Book Review Essay – The Legacy of Jim Crow: The Enduring Taboo of Black-White Romance

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Law, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2011-07-02 19:33Z by Steven

Book Review Essay – The Legacy of Jim Crow: The Enduring Taboo of Black-White Romance

Texas Law Review
Volume 84, Number 3 (February 2006)
pages 739-766

Kevin R. Johnson, Dean and Mabie-Apallas Professor of Public Interest Law and Chicana/o Studies
Univesity of California, Davis

Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond. By Essie Mae Washington-Williams & William Stadiem. New York: Regan Books, 2005. Pp. 223.

Unforgivalbe Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. By Geoffrey C. Ward. New York: Knopf, 2004. Pp. xi, 492.

Over the last one hundred years, racial equality has made momentous strides in the United States. State-enforced segregation ended. Slowly but surely, the nation dismantled Jim Crow. As part of that dismantling, the Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage, which were popular in many states.

Interracial relationships have increased dramatically over the last fifty years. In 2006, they meet with much greater acceptance than they did in 1950, especially in the nation’s major urban centers. The United States has begun to grapple with the issues related to interracial intimacy, such as the increasing number of mixed-race people and the controversy over transracial adoption, two topics that would have been wholly unnecessary to mention, much less analyze, just years ago. Ultimately, by transforming notions of race and races, racial mixture promises to transform the entire civil rights agenda in the United States.

Juxtaposed against this promise of transformed racial notions, however, lies this nation’s continuing battle against the enduring legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. While adeptly shedding light on the complexities of U.S. racial history, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond and Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson reveal just how far from this legacy the nation has advanced over the twentieth century. At the same time, the books highlight the many ways in which race relations have remained more or less the same.

Born in 1925, Essie Mae Washington-Williams is the half-black daughter of the late U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond. Dear Senator tells the story of her life as the invisible child of a staunch segregationist and prominent national politician. Raised by her aunt in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, Washington-Williams was first stunned to learn as a teenager that her real mother—not her aunt as she had been told—was Carrie Butler, a young African-American woman who had worked as a domestic in the Strom Thurmond family home in South Carolina. A few years later she met her father, whose identity had been a tightly kept family secret. Only upon Thurmond’s death in 2003 did it become widely known that he had fathered Washington-Williams.

A generation before Washington-Williams’s birth, Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Unforgivable Blackness details his capture of the championship as a milestone in the social history of the United States. Previously reserved exclusively for white men, the title served as a high profile symbol of white supremacy. Consequently, Johnson’s championship reign generated great controversy and contributed to heightened racial tensions…

…Both books reveal much about the deep-seated legal and social taboos that surrounded and influenced black–white relationships before the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia. The stories of Essie Mae Washington-Williams and Jack Johnson demonstrate how law and policy, combined with strong social forces, sought to enforce the strict separation of the races in intimate relationships. Nonetheless, from the days of Thomas Jefferson, such relationships (often nonconsensual) frequently formed between prominent white men and subservient African-American women. Interracial sex was kept secret; this secrecy served to maintain the myth of complete racial separation.

Dear Senator and Unforgivable Blackness also reveal much about the social and legal double standards used to judge interracial relationships. African Americans like Jack Johnson were harshly punished for crossing the color line. Strom Thurmond, of course, legally married a series of glamorous “All-American” women and was able to keep his relationship with an African-American domestic service worker—and his half-black daughter—a secret from the general public. That liaison crossed the same line violated by Jack Johnson but was not sanctioned in the least; indeed, it fit comfortably into a long history of white men exploiting black women.

The legacy of Jim Crow and the legal and social separation of the races continues to affect the formation of interracial relationships in the modern United States. Most Americans marry persons of the same race. Although increasing, white–black relationships are relatively rare and much less common than Asian American–white, Latino–white, and Native American– white relationships.

A body of legal scholarship analyzing racial mixture has emerged in recent years. Some of that scholarship is autobiographical, including James McBride’s best-selling book The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. Adding to this body of literature, Dear Senator and Unforgivable Blackness tell memorable stories of the lives of two remarkable people and, at the same time, offer fascinating glimpses of how law and policy indelibly influenced them and their relationships.

This Essay analyzes how these books reveal the lasting impacts of slavery and Jim Crow on modern social relations. For even with the demise of the legal prohibition on interracial relationships, the social taboo on black–white relationships remains. So long as we live in a socially segregated society, low intermarriage rates between African Americans and whites will likely remain.

Part I of this Essay briefly summarizes the two books and places them in their proper historical, legal, and social contexts. Part II analyzes the enduring legacies of Jim Crow that Dear Senator and Unforgivable Blacknesshig highlight and discuss. These legacies include: (A) the persistence of social disfavor for black–white relationships; (B) the continued portrayal of African-American men as stereotypical criminals and hypersexual beings; (C) the endurance of the longstanding conflict between assimilation and nationalism as strategies for minorities seeking social change, personal survival, success, and happiness; and (D) the existence of white privilege in the United States, then and now…

One is left to conclude that Washington-Williams did not really know her father. The relationship was a formally cold one; one of her most lasting memories of Strom Thurmond was his strong handshake. This lack of love, or formal public acknowledgment, could not have been anything other than deeply hurtful, even though Washington-Williams refuses to condemn any of her father’s conduct.

…Despite family difficulties, Washington-Williams led a productive and successful life. She married an African-American man she met in college, who became a civil rights lawyer and died prematurely. Washington-Williams completed her undergraduate studies and later earned a master’s degree. Settling in the Los Angeles area, she was a school teacher and guidance counselor and raised a family. By all accounts, Washington-Williams self-identified as African American, growing up and living in African-American communities throughout her life. Though half-white, she suffered no burning ambiguity about her racial identity, showing again that race is a social, not a biological, construct. In this way, Washington-Williams self-identified as did many mixed-race African Americans, including W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass.

At the individual level, the painful experiences of Washington-Williams show an extreme example of the racial identity issues mixed-race people in the United States face. Importantly, she went public after Thurmond’s death to clear the air and end the years of media speculation about whether Strom Thurmond was her father. Now claiming to feel “completely free,” Washington-Williams is exploring her white roots and has gone so far as to seek membership in the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

It was the cruelest of ironies that not only was Essie Mae Washington-Williams’s father white, but he was also one of the most well-known segregationists of his generation. Strom Thurmond, along with many other Southern politicians, used segregation for political gain in post-World War II America. The despised race mixing was the evil thrown out like meat to the dogs when the issue of African-American civil rights was raised; campaign promises to attack this evil won many votes. Thurmond embraced racist views in spite of his long-time relationship with a black woman, thus himself engaging in race-mixing by fathering a child and maintaining a relationship with his half-black daughter. The inconsistencies between Thurmond’s personal and professional lives, of course, are in no way unheard of in U.S. history.

Racial mixture is part of this nation’s heritage. However, U.S. society historically went to great lengths to keep it underground. But when social norms failed to maintain the public separation of the races, law intervened with a vengeance, as it did in Jack Johnson’s life…

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