views updated Jun 08 2018


Relative to the cultural phenomenon it names, the word "miscegenation" is a recent invention, dating only as far back as the U.S. Civil War. From the beginning of their colonial expansion into the Americas, Europeans expressed curiosity about sexual unions between men and women belonging to different racial categories (a point exhaustively demonstrated in 1997 by Werner Sollors in Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature). Even before a racial vocabulary had fully emerged, observers were commenting on sexual relations between Europeans and Native Americans or Africans living in America. The earliest additions to this racial vocabulary were primarily descriptors of the products of those sexual unions. While by the mid-sixteenth century "mongrel" could be used pejoratively, "mulatto" and "mestizo"—two terms borrowed from Spanish and Portuguese to describe the offspring of Europeans and either Africans or Native Americans—were often used merely to identify parentage. The emergence of increasingly refined categories, such as "quadroon" and "octoroon," indicates an obsessive interest in calculating the degree to which a person could be considered mixed. Other terms, such as "hybrid" and "half breed," focus on the fact of interracial union rather than on any specific genetic combination. The diversity of this racial discourse reflects how attitudes toward interracial unions could vary according to regional differences, changes over time, and the particular ways that a particular combination cut across race and class lines. In the United States it was not until the nineteenth century that words emerged to express—and often condemn—the desires driving these unions.

Nineteenth-century American literature reflects this complex linguistic and ideological heritage. While the word "miscegenation" was coined in the intense turmoil of Civil War fervor for the purpose of satirizing and condemning the sexual union of Euro-Americans and African Americans, the racist attitude that underlies it is the cumulative product of at least 250 years of talk about interracial sex in America. To understand "miscegenation" as both a cultural and literary phenomenon, it is first necessary to understand how racial thinking evolved over time and shaped nineteenth-century American attitudes toward sex, love, and marriage.


By 1820 stories of interracial sexual unions between Europeans and Native Americans had long titillated readers. One of the most durable of these stories was the legend of Pocahontas. In the popular melodrama The Indian Princess; or, La Belle Sauvage (1808), James Nelson Barker (1784–1858) depicted a mature and noble Pocahontas. Her dialogue with her English lover, Lieutenant Rolfe, articulates the Euro-American fantasy of Native American submission to, and even love for, a superior European culture that will rescue her from "the path of savage error" (p. 149). This romantic fantasy, however, is doubled in the play's comic plot, in which the clownish Robin overcomes his fears of native savagery to steal off into the woods with his "little dusky divinity," Nima (p. 148). Their banter knowingly winks at the sexual realities underlying the play's sanitized allegorical resolution of European and Native American cultural differences through the marriage of noble racial representatives. Throughout the nineteenth century, variations on this theme of interracial love in the woods were acted out on stages across the United States.

As the double plot of The Indian Princess indicates, Americans held a variety of attitudes toward sexual relationships between European men and Native American women. Although by the 1820s seven states prohibited marriage between Euro-Americans and Native Americans, the rhetoric of noble savagery typified by the Pocahontas myth, as well as the material realities of frontier life, led some Americans to tolerate and even encourage Indian-white marriages. Such relative tolerance must be understood, however, against the anxiety that surrounded sexual relationships between Euro-American women and Native American men. One of the primary sites for the expression of this fear was the Indian captivity narrative. These narratives, first popularized in the seventeenth century, were still widely read in the nineteenth, both in the form of eyewitness accounts and as stylized potboilers. Many of these narratives stressed the valiant resistance of white women against their Indian captors' savage lusts. Some, however, detailed the lives of captured girls and women who, having been adopted into Native American communities, married Indian men and raised mixed-race children. For example, the best-selling A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824) relates the story of a woman who had been taken captive at age fifteen and gradually adapted to living among Native Americans. Far from sensationalizing taboo sexual relations, Jemison's narrative factually recounts her two marriages to Native American men (the second lasting some fifty years) and justifies her decision to remain among her adopted culture by documenting an extensive family network that included eight children and dozens of descendants. Jemison's experience was not unique, but her telling of it was; far more of these accounts included stock elements that came to typify captivity narratives: sudden violent attacks, frail white women, lascivious savages, heroic and harrowing escapes. The threat of rape or forced marriage was a frequent motif, even if only to deny their occurrence.

