Crossing the color line
Jungle fever. Nighttime integration. Mongrelization. Deviance. Rape. Depravity. These are some of the ways Americans in our history have described love and sex between African Americans and European Americans, harsh testimony to the fact that, until recently, intimacy across the color line was a transgression, and any discussion of it was hushed and shamed, sensationalized or fraught with danger, especially for black people. Today a majority of Americans say that they approve of race mixing, but in practice it remains controversial and the subject is difficult to discuss without attracting heat from some quarter. Now, four new books arrive to illuminate the neglected history of those who cross the color line. Each, in different ways, has much to teach us about the fiction of race and its very factual consequences.
First among these books is Randall Kennedy’s vibrant, weighty examination of history and myth, love and taboo, “Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption.” The book’s jacket is a gorgeous photograph of a black man’s lips touching a white woman’s, which will provoke a range of reactions in readers from studied indifference to rage. But this is, after all, Randall Kennedy, whose last provocation was “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.” He means to jump-start a conversation, urging that we embrace “a cosmopolitan ethos that welcomes the prospect of genuine, loving interracial intimacy.”
The book weaves past and present, exploring the history of liaisons between black and white, from the 1681 marriage of Nell Butler, a white servant, and “negro Charles,” a slave she loved, to the modern marriages of public figures such as former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen; from the falsely accused Scottsboro Boys of 1931 to the falsely accusing Tawana Brawley of the 1980s; from Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 memoir “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” to Lawrence Otis Graham’s 1995 essay “I Never Dated a White Girl.” The author claims in one of many rich footnotes that, as a young man, segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond fathered a child by a black woman, his parents’ maid.
As this book makes clear, for most of our history, “intimacy” can’t possibly describe what happened between the races, implying as it does some tenderness. Rape -- white men forcing themselves on black women -- was an open secret during the age of slavery. Black men were lynched just for the “reckless eyeballing” of white women. Kennedy writes eloquently about the violence, sadness and warped legacy of the past, but then goes looking for intimacy anyway -- instances in which some mutual feeling may have arisen across the racial divide. He cites, among others, the case of Ralph Quarles, a white Virginia landowner, and his slave Lucy Langston. They had four children together, whom Quarles freed along with their mother. When the couple died, in 1834, they were buried side by side, as Quarles instructed in his will.
Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor, relies heavily on case law but uses journalism, letters, novels, films, folklore and even personal ads -- “SWM seeks SBF” -- to draw a fascinatingly detailed portrait of a nation that remains conflicted and enthralled by crossings of the color line. His chapters on race mixing and children, particularly a long discussion of “passing,” take us into a surreal and heartbreaking world where, because of race, children have denied their parents, parents have denied their children and the heavy hand of governmental authority still uses color to decide who can be a family.
Mixed-race children throughout history have been abandoned by their (usually white) parents because they are irrefutable evidence of interracial sex. White, brown and black children have “aged out” of foster care or have been removed from loving homes by government agencies on the grounds that they’d be better off with “their own.” Kennedy delves at length into many of these cases, and though he puts the burden of blame on historically white courts and government bureaucracies, he has particularly strong words for the National Assn. of Black Social Workers. Their 1972 assertion that to place a black child in a white family is a form of “cultural genocide” caused the small but rising trans-racial adoption rate to decline. “The NABSW has never produced ... anything that can ... be described as ‘research,’ ” he writes, and yet its ideas about who is fit to raise a child still hold sway.
Kennedy calls for the abolition of race matching in adoption and foster care, arguing for a system that provides homes for children as quickly as possible. Whether the beleaguered foster care system could carry this off without privileging affluent white couples seeking to adopt or further abusing the rights of poor people of color -- many of them powerless to fight child welfare officials -- are two of many questions raised by his argument. But in this brave and welcome book, Kennedy argues persuasively for “the rejection of racial idolatry and racial authoritarianism of every stripe,” placing himself firmly in an “optimistic tradition that affirms the wisdom and possibility of a racially egalitarian society.”
Renee C. Romano’s fine study, “Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America,” describes how the last 60 years brought us to current attitudes toward mixed-race relationships, which are, at best, increasingly tolerant but still fraught with ignorance and stereotype. She starts with World War II, when increased contact between blacks and whites began a slow erosion of the taboo against interracial liaisons. By 2000, there were 363,000 black-white marriages nationwide, a sixfold increase since 1960. Romano, who stresses the persistent rarity of such unions (only 0.6% of total marriages in the U.S. today), still finds cause for optimism in opinion polls, personal histories and images of interracial love in current culture. The taboo is eroded, she says, but not erased.
