What Comes Naturally
Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America
(Oxford University Press)
In this book, Peggy Pascoe shows that the importance of miscegenation law in American history should not be underestimated. There are two strands to its influence, the issues of race and of gender, and while Pascoe seemingly sets out to cover both of these, it is the former that benefits from the bulk of her attention. This is of course understandable, as race is the central issue raised here, and the book itself is evidence that there is much to be said about this strand of the narrative. Indeed, while Pascoe purports to be dealing with two matters, there is in fact only one main focus: gender appears at times, but it is essentially a supplement to the central narrative of race.
We begin in the mid-19th century. Although many states had by this time kept miscegenation laws in place for 150 years, it was not until after the abolition of slavery that they began to feel the need to enforce them. Granted freedom from slavery, black former slaves were also given the freedom to marry who they chose, but there was of course a caveat to this particular liberty: their spouse also had to be black.
The first half of the book chronicles the adoption, tightening, and occasion repeal of miscegenation laws throughout America. This is by no means a straightforward story. We encounter states that repeal laws only to reinstate them a few years later, couples travelling from state to state seeking a place where they can be legally wed, and states that introduce miscegenation laws for the first time as late as the ‘30s. The text is punctuated with numerous maps that show which states banned marriage and sex between which races, at which times. Flipping directly from map to map reveals some occasionally shocking surprises. The maps are also useful in providing a quick overview, as the first half of the book is rather dry, seeming to comprise mostly lists of dates and legal cases.
The second half is a more interesting read. By now we are dealing with events that are firmly in the twentieth century, but things were becoming no easier for interracial couples hoping to marry. Here Pascoe starts to focus in greater depth on examples of resistance to the laws, some of which contributed to the eventual admission in 1967 that they were unconstitutional. The crucial case here is that of Loving v. Virginia. Richard and Mildred Loving spent ten years fighting court cases against miscegenation laws, and eventually their struggle paid off, not only for themselves, but for countless others.
The other example that is particularly interesting is the case of the black boxer Jack Johnson, who had relationships with a number of white women. The mother of his second wife said that she would “‘rather see my daughter spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum’” than see her marry Johnson. Johnson himself declared, “‘I have eyes and a heart, and when they fail to tell me who I shall have for mine I want to be put away in a lunatic asylum.’” The fact that both parties bring up insanity surely says something about the nature of the laws. In addition, the severity with which Johnson beat his first wife is apparently seen to be less reprehensible than the interracial relationship itself. The miscegenation laws seem to be even more like a kind of madness when their details are examined. At times, racial groups such as Filipinos have been classified in order that they can be covered by the laws. There are continual amendments to allow for the increasing diversity of many states, and to cover up flaws in logic.
In the acknowledgments section, Pascoe admits that What Comes Naturally has been a long while in the making. Indeed, it can be deduced that the writing process lasted 20 years, which means that the idea was conceived sometime in the late ‘80s. This is notable because had the book been completed more quickly, then it would not have delivered the whole story of the miscegenation laws. Astonishingly, laws banning interracial marriage were still in place in South Carolina and Alabama up until 1999. Although they had not been enforced for 30 years, they show that some constitutions remained racist for far too long. It is a bittersweet ending then: Pascoe chronicles the history of miscegenation laws from start to finish and shows us that even long after the laws themselves have been defeated, hostility toward the issue lingers.