Interracial Reality: The Truth About Tom & Helen Willis
One of my early dates with my now husband/then boyfriend, was a movie at the first After Dark Horror Festival. (I’m a horror movie geek – don’t judge). On our way out of the movie theater, we ran into two of my co-workers. These co-workers, two black women, with whom I’d been working for more than six years, knew that we were dating seriously and that he was white. I also knew that they were dying to “assess” him and run him through the “if you’re going to cross to the other side, he better be fine” test. During the brief, awkward exchange between the four of us, the two women pulled faces and shot knowing looks at each other. I knew from their barely disguised disgust, that my boyfriend had failed their test (In the interest of full disclosure my husband is handsome, adorable and has a really cute butt). He was not the pillar of white male perfection that they thought he should be and therefore, he and our relationship deserved to be mocked. As they walked away from us, I could see them nudging each other and laughing.
In that moment, all of the awful feelings that I had when people made rude comments as we walked down the street or even gave us dirty looks came in one massive wave. It was the same awful feeling I felt growing up when my cousins would accuse me of “acting white.” Once again, I found myself far outside of the Negro norm, only this time I really felt that I’d made a permanent home there. I began to question myself, my love for the hubby-to-be and our relationship. Was I just the “Oreo” everyone told me I was my whole life? Was I really just a self-hating Negro? Did I really just piss on every black man in the world, including my dad, with my choice? This feeling was compounded by the fact that I knew my boyfriend, who I loved deeply, had no idea he was being made fun of or why.
Even though I already knew that I loved him, I wasn’t sure that I could overcome the fact that many people, mostly my people, seemed to have serious problems with our being together. Somehow, my choosing him as a mate was a more serious offense than my taste in “white” music or in “white” movies. Once again, just like when I was a kid, I felt there was an unnecessary divide between being me and being “black.” I didn’t understand why other people felt the two had to be separate (and why I was starting to believe that they were right). All these feelings of doubt pushed me to the edge, and one random night, I cried to my boyfriend, incoherent, unintelligible and hinted things weren’t working out even though I loved him. More crying. More babbling. Then he started to cry. The crying went on all night but I was too much of a wreck to articulate what was really wrong. When he left in the morning, I think we both thought it was over.
After I finally pulled myself together, my deepest gut feeling fought it’s way to the surface. I knew in my heart of hearts that my life without this man would be miserable. I loved him more than anything in the world. He made me laugh, accepted my foibles and even thought they were cute. I felt at home with him and completely myself. I knew we could grow together. I was “black” and he was “white,” we both knew that, but it couldn’t change the fact that we loved each other. Eventually, I told him about all the feelings that prompted my hysterical, ugly-crying outburst and he made me feel better. In fact, he made it all better just by being the incredible man that he is. There was no way I could ever give him up.
Race looms long and large as a structural, social and emotional entity in all of our lives, and we’re all laboring underneath its massive weight trying to just be… human. As a black woman, this tension between the broader reality of race and my personal reality created a moment of crisis for me. I felt that my personal choice negatively affected the collective reality of my people, but I didn’t know how or why. Overtime, I began to do a lot of reading and a lot of research to find out if interracial relationships were somehow against our human nature. I wanted to know what informed the sense that I was being disloyal to black men in my choice of partner and I needed to understand why I felt that marrying this man was frowned upon.
No book to date has fully crystallized the entire issue of interracial marriage/relationships like Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. From reading her work, as I’ve said before, I came to understand that we have been culturally and socially hard-wired to believe that interracial marriage/relationships are “unnatural.” From the belief that interracial relationships can only exist in the realms of fetishes and illicit sex to the idea popular among some black folk that “marriage is for white folks,” Pascoe’s work revealed that all of these ideas came from the our country’s long history of using marriage to institutionalize and formalize systems of white supremacy.
From about 1672 to 1967, the United States incubated a deep culture of anti-miscegenation buttressed by laws banning interracial marriage set up to prevent the “unnatural” mixing between black and white (especially white men and black women). The word miscegenation was fabricated in this country. As, Werner Sollers writes the word, “to describe interracial sexual and marital relations, miscegenation, is an Americanism.” According to Sidney Kaplan, (who has an essay in Sollers book “Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law) uncovers the fact that “the word was coined by two New York journalists in an 1863 pamphlet, a political hoax designed to hurt abolitionists and Republicans who were invited to endorse it. Derived from Latin miscere and genus, the made-up word that faintly echoes the term for the European class mismatch, misalliance, and replaced amalgamation. It became a catchall term, used in phrases like “miscegenation law” that are hard to translate into some other languages.” Sollers wonders: “Could the question of what is American about American culture be answered with “prohibiting black-white heterosexual couples from forming families and withholding legitimacy from their descendants?”
Peggy Pascoe would probably agree with Sollers’ assessment. In What Comes Naturally, Pascoe explains just how important outlawing interracial marriage was to the construction of systems of white supremacy in the U.S.:
From the 1860s to the 1960s, the American legal system elevated the notion that interracial marriage was unnatural to commonsense status and made it the law of the land. During this period miscegenation law channeled property, propriety, personal choice, and legitimate procreation into one very particular kind of monogamous marital pair: couples that were made up of one White man and one White woman, whose sameness of race was required by law and whose difference in sex was entirely taken for granted. The more Whites believed that interracial marriage was unnatural, the more they assumed that the marriage of one White man and one White woman was the only kind of marriage worthy of the name-and the more they saw their own marriages as the fortunate result of individual romantic preference rather than the obligatory outcome of a legal system steeped in gendered assumptions about race and heterosexuality.
