Abstract

This essay attends to the presence of a small portrait carried by an enslaved character, Georges, in Victor Séjour’s 1837 sketch “Le Mulâtre” (“The Mulatto”). While most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction deploys miniature portraits to mediate social ties and signal emotional connection, in “Le Mulâtre” the carrying of a miniature departs from this trope, marking alienation, not affiliation. Reading Séjour’s text against popular depictions and material histories of ivory portrait miniatures, I demonstrate that these familiar objects of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century life function not merely as emblems of intimacy, as past scholars have argued, but rather as tools of what Elizabeth Maddock Dillon calls “intimate distance”—a social configuration that depends on asserting closeness with geographically distributed white populations while disavowing intimacy with physically present Black and Indigenous peoples. Although the portrait is said to depict Georges’s father, who readers know is also the man’s white enslaver, the object remains hidden from view in a bag until the final moments of the sketch, which concludes with the father’s beheading and the son’s suicide. I argue that by emplotting the miniature in a moment of bloodshed rather than of sentiment, Séjour registers the affective and material violence that undergirds white colonial definitions of the family, and invites broader critical comparison of the ways that both sentimental and colonial structures depend on racialized distributions of affections. In the concluding portion of this essay, I turn to the “little buckskin pouch” containing Alfred’s miniature and consider how its resemblance to Afro-Atlantic folk charms recasts the racialized binaries traditionally advanced by miniature portraits, calling attention to whiteness as a ritualized notion dependent on material signifiers.

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