She focuses her copious research on places where race mixing is viewed with particular fear or rare favor -- schools, the workplace, the military. Tolerance was fashionable, for example, in ‘50s leftist circles, when communist groups encouraged a “working model of integration” and censured perceived white racism. (One group went so far as to prohibit the serving of watermelon at an interracial gathering.) But until the late 1960s, an overwhelming majority of whites (96% in 1958) disapproved of race mixing, many quite violently, and “the sex factor” was at the heart of all arguments for segregation. White supremacists, for example, branded the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision to integrate schools “a commie plot” to advance “the mongrelization of the white race.”
African American attitudes to race mixing are also treated at length here, as they are in Kennedy’s book. In the late ‘40s and ‘50s, Jet and Ebony magazines ran enthusiastic profiles of elite blacks who married whites: Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Billy Daniels. This coverage suggested that love once hidden now could be openly celebrated. But such public support was short-lived. By the 1970s, black students were boycotting black activist Julius Lester’s classes at the University of Massachusetts because his wife was white, and LeRoi Jones, the black activist writer who changed his name to Amiri Baraka, left his white wife, unable to reconcile love across the racial divide with the struggle for black equality.
Romano is particularly sensitive to the complexities of some black women’s feelings of abandonment, which are the legacy of rape, white beauty standards, the numbers of black men lost to prison or violence, and the fact that intermarriage is skewed toward black men with white women. “The white man is marrying the white woman; the black man is marrying the white woman,” wrote Katrina Williams in a 1974 issue of Ebony. “Who’s gonna marry me?” As Romano makes clear, the pain in her question remains sharp nearly 30 years later.
Still, by the late ‘80s, some couples were able to marry with the enthusiastic approval of both families, according to examples cited here, and magazines such as Interrace were celebrating mixed-race love, trying to counteract negative ideas about its realities. “Talk shows are not interested in the truth about interracial couples,” one man says here, complaining that people are always looking for something weird, violent or dysfunctional about such relationships, when, in fact, love is at the heart of them.
Over the years, some Americans have seen love as the solution to race problems, asserting that race mixing will create harmony based on our common humanity. But all four of these books warn, in various ways, against oversimplifying this idea. To imply that love trumps and eliminates race problems in the United States, Romano writes in this illuminating history, is to ignore the fact that “racial inequalities today are primarily structural and institutional, rather than the result of individual racist acts or attitudes.”
Suzanne Bost, in “Mulattas and Mestizas: Representing Mixed Identities in the Americas, 1850-2000,” makes this argument as well, though she occasionally is hampered by a dense academic prose style that can obscure her valuable analysis of texts about mixed-race ancestry. She explores a wide range of work, from William Wells Brown’s 1853 novel, “Clotel,” to modern writings by Cherrie Moraga, Danzy Senna, Alice Walker and Cristina Garcia, as well as an episode of the TV sitcom “Designing Women,” which she dissects with sharp eyes.
Bost writes that the experience of race mixing in the Southwest has much to offer our thinking about American race relations. The mestiza model, she says, is “a fluid shifting between languages, races, nations and cultures.” Mestizaje often transcends its “tragic” origins in rape and conquest and becomes something hybrid, independent, strong. Bost traces what she calls mestiza “fluidity” to the fact that early conquistadores of the Southwest were encouraged by the Spanish to intermarry with Amerindian noblewomen in order to secure power. Thus, “color alone was not enough to locate an individual’s identity in one race or another. Instead, race came to be identified with religion, culture, and behavior.”
The author draws interesting parallels between the experiences of people who blur gender lines and people who blur color lines. “Since bi-identity refuses to choose a single identification, it challenges the idea that sexuality is a singular essence,” just as biracial identity helps to break down the fictions of race. Bost wants to show how mixture can redefine American identity in empowering ways, how mulattas and mestizas escape “violent containments” by defining themselves. But she worries that current “sensational” celebrations of race mixing -- “popular mixed-race confessions, supermodels and sports heroes” -- will give us the false belief that “we have finally realized our ideals of equality ... [and can] stop questioning ... current balances of power.” Her book contains eloquent testimony from writers who are not likely to stop that questioning any time soon.
