Romance and Rights: The Politics of Interracial Intimacy, 1945-1954

Romance and Rights: The Politics of Interracial Intimacy, 1945-1954

Romance and Rights: The Politics of Interracial Intimacy, 1945-1954

Romance and Rights: The Politics of Interracial Intimacy, 1945-1954

Synopsis

Romance and Rights: The Politics of Interracial Intimacy, 1945-1954 studies the meaning of interracial romance, love, and sex in the ten years after World War II. How was interracial romance treated in popular culture by civil rights leaders, African American soldiers, and white segregationists?

Previous studies focus on the period beginning in 1967 when the Supreme Court overturned the last state antimiscegenation law (Loving v. Virginia). Lubin's study, however, suggests that we cannot fully understand contemporary debates about "hybridity," or mixed-race identity, without first comprehending how WWII changed the terrain.

The book focuses on the years immediately after the war, when ideologies of race, gender, and sexuality were being reformulated and solidified in both the academy and the public. Lubin shows that interracial romance, particularly between blacks and whites, was a testing ground for both the general American public and the American government. The government wanted interracial relationships to be treated primarily as private affairs to keep attention off contradictions between its outward aura of cultural freedom and the realities of Jim Crow politics and antimiscegenation laws. Activists, however, wanted interracial intimacy treated as a public act, one that could be used symbolically to promote equal rights and expanded opportunities. These contradictory impulses helped shape our current perceptions about interracial romances and their broader significance in American culture.

Romance and Rights ends in 1954, the year of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, before the civil rights movement became well organized. By closely examining postwar popular culture, African American literature, NAACP manuscripts, miscegenation laws, and segregationist protest letters, among other resources, the author analyzes postwar attitudes towards interracial romance, showing how complex and often contradictory those attitudes could be.

Alex Lubin is a professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico. His work has been published in American Quarterly, Labor Studies, and OAH History Magazine.

Excerpt

In the Summer of 1942 the black actor, singer, athlete, and political activist Paul Robeson walked onto the stage of the Brattle Street Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, portraying the role of William Shakespeare’s Othello. in doing so, Robeson became the first black actor to assume the role of Shakespeare’s “dark Moor” in an interracial production in the United States. Although there had been all-black off-Broadway productions of Othello prior to World War ii, white audiences did not view these productions. Prior to Robeson’s performance, white actors had played Othello in various shades of blackface. in the pre-1942 productions, Othello had been stripped of his nobility in favor of a more hostile and irrational version that confirmed the myth of the black male rapist. Robeson’s performance was significant, therefore, not only because Robeson was black but also because he recast Othello as a noble man.

Robeson’s costars were Uta Hagen, a popular stage actress who played Desdemona, and her husband, José Ferrer, a Puerto Rican American actor who played Iago. Despite the play’s multiracial cast, it was Robeson, the play’s black actor, whom producers worried would not be accepted; after all, Othello is the story of an interracial romance ending in Desdemona’s death at the hands of Othello. in selecting Robeson as Othello, the producers challenged the color line in a society that outlawed black/white interracial marriage in thirty-one states and that lynched African American men for imagined indiscretions toward white women.

Perhaps even more important than Robeson’s role in the play were the political uses the play served for its audiences. Critical praise of this production of Othello reveals telling evidence about the importance of the interracial cast and romance both to the ways racial boundaries were managed and to the politics of civil rights. Audiences in Cambridge and around the United States saw this production as evidence that racial equality could exist in the United States. the interracial cast and the interracial romance, it seems, fit quite nicely into American wartime discourse that cast the United States as . . .

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