A Historical Look At Interracial Relationships
When we stop to consider the idea of interracial relationships, we often overlook the historical reality of how many people throughout history from many different countries were involved with or married someone of a different race. We will take a look at some of those people and how they managed their personal situation as a partner in an interracial relationship. Some of these people you are likely to be familiar with, but others may come as quite a surprise.
More than a few of these people went against the grain of their culture, their families, and their closest friends to be with someone they loved who was of a different face or ethnicity. If history is any indication, there is quite a bit of success connected with these people, so while their success cannot be connected to the fact they had an interracial partner, it can be said that it did not get in the way of their achievement of many good things in their lives.
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Antony and Cleopatra
OK, this one did not end so well. But there is a lot to consider as to why it may have been doomed to begin with. And there are lessons here to be considered that can apply to any culture and any couple considering an interracial relationship.
To begin with, Mark Antony was a Roman general and Cleopatra was an Egyptian queen. Two people who enjoyed all the benefits of power in their own lands, but when they tried to pursue their romantic interests, that is when the problems began. The underlying problem was that their racial differences ended up being directly connected to their positions of power. Octavius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, was concerned that Cleopatra had too much influence over Antony, and that Antony would end up betraying Rome if Cleopatra asked him to do it.
It is not that Antony was an innocent party in this matter, because he believed Cleopatra’s son was fathered by the late Emperor Julius Caesar, and so he declared her son to be the rightful heir to the Roman throne. Octavius Caesar obviously took exception to this, and so the war of words began. But these were not two ordinary people caught up in a political scandal. They had very real power that could be used to conquer entire nations, though nothing in history indicates that was the intention of Antony or Cleopatra. In the end, both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide for different reasons.
But let’s not end this story on a low note. While it is true they both committed suicide, the reason was each of them believed the other was dead – at different times. Antony fell on his own sword believing Cleopatra was dead, while Cleopatra chose to have a poisonous snake bite her instead of having to be ruled over by Rome after finding out Antony was dead. It’s almost like the story of those star crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Their love for one another remained burning even until the end. Each was willing to give their all to be together and tossed aside the paranoia and prejudices of the times and culture.
While some may consider this ancient history, there are some very real modern day applications to consider. In a broader sense, Antony was European and Cleopatra was Middle Eastern. If you are a European male in a Western nation, pause to consider the unspoken suspicions if the woman you are dating or married to is of Middle Eastern descent. The suspicions may be completely ungrounded, just like those of Octavius, but when there is a lot at stake suspicions become reality.
Most people who are interested in interracial dating and marriage will never come close to having the same political problems as Antony and Cleopatra, but regardless of where you live there are cultural biases to overcome. There is also the perception that certain women have power over men. While this is true as a general rule, when you introduce a racial or ethnic tone to the conversation the relationship becomes the issue. As with Cleopatra, if the perception is that she is using the man to achieve personal gain, things can get really complicated.
Pocahontas and John Smith
This is one of those historical accounts that actually ends up with a different ending than is popularly believed. Pocahontas was a Native American who regularly visited the European settlement of Jamestown in early America. Though there were friendly relations between the Indian tribe which Pocahontas belonged to, the Tsenacommacah, problems arose because of the English continually expanding their territory. During one of these conflicts, Pocahontas was captured and a ransom was demanded for her release. And here is where the legend is separated from the history.
Pocahontas had converted to Christianity during her captivity, and she was later able to go free but chose to stay in the European camp. During her stay on Jamestown she changed her name to Rebecca and met a tobacco farmer, John Rolfe, who she later married. Now the question is, how did John Smith get so historically and romantically connected to Pocahontas? It is likely that the account handed down from generation to generation because Captain John Smith is a much preferred romantic figure than a sod buster. Pocahontas, whose married name was Rebecca Rolfe, was taken back to England and buried after her death.
What history seems to have overlooked in this story is that we have a Native American woman being married to an Englishman and being accepted into a culture that is primarily English (not American). In fact, what we do know is that the sole basis for accepting Pocahontas into the culture, and a close knit one at that, was on the basis of her conversion to Christianity – her religion. Instead of religion being an obstacle for an interracial couple being accepted into society it was the reason for their acceptance. If this seems strange to you from a 21st century perspective, you are not alone.