The strenuousness with which these narratives reinforced racist attitudes betrays the desire of nineteenth-century Euro-Americans to deny the interracial mixing that, whether by force or by choice, was taking place in all corners of the United States and its territories. In addition to the coupling between Euro-American settlers and Native Americans on the western frontier, black slaves mixed (often by choice) with white indentured servants and (often by force) with white slave owners. In the Southeast, escaped black slaves joined and married into Native American communities. In addition, as the United States acquired territories previously held by France and Spain, it absorbed significant mixed-race populations.

Recognizing the tension between the democratic ideals of the United States and its racism, the novelists Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), and Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789–1867) plotted historical romances featuring interracial unions. In Child's Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times (1824), Mary Conant, the daughter of New England Puritans, marries and bears the son of a Wampanoag Indian, Hobomok. Despite the daring depiction of marriage between a white woman and a Native American man, the novel essentially reinforces racist attitudes. When Child writes that Mary herself "knew that her own nation looked upon her as lost and degraded; and, what was far worse, her own heart echoed back the charge," she effectively endorses the social values of her time (p. 135). Two years later, Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826) took an even more oblique approach toward interracial unions. At times the novel plays on Euro-Americans' worst fears of Indian savagery, as when the malevolent Magua threatens to take Cora Munro to "live in his wigwam forever" (p. 119). And yet it also traces the blossoming romance between Cora and the heroic Uncas, a romance cut short by their deaths but consummated symbolically through an Indian funeral chant that envisions their partnership in the afterworld. With respect to interracial union, however, even this happy prospect is undermined by the reader's awareness that, although she is praised by the Indians as having "blood purer and richer than the rest of her nation," she is in fact "descended . . . remotely" from African slaves (pp. 386, 180). The novel's ideology of racial purity is further affirmed by the chaste friendship of its protagonist, Hawkeye, and his stoic Native American sidekick, Chingachgook. The racial group to which Mohicans like Chingachgook belonged was the Lenni Lenape, which as Cooper explains in his preface to the first edition of the novel signifies "unmixed people" (p. 4). In contrast, Magua's guile is represented as characteristic of one who was born a Huron but who has learned to affiliate himself with other nations (i.e., the Mohawks and the French). The most frequent proponent of racial purity, however, is Hawkeye himself; he repeatedly makes assertions to the effect that he "has no cross in his blood, although he may have lived with the red skins long enough to be suspected!" (pp. 39, 42). Through Hawk-eye, Cooper displaces the Pocahontas myth by presenting a hero who embodies both European and Native American traits, but who simultaneously rejects the inter-racial logic upon which the earlier myth was predicated.

A year after the publication of Mohicans, Catharine Maria Sedgwick published her own story of interracial romance and marriage, Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827). Although Sedgwick allowed her characters to cross the racial dividing line to a greater extent than Cooper, the manner in which she constructed her multiple love plots undermines the appearance of supporting interracial unions. She fashioned the primary love plot out of elements from the Pocahontas story. The bold and passionate Indian maiden Magawisca protects her Euro-American lover from the wrath of her vengeful father. In the process of shielding him from execution, however, her arm is violently severed. As a consequence of Magawisca's disfigurement, the culturally mixed (but racially pure) Puritan girl Hope Leslie takes her place as primary love object. The novel's other interracial romance plot borrows from the captivity narrative tradition. Hope's younger sister, Faith, having been taken captive as a child, marries into the family of her captors. Although her decision to remain with her husband, even after she has been restored to her white family, appears to endorse the viability of interracial love, the childlike simplicity of her attachment and the absence of any offspring from the union suggest that such love is necessarily stunted and doomed. Ultimately the firmness with which the novel rejects such unions is expressed by Hope Leslie herself, who in response to the news of her sister's marriage exclaims, "God forbid! . . . My sister married to an Indian!" (p. 196).

In addition to the consciously literary efforts of Child, Cooper, and Sedgwick, publishers churned out fictionalized pulp versions of captivity narratives in an attempt to capitalize on their popularity. In the anonymously written Gertrude Morgan; or, Life and Adventures among the Indians of the Far West (1866), the eponymous heroine describes her encounter with one of the chiefs of the Pawnee who have taken her captive. Summoning her to his lodge, "The Yellow Face" warns, "Don't be afeard, Missus, I'ze not agwine to hurt you. Yah! Yah! I jes want you to come and be my wife; now won't you?" (p. 404). As his name and caricatured dialect indicate, this chief is not Native American but rather an escaped mulatto slave. That a fugitive slave would appear in such a narrative is not particularly remarkable; those who could not make it to the North could often find refuge by merging into Indian communities. However, "The Yellow Face's" motiveless sexual aggression, in contrast to Magua's vengefulness, exemplifies how representations of black-white sexual unions focused less on allegories of national unification than on the perceived dirty consequences of desires that many Americans believed were both unnatural and immoral.


