Blog post

Mixed-race: A further consideration of racial identity in European history

The ways in which mixed raced people have contributed to the stories of Europe

painting of Aleksander Pushkin
by
Johanna Fisher (Professor of English and Women Studies, Co-director Women and Gender Studies)

The story of the presence of people of colour in European history cannot be complete without the acknowledgment of mixed-race peoples. It is not enough to simply drop people of mixed race into a race group that suits the telling of European history and if acknowledged would complicate the claim for cultural purity.

People of mixed race have contributed to the stories of Europe in profound and important ways that attest to the struggle to find a place of acceptance in European life. These contributions are complicated by the lack of an identifiable understanding of what mixed race means in the course of that history.

Painting of a mixed-raced family

It is first not the story of America where ‘a drop of black blood’ meant that person was identified as black and as such was denied rights. The basis of this identification clearly placed one in a particular social and legal category and this meant ironically one’s identification was not predicated on an individual understanding of what that person understood it to be, but an identity socially and legally constructed by those in power to do so.

This is of course harmful. Identity was often based on what was perceived to be the inferior racial group by western views. It is only recently that people of mixed race have begun to accept the reality of their being of more than one racial group and to advocate for a more nuanced discussion about race overall that includes their own reality.

To look at some of the contributions of mixed-race people to the narrative of European history, we might consider a few important examples of people who made this narrative distinct.

colour illustration of Joseph Bologne who wears a blue coat and carries a sword

The 18th century composer, known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, whose actual name was Joseph Boulogne was born of a white plantation owner and an enslaved mother. He was an actual court composer in the court of Louis 16th and Marie Antoinette. He was an accomplished musician, composer, polymath and officer in the French army. Interestingly, he was born before Mozart and although much of his musical compositions were lost, the influence he had on the music Mozart composed much later is difficult to deny. He was widely known in the world, even in America. Thus, the representation in the classical age of music is not complete without acknowledging his presence in that story.

Late 19th century people of mixed race also contributed to the arts as for example, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who was a noted composer and conductor from England.

Portrait of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
painting of Aleksander Pushkin

Important literary writers such as Alexander Pushkin and Alexander Dumas made contributions to the Romantic period of the 19th century and although they are well known as writers; it surprises many readers to know they were of mixed race.

medieval manuscript with illustration of Feirefiz and Parzival

Literary characters of mixed race make appearances in the narratives of the Middle Ages including such figures as Sir Morien, a knight in King Arthur’s court, Othello,The Moor and Feirefiz in Eschenbach’s, Parzival.

Portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici

Other figures from the Renaissance period, for example, include Alessandro de’ Medici, the first duke of the Florentine republic who is said to have been born to a servant of African descent and the ruler of Florence Lorenzo II de’Medici.

In the 18th century, Peruvian priest Father Martin de Porres was the son of a Spanish nobleman and a formerly enslaved woman of African and Indigienous descent and was considered the patron saint of mixed-race people. These examples tell a much more complex story of European social and cultural history.

painted portrait of Peruvian priest San Martin de Porres

In the end, there is much to do by scholars to contribute to a more complete understanding of the rich contributions made to European history by people of colour, but also an acknowledgement to the complexity of this conversation when it comes to race overall, and in particular people of mixed race. Slowly, there are more voices pushing for an honest and open consideration about mixed race as an identity.

People such as writer James McBride, in his book, The Color of Water, former American president Barack Obama, and Meghan Markel, to name a few are leading voices in advocating for these important conversations about race and mixed-race identities.

It is these conversations that will mean a reconsideration of European history, one that will be closer to the reality of the presence of mixed race people and their contributions to that history. It is an exciting time to have this conversation as we move deeper into the 21st century, a century where the presence of mixed-race peoples will be a significant demographic; one that can no longer be denied.