In modern times, the issue of acceptance when mixing religion and race when it comes to interracial relationships can aggravate an already uncomfortable cultural situation. It seems the opposite should be true, as it was in Jamestown in the 1600’s. Perhaps one of the important factors of Pocahontas being so readily accepted was she was a known entity, having brought food to the settlers during difficult times. Americans are very fond of their food, and perhaps Pocahontas knew this early on. But it could not have been her intention to try to marry one of the white settlers from the beginning, so there is clearly a romantic angle to this entire story apart from the association with John Smith. Perhaps history did not allow recording this interracial romance because of the cultural norms of the time. The fact that her husband brought her back to be buried in his native England speaks volumes about his love for her.
It is likely we shall never know the entire truth about this story.
Before we move forward into more modern times and focus in on interracial relationships in America, there is a major event in the legal history of America that deserves a close look to see not only the difficulty, but the potential for success for interracial relationships and marriages in a democracy. The legal case is one that reached the highest court in the United States, the Supreme Court, where it was finally resolved.
The formal legal case was Loving v. Virginia, in 1967. Prior to the case being decided, there were states that had specific laws prohibiting interracial marriages. If you are wondering how that was possible, look no further than the same United States Supreme Court who in 1883 upheld what was known as Anti-miscegenation laws passed by state legislators.
Before you jump to any conclusions about a moral contradiction by the United States by allowing these laws, there are more than a few other countries in the world throughout history that had very similar laws – and some countries still have them on the books today. Nazi Germany (OK, not a great example) had passed Anti-miscegenation laws based on religion (obviously Jewish). During Apartheid, South Africa had their Population Registration Act of 1950. In Egypt, it is prohibited for an Egyptian to be married to an Israeli as it is considered to be an act of spying on the government (memories of Antony and Cleopatra). In Saudi Arabia, women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslim men under Shari’a Law. India has passed its own version of Anti-miscegenation laws as recently as 1957.
Back to the case. The couple in question, Richard and Mildred Loving (their married names) actually got legally married in Washington D.C. in 1958. Her maiden name was Mildred Jeter, and she got pregnant at age 18, prompting the exodus from the state of Virginia to get married. After returning home to Virginia, interested neighbors then notified the police who legally invaded their home in the middle of the night hoping to find them in the act of sex, which also was against Virginia law. Mildred pointed out to the visitors that they were legally married as evidenced by the marriage certificate hanging on the wall. Naturally, the police seized it as evidence for violation of the State’s Anti-miscegenation laws.
If you are wondering about the crime itself under Virginia law, it was considered to be a felony and carried with it a sentence of 1 to 5 years in prison. As we saw in other countries which have Anti-miscegenation laws, religion ends up playing a large part in the reason for the law’s existence. The judge in the Loving’s case is on the record as to justifying the guilty verdict and subsequent one year sentence.
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
The judge did show compassion by suspending the sentence for 25 years. (It seems they may have been better off taking the one year in prison so they could get on with their lives.)
There were the appeals and various court decisions, but in the end it ended up in the hands of the Supreme Court. The court’s decision was that the Anti-miscegenation laws upheld by the previous Supreme Court ruling in 1883 was unconstitutional. It ruled that the laws were in violation of the 14th amendment to the Constitution providing Equal Protection under the law.
As expected, the result of this ruling saw an increase of interracial marriages throughout the United States. But there are many modern day connections to this ruling beyond interracial couples being able to get married.
The Loving Actions
First, it cannot be missed that the entire point of the Loving case was about two people deciding to find a way around the law and stand up for what they believed in. The idea of marrying a woman because the man gets her pregnant is a bit passé these days, but it was the moral decision by Mr. Loving that was the primary reason for their decision. Together they stood their ground and followed the laws of the land to get their justice.
Next, there is always this thread of religion and interracial relationships that exists when these Anti-miscegenation laws are passed. It is a bit puzzling to create a discriminatory law based on a belief that sees all men and women as being created equal. From a legal perspective, there is a case to be made from the viewpoint that there is a potential for interracial marriages and relationships to be a disturbance to the order and peace of the community. Of course, this argument presumes that the existing community standards are moral and just.
Finally, the role of the nosy neighbors cannot be ignored. In the context of interracial dating, the role of the nosy neighbors was to act as agents to enforce the laws of the culture. For those considering having an interracial relationship, it needs to be considered exactly where you live and – yes – how nosy are your neighbors. In this light there is a kind of injustice waiting to be meted out if a couple does not conform to the cultural and social norms of the community. There are laws that use this community standard to deter potential criminal activity – the prime example of this being the laws against pornography.