As the persistence of the Pocahontas myth suggests, Americans could at least tolerate the idea of sexual relations between Euro-American men and Native American women. Part of this tolerant attitude stemmed from the belief (held by Thomas Jefferson and others) that the mixture of native and European peoples would result in a new people entitled to the emerging continental empire. Others viewed the inter-marriage of whites and Indians as a humane approach to civilizing and preserving a people that would otherwise be extinguished by westward expansion. The attitude toward sexual relations between whites and blacks, however, was decidedly less favorable. As early as the 1660s, as Winthrop Jordan has documented, Virginia and Maryland passed laws prohibiting sexual relations and marriages between whites and blacks (pp. 78–80). Such laws were instrumental in consolidating the status of Africans as inherently inferior and therefore permissible to enslave. They also codified a racial distinction between people of European and African descent that increasingly differentiated between indentured servitude and permanent slavery. Preserved and reinforced by slavery, such laws continued to exist into the nineteenth century (and in many locations, into the twentieth). By the 1820s, Elise Lemire notes, eighteen of the twenty-three states then in existence prohibited black-white marriages. In contrast, only seven states prohibited Indian-white marriages (p. 47).

Legal statutes, though important, reveal only one part of the complicated matrix of social and cultural attitudes toward interracial sexual relationships. Both abolitionists and defenders of slavery used interracial sex to promote their positions. Abolitionists decried the inherent injustice of laws prohibiting interracial marriage, noting that such laws violated Christian principles of brotherhood and equality. Lydia Maria Child, a follower of the antislavery advocate William Lloyd Garrison, argued in her Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833) that the government was powerless to regulate affections and that "A man has at least as good a right to choose his wife, as he has to choose his religion" (p. 187). With the exception of a few radicals, however, few went so far as to promote intermarriage. Indeed, to make their arguments more palatable to moderate audiences, many abolitionists reinforced racist attitudes by arguing that slavery actually promoted racial mixing. Such arguments were intended to shock audiences by exposing a sexual degeneracy southerners wanted to hide; in the process, however, they also portrayed sexual relationships between blacks and whites as immoral and unnatural. For example, when Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) flatly states in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) that "My father was a white man. . . . The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father," he reveals slavery's cruelty and hypocrisy (p. 48). The coy depiction of his master's attentions toward his Aunt Hester, culminating in Douglass's voyeuristic description of his aunt being stripped and whipped, further paints such relationships as immoral and perverse.

Defenders of slavery denied that such sexual abuses occurred. They did, however, use a similarly structured argument about the perversity and immorality of inter-racial sex to attack abolitionism. As Lemire has documented, in 1834 New York City was engulfed by widespread rioting following newspaper reports claiming that the abolitionists supported "amalgamation" between blacks and whites. By borrowing this term from metallurgy to describe genetic mixing, anti-abolitionists effectively encoded racial preference (and repulsion) as governed by the laws of nature. The year after the riots, Jerome B. Holgate anonymously published A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation in the Year of Our Lord 19—by Oliver Bolokitten—Esq. (1835). In it, Holgate describes a northern city of the future in which whites and blacks have intermarried out of a sense of moral and political obligation contrary to their natural inclinations. The marriages themselves are universally loveless; the resulting offspring are ugly.

