11 Interracial Romances that Changed America
Photo Credit: Something New courtesy Focus Features.
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Remember your first interracial kiss? If not, chances are you’ve at least read about one or seen one on TV or film. And chances are the relationship ended in tragedy. Since slavery, American artists have imagined interracial desire as a danger to black women or to white purity or a moral crisis. Since it was impossible to imagine racism ending, in the narratives, society overpowered the lovers and they died or were split. Tragedy is the default genre for interracial romance in American culture.
Only recently do we see interracial desire that doesn’t end in death or failure, which means that art is finally catching up with real life. Mixed marriages are on the rise. Our president is the child of an interracial romance. We are on the precipice of post-racial storytelling in the genre of romantic love. As the taboo breaks down, it helps to look back on the history of interracial romance in American art.
1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861)
Literature, not cinema, shaped public sentiment in 19th Century America. Black authors wrote that interracial desire was not romance, but rape. Sexual violence was a means of social control and wealth production. And the black female body was the site of violation. Frederick Douglass wrote of “the whisper that my master was my father” and escaped slave turned memoirist. Harriet Jacobs wrote how at 15 years old, “my master began to whisper foul words in my ear” and tried to rape her. Slave narratives set for the liberal mind the image of white male violence on black women.
2. Clotel or The President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown (1853)
Clotel was the first novel of this genre (based on Thomas Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemmings) to use the genres of romantic love and tragedy. The title character is a light-skinned slave who is the concubine of a white man. They love each other and have a child, but he sells them into slavery after marrying a white woman. Clotel escapes, but when cornered by slave catchers on a bridge, she throws herself into the river and dies. It is an early use of the “Tragic Mulatto” caricature, a mixed-race woman torn between races. Clotel repeated the trope of white male violence on black women in the form of betrayal.
3. Birth of a Nation (1915), based on the book The Clansmen by Thomas Dixon (1905)
Birth of a Nation remains the most racist film ever made. Aside from the Ku Klux Klan being championed as heroes, we see Union soldier Gus as the Brute caricature, an animal-like black male who tries to rape white women. Sharing screen time is Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) a “mulatto” orator who tries to force a white woman to marry him. In the racist mind, interracial desire from black men is a danger to be controlled through violence.
4. Imitation of Life (1959)
Like the earlier 1934 film, 1959’s Imitation of Life follows the tragic genre in which a light-skinned black woman Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) wants to pass for white. She is in love with a young white man who savagely beats her when he discovers she is black. Again the “Tragic Mulatto” character is a meter to gauge the vortex of desire and danger between the races. Again we see white male violence on the black female body and interracial desire ends in tragedy as she sobs over her mother’s coffin.
5. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)