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.