Depicted by defenders of slavery, mixed-race children were the misshapen fruit of unnatural and immoral unions. Some abolitionist writers inverted this portrait by making biracial characters into sympathetic models of virtue and righteous suffering. Despite their intentions, these portraits eventually consolidated into a stereotype that was as unrealistic in its idealism and sentimentality as the anti-abolitionists' caricatures were ridiculous: the tragic mulatto. Judith Berzon surveys the propagandistic utility of the tragic mulatto in antislavery novels. In their natural goodness, such characters belied racist stereotypes of African inferiority. Through their tribulations, biracial characters who looked white and acted with Christian virtue demonstrated the patent injustice of a system that enslaved individuals according to their parentage. White readers could also identify with them more closely than characters that were phenotypically and culturally black. In some texts, white-seeming characters unaware of their mixed racial heritage dramatically (and tragically) discovered the truth of their status, often too late to prevent falling into the clutches of an evil slave-holder—giving white readers a graphic illustration of the precariousness with which they held their place in the racial hierarchy (Berzon, pp. 54–58, 99–101). Ultimately the moral and logical appeal of tragic mulatto stories rested in their inherent endorsement of white supremacy. What makes the tragic mulatto's life so tragic is that he or she inevitably must be denied the benefits of whiteness that he or she clearly merits or to which he or she has become accustomed.

Novels featuring light-skinned mulattoes passing for white and circulating through white communities and white bedrooms held another appeal for readers, regardless of race or politics. With this conceit, such novels could purport to reveal the truth behind the whispered rumors and emphatic denials of the slave-holding South. In addition, the possibility that one could unwittingly break such a strong taboo titillated some and frightened others. In Richard Hildreth's (1807–1865) antislavery novel The Slave; or, Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836; republished in 1856 as Archy Moore, the White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive), Archy Moore, the son of a Virginia aristocrat and his female mulatto slave, becomes so disgusted with the indignity of being enslaved by his own father that he escapes to Britain where he passes for white. Unrecognized when he returns to the United States, Moore is free to gossip about the rumored interracial trysts of Jefferson and Martin Van Buren. While the novel plays on the thrilling power of hiding behind a secret identity, it also hints at its dangers by suggesting not only that offspring of unknown or unacknowledged parentage would inevitably result in incestuous pairings but also that the appeal of interracial sex existed at least partially in that very possibility.

The mulatto's firsthand experience of both the power of whiteness and the suffering of enslavement was figured by abolitionist writers at times as an unbearable internal conflict that must eventually lead to a tragic demise. In Child's short story "The Quadroons" (1842; revised 1846) for example, it is precisely the white-inflected beauty of the mulatto that makes her so attractive, and precisely the pride inherent in that whiteness that prevents her from accepting her white lover's inevitable rejection. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) used similar plot elements in her two great abolitionist novels, Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (published serially in 1851 and 1852) and Dred; or, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856). In Uncle Tom's Cabin the beautiful and proud Cassy becomes a helpless, isolated victim in a system of sexual exploitation, willing to murder her own mixed-race children rather than permit them to suffer enslavement. Cora Gordon faces an equally hopeless situation in Dred. Pampered because of her beauty, exploited because of her background, it is only through her intelligence and strong character—what her brother Harry describes as her "blood [coming] up"—that she nurses her lover/master out of illness and saves his plantation (p. 63). She is rewarded with emancipation and marriage but, in an echo of Hildreth's incest motif, upon his death becomes vulnerable to the legal and sexual predations of her white half-brother, Tom. If in these female characters biraciality is represented as a pair of isolating negations, such that one is neither white nor black, in Stowe's male characters, mixed racial identity manifests itself as a violent internal struggle of contending impulses. In Uncle Tom's Cabin the "high, indomitable spirit" that George Harris has inherited from his white father manifests itself as a bristling and bitter rebelliousness (p. 182). When in Dred Harry Gordon exclaims that he is "Colonel Gordon's oldest son"—just as white as, and a good deal wiser than, his half-brother, Tom—he sets in motion a chain of rebellious acts that unfold with prophetic inevitability (p. 386).

In the hands of well-meaning white abolitionists, the tragic mulatto figure functioned as a logical and emotional icon; white injustice and black suffering were embodied in a single tortured body and psyche. The popular theater seized on the melodramatic appeal of the tragic mulatto. Watching the 1852 stage version of Uncle Tom's Cabin by George L. Aiken (1830–1876), one of many based on Stowe's novel, audiences could see George and Eliza Harris's white skin and hear their crisp white diction. Audiences could similarly sympathize with the plight of Zoe, the mulatto heroine of Dion Boucicault's (1820–1890) The Octoroon (1859), which concludes with her drinking poison onstage rather than continuing to live as a slave. Nevertheless, these dramas and other popular amusements tended to skirt the political controversy and psychological complexity that mulatto characters could generate. In comparison, biracial authors imagined a greater range of motivations and reactions for their mixed-race characters, perhaps as a consequence of their own experiences as children of interracial unions. When William Wells Brown (c. 1814–1884), himself the child of mixed parentage, adapted Child's "The Quadroon" for use in Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853), he placed his vignettes of interracial union within a larger and richer network of social forces. As a result, the tragic consequences of these outcomes seem less predetermined by inherent conflicts within the characters than externally generated by economics and politics.

