March 18, 2012
Ingloriously A Bastard?
Mississippi and Miscegenation
I found out I was a bastard after my father died when I was a teenager and I was digging through the cabinet with the old photos and family papers. These were the photos that had never ended up in a photo album but had been stored in two Halloween costume boxes with cellophane cut-outs. The photos were the oldest we had......black and whites from my father's childhood, a few from when my parents were first married. In the cabinet with the photos were papers. I had seen the photos before, but had never paid any attention to the papers. For some reason, this time I did. Maybe it was simply that I was older, maybe it had been my father's death or maybe I was just nosy.
Among the papers I found a copy of a request that my father had submitted to the Air Force. It was a request to be transferred out of Mississippi on the basis that his marriage wasn't legal in the state as my father and mother were of different races.
As I sat on the floor surrounded by photos and papers with the scratchy rug a thin layer between me and the cold, hard tile, I instantly understood that if my parents' marriage wasn't legal, then, according to Mississippi, I was a bastard.
I don't know how most people would react to finding that out. I'd guess they'd be upset, dismayed and outraged. Certainly I was shocked. I couldn't have been more surprised if someone had dumped a bucket of ice water on me. But the other half of my reaction was.................contemptuous amusement. I thought it was downright funny.
Here I was holding in my hand the irrelevant, relevant past. Irrelevant because it didn't matter what the "Great State of Mississippi" said; no "law" could change the house I had grown up in or the people I had grown up with. All of it was the way it was, and the idea that Mississippi could say that it wasn't and it was supposed to mean something to me...................I didn't give a shit what Mississippi had to say on the subject. Who in the hell were they to say if my parents' marriage was "valid"?! Had they been there through it? Had they seen it? The answer was "No." But Mississippi thought it had the authority to declare it invalid? The great state of Mississippi and its bigoted laws could go blow as far as I was concerned. (What can I say? My contempt for government is deep-seated; I had it even back then.)
But the paper was relevant too. It was relevant because here was tangible proof of just how close the past was. When you're a kid.....and teenagers are still kids no matter how grown-up they feel......the past is this far distant thing. Sure it happened, but it was long ago and far away. The past had nothing to do with my life. I possessed the knowledge that interracial marriages had been against the law, but wasn't that ancient history? What did that have to do with me or even with my parents' marriage? Now in my hand I was looking at what it had to do with me and my parents' marriage. I was looking at a piece of paper saying there wasn't a marriage. My father, who wasn't pleased to be unexpectedly transferred to Mississippi in the first place, had tried to get out of Mississippi using this. Honestly, I think it was just an excuse. I don't believe my father gave credence to this Mississippi law...........no more than I did. I feel sure he never thought of his marriage as invalid or of his children as illegitimate. At the time he just wanted O-U-T, out, of Mississippi.
It was also relevant because Mississippi's racism wasn't just in the past. The family had hit hard times with my father's death, and my mother would be going to work as a maid cleaning quarters on base. One of the women she'd be working with had a teenage son who was lynched simply because he was Black (but that's a story for a future piece). A PPP poll1 from 2011 showed that 46% of Mississippi Republican primary voters (and Mississippi is a Republican state) thought that interracial marriages should be illegal. That was 2011, not 1911. Only 40% of those Mississippi Republican primary voters thought that interracial marriages should be legal. Admittedly, primary voters tend be hardcore, but it still reflects the beliefs of a large number of Mississippians. If that's the numbers today, I could only imagine what the numbers must have looked like back then.
I have occasionally wondered what these people, these people who don't think the races should mix, think what we offspring of mixed race pairings should do. Though I encountered racism, no one has ever actually come out and told me what they think I was supposed to do. I had no more choice in being born then they did. Now that I had been born, should I have killed myself as an abomination? Should I have been sterilized? I know they didn't think I should breed with a white male, not one of "pure, Aryan blood." Was I permitted to breed with other "inferior" races? Or could I breed only with people of the same racial mix, thereby creating a new sub-race?
If it's that last option, that would have proven difficult. You see, I'm the product of a mixed race marriage, but not a White-Black marriage. My particular mix ------ not very common. It wasn't until a few years ago when I was in Los Angeles that I had the experience of walking on a street and looking around and seeing random people who looked like me. It was surreal. I actually found the experience to be disconcerting. I'd gone my entire life being on streets and not seeing people who looked like me. That was normal. This was abnormal. Though it did make me wonder what it would be like to live somewhere like that. (But that wouldn't be worth moving to LA. I prefer places where I can breathe the air, not see it.)
