Crossing Color Line in Politics and Literature

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The Obama Effect is being felt in this household too. One reason I'm following this year's campaign particularly closely is that I like to see my people making their mark. By "my people," I mean mixed-race folk. My father, you see, was Jamaican (although he was actually born in Cuba, but that's another story) and my mother was a white Englishwoman with a large chunk of Welsh and Swedish ancestry thrown in for good measure.

When I was a child, in the 1960s, "half-caste" was still an acceptable term for people like me. Naturally, it always made me wince, and I was very glad when it was superseded by "mixed-race." The American word "biracial" has never gained a foothold on this side of the Atlantic, and I can't recall the last time that I heard anyone use the word "mulatto" in conversation. I did, though, once find myself being categorized according to an even rarer word by a well-meaning, middle-aged BBC executive who was trying to define my light complexion. "Oh, I thought you were an octoroon."

Considering how important a role the fear of miscegenation used to play in Anglo-American mores, it's surprising how rarely the question of race-mixing surfaces in literature - that is, leaving aside poor Desdemona. Of more modern works, Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" and Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" come to mind, obviously, as does Colin MacInnes' "City of Spades" - published half a century ago. One of the odder examples I came across recently was a Maugham short story which showed a woman's cultured and personable mixed-race husband lurching back into savagery as the result of a fever. It's a curiously repellent little tale, the ugly sentiments made palatable by Maugham's elegant prose and his manner of simply reporting an interesting yarn.

Last summer, on holiday in Spain, I whiled away some of the time reading Robert Louis Stevenson's shorter stories. One of them, the South Seas tale, "The Beach of Falesa" (accent on last "a"), ends with the central character, an Englishman living in a remote outpost, musing on how he will raise his daughters, the product of a union with a native woman: "They're only half-castes of course; I know that as well as you do, and there's nobody thinks less of half-castes than I do; but they're mine, and about all I've got. I can't reconcile my mind to their taking up with Kanakas, and I'd like to know where I'm to find the whites?"

Thus the story ends, on an odd note of pathos and brutality. Naturally, we've come an awfully long way since then, although I can't help noticing that, even in the age of Denzel Washington, interracial couples are still not that common in movies. Blacks have their own color codes too, as Clarence Thomas learned early in his life - and as you can see by the fact, that when a black husband or boyfriend appears in a movie or sitcom, his Significant Other is almost always lighter-skinned. …