An even stronger example of this phenomenon is Harriet Jacobs's (1813–1897) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Writing as "Linda Brent," Jacobs stresses that, although her power to control her own fate is limited by slavery and further compromised by her biraciality, she is not circumscribed by a stereotypically tragic script. Rather than suffer endlessly at the hands of her cruel master, Dr. Flint, she elects (though it is a choice made under duress) to attach herself to another (white) man, in part because their mixed-race children might enjoy greater protection than any born exclusively under her master's legal authority. By humbly repenting her sexuality and explaining it as a rational response to a sexually exploitative economy, she contradicts racist portrayals of black licentiousness. Through the conclusion of the narrative, in which Jacobs secures freedom and a safe home for herself and her family, she revises the propagandistic, melodramatic portrayals of Child and Stowe to show that a mulatta can overcome an oppressive system to find personal happiness.


While abolitionists deployed the tragic mulatto figure as a rhetorical weapon in the war of words preceding the Civil War, supporters of slavery continued to make racist appeals by claiming that the inevitable outcome of abolition would be racial amalgamation. In the process they made a lasting contribution to the American lexicon: "miscegenation." A brief overview of the word's origins forms a useful lesson in the difficulty of discussing interracial sexual relationships without resorting to an inherently racist vocabulary. Sidney Kaplan traces the origins of the word to the presidential election of 1864 and two enterprising newspaper reporters. In December 1863 David Goodman Croly (1829–1889) and George Wakeman (1841–1870), writers for the Democratic New York World, anonymously published a seventy-two page pamphlet titled Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and the Negro. In it, the authors explain that the word "miscegenation" is derived from the Latin miscere (to mix) and genus (race or kind). Adopting a tone of cool scientific detachment, the authors explain that the inevitable outcome of abolition and a second Lincoln presidency will be a miscegenated U.S. populace, a vision calculated to inflame political opposition. Croly and Wakeman sent copies of their pamphlet to leading abolitionists, several of whom replied with praise tempered by concern that the pamphlet's enthusiasm for such a controversial social policy would jeopardize the immediate aim of abolition. Meanwhile, the anti-Lincoln papers treated the authors' mishmash of pseudoscientific reasoning and provocative vision of a future United States in which "the most perfect and highest type of manhood will not be white or black, but brown" as an authentic statement of the abolitionist position. Opposition to miscegenation was so hostile and so popular that even most advocates of emancipating African Americans rejected the possibility of marrying one.

Although the Civil War emancipated African Americans from chattel slavery, the miscegenation controversy helped shape the widespread acceptance of racial segregation in the United States for the next hundred years. In American literature the theme of interracial sex, detached from debates about abolition, focused less on the tragic fates of mulatto characters exploited by a heartless legal system than on the personal choices individuals would make in a politically reconstructed, yet socially segregated, United States. Once again, Child's would be a leading voice. In A Romance of the Republic (1867), she traces a complicated web of inter-racial relationships beset by the kinds of tricks and tragedies characteristic of antebellum abolitionist fiction. However, it also presents biracial progeny as more than mere victims. The novel's profusion of racial pairings results in a large, happy, prosperous, multihued family. The conclusion, featuring a star-spangled pageant of patriotic songs and Negro spirituals, celebrates the Union's victory and optimistically portends Croly and Wakeman's facetiously conceived miscegenated American future. In a different manner, optimism also characterizes the resolution of "The Foster-Brothers" (1869), a short story written by President Lincoln's private secretary, John Hay (1838–1905). Hay permits the union of a southern white aristocrat and the white-looking daughter of his father's former slave, but only because her true racial identity is kept secret. In the story's cataclysmic conclusion, the two fathers kill each other, suggesting that the future of interracial love in the postbellum United States was necessarily predicated on the violent repression of the nation's racist past.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Blacks; Captivity Narratives; Hope Leslie;Indians; Leatherstocking Tales; Marriage; Slave Narratives; Uncle Tom's Cabin


Primary Works

Aiken, George L. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among theLowly. 1852. In Early American Drama, edited by Jeffrey H. Richards. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Barker, James Nelson. The Indian Princess; or, La BelleSauvage. 1808. In Early American Drama, edited by Jeffrey H. Richards. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Boucicault, Dion. The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana. 1859. In Early American Drama, edited by Jeffrey H. Richards. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Brown, William Wells. Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: ANarrative of Slave Life in the United States. 1853. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.

