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.
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.
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. And in 1958, a 9-year-old black boy named Hanover Thompson was sentenced to 14 years in prison after a white playmate kissed him on the cheek. His conviction on charges of attempted rape was only lifted after a public outcry.
Sen. Trent Lott's recent praise of an old segregationist - and the ensuing uproar that forced his resignation as US Senate majority leader - show both how close that past is and how far the country has moved beyond it.
It's not so long ago that couples who dared defy the stringent anti-miscegenation laws in the South faced long prison sentences. Even in states without such laws, notes Dr. Kennedy, couples faced extreme pressure from both blacks and whites. When Frederick Douglass, the orator, abolitionist, and former slave, married a white woman in 1884, a white-owned newspaper called him "a lecherous old African Solomon," and a black-owned paper wrote: "Goodbye, black blood in that family. We have no further use for him."
Although such overt ostracism is rarer today, disapproval continues from both races - subtly, in the stares of strangers, or more overtly, as when Patti Keenan returned from her honeymoon to her Providence, R.I., office and overheard black colleagues discussing "nigger-honky marriages."
When black friends ask her why she married a white guy, Patti has a ready response: "I'll say, 'I didn't marry a white guy, I married Matt Keenan.... This is who I fell in love with, this is who I married."
Still, societal pressures on interracial marriage can take their toll. Rose Kreider, a US Census Bureau employee who reviewed the limited studies on interracial marriage and divorce, found that risk of divorce increases, but only slightly.
Michael Rosenfeld, a Stanford sociology professor who studies interracial marriage trends, says the growing independence of young people today has helped them resist those pressures. "Change that takes place over time is the most difficult to notice," he says. "But it can be among the most profound change societies have."
Interracial couples themselves often emphasize what they hold in common. Matt and Patti Keenan, for example, talk about how each is a third child of college professors. Both grew up in southern New England suburbs and attended College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. They love politics, reading, movies, and the outdoors.
"It's not like because she's black and I'm white we're miles apart," says Matt.
Howard Powell, a news photographer at Boston's public television station, says it was Kathy's qualities that drew him to her. "I thought, this was a woman who was diligent, forthright, loving, sensitive, and supportive," he says. "I think people fall in love because of timing."
He and Kathy have differences like any married couple, he says, but race isn't the biggest. He's more religious than she is, and he tends to play the "bad cop" to her "good cop" in raising children.
Differences can be strengths, too. Imari Paris Jeffries is studying Spanish. He and Cynthia have decided it will be their children's first language.
Still, even in strong marriages, race can be a barrier to understanding.
Patti gets chills when she recalls a group of skinheads, dressed in Confederate flags with swastikas on their arms, who walked by her car at a Michigan mall more than a decade ago. Terrified, she locked the doors and huddled with her infant daughter. "I was afraid for my life," she says.
She pauses, thinking how different the situation would have been for her husband. "Matt and I can live together the rest of our lives, and I hope that we will," she says. "But he's still not black.... As much as we're together, it's like learning to speak a foreign language as an adult. You'll always have that accent."
Kathy Powell tells of similar tensions when she and Howard visit the self-segregated communities in which each grew up. She's from a white town on the Jersey shore; he's from a black neighborhood in Queens. When they visit her parents, she says Howard is very aware he's the "only chip in the cookie." Kathy, meanwhile, admits to feeling nervous walking around the block by herself in his neighborhood.
If the fault lines dividing races remain, however, the bridge to cross them builds one generation at a time.
Patti says her kids are remarkably unfazed by their mixed-race heritage and rarely bring up the topic. "I've learned how much baggage I carry, because they don't carry any."
For Kathy Powell, it was her children who helped her reestablish family ties.
About a year after she'd given birth to her daughter, her father called. "I'm tired of this," he told her. "I'd like to visit." After he did, he began putting up photos of Kelcee - his first grandchild - at work and home.
The breakthrough with her mother took longer. Kathy and Howard's second child became ill, and the doctor needed family medical history to make a diagnosis. When Kathy called her parents, her mother returned the call - the first time they'd spoken in four years.
She visited a year later. "She came in wearing dark sunglasses, because I knew she'd cried the whole way up from New Jersey, but they came bearing gifts," says Kathy. Her parents have never mentioned the years of estrangement.
Once they got to know Howard, Kathy says, many of their stereotypes of black men fell away. Howard, for his part, has been quick to forgive, saying he sees no point in holding a grudge. "It just started fresh," he says.
Kathy has no doubt why. "The fact [my parents] had grandchildren they didn't know really paved the way," she says, adding that friends in interracial marriages have had similar experiences.
But if kids help bridge differences, they also call into question America's very system of race classification. "What's our kid going to check off on an application?" wonders Cynthia Paris Jeffries, pregnant with her and Imari's first child. "White? Black? Hispanic? It'll be 'other.' "
Largely in response to lobbying by mixed-race families, the 2000 census allowed people for the first time to identify with multiple ethnic groups. "We check all the boxes!" Matt Keenan says, laughing. "It makes you wonder, do we really need to count that way anyway?"
He and Patti say they look forward to a time when marriages like theirs aren't "counted" at all. A time when TV shows or advertisements show interracial couples as a matter of course - not to make a point. A time when race isn't the first thing people remark on in their marriage. When articles like this one, for instance, are no longer written.