In 1908, James Weldon Johnson wrote a much-quoted analysis of American racism. At the heart of the American race problem, Johnson argued, “the sex factor is deeply rooted… It may be innate; I do not know. But I do know it is strong and bitter.” The “sex factor,” or white people’s seeming revulsion at the idea of interracial sex and desire to maintain white racial purity, has long been viewed as the key reason whites disapprove of interracial relationships. While these supposedly biological concerns cannot be ignored, they must be qualified. Although whites, especially white women, often disapproved of sex between white men and black women, casual or exploitative interracial sex between white men and black women was not prohibited as long as it involved no serious emotional attachment. As in Strange Fruit, it was emotional relationships rather than sexual relationships between white men and black women that were threatening; white men were not stigmatized or degraded by intercourse with black women.
The idea of sex between black men and white women, however, repulsed most whites and served as an important dimension of the opposition to interracial marriage involving white women and black men. White women, unlike white men, were stigmatized by engaging in interracial sex. They were tainted by the very act of sexual intercourse with a black man, which implied receiving his semen. The use of the metaphor of “blood” to signify race emerged during the slave period and was further codified in miscegenation law and in late-nineteenth-century theories of eugenics. This metaphor held that racial identity was carried in the blood. “White blood” and “black blood” were not only categorically different, but “black blood” always trumped or dominated “white blood.” Having a “single drop” of black blood made a person black. Whiteness was easily corruptible and blackness was all-consuming. This metaphor transformed race into an intrinsic, natural and changeless entity: blood essentialized race.
The language of blood suggested that interracial sex involving white women and black men was far more dangerous than sex between white men and black women. Only men, the assumption went, had the capacity to transfer their blood (through their semen); men were the active spreaders of blood and women the passive receptors. Thus white men could have sex with black women without degrading themselves. White women, however, were tainted through intercourse with a black man, contaminated by his blood/semen. White men could stray and produce half-black children without compromising the “integrity” of the race; the black race might be made more white, but the white race would remain pure and untainted by “black blood.” If white women had biracial children, however, it would make the white race less pure; in short, the survival of the white race depended upon its women, who were designated as the guardians of white racial purity.
Although the metaphor of racial blood conflicted with a postwar critique of the biological basis of race, such ideas still resonated with many whites in the 1940s and 1950s. In his 1944 study of American race relations, Gunnar Myrdal found that whites did not consider the illicit race mixing that went on between white men and black women to be amalgamation, since any offspring would be considered black and would live with their mother. Sex between white women and black men, however, was viewed “as an attempt to pour Negro blood into the white race.” The language of blood was most often used by white southerners to explain their opposition to interracial marriage. Segregationist Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi employed it at length in Take Your Choice, a book he authored in 1947:
“We deplore the conditions which have poured a broad stream of white blood into black veins, but we deny that any appreciable amount of black blood has entered white veins. As disgraceful as the sins of some white men may have been, they have not in any way impaired the purity of the Southern Caucasian blood. Southern white women have preserved the integrity of their race, and there is no one who can today point the finger of suspicion in any manner whatsoever at the blood which flows in the veins of white sons and daughters of the South.”
Bilbo’s construction of racial purity excused white men for any sexual indiscretions while suggesting that white women should be carefully monitored since their actions could be so dangerous. White women had it in their power to end the white genetic line. For white southerners, a southern white minister explained, “the presence of the seed of the Black man in the womb of the white woman was the most dreadful thing that could be imagined.”
Children born to white women and black men represented the trumping of blackness over whiteness. Biracial children were considered black because of the one-drop rule and likely because of their physical characteristics. The white parent’s racial heritage would thus be erased or effaced by the black parent’s input. This was the foundational fiction of the American racial dichotomy—blackness polluted and overpowered whiteness, reflected most starkly in the claim that the children of white women and black men would be “coal black.”
The sexualized stereotypes of black men as lustful, uninhibited, and virile, moreover, raised questions about the virtue and propriety of any white woman who slept with or married them. White women out with black men were often mistaken for prostitutes by both blacks and whites. Although marriage usually legitimated women’s sexuality, especially in the 1950s when marriage experts told the nation that a good marriage required a healthy sexual relationship between husband and wife, interracial marriages continued to carry the connotations of illicit, transgressive sex.
Sexual relationships between white women and black men also challenged the authority and supremacy of white men, politically and sexually, in a way that no relationship between a white man and a black woman could. Although marriages between white men and black women were forbidden by law and custom, white men were far more concerned about controlling and directing white women’s sexual relationships. Women who married blacks not only challenged the racial order but also rejected the authority of their fathers and brothers. Many men saw these relationships as a challenge to their manhood and sexuality, a fight between a black man and white man for the control of the white man’s woman, and they were adamant about preventing relationships that might shame or even “unman” them.
Men sometimes responded to this blow to white masculine authority with murderous hostility. A white father from Norfolk, Virginia, found a 1951 Life magazine story about the interracial marriage of a black jazz musician and a white woman so distasteful that he wrote in to express his disgust. “If my daughter ever entertains such an idea [as intermarrying],” he wrote, “I will personally kill her and then myself, thus saving the state the expense of a hanging. This plan of action has the entire approval of my wife and whole family.” Life did not publish any responses to this horrific threat, which perhaps reflected the not isolated view among white men that a dead daughter was preferable to an “ethnically impure” one. In death, at least, remained some honor.