During slavery, though interracial sex itself was illegal in most states, the sexual exploitation of black female slaves by white masters existed in a kind of ‘don’t-ask don’t-tell’ realm. Even though it was clear that many of these slave masters were breaking the law, authorities often looked the other way. When some of these white masters attempted to legitimize their relationships with their slave “mistresses” and their offspring, with some even attempting to marry, the State stepped up their efforts to keep all interracial couplings in the realm of “illicit sex” and outside the boundaries of state sanctioned legitimization by making interracial marriage illegal. These anti-miscegenation laws along with the bans on interracial marriage ensured that the mixed offspring of these pairings and their black mothers were denied all the protections and legal benefits which marriage provided. Put simply, the old adage “you can sleep with one, just don’t marry one” was formalized in the U.S. legally, socially, and culturally.
On the other side of the equation, black people had their own responses to discouraging miscegenation and interracial marriage. In her book, Righteous Propagation, African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny After Reconstruction, Michele Mitchell, in addition to exploring how black people tried to navigate their collective destiny post-slavery and post-Reconstruction, also reveals how the “black community” (in the middle and upper classes) addressed the issue of miscegenation/interracial relationships in the particularly bloody period of the 1930s when violence against black people was especially virulent and often tied to sexuality.
As a part of the overall march toward “race progress,” these “race reformers,” sought to shape the social and sexual mores of their children, to promote self-love and to encourage intra-racial couplings. Mitchell writes about how dolls were used by “racial reformers” at the time to achieve these ends:
The sale and promotion of colored dolls attempted to shape children’s sexuality at a time when lynching and rape posed serious threats to racial well-being. As commentators, activists, and eventually Garveyites expressed concerns about birthrates, miscegenation, and mob violence, advertisements promoted colored dolls as devices that could ensure racial purity by teaching children respect for one’s self and for one’s own kind.ʻ The decision of parents (often mothers) to give their children-daughters especially-Afro-American material culture was an attempt to patrol desire in that dolls were seen as tools that influenced young Afro-Americans to select sexual partners within the race, produce children within endogamous heterosexual marriages, and eschew miscegenation.
In this line of thinking, “black” women were seen to have a special obligation to discourage interracial mixing. Black women’s’ clubs and church groups at the time were charged with disseminating the rules black women were expected to follow in order to uphold “racial purity.”
In Mitchell’s book, one of these “club women,” Addie Hunton believed:
ʻUpon the Negro woman rests a burden of responsibility peculiar in its demands. It is not similar to that borne by any other woman…. Questions of morals among inferior and superior races have settled themselves largely by amalgamation … but the Negro woman must tear herself away from the sensual desires of the men of another race who seek only to debase her. ʻClearly, tightly woven into the fabric of black political thought post-slavery, was the notion that control of black women’s sexuality was crucial to the creation of a successful “black race.”
There it is. In the 1930s, black women were seen to be responsible for “uplifting” and “maintaining” the race by choosing black men as marriage partners. Just as dominant, white society gendered ideas about, marriage and sexuality, so too did these racial reformers reproduce the same gendered notions about family, sex, and respectability in black society. Herein, it seems to me, lies the fundamental difference between the discourse about black women and black men in “interracial” relationships. This difference was also crystallized in the burgeoning movement of “black nationalism” at the time.
According to Mitchell (emphasis mine):
If miscegenation had indeed thrust a ʻburden of responsibility upon African Americans, those responsibilities were often gendered so that women and men were encouraged to think about ways that their most intimate actions affected the entire collective. Such dynamics and expectations would become potently manifest in one of the largest mass movements of people of African descent in U.S. history-the transnational, diasporic, nationalist Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Members of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association had very explicit and definite views about interracial sex/relationships, which applied to both men and women. Yet, those views still rested the weight of the responsibility on the side of black women. One member, Richard Tate, urged women to ʻkeep tabs? on your Negro men.ʻ Male sexual impulses needed to remain within the confines of blackness as a matter of fundamental practice, for if too many men chose women without African heritage as partners, the Atlanta resident reasoned, ʻlarge numbers of [our women will] die old maids. ʻ Tate’s remarkably pithy March 1925 letter to the Negro World clearly labeled the erotic proclivities of some of his brothers as detrimental to the enterprise of race building, but the letter also spoke to black female sexuality in that Tate implied suitable husbands could be found if women would only ʻrally to Garveyism … where the Negro [man] can see more attraction within his race than any other.ʻ
Sounds familiar right? The ghosts of these beliefs from the early 20th century still haunt our current discourse about black women, black men and interracial relationships. Stories in places from Essence to CNN, MSNBC to Ebony maintain elements of this particular discourse. I can’t stress enough the fact that none of these ideas are natural to human expression. Our most personal, individual and private undertakings have been corrupted by the machinations of systemic white supremacy. These ideas are so fundamental to our cultural thinking that we believe that they are part of the natural order of things. They are not. They are cancerous constructions that warp and disease our every interaction. They thwart our humanity and cause great pain to individuals as well as to the collective. The more we understand that this is the real truth about Tom and Helen Willis, the better off future generations doing “what comes naturally” will be.
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