Equating interracial dating and pornography may seem to be a stretch, but is it really?
Moving Ahead 50 Years
The state of interracial dating in the United States today has become calmer and it’s generally accepted by ost people, especially the younger generations. Of the top 20 states where interracial dating is accepted, 10 are considered to be Democratic and 10 are Republican. 8 of the 20 top states are in the South (yes, Virginia is on the list). The decision of the Supreme Court has made interracial relationships politically and culturally accepted in America.
Hollywood celebrities have been the front-runners when it comes to defying cultural norms, and interracial marriages are no exception. You may be surprised to find some of the names on this list, as in many cases the celebrity concerned quite reasonably did not want to make the relationship a matter of public scrutiny. That raises the question of how truly wild are these Hollywood mavericks; it seems that many want to have a quiet family life, just like the rest of us, rather than be the subject of constant comment an impertinent scrutiny. But there are other ground-breakers on the list, including a New York mayor.
Pearl Bailey and Louie Bellson – Married for 38 years, and he deflected interracial dating questions by maintaining she was Hattian. Didn’t work though.
Sammy Davis Jr. and May Britt – The famous singer and entertainer, Davis got married in 1960 to his second wife at a time when the Anti-miscegenation laws were in full force. A semi-success story as the marriage lasted 8 years, but his third wife was African American.
Alice Jones and Leonard Kip Rhinelander – OK, this is not a Hollywood couple but there is a lot of movie material here. The couple got married in 1924 but he, being a wealthy New Yorker, was roundly criticized by the media for his wife being black. She actually was interracial, but the social registry listed her as black. Buckling under the social pressure, he went to court for an annulment claiming she deceived him and did not know she was actually black. During the court trial, Alice Jones was required to strip down to prove her ethnicity. He got the annulment and she got a piece of his wealth.
Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray – Elected as mayor of New York in 2013, de Blasio openly presented his African American wife and bi-racial children throughout his campaign. In fact, his children drew more than an average amount of attention from the media. More importantly, he became the first white person in the United States to be elected to a major political office while having a black spouse.
David Bowie and Iman Abdulmajid – One of the most famous and durable interracial marriages, the couple married in 1992 and the couple remained married right up to the time of Bowie’s recent and sadly early death. One major consideration when looking at their success is the huge amount of publicity the singer and model got on a regular basis, constantly having to deal with critics and cultural norms. They were clearly able to rise above the nonsense.
Barack Obama, Sr. and Ann Dunham – The parents of President Barack Obama, this interracial couple and their marriage have been at the focal point of American politics for almost a decade. They, like many interracial couples, avoid the limelight. But the issue of the current president meeting the “natural born citizen” requirement of the presidency forced the couple into the media.
Robert DeNiro and Grace Hightower – Another Hollywood couple, they are both actors and each have attained a healthy level of success. Though sometimes criticized for avoiding the issue of being married to an African American, DeNiro has always been a relatively private person and has stated so in a number of interviews.
So what do we take away from this list of famous interracial relationship pioneers? First, they come in all shapes and sizes – and ages. While some men waited until they got older before exploring interracial relationships, there are a number of younger men who have gone down the path as well.
Second, if you look at the pictures of the women, good looks and body type is never an issue (this is good news!). It is clear that the quality of the relationship has little or nothing to do with appearance. This may be the biggest benefit of all to interracial dating. There are the petite, modelesque types on the list, but there are also the plainer, every day women who shine out with their strong personalities.
These days, inter racial dating sites are freely available on line, and not simply for creepy people with unhealthy fixations on people from other races – and let’s be honest, those people are around - but for those who are intrigued about meeting people who aren’t stamped out of quite the same mould as they are. If you are looking to find the partner of your dreams, why not spread your net as wide as possible.
Finally, though there are still laws on the books in many countries forbidding interracial marriages or sex, much progress is being made and cultures are taking a more relaxed view of interracial relationships. Countries that call themselves democratic are beginning to live up to their own stated standards of equality for all, and that means there is hope for everyone, young and old, who want to start working on an interracial relationship.
Because love does rise above all differences in race, color or creed, and our society is more and more accepting of mixed race couples as time goes by. It’s not so much, “Why?” as “Why not?”
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