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"Miscegenation," by Christian Walker (1985-8)

Interracial Vapors
“Something New” Under the Race-Conscious Sun

If my grandmother were alive and saw the current movie “Something New,” she’d fall prey to the vapors. Spending summers with my grandparents in Smackover, Ark., in the 1960s, I’d hear them mutter “What do these ‘nigras’ want?” as they watched Walter Cronkite report the latest racial upheaval, whether it was rioting over school integration or the Black Power protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

As a teen I came to see my grands as casual racists. Yes, that’s a horribly oxymoronic — even moronic — term. But that’s the term I settled on to describe my grands as I began to see the racial divide was not, ahem, so black and white an issue. My grandparents abhorred all the racial violence, certainly. But otherwise their attitude was: Yes, black folks should be treated better — but do they have to be so uppity about it?

Even my grands’ word for black folks — the label of choice among many casual racists in the South in those days — reflected that attitude: a passive-aggressive slurring of “Negro” and the “N” word that could be defended as just a little ol’ Southern accent at work, and if it offended or belittled black folks, well so be it.

Little of the racial strife of the ’60s would be so shocking to my grandparents, however, as the film “Something New.” Even as American apartheid withered under the Civil Rights movement and my grands resigned themselves to rubbing elbows with blacks, one very potent racial taboo remained: Thou shalt not date or romance, much less marry, a “nigra.”

“Something New” stars Sanaa Lathan as a woman who goes on a blind date. She happens to be black. Her date happens to be white. They end up liking each other.

If Granny had been forced to witness Ms. Lathan’s mocha-colored flesh pressing against the melanin-challenged skin of co-star Simon Baker, or to watch him paint her toenails… well, the vapors!

Besides, Granny still would have been reeling from that “Desperate Housewives” skit that opened “Monday Night Football” only a short time before (well, 14 months earlier, in November 2004). No, Granny would not have been shocked that the skit showed “Housewives” star Nicollette Sheridan dropping her towel and jumping into the arms of pro football player Terrell Owens. Rather, Granny would have been stupefied because the naked Sheridan (viewed discreetly by the camera) is a white woman who leaped into the arms of a black man.

I guess it’s a sign of progress that the uproar over the “Desperate Housewives” stunt focused overwhelmingly on the sexual side and not the racial side, and that I haven’t heard any racist gasps over “Something New.”

Perhaps we’ve come a way since 1912, when U.S. Rep. Seaborn Roddenberry of Georgia sought to ban marriage between blacks and whites. According to Harvard professor Randall Kennedy in his excellent book “Interracial Intimacies,” Roddenberry’s twisted Weltanschauung led him to rail against the “embryonic cancer of Negro marriage to white women” and the perils of “a white girl made the slave of an African brute” with “blood descended from the orangutan trodden shores of far-off Africa.”

Perhaps we’ve come a way since 1955, when Emmett Till, a 15-year-old black kid from Chicago, was murdered in Mississippi after, on a dare, he asked a white woman for a date and then whistled at her. As Kennedy notes, his murderers “initially planned only to beat the youngster but decided to kill him after he failed to show remorse and boasted of sexual intimacies he had enjoyed with white girls back home in Chicago.”

As the Civil Rights movement began to break down the walls of apartheid in the 1960s, pop culture began to tippy-toe up to the subject of interracial passions — that big kahuna of taboos among many Southern white folks, who even had the law on their sides in many states .¤.¤. at least until 1967, when the Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage in the delightfully, ironically titled case Loving v. Virginia.

I can’t remember any specific reaction my grands had to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” that landmark 1967 film about an interracial romance starring Sidney Poitier. But I can guess my granny’s response: the vapors.

My grands would have been less upset if they were watching television on Nov. 22, 1968, when “Star Trek” portrayed the white Capt. Kirk kissing the black Lt. Uhura. Though touted as the first interracial kiss on the boob tube, that milestone deserves an asterisk: The plot had Kirk and the beautiful Uhura kissing only because an alien villain forced them to do so. (Give yourself bonus irony points if you noted that “Trek” was created by Gene Roddenberry. No, I don’t know if he was related to Congressman Seaborn.)

Since then, interracial intimacies have increasingly popped up in pop culture, from “The Jeffersons” in 1975 (television’s first portrayal of a married black-white couple), to the 2002 film “Monster’s Ball.” Yes, “Monster’s Ball” would have visited the vapors upon Granny, but it would have been a less severe case than “Something New.” In “Monster’s Ball,” the affair between the Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton characters indeed is torrid — but also tortured. My grands would have perceived a foreboding message: That’s what happens when you dare to venture into forbidden passions.

“Something New,” while deftly considering interracial issues, nevertheless is a romantic comedy — a serious (as opposed to goof-ball) romantic comedy that ultimately depicts love across the color line as an otherwise normal man-woman thing. For Granny, the vapors!

As shocking as all this would be to my grands, they would be surprised by another aspect of “Something New.” Unlike “Guess Who,” that frivolous interracial romance flick from 2005, “Something New” goes deeper and reveals that, even today, some blacks also have problems with interracial relationships. Ms. Lathan has encountered such frictions in her personal life as she dated across the color line. “One of the things that is so ironic is that the pressure you get is from your own people,” she told Michael O’Sullivan of The Washington Post. “You’re ‘abandoning’ your own.”

In an interview with Associated Press writer Diane Parker, Lathan said, “It’s almost acceptable within our culture to be prejudiced toward whites because of our history — this country is loaded with racism.”

When Lathan dated a white guy, “we would be in Harlem. There would be five brothers in the corner, and this is an awful feeling but you’re holding his hand and you want to pull your hand away ’cause you don’t want the judgment. And you’re gonna get the judgment even if it’s just in looks. And the black men are the worst when it comes to judging.”

Yet Lathan confessed to passing similar judgment herself: “When you see a black man with a white woman there is .¤.¤. an instinctual feeling of “You want her, you don’t want me.’”

Even years after the apartheid of my grandparents’ world was vanquished, racial matters still aren’t, ahem, so black and white.

Rick de Yampert is an entertainment writer and columnist for the Daytona Beach, Fla., News-Journal. Reach him at rick.deyampert@news-jrnl.com

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