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Crossing the color line

Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption, Randall Kennedy, Pantheon: 678 pp., $30 Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America, Renee C. Romano, Harvard University Press: 368 pp., $35 Mulattas and Mestizas: Representing Mixed Identities in the Americas, 1850-2000, Suzanne Bost, University of Georgia Press: 268 pp., $39.95 Mulatto America: At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture: A Social History, Stephan Talty, HarperCollins: 288 pp., $24.95

March 30, 2003|Kate Manning | Kate Manning is the author of "Whitegirl," a novel about the marriage of a white woman and a black man.

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.

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