"Le Mulâtre," Victor Sejour
"Le Mulâtre," Victor Sejour
Victor Séjour's 1837 short story "Le Mulâtre" ("The Mulatto") is the earliest known example of fiction from an African American writer. A native of New Orleans whose career was spent entirely in France, Séjour's pioneering tale of a slave who murders his master was written in French, his native language, and did not appear in English translation until more than 150 years later. It was also Séjour's only work that dealt with the topic of slavery or African American life, for he found success in writing lavish costume dramas for the Paris stage and never returned to the grisly themes in "The Mulatto."
Born Juan Victor Séjour Marcou et Ferrand on June 2, 1817, in New Orleans, Séjour was the son of a free black from Haiti named François Marcou and a quadroon mother, Eloisa Philippe Ferrand. Marcou ran a dyeing and cleaners establishment at 25 Chartres Street, and the family belonged to the city's affluent black elite. Some sources claim that Séjour was educated at a renowned New Orleans school for the children of free blacks, called the Saint-Barbe Academy, but the school was founded several years beyond the purported dates of his attendance.
Families like Séjour's often sent their sons to France for their education, if financially possible. It is known that a seventeen-year-old Séjour wrote a poem honoring the local artisan society to which many blacks belonged, and it was so well received by the community that a fundraising drive was launched to send him to college in Paris. When he was settled there, he met a mulatto named Cyrille Bisette, who edited the abolitionist journal La Revue des Colonies. It was in an 1837 issue of this publication that Séjour's "Le Mulâtre" first appeared. The story begins with a first-person account of the narrator's arrival in Haiti where he meets Antoine, an elderly black gentleman who recounts the tale of the title character. It begins with the purchase of a Senegalese woman, Laïsa, by a planter named Alfred. He assaults her, she has a son named Georges from the liaison, and both are relegated to distant quarters on the property and treated badly. Laïsa promises to reveal to Georges the name of his father when he turns twenty-five, but she dies before doing so.
One night, Georges learns of plans by a ring of thieves to murder Alfred, and rescues him but is injured during his act of heroism. Grateful, Alfred visits Georges during his recuperation, and becomes enamored of Zelia, Georges' wife. When he tries to assault her, she strikes him, and he is injured in the fall. "At this sight, Zelia began to tear her hair in despair, crying tears of rage; for she understood perfectly, the unhappy girl, that death was her fate for having drawn the blood of a being so vile," Séjour's story reads (p. 359). Georges pleads with Alfred to spare Zelia's life, but he refuses. Georges and his son run away, and find the secret encampment of the Maroons, a band of escaped slaves. One of the brigade hears someone approach, and ventures out with a rifle. "'By my freedom,'" he cried, 'you've found our recess all too easily.' 'Africa and freedom,' Georges replied calmly, as he pushed aside the barrel of the rifle … 'I'm one of you'" (p. 362).
Zelia hangs the next day, and her body is placed in a coffin and thrown into a ditch. "Thus this woman, for having been too virtuous, died the kind of death meted out to the vilest criminal," Séjour wrote in his tale. "Would this alone not suffice to render the gentlest of men dangerous and bloodthirsty?" Georges bides his time until he learns that Alfred has become a husband and father. At this point, he begins to plan his return to extract justice from his former master, "because he wished to kill him only when dear precious bonds linked him to this world." This time, Alfred pleads for his life, telling Georges, "'You might as well kill your own fa—.' The ax fell, and Alfred's head rolled across the floor, but, as it rolled, the head distinctly pronounced the final syllable, '—ther …'" (p. 364). When Georges realizes he has committed patricide, he kills himself in despair.
A few years after the story's publication, Séjour found great success as a playwright. His works were staged at the Théâtre Français and other leading venues, and centered around historical themes and past court intrigues among Europe's royals. For several years he enjoyed immensely successful opening nights, but such costumed epics fell out of favor as tastes changed, and Séjour suffered financially. He died of tuberculosis in September 1874 in the charity ward of a Paris hospital, and was buried at Paris's Père-Lachaise Cemetery.
Séjour's father had allegedly come to Paris later in life, and died there, too, a decade earlier. One account places Séjour back in New Orleans briefly in the late 1840s, and claims he married an octoroon woman with whom he had a son, but he likely found the city's racial divisions unbearable after living with such freedom in France for so many years. Despite spending his entire adult life abroad, Séjour certainly seemed familiar with the moral issues that made slavery in the New World so odious, as evidenced by the blunt commentary in "Le Mulâtre." Antoine, who recounts the tragic tale of Georges, comments to the narrator that a slave "may be born good, noble, and generous; God may grant him a great and loyal soul; but despite all that, he often goes to his grave with bloodstained hands, and a heart hungering after yet more vengeance. For … [h]ow many times has experience taught him that his good deeds count for nothing, and that he should love neither his wife nor his son; for one day the former will be seduced by the master and his own flesh and blood will be sold and transported away despite his despair" (p. 354).
Perkins, A. E. "Victor Séjour and His Times." Negro History Bulletin (April 1942): 163-166.
Perret, J. John. "Victor Séjour, Black French Playwright from Louisiana." French Review (December 1983): 187-193.