Is It Really About Race? Part I

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Eleven years have passed since Director Spike Lee released Jungle Fever, which depicted a black man-white woman relationship. The controversial film sparked many heated debates. In 1995, just four years later, Waiting to Exhale, was released, reviving the angst that smoldered just beneath the surface of many black women. In 1998, Showtime released The Lovings. The film depicted the true story of Richard (white) and Mildred (black) Loving, who dared to challenge Virginia’s antimiscegenation laws. Thirty-four years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that antimiscegenation laws were unconstitutional. Nevertheless, interracial relationships are still a hotbed of controversy among most African Americans and African American women, in particular.

The animus seems to point specifically at black man-white woman relationships rather than white man-black woman relationships. At this point, I’m sure someone would argue that that’s what you see most of the time. And I would agree. However, there doesn’t seem to be the same animus toward black women who date white men. I’ve heard black women justify their approval of white man-black woman relationships while simultaneously condemning the other. They say, “Well, all the good black men are taken. The rest are in jail, homosexual, or out of work.”

If black women are only dating white men because there are not enough available black men that must mean that the black women who date white men are not attracted to them. They’re only dating white men because they might as well date someone. Frankly, I don’t believe it. People initially choose their partners based on physical attraction, not because they don’t have choices. Sure, some people are willing to date someone they’ve worked with, and a vibrant relationship is kindled. But let’s assume for a moment that there are no black men left on the planet. And the only men left are white men. Would a black woman choose a white man she’s attracted to? Or would she choose one she isn’t attracted to?

The truth is many black women find white men attractive. The evidence of this materializes when we consider that many black women are attracted to actors Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Keanu Reeves, Robert De Niro, and many others. Twenty to thirty years ago, black women were attracted to Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford, all prominent actors in their day. When asked about the apparent double standard concerning white men, the black women who oppose black man-white woman relationships said, “Well, I can’t get to them.” When asked what they would do if they could get to them, they laugh and try to change the subject.

The point is, if a black woman finds even one white man attractive, it’s safe to say she finds many attractive. If black women find white men attractive, why don’t they date them? Perhaps part of their reluctance to date white men is that too many black women have made inflammatory comments about black men who have crossed the color line. Many would probably feel hypocritical if they went out with a good-looking, stable, white man with money in his pockets.

Black women particularly hate it when black men who earn millions of dollars seek out and marry white women. They say high profile black males date and marry white women as status symbols. It’s difficult to argue with that point. With the exceptions of Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, I would be hard pressed to think of any other prominent actors or athletes who have black wives. Nevertheless, the problem is that black women never say anything about Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, Diana Ross, Lynn Whitfield, Mariah Carey, Denise Graves, Debbie Thomas, Iman, and Paula Abdul, all of whom married white men.

Numerous black women have shared their feelings of inadequacy with me concerning black men who seem to have rejected black women to embrace the so-called white goddess. What angers the black woman most is that black men tend to choose white women who are not very attractive, adding insult to injury. I get the feeling that even if the white women were exceptionally good-looking, it would only soften the blow, not eradicate it. What troubles me is that too many people on both sides of the issue lay the problem at the feet of the black male, leaving the white woman out of the equation altogether, as if white women have no say in these relationships. History, however, tells another tale.

The real problem is between black women and white women. The conflict between the two rivals surfaced aboard the slave ships. White sailors were allowed to indulge their passions at their pleasure. If the woman refused, she would be severely beaten. It’s very important to note that interracial relationships began with white men forcing themselves on black women. Someone might argue that white men were out to sea so long that they were overcome with lust and they turned to black women for no other reason than to meet their physical needs. That’s possible, but it isn’t probable since white men continued to engage in the practice long after they had reached America.

The first record of miscegenation was on September 17, 1630: “Hugh Davis to be soundly whipped before an assembly of Negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christians by defiling his body in lying with a Negro” (Rogers 155). Apparently, the Christian community believed that Hugh Davis was wrong, as indicated by the whipping he received. Nothing was done to the woman. But just ten years later, in 1640, there was a complete reversal. The white man had to do penance at the church and the black woman was whipped. Was the black woman to blame? Up to this point, there has been no written record of black men and white women. By 1662, just thirty-two years later, the penalty was reduced from a sound whipping to a fine.

