Academic journal article Journalism History

"How Much Can You Read about Interracial Love and Sex without Getting Sore?"

Academic journal article Journalism History

"How Much Can You Read about Interracial Love and Sex without Getting Sore?"

Article excerpt

Readers' Debate over Interracial Relationships in the Baltimore Afro-American

Interracial marriage and relationships were illegal in much of the United States in the early twentieth century. The black press devoted a great deal ofattention to this topic, often connecting it to African Americans' encounters with racism and their struggle for civil rights. Part of this coverage in the national black weekly newspaper the Baltimore Afro-American included short and serial fictional stories on interracial romance. These stories, however, were often a contested medium among readers. Thus, a public debate occurred over the question of interracial romance stories and their place in the Baltimore Afro-American over the course offour months in 1934. This article examines this debate. Ultimately, interracial romance stories brought readers into conversation with each other and the Baltimore Afro-American to create a discourse that tied interracial romance to the African American battle for equality in the early twentieth century.

On April 7, and April 14, 1934, a black weekly newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American, asked its readers, "Where Is Your Boiling Point on the Race Question: How Much Can You Read about Interracial Love and Sex without Getting Sore?"1 The question was first placed on page 13 in a box with a photograph of stage performer Clarence "Tanny" Johnstone and Stella Sandler, his white, married lover and wife of British violinist Albert Sandler. The photograph was a head shot from a larger picture of the couple smiling and strolling arm in arm. The paper had published two articles on the transnational clandestine love affair two weeks earlier.2 Now the paper had chosen to use the couples notoriety to attract readers' attention to its question about interracial romantic fiction.

The paper's question, though, was not whether it should continue to publish reports such as the Johnstone-Sandler affair, as the Afro-American believed that it was "duty-bound to print the facts." Rather, the paper asked its readers whether it should change its policy of "turning down fiction stories dealing with love affairs between the races" and "rake up the snappiest black and tan tales" the paper could find.3 One week later, the question was asked again in the same manner and appeared in the paper on page 24, where readers could expect to find the type of short and serial fiction that was in question.

The Afro-American s question inspired a lively debate among its readers, who wrote a total of eighty-nine letters to the editor between April 1934 and July 1934 arguing for and against interracial romantic fiction and these relationships in general. This article explores this debate and the paper's coverage of interracial romance during this period. The Afro-American readers' debate reveals how early twentieth-century black newspapers covered interracial sexuality and how readers interacted with them on this topic. Readers' letters by themselves, however, cannot be considered as representative of broader African American perspectives. In general, reader responses in the Afro-American should be understood as being highly reflective of a small segment of a populace. Educational and socioeconomic class tends to influence the self-selection of those who write letters to the editor. Just as significantly, editorial control over which letters are published complicates an interpretation of readers' letters as representative of the masses.4

Nonetheless, readers' responses help shed light on the coverage of interracial romance in the Afro-American in the early 1930s. The paper focused a significant amount of attention on interracial romance and promoted it with fictional stories, news stories, editorials, and photographs. Alex Lubin has argued that post-World War 11 black newspapers and magazines "celebrated black male interracial relations with white women" and were evidence of a growing black public culture that supported these relationships. …

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