The Changing Face of Love ; since 'Star Trek' Aired the First Interracial Kiss on National TV in 1967, Americans Have Come a Long Way in Accepting Marriage across Racial Lines

Article excerpt

When Kathy Powell told her father she had married, he hung up on her.

It would be two years before he spoke to her again, and four before her mother did. In the meantime, Kathy had two children, missed her grandfather's funeral, and was told to stay away from her brother's wedding.

Her parents' problem: Kathy's husband, Howard, is black.

If Kathy's struggle with her family highlights the determined resistance some families still have to interracial marriage, her story also shows how attitudes can change, one family at a time. Today, 11 years later, her parents know and love Howard and spend time with their two grandchildren.

"I think it's opened their eyes to a lot of things," says Kathy, who lives with Howard in Attleboro, Mass. "I think [my mother] has realized we're a typical middle-class couple ... and that the values they instilled in me are being instilled in our kids as well. That helped a lot."

Thirty-six years after the Supreme Court struck down laws against mixed-race marriages and "Star Trek" shocked the nation by airing the first interracial kiss on national TV, Americans have come a long way in accepting love across race lines. The number of white- black marriages, always the smallest subset, has grown from about 50,000 in 1960 to almost 400,000 today.

Marriages across all racial lines have more than doubled in the last two decades, to about 1.5 million. Even Hollywood, long reluctant to portray anything approaching interracial romance, has recently come out with a handful of movies depicting such relationships.

But of all the racial barriers in this country, resistance to interracial relationships remains perhaps the most persistent. Not until 1967, 13 years after it desegregated America's schools, did the US Supreme Court strike down the last laws making interracial marriage a crime. Today, even with steady growth in the number of interracial unions, they still make up just 2.6 percent of all marriages. Resistance can come from either family, or both.

"I think it's because it cuts so deep, it's so personal," says Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor whose latest book, "Interracial Intimacies," was published last week. "What we're talking about here is something that's so close to our souls and our hearts.... The whole question of how we define our communities is thrown up for grabs."

The experiences of the Powells and two other couples who live near Boston, a city that has struggled with issues of race, say something about the subtle shifts in society as it wrestles with those definitions.

When Patti and Matt Keenan were married in 1984, Matt's family was decidedly chilly about the idea of him marrying a Protestant black woman. Pattiremembers standing out as the only nonwhite among 300 mostly Irish Catholic guests at the wedding of Matt's older sister. But when Matt's younger brother married an Indonesian woman two years ago, the audience, and attitudes in her husband's family, had changed.

For Imari and Cynthia Paris Jeffries, married in 2001, questions of culture and race often blur in a family that counts whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians among its ancestors. Imari thinks of their marriage - she's of Puerto Rican descent, he's the son of a black father and Korean mother - as intercultural. Cynthia says it's definitely interracial. Trying to decide the point led to a spirited debate between the two.

How far we've already come

It's not so long ago that any such debate would have been inconceivable in many states. When Imari's father was married in the late 1960s, he couldn't stay in a hotel with his Korean-American wife when they were traveling through the South.

Back then, even the hint of an interracial relationship could be dangerous. In 1955, Emmett Till, a black teenager visiting family in Mississippi, was lynched for whistling at a white woman. …