The question that begs to be asked is this: What happened to the church? The Christian community had stood firm against miscegenation, believing that a whipping was the proper punishment for defiling oneself. Much like alcohol during American Prohibition, sex between white men and black women had become socially acceptable. Sixty-one years after the first recorded act of miscegenation, race mixing was rampant. It was so prevalent that, in 1691, the state of Virginia passed a law forbidding race mixing, “especially in the case of the Negro and the white woman” (Rogers 159).

The penalty for such a union would result in banishment or a heavy fine. In some cases, it resulted in slavery for the white woman the entire time her husband was a slave. Passing a law against interracial relationships did not stop or slow race mixing. White men continued to pursue black women. White women continued to marry black men, which resulted in the loss of their freedom (Larsson 7). “Every instrument of persuasion—scorn, ridicule, sermons, whippings [sic], banishments, and laws—was used to teach white people that they should not ‘marry nor give in marriage’ to Negroes No amount of persuasion, however could ‘keepe’ [sic] whites to themselves” (Larsson 6). Forty years after Hugh Davis’s public whipping, white women were being whipped and sold into slavery and extended servitude for showing open preferences for Negro men (Larsson 6).

The irony of it all is that the same white men who whipped and sold white women into slavery were showing the same preferences for black women. In the book Sex and Race, Rogers points out that Thorne wrote about the arrest of an interracial couple for being legally married in Washington D.C.: “The judge in sentencing them gave them a severe lecture on ethics. And yet that very judge maintained a Negro with five or six mulatto children within two blocks of his home” (375).

Another example of this is found in the story that Calvin Fairbank tells of visiting a slave plantation in Montgomery, Kentucky. He became interested in a young slave girl “who was the fifth in direct descent from her master being the great-great-great-granddaughter of a slave whom he took as his mistress at the age of fourteen, five being his own daughters, and all by daughters, except the first, and all were slaves. And now he was expecting to make this girl his mistress” (Rogers 190). The white male’s preference for black women became so pervasive that it caused conflict between the white woman and the black woman.

According to Rogers, some white wives saw the slave girls as rivals for their husbands’ affections. He points out that Hildreth, a leading historian of the times, said, “There is a soft winning, captivating way about some of these colored girls that makes them irresistible. I don’t wonder at the envy, rage, and jealousy of our white women, they can’t help being conscious of their inferiority in this respect” (Rogers 214). Rogers also points out that white women were idealized so highly that they were often thought too good for sex relations. Coitus was reserved for the slave women (214). Some rich white men were so smitten by black women that they squandered their fortunes trying to please them (Rogers 182), which led to many divorce proceedings.

In one case, “the white husband not only took the slave into his wife’s bed but seated her at dinner with himself and family and ‘appeared to be passionately attached to her.’ When the wife threatened to beat the slave, the husband said if she did, ‘he would visit her with a like punishment’” (Rogers 215). It would appear that four centuries after the white man and the black woman played together, causing the black man and the white woman to be jealous and resentful, there has been a 180-degree turn of events.

As they say, it takes two to tango. Most Americans believe that black woman-white man relationships were all cases of rape. But this isn’t true. In New Orleans, white men held quadroon balls specifically for black women. At these balls, white men would select a black woman who would be his legal mistress. In return for exclusive access to her, he gave her a house, fine clothes, and a financial settlement for her and any children that resulted from the “arrangement.” These arrangements were called placage, or placement. Black women did have a choice. They were not forced into these relationships.

According to history, race mixing between blacks and whites of both sexes has been going on since Africans were brought to America. White men and women have disobeyed laws and shunned whippings to exercise their right to choose whomever they wanted for the last 400 years. Therefore, the notion that white women were forbidden fruit loses a certain measure of accuracy. Are there black men who go exclusively after white women? Yes! But the same is true of some white women who choose black men exclusively. This also applies to black women who date white men exclusively and vice versa.

Therefore, is the problem really about race?

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Works Cited:

Larsson, Cloyte Murdock, ed. Marriage Across the Color Line. Chicago: Johnson, 1965.

Rogers, J. A. Sex and Race: a History of White, Negro, and Indian Miscegenation in the Two Americas. St. Petersburg, FL: Helga M. Rogers, 1942.

All comments about this article should be sent to:
KeithLeeJohnson1@aol.com


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