of the Mohicans, p. 21)
Throughout the novel, Cora is complemented for her strength and courage, especially compared with that of her sister. During an enemy ambush before Heyward is informed of her heritage, he commends her while rebuking Alice:
“To you Cora I will urge no words of idle encouragement; your own fortitude and undisturbed reason will teach you all that may become your sex; but cannot we dry the tears of that trembling weeper on your bosom?” (The Last of the Mohicans p. 99)
Hawkeye thinks so highly of her that he wishes he had “a thousand men of brawny limbs and quick eyes, that feared death as little as you [Cora] do!” (The Last of the Mohicans, p. 167) Yet Cora still feels she is worthless compared to Alice She is willing to trade her own life and freedom for that of her sister’s. “Yonder is one who has never known the weight of heavens displeasure until now She has many, very many to love her and delight in her and she is too good, much too precious to become victim to that villain.” (The Last of the Mohicans, p. 362)
This speech clearly indicates that Cora feels she is not precious enough to be saved from Magua. She feels she is a disappointment in the eyes of God, as the theories of the day suggested. It could be argued that Cora is simply an unrealistically good and loving sister, but she, herself, indicates that her life is useless and disposable due to her heritage. When begging the Delaware Elder for mercy, Cora says; “For myself I ask nothing the curse of my ancestors has fallen heavily on their child.” (The Last of the Mohicans, p. 362) The belief that she is a ‘violation of nature’ is painfully embedded in Cora’s mind. Growing up in a white family and community, Cora is faced with many difficulties. She knows the way the community feels towards people of mixed race and the disgrace it would bring to her family if her heritage were known. She is often faced with uncomfortable situations that weigh heavily on her conscience when people around her make racist comments. This has the effect of making Cora over value physical attributes such as skin colour, in herself and in others. It is as if the thought of appearance and skin colour are always on her mind. Cora’s first words in the novel are to reprimand Alice for her distrust in their Native guide. One can sense her anger and frustration. “Should we distrust this man because his manners are not our manners and that his skin is dark.” (The Last of the Mohicans, p. 24) Two chapters later she again shows support, this time for Uncas, by making reference to his colour. “Who that looks at this creature of nature, remembers the shade of his skin!” (The Last of the Mohicans, p. 62) Funny she should ask as, evidently, she does.
The pain and confusion Cora feels about her multiracial heritage is most clearly portrayed in the scene where the Elder from the Delaware tribe, has given her to Magua. She is saying goodbye to Alice who is unconscious in the arms of Heyward.
“She is kind, gentle, sweet, good as mortal may be. There is not a blemish in mind or person at which the proudest of you all would sicken. She is fair — Oh! how surpassingly fair!” Laying her own beautiful but less brilliant hand in melancholy affection on the alabaster forehead of Alice ... “And yet her soul is pure and spotless as her skin!” (The Last of the Mohicans, p. 374)
These lines reflect Cora’s own doubt and shame about her multiracial heritage. She considers her colour a ‘blemish’ and her soul as ‘not quite spotless’. She reveals her belief that if any of them knew her ‘true identity’ they ‘would sicken’. Living with these feelings about herself is a tragedy. This self complex or self loathing, is a direct result of confusion about her identity. This confusion stems from being forced to label herself, and furthermore, the necessity to identify mono-racially.
Racial labeling, whether it is forced or chosen, can cause turmoil by creating an environment in which a person must deny a part of their heritage and family or, by being rejected by a part of their heritage or family.
In the book, The New Coloured People, author Jon Michael Spencer says that mixed race people should identify as black because they are more accepted in this community. “Despite the fact that black children are sometimes cruel to mixed race children and the black community is sometimes tentative about mixed race adults and interracial marriages, there is a measure of acceptance in the black community that is rarely matched by the whites.” (p. 55)
Spencer demonstrates the identity problem multiracial people often discover. There is no group for people of mixed race to identify with, a reluctant acceptance at best is what a multiracial person should hope for — according to Spencer.
Half and Half is a collection of essays about growing up multiracial. Each author speaks of their struggle with identity, with community and with their own doubt and confusion. Malcolm Gladwell’s essay entitled, “Lost in the Middle”, tells of the first time he realized his community perceived his looks as ‘different’.
... a magnificent long jumper by the name of Chris Brandy — who came up to me one day, looking closely at my hair and features, and demanded: “What are you?” The question was entirely unexpected, and I remember blinking and stammering momentarily overwhelmed by that word what. I had always thought my singular alienation was a result of who I was. But now it occurred to me that perhaps it was the result of something entirely external - the result of nuances of color and skin and lip and curl that put me just outside the world of people like Chris Brandy. ... (p. 185)
Even if Chris Brandy was genuinely interested in Gladwell’s heritage, these incessant questions beginning with what are infuriating and disconcerting and could very well be construed as racist in intent. Originally Gladwell had not thought of his mixed race as an issue, but after this experience, he became predisposed to think of visible characteristics first, in himself and others. Much like Cora, those who are often made aware of or reminded of their visible differences begin to seek this characteristics out in others. One might often question whether a response from another is a response based on heritage or physical appearance. Often this assumption might be incorrect, but the seed of doubt remains from past experiences. As mentioned previously, Cora is very respected and yet she remains unsure of her own identity and place in her society.
There is a controversial movement in the U.S.A. which calls for another recognized racial category — Mixed Race. Groups such as AMEA (Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans), Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally), among many others, are lobbying the government to add a multiracial classification to the United States census. Some of the beliefs behind this movement come from the feeling that multiracial people have experiences that are unique to them that could be aided by identifying with a group. The need to recognize one’s ancestry beyond the ‘one drop rule’ has important ramifications on the development of one’s self identity and this is another important factor. It is also thought by some as a step towards a ‘raceless’ society, others feel it is a way to ensure that multiracial people are not excluded from racial matrices. Those who are against the movement believe that it segregates the black community thereby undermining their status. Spencer writes passionately, “It has been by our [the black community] numbers and unity, both a result of the one-drop rule, that we have made strides in attaining civil rights in this country” (The New Coloured People, p. 75) Spencer and many others in the black community feel that people who claim to be multiracial are just trying to escape the racism directed at blacks, that to call oneself multiracial is an attempt to be more white. Spencer, who spent time in South Africa studying the Apartheid system and the affects on the community, feels that the creation of a separate racial category would be a tragic mistake. The tactic of dividing the oppressed group into two categories enabling a minority group to conquer, is a fear that Spencer feels would become a reality if the multiracial category were to exist. With the current status (or lack there of) and dialogue surrounding the issue of mixed race, it is interesting to look at a text written in the 19ᵗʰ century and note the similarities, in terms of identity issues, that still occur on some levels today. It is also inspiring to see the progress that has been made, an example being, deliberations of this nature. In light of further discourse that is required around multiracial people and their place in society, it is helpful to look at Cora and the society portrayed in The Last of the Mohicans to further ones perspicacity. This is needed to enhance our thinking, feeling and behaviour towards the multiracial community.
- Bishop, Anne, Becoming An Ally Breaking the Cycle of Oppression. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1994.
- Cooper, James Fenimore, The Last of the Mohicans . New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1980.
- Courtenay, Bryce, Tandia. Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1992.
- O’Hearn, Claudine Chiawei, Half and Half [Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural]. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.
- Spencer, Jon Michael, The New Coloured People; The Mixed Race Movement in America. New York and London: New York University Press, 1997.
- Tutu, Desmond, The Rainbow People of God. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
- Zack, Naomi, Race and Mixed Race. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.