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)
Released in the same year as the Loving vs. Virginia case, in which the Supreme Court overturned the ban on interracial marriage; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner uses the genre of romantic love and courtroom drama (set as debate between parents and lovers) rather than tragedy. It works against the history of Brute caricature by casting Sidney Poitier as Dr. John Prentice, a dignified black man who risks his white fiancés love for the sake of parental approval.
6. Star Trek episode: "Plato’s Stepchildren" (1967)
Although Cpt. Kirk (William Shatner) and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) were forced to kiss by aliens, Nichols said studio executives were nervous. They had them do one scene where they kissed and one scene where they did not. In her memoir, she wrote, “When the non-kissing scene came on, everyone in the room cracked up. The last shot, which looked okay on the set, actually had Bill wildly crossing his eyes. It was so corny and just plain bad it was unusable. The only alternative was to cut out the scene altogether, but that was impossible to do without ruining the entire episode. Finally, the guys in charge relented: "To hell with it. Let's go with the kiss."
7. Jungle Fever(1991)
Class dynamics complicate this tragic romantic love story as Flipper (Wesley Snipes), an upper middle class black man has a passionate affair with his secretary, Angie (Annabella Sciorra), a working class Italian American. By inverting race with class and framing their love as adultery, Spike Lee upends audience expectations of interracial love as an easy-to-read moral fable. But he cannot envision a world where their love can survive. Inevitably the film becomes a tragedy as social violence from her family, friends and the police cause the pair to separate.
8. Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama (1995)
Hardly anyone read Dreams from My Father when it was first published. Today it has become a Rosetta Stone to the first African-American president. Often overlooked is the nuanced portrait of interracial love, and the children who inherit the contradictions left in its wake.
9. Monster’s Ball (2001)
This film of interracial desire repeats the tragic dramatic conventions of earlier decades. Leticia (Halle Berry), a working poor black woman, becomes the concubine of the white working class corrections officer Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton). Again, violence is focused on her psyche if not her body. The Jezebel caricature is invoked in the raw and rough sex scene where Leticia’s body is visually cannibalized. The film is more of a survivor’s story than a vision of love.
10. Something New (2006)
Upper middle class black woman Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan) falls in love with a working class white gardener Brian Kelly (Simon Baker). Like Jungle Fever, director Sanaa Hamrii uses class dynamics to distance the characters from the violence and power imbalance of white male and black female interracial desire of older narratives. Happily, the film does not follow the tragic genre in killing the characters or destroying their love. Instead, it ends with them getting married.
11. Awkward Black Girl (2012)
The latest progressive portrayal of interracial love, The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl has J (Issae Rae) as the black female protagonist being wooed by two men. One is Fred, a husky, sincere black man from work who adores her but is boringly normal. The other is “white” Jay, an awkward white man who mirrors J’s deeply neurotic personality. Awkward Black Girl is the first glimpse of "post-racial" America. Race is not a moral crisis or a danger or source of tension. It is a source of humor, like when she jokes, “Oh yeah, we’re going to have mullato babies.” It is telling that the characters are of the same middle class, hipster urban set. It is more telling that the show runs on YouTube, a place where artists are freed from the dead weight of old storytelling. And in that new freedom, people can create art that doesn’t challenge or apologize for reality but simply reflects it.