For Stephan Talty, the question now is what Americans will make of our race-mixed history. In the very smart, very lively “Mulatto America: At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture: A Social History From White Slaves, W.E.B. Du Bois and the Jazz Revolution to Dorothy Dandridge, Elvis, Sam Cooke, Civil Rights and Eminem,” Talty crams as many ideas in as he does words in his subtitle. His is a history of blacks and whites brushing up against each other in ways that are not just sexual but artistic, intellectual and social. He demonstrates how these black-white connections -- in religion, music, sports and academia -- show our common humanity and have forged our Americanness.
Talty is interested in moments when people transcended hate, when the races mimicked and borrowed from each other. He spends a chapter on “The Lost History of the White Slave” and another on interracial Christian revivals in slavery times. Here, he makes the point that in Christianity, slaves found a vocabulary of freedom that forced unintended demands on white society and helped blacks make a “negotiated entrance into American life, just as in the early 1920s whites would make their ... entrance into deep black culture when they [fell] in love with jazz.” This beautifully written book makes many such wonderful connections between past and present, black and white. In a chapter on “Black Firsts” -- cultural emissaries such as Dandridge, Joe Louis and Paul Robeson -- Talty writes: “They added dimensions to the black imagination; like Tiger Woods striding through the crisp Scottish air, they were spacemen sent to alien worlds....” and “gave whites who were not brave enough to make friends with ordinary blacks the illusion of knowing one.”
Some of Talty’s most original observations come from his analysis of moments when the “damaged brains” of whites began to experience some flickerings of understanding: with the work of black intellectuals such as DuBois, with the dawn of the Jazz Age, or during the civil rights movement, when, for example, a young white freedom worker seemed suddenly to recover from a lifetime of blindness, asking James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality: “How could I have lived in the South all these years without seeing the hell we put you through? How do you live with it? Why don’t you commit suicide?” Farmer dryly replied that he was so busy trying not to get killed by whites that he didn’t have time to kill himself.
By the ‘60s, whites were experiencing for the first time what it felt like to be “a problem,” when, Talty writes, Martin Luther King Jr. called liberals and their white naivete the greatest impediment to black progress. Not much later, terms were less polite, so that by the ‘70s, “honky” had a taste of what it meant to be an object of racial hatred, defined by category. But instead of working it out, Americans retreated, in the stacked shoes, bad hair and long nights of disco -- a kind of music that many danced to alone. This electric slide from the exhilarating days of the civil rights movement into “show-off” individualism and self-help-speak is dissected here in terrific detail, from the story of church girl Donna Summer recording the orgasmic “Love to Love You Baby” to the self-help guru Iyanla Vanzant’s search for “unconditional love of myself.” We are left with the often “virtual” race relations of 2003, trying to read the signals coming from popular culture, especially hip-hop music. “White kids today know Method Man [a rap musician] better than they know the quirks of an actual, breathing black peer living a mile away,” while “the young black kid ... lives and dies miles from such dilemmas as affirmative action and glass ceilings,” Talty writes. “History’s relevance lies with the national responsibility to such lives.”
These four books bring us some distance toward understanding the crucial relevance of our race-mixed past. There is much here to depress anyone who hopes for some in-this-lifetime version of the melting-pot America we still sometimes hear about. But in telling stories about people who love and find understanding across the color line, these writers lift a curtain of secrecy and shame and suggest that, in Randall Kennedy’s words, “there are realistic grounds for believing that in terms of race relations, better days lie ahead.”
Pretty White Girls
By James E. Cherry
(for emmitt till)
Peeking over the horizon of day,
I see the brilliance of new light
tangled in the blonde sunrise
of your sleeping hair.
Your skin pulsating from the morning
chill, draws you to me like a silk magnet and
I count each pore and follow lines into
curves and curves atop pink-capped mountains,
probing down warm hirsute valleys.
In the corners of your yawning eyes, blue
mirrors reflect faceless men, drinking
bitter waters of muddy rivers, eating
red white and blue flames, vomiting
God on the crucified air.
I turn quickly, thinking
I’ve heard the call of a 14 yr old boy, but
it is only the voice of the wind
as I squeeze my genitals
and feel nothing.
From “Beyond the Frontier: African American Poetry for the 21st Century,” edited by E. Ethelbert Miller (Black Classic Press: 572 pp., $24.95)