Child, Lydia Maria. An Appeal in Favor of That Class ofAmericans Called Africans. 1833. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Child, Lydia Maria. Hobomok. 1824. In Hobomok and OtherWritings on Indians. Edited by Carolyn L. Karcher. New Brunswick, N.J., and London: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Child, Lydia Maria. "The Quadroons." 1842, 1846. In AnAnthology of Interracial Literature: Black-White Contacts in the Old World and the New, edited by Werner Sollors. New York and London: New York University Press, 2004.

Child, Lydia Maria. A Romance of the Republic. 1867. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. 1826. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[Croly, David Goodman, and George Wakeman.] Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and the Negro. 1863–1864. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Literature House, 1970.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 1845. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Gertrude Morgan; or, Life and Adventures among the Indians of the Far West. 1866. In American Captivity Narratives, edited by Gordon M. Sayre. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Hay, John. "The Foster-Brothers." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 39 (1869): 535–544.

Hildreth, Richard. The Slave; or, Memoirs of Archy Moore. 1836. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Gregg Press, 1968.

[Holgate, Jerome B.] A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation in the Year of Our Lord 19—by Oliver Bolokitten—Esq. New York, 1835.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1861. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Seaver, James E. A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. MaryJemison. 1824. In Women's Indian Captivity Narratives, edited by Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. 1827. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Dred; A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. 1856. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1851–1852. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Secondary Works

Berzon, Judith. Neither White Nor Black: The MulattoCharacter in American Fiction. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Kaplan, Sidney. "The Miscegenation Issue in the Election of 1864." Journal of Negro History 34 (1949): 274–343.

Kinney, James. Amalgamation!: Race, Sex, and Rhetoric in the Nineteenth-Century American Novel. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Lemire, Elise. "Miscegenation": Making Race in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Sollors, Werner. Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: ThematicExplorations of Interracial Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sollors, Werner, ed. Interracialism: Black-WhiteIntermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Tilton, Robert S. Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Michael Householder


views updated May 23 2018



Miscegenation is generally defined as an intimate sexual relationship between individuals of different races. In practice, however, it has mostly referred to relationships between whites and people of color. Because of its pejorative connotation, the word is not generally used today to refer to interracial relationships.

While the term miscegenation did not exist until the late nineteenth century, interracial sexual intimacy was a matter for concern soon after the first Europeans and Africans settled permanently in the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s. In North America, English colonists founded Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. It was only seven years later that Pocahontas and John Rolfe celebrated their marriage, which was unusual and sensational but not legally questionable. The growing presence of African slaves, however, generated significant legal questions about status, family, and heredity. In 1662, Virginias colonial assembly declared that a childs status as slave or free was based on the status of the mother, and in 1691 it passed the first law against sexual relations between free English or other white women and nonwhites (including both Native Americans and negroes or mulattoes). The 1691 statute also provided for the banishment of any white who contracted a marriage across the racial line. While Virginia was the first colony to act comprehensively to bar interracial marriage and control interracial sex, other colonies followed. Of the thirteen original colonies, nine had laws against interracial marriage in effect at the time of the Revolution. Racial categorization in the colonial era and early history of the United States increasingly moved toward a black-white dichotomy, and policymakers as well as the general white populace came to see individuals with significant African ancestry as black.

Chattel slavery was also prevalent in colonial Latin America, though Spanish and Portuguese colonies initially enslaved Native Americans. The use of Native Americans as slaves, however, was quickly overshadowed by the importation of Africans, particularly as the Native American population declined due to intentional extermination and widespread disease. In the mid-1500s, the Brazilian economy shifted away from reliance on forced Native American labor and toward black chattel slavery, and Portugal began to import slaves to Brazil in 1549. The Catholic Church opposed interracial marriage and procreation early in the colonial period, and European states echoed this condemnation in Brazil and elsewhere. Nonetheless, interracial sexual relations between Portuguese and Spanish men and African and Native American women, which was often coerced, took place extensively in the colonial period and produced a significant mixed-race demographic. During the 1700s and early 1800s, a complex racial hierarchy developed in Latin America, with mixed-race populations increasingly gaining specific recognition as distinct groups. The cultural permissiveness toward interracial sexual contact transitioned toward legal and institutional support during these years as well.

