It's a Complicated Story

Published:May 15, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe


. . . by which I mean race in America. I know, this is hardly a penetrating insight, but it’s on the mind regardless, what with Barack Obama reminding us that he has “brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents,” and some guy in Georgia responding by creating T-shirts that liken the candidate to Curious George. “This is not 1941 in Alabama,” the dude told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when confronted with the suggestion that comparing a black man to a monkey might be racist, “so get over it.”

True enough. It’s not 1941 in Alabama. The same guy, though, once created a sign that read, “I wish Hillary had married O.J.,” which suggests that fears of miscegenation have never really gone away. After all, what is O.J. Simpson if not, for some people at least, a kind of Nat Turner, a symbol of the black man rising up not just to murder whites, but white women? Virginian William Styron won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel in which the legendary slave-cum-preacher-cum-rebel is sexually attracted to a white woman whom he then murders. African Americans loudly protested.

Sure, he could have loved Margaret Whitehead, the actor Ossie Davis said at the time, but that’s not the point.

What I am disturbed about is that this is one of the areas about which I fear my country can be immediately psychotic and destructive. I have only to think back in the last hundred years to the more than 3,500 black men lynched in the South, the rationale of such activities being that these men constituted a threat to white womanhood . . . Are we that clear of our horror at the thought of a black male lusting after white flesh?

Not according to Cinque Henderson, an African American who wrote in The New Republic this week that “had Barack married a white woman, his candidacy would’ve never gotten off the ground with black people.” Regardless of whether he’s right, what’s interesting is the idea that the fear and skepticism of race-mixing is not limited to whites. Notice how Davis talks about “our horror.” Does his pronoun refer to Americans or just African Americans? He’s not clear, and perhaps that’s the point.

In his 2003 book Mulatto America, Stephan Talty argues that Native Americans were willing, at least at first, to mingle culturally with newly arrived whites. For obvious reasons, however, “the merging of black and white was more contentious.” As early as 1691, Virginia expressed its own skepticism of the idea by banning interracial marriage.

Still, Talty notes that “the ferocious responses to unions of black men and white women that have become a cliché of southern ‘honor’—the lynchings, the castrations, the pathological obsession with black rapists—date mostly from the Civil War period and onward; the institutionalized terror that ruled the South after the war was not the rule.” In fact, he claims that whites often looked out for their black neighbors who might have been unfairly accused, and that, in the end, it was white women and not black men “who bore the brunt of the society’s disapproval when they strayed from their assigned beds.”

Of course, interracial marriages weren’t always the union of black men and white women. Richard Loving was white, his wife Mildred black. When Mildred died this month, she left behind the legacy of Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court decision (handed down in 1967, the same year Styron’s novel was published) that banned discrimination in marriage based on race. She was also part of another legacy in Virginia, the “secret” mixing of the races. That provocative adjective “secret” comes courtesy of the New York Times, which wrote just yesterday about the history of miscegenation in Mildred Loving’s hometown, tiny Central Point, Virginia.

Mixed-race folks have a history of settling there, apparently, making it difficult sometimes to tell the difference between black and white. But then that’s what nosy neighbors and Jim Crow laws were for. “Inside Caroline County, Virginia’s strict laws on segregation applied,” according to the Times. “But when [locals] ventured beyond Caroline County—where no one knew them—many of Central Point’s residents found it a simple matter to ‘pass’ as white.” They could use any movie theater or bathroom or lunch counter they pleased. They could even serve alongside whites in the Army.

“The community developed a system for protecting racial identities of Central Pointers who moved away and married into white families,” the Times continues. “When they took their white relatives back with them to visit, their younger brothers and sisters, who attended the colored school, just stayed home. This was well known to the teachers at the school, who apparently accepted the absences without question.”

Then there were people like Mildred Loving, whose heart forgot to play by the rules, making it impossible for her neighbors to look the other way. Somebody called the sheriff and he rousted her and her new white husband out of bed at two in the morning.

It’s a complicated story, and rarely do these things have happy endings. When my adopted sister—biological mother black, biological father white—married her husband—white mother, black father, then deceased—she remarked that they were the only two black people in a church full of whites. Her voice hinted at both a kind of sadness and something else. Was it victory? I don’t think so. That’s too simple an emotion for Miscegenation Nation.

IMAGE: Me and my sis