This country has a long history dating back to the colonial era of anti-miscegenation laws. As this country has a long history of miscegenation. (For the benefit of anyone who has not heard of the term, "miscegenation" refers to the interbreeding of different races.) The terms quadroon (one-quarter Black) and octoroon (one-eighth Black) didn't come about because Whites, primarily White men, weren't have sex with Blacks.
In the Deep South, the focus has traditionally been on White-Black intermarriage. In fact, there was so much focus on that particular type of racial mixing, some Southerners don't believe that any other type of racial mixing was ever outlawed. I recall getting into a lively discussion on the subject with a friend of mine who also grew up in Mississippi. She was convinced the only interracial marriages that had ever been illegal were White-Black. But I knew otherwise though it took sending her an email with the details before she believed me.
At one time or the other, 41 out of the 50 states have had anti-miscegenation laws. (The nine states that didn't were Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alaska and Hawaii plus the District of Columbia.) Laws have been passed restricting the marriage between Whites and: Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, Filipinos, Indians, Native Hawaiians, and the catch-all of "All non-Whites." Some states even had laws banning marriages of any type of race mixing, not just White and another race. (For a fascinating interactive map to see where interracial couples were legal and illegal from the colonial era on, click here.)
My parents' marriage wasn't the only "interracial" marriage in my family. Not long after my parents married, my father's nephew married a Puerto Rican. At that time, in the Northeast, Puerto Ricans were considered to be "colored." I thought of it as karma as it was the sister who opposed my parents' marriage whose son went on to marry that Puerto Rican. I guess by the time the sister had "mixed race" grandchildren, she had developed a little more tolerance. My father's other sister had married an Arab. From blonds and redheads, you suddenly had a generation of brown-eyed brunets.
So as I grew up, I was aware there was a stigma with "mixed" marriages, but I also accepted them as something normal. As a child when that's what you see every day, that is how you define normal. So sitting there all those years ago reading a piece of paper didn't change any of that. At most, I mentally filed it away as an anecdote about Mississippi and racism.
The Air Force didn't grant my father's transfer request. I learned many years later that the basis for the request was invalid. Before we had moved to Mississippi, all the anti-miscegenation laws were struck down in the 1967 unanimous Supreme Court decision, appropriately titled, "Loving v Virginia." (Though unenforceable, the anti-miscegenation laws stayed on the books for a long time --- including in Mississippi. If I recall correctly, it wasn't until the late 80s that Mississippi removed theirs --- which still put them ahead of other states. South Carolina didn't remove their law until 1998. Alabama was the last state to strike its anti-miscegenation law and that wasn't until the year 2000. A poll conducted at the time showed that only 31% of Alabama Whites approved of interracial marriage.2) Mississippi was one of the states where my parents' marriage was illegal3,4 along with eleven other states (Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming) or, put another way, in almost 1 in 4 states my parents' marriage wasn't legal. (If it had been a White-Black marriage, it would have been illegal in 24 states or almost half the country.) At the time of "Loving v Virginia" when the anti-miscegenation laws of seventeen states were struck down, my parents' marriage was still illegal in six of those states.
So although my father was wrong in the details, he was right in essence. And I'll say now what I felt then:
Who is any state to tell legally married people that their marriage isn't legal..........here?
To tell children that you're bastards..........here?
I know the quality of Wikipedia can be spotty, but their article on "Anti-miscegenation laws in the United States" is actually quite good.
1 "MS GOP: Bryant for Gov., Barbour or Huckabee for Pres," Public Policy Polling, April 7, 2011 (accessed March 2012).
2 Gene Owens, "Alabama Voters To Decide Fate Of Miscegenation Ban," October 23, 2000 (accessed March 2012).
3 "Jim Crow Laws: Mississippi," The History of Jim Crow, (accessed March 2012)
4 Gabriel J. Chin and Hrishi Karthikeyan, "Preserving Racial Identity: Population Patterns and the Application of Anti-Miscegenation Statutes to Asian Americans, 1910 -1950, Berkeley Asian Law Journal, Vol. 9 (2002): p. 1, 2002
For more about racism, read "Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner? The Socially Accepted Racism" or "Why "Birthers" Are Idiots."
For more about Mississippi, read about another disgraceful attitude from when I grew up in "Teacher - Student Sex How Much Has Really Changed?"
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