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Romance and Rights: The Politics of Interracial Intimacy, 1945-1954.

Romance and Rights: The Politics of Interracial Intimacy, 1945-1954. By Alex Lubin (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. 224 pp.).

Alex Lubin's alternatively thought-provoking and frustrating new study explores the meanings of interracial intimacy in American politics and culture in the ten years following World War II. Focusing primarily on black-white relationships--because, Lubin argues, the bulk of the sources relate to black-white relationships and because relationships between blacks and whites engendered far more controversy than other kinds of interracial pairings--Lubin asserts that World War II created new conditions which gave rise to a form of politics centered on black intimacy with whites. Although the courts and postwar popular culture sought to keep interracial intimacy in the private sphere and to contain the political transformations it could engender, the black press and at least some black civil rights activists celebrated examples of black-white romances and marriages and embraced interracial intimacy as a civil rights issue.

Lubin begins Romance and Rights by explaining how World War II enabled interracial intimacy to become viewed as a civil rights issue. For the first time, domestic racial discrimination became a liability to American foreign policy, as the United States positioned itself as the protector of freedom and democracy opposing first Nazi Germany, and later, the USSR. The United States framed itself as the land of tolerance, opportunity, and racial harmony, at least in opposition to totalitarianism. The war helped discredit biological racism, making it harder to oppose interracial marriage on the grounds that blacks were biologically inferior. Under these new conditions, examples of black and white intimacy could be viewed as proof that white racism was waning and that blacks were worthy partners for whites.

The bulk of Romance and Rights describes how whites sought to contain the politics of interracial intimacy, while black activists sought to exploit it. The first two chapters trace how the courts and postwar popular culture sought to contain the possibilities engendered by interracial intimacy by locating the issue firmly in the private sphere, where it could not be a matter of civil rights. This was especially important for southern courts, which feared that the federal government would intervene in their regulation of interracial relationships if interracial romance and marriage were viewed as civil rights issues. Instead, southern courts argued that interracial intimacy should be viewed as local or regional issues subject to regulation by the states, rather than the federal government. Lubin also finds that postwar films and comic books sought to contain the possibilities of interracial intimacy by portraying it as a private matter of individual choice located firmly in the domestic sphere. Comic books used stories of interracial romance to present cautionary tales designed to educate white women about making proper romantic choices. Films also failed to open up any space for consideration of America's violent history of racialized sexual exploitation. Some of these discussions beg for more context. In his examination of miscegenation laws, for example, Lubin nowhere makes clear that the states, not the federal government, have had the authority to regulate marriage since the country's founding. Later Lubin argues that postwar films undermined the transgressive potential of portrayals of interracial intimacy by casting white actors in the roles of blacks who were passing. But nowhere does he discuss the film production codes, which barred depictions of "miscegenation" on screen and led some directors to use white actors so they could depict "interracial" love scenes.

The strongest chapters of the book explore how some blacks tried to make interracial intimacy into a civil rights issue, and the limitations of this form of politics. The black press, especially the magazines of Jack Johnson, was most adamant in insisting that cross-racial intimacy should be celebrated and should be recognized as proof of improving race relations. Such relationships showed, among other things, that racial differences were only skin deep, that blacks could be accepted and loved by whites and that the offspring of blacks and whites were not inferior. Interracial intimacy most clearly became a civil rights issue when black GIs serving abroad during and after World War II sought to marry and bring home their European sweethearts. In a deeply researched and engaging section of the book, Lubin shows how black soldiers brought the issue of interracial intimacy into the public sphere where it could be dealt with as a matter of federal public policy.

In his most interesting argument, Lubin traces how before World War II, blacks challenged miscegenation laws on the grounds that they left black women vulnerable to sexual exploitation by white men. After the war, however, blacks challenged the laws on the grounds that they restricted the right of black men to freely choose their sexual and marital partners. This shift, Lubin asserts, is symptomatic of how public sphere politics after World War II largely ignored black women's issues. Black women often criticized the tendency of black men to see interracial intimacy as a civil rights issue, instead insisting that who one dated and married was a private matter. At times, the black press sought to include black women in the politics of intimacy by publicizing marriages between white men and black women. But this was really a politics about male freedom and the recuperation of black male's sexuality, and there was little space for black women in it. The celebration of black men's interracial relationships ignored the fact that many black women had been victims of sexual violence at the hands of white men. Indeed, throughout the book Lubin argues that representations of interracial intimacy that do not bring forward this history of racial violence are inherently problematic. His final chapter praises the fiction of William Gardner Smith, Ann Petry, and Chester Himes for understanding the limitations of the politics of interracial intimacy and for using the issue to discuss the legacy of racial and sexual violence during slavery.

The argument that contested understandings of the private and public spheres were at the heart of the debate about interracial intimacy is used to tie together chapters that otherwise seem somewhat disconnected. Romance and Rights combines both the strengths and weaknesses of cultural studies. On the one hand, it is an interdisciplinary work that very usefully brings "high" literature, popular literature, films, politics, and law into conversation with each other. On the other hand, it often focuses solely on interracial intimacy as a "trope," ignoring both the people who made the decisions about representing the subject (comic books writers, for example), and those who actually crossed the color line. But this study offers important insights into the nature of postwar racial politics and should be of interest to students of American race relations in the 1940s and 1950s.

Renee Romano

Weslyan University
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Author:Romano, Renee
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
Words:1120
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