The Legacy of Jim Crow: The Enduring Taboo of Black-White Romance

Article excerpt

The Legacy of Jim Crow: The Enduring Taboo of Black-White Romance

DEAR SENATOR: A MEMOIR BY THE DAUGHTER OF STROM THURMOND. By Essie Mae Washington-Williams & William Stadiem. New York: Regan Books, 2005. Pp. 223. $24.95.

UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: THE RISE AND FALL OF JACK JOHNSON. By Geoffrey C. Ward. New York: Knopf, 2004. Pp. xi, 492. $26.95.

Over the last one hundred years, racial equality has made momentous strides in the United States. State-enforced segregation ended.1 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.2

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.3 The United States has begun to grapple with the issues related to interracial intimacy, such as the increasing number of mixed-race people4 and the controversy over transracial adoption,5 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.6

Juxtaposed against this promise of transformed racial notions, however, lies this nation's continuing battle against the enduring legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.7 While adeptly shedding light on the complexities of U.S. racial history, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond8 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.10

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.

Furthermore, Johnson's controversial personal behavior exacerbated matters in the minds of many whites, as he flaunted contemporary social mores by refusing to accept the restrictions on interracial relationships that applied to most African-American men, restrictions that were strictly enforced through rigid social norms, antimiscegenation laws, and brutal extralegal means. Ultimately, the federal government prosecuted and imprisoned Johnson for transporting a woman across state lines for illicit purposes, effectively ending his boxing career.11 Through the book's title, the author Geoffrey Ward opines that Johnson's "unforgivable blackness" led to his ultimate downfall.12

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. …