June 24, 2015
Not long ago, at the beginning of this new century, I received from my maternal uncle a rather fateful phone call. I hadn’t spoken to Uncle Dalton in years, hadn’t seen him since my high school graduation, when he whispered that if I moved far enough away from my parents’ northeastern home, with my complexion, manner and intellect, I might pass for white. His calling surprised me, as did the frantic tone with which he relayed a curious adventure. He and some friends had been drinking and duck hunting in the Arkansas Delta, and through some sequence of events he could not fully explain, he got lost among the oxbow lakes, sloughs and uninhabited woods along the Mississippi River. For two days he wandered, convinced he’d die, with no map and his ammunition depleted from shooting at canvasbacks and trying to signal his companions. But on the third day, when he was making peace with God—in large part requesting forgiveness for the execrable treatment he’d given my mother for marrying my father—while falling to his knees he saw a slim youth in what looked like a gray sweatsuit, stepping into a gap among trees and thigh-high weeds. Stumbling forward, my uncle called for help, and the boy emerged, told my uncle to break his rifle, toss it to the ground and wait right there. In a few minutes the youth returned with venison jerky, a rough ceramic jug of fresh water, and a hand drawn map on homemade paper that steered Uncle Dalton to a gas station several circuitous miles down a dirt road. “And he looked just like you,” my uncle insisted. “Just like you.”
I thanked Uncle Dalton for the call, wished him well, but made no plans to verify his claims. Much could explain his story, such as the fact he’d been in a bourbon-induced stupor and dreamed the whole thing. The only other mulatto he had ever seen was me and rarely at that. Long before his call, though, I’d heard of hidden societies of mulattos. In Ancient Civilizations, an undergraduate survey, my instructor lectured for a week on great hoaxes, primarily to show how easy it was to manipulate people into believing anything about our ancestors. Included among these lectures was the Cardiff Giant, Piltdown Man, the Tasadays of the Philippines, and, as my instructor called it, “the fabled island of the Mulattos.” During this lecture, I did not raise my hand, as it was a large class, and in those days, I rarely did anything that pointed me out as a mulatto.
Yet I wanted to know then what made my professor so certain it was a hoax, and why he dismissed what he called “the fever dream of lonely explorers.” The notion of a group of mulattos living in some idyllic haven for generations, out of the reach of society’s arms, did not strike me as unlikely. My father, the single black executive of an insurance company, had been transferred half a dozen times when I was growing up, and wherever we landed I was the only biracial child and required to explain to my new peers how such anomalies as my parents occurred. An all-mulatto society sounded like an opportunity I would have sacrificed much to join. After my undergraduate education, though, when I’d been seduced by the daring and intrigue that came with being an anthropology professor, I discovered the book claiming the existence of the island—a self-published travel journal called, A Year Among the Wild Mulattos of the Caribbean, by a German named Hans Zimmer— and begrudgingly admitted my professor was likely right.
Still, I never entirely forgot the wild mulattos and encountered every few years in my reading a new fanciful notion of such a people. In one article they were considered a Lost Tribe of Israel, in another coevals with the mysterious Moundbuilders. True believers postulated them as escapees from Atlantis, while a radical sect of Mormons asserted the mulattos of legend encountered Christ during his sojourn to the New World. Each claim appeared easier to dismiss than the last, and sense told me the only place a colony of mulattos existed was in the daydreams of the lonesome biracial child I’d been. As I traveled, publishing articles about living among African pygmies, Australian bushmen, and Detroit Crips, I encountered few other mulattos, and heard not even a rumor of a wild band’s existence.
Months after his call, though, I could not forget my uncle’s tale of a lone mulatto appearing at the mouth of a wooded area. We mulattos always seemed a more cosmopolitan people, at home in cities until the pressure of being neither white nor black and yet both caused us to succumb to our various crises of identity. Still, the image my uncle provided kept sliding closer and closer to the hope I held out for the wild mulattos’ reality. The two thoughts crashed together when I began a sabbatical for a semester—ostensibly to write about some recent travels in the former Soviet Union—and I determined I needed to at least investigate my uncle’s claim. Prepared to spend no more than a few days exploring, I expected little but confirmation that the nay-sayers had been right all along.
After a Greyhound Bus to Helena, Arkansas, I backpacked south, staying near the Mississippi’s many bends and bows, trying to find a spot like that my uncle had described. Naturally, he’d lost the map that brought him to safety, and I was fairly sure, after a good forty hours, that the main cause of his vision was his two days’ deprivation and the certainty he was going to die. During that time, I swatted giant mosquitoes immune to repellent and ate nearly all my trail mix and dried figs. I was ready to turn back and blot out for good this notion. A hidden society of mulattos, my sensible self said. What kind of lunatic would even believe? But that’s when a group of children playing in a clearing appeared, barefoot and bare-chested, their fawn skins slick with sweat, their green eyes glowing in the dusk like emeralds.
TOM WILLIAMS is the author of three books of fiction: The Mimic’s Own Voice, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, and his newest, Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. He lives with his wife and children in Morehead, Kentucky.
Excerpted from Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales by Tom Williams. Copyright © 2015 by Tom Williams. Excerpted with permission by Texas Review Press.