The term miscegenation was coined in 1863 in the United States in the context of the critical 1864 election. Editors of a New York-based Democratic newspaper secretly produced a pamphlet advocating the immediate legalization of interracial marriage as a natural and proper implication of emancipating the slaves. They created the word miscegenation to describe such relationships, combining the Latin words miscere, meaning to mix, and genus, or race. Though the Democrats certainly did not support the idea of interracial marriage, they planned to lure Republicans into openly agreeing with the ideas in the pamphlet. Thus, they sent copies of the pamphlet to prominent Republicans, hoping that some would endorse it and provide the Democrats with a campaign issue, but the Republicans ignored the pamphlet. While their gambit failed to link the Republican Party to a controversial endorsement of racial equality, it did ignite a national discussion among white elites about the dangers of interracial procreation. At the height of Reconstruction, a few individuals challenged emerging criminal prohibitions on interracial marriage, and they even secured a short-lived court victory in Alabama. Ultimately, however, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the states to regulate freely against interracial relationships, and most southern and western states took up the invitation. While the southeastern states primarily focused on relationships between African Americans and whites, southwestern and western states also identified Mexicans, Malays, Hawaiians, Asians, and Native Americans as unsuitable marriage partners for whites. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, blackness increasingly became defined strictly in legal terms, and several southern states moved toward the position that any African ancestry rendered an individual black. Several states actively prosecuted men and women, both white and nonwhite, for crossing the racial boundary. Legal penalties ranged from defining interracial cohabitation as a more serious misdemeanor than intraracial cohabitation to Alabamas two-to-seven year terms in the state penitentiary for interracial marriage, adultery, or fornication.

With the exceptions of Brazil and Cuba, most Latin American nations eliminated slavery in the mid-nineteenth century; Brazil and Cuba emancipated their slaves in the 1880s. Brazil sought to change its national racial complexion by actively soliciting white immigrants and banning black immigration in 1890. In conjunction with this policy, the state endorsed a policy of whitening that actively encouraged individuals of mixed racial ancestry to intermarry with whites. Social, legal, and cultural incentives led to increasing proportions of the population choosing to identify themselves as mixed race or white. While informal and social modes of discrimination persisted, Brazil and other Latin American nations largely eschewed the legal-formalistic path of racial domination that the United States embraced, and race was largely understood more as a continuum than as a binary in formal terms. Even in the United States, however, the emerging legal binary masked a finer-grained racial hierarchy based upon the greater social and economic advancements available to individuals with lighter skin colors, even if these individuals were not able to pass for white.

The first steps to dismantling the modern formal prohibitions against interracial intimacy in the United States took place in the courts. Californias high court invalidated the states ban on interracial marriage in Perez v. Sharp in 1948, claiming that the main state interest that the ban served was the reinforcement of the illegitimate doctrine of white supremacy. A few western states removed their bans through legislative action in the 1950s, but the legal prohibitions in the South remained until the U.S. Supreme Court first struck down Floridas stricter punishments for interracial cohabitation in McLaughlin v. Florida in 1964. The Court finally invalidated Virginias antimiscegenation law in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. Scattered litigation, however, was required in the late 1960s and 1970s to ensure that Loving s rule was respected throughout the nation by justices of the peace and other governmental officials asked to provide marriage licenses to mixed-race couples.

Despite these rulings, a core of social opposition to interracial marriage persists in the United States. As recently as November 2000, 40 percent of Alabamas voters rejected a symbolic amendment to Alabamas constitution that removed the ban on interracial marriage, which had been legally unenforceable since the Supreme Courts ruling in Loving. Some evidence also suggests that even in the contemporary United States, many individuals with interracial backgrounds conceal or downplay their black ancestry, despite the emergence of a greater social and political consciousness among mixed-race people.

Recent studies of Brazil and Cuba have challenged the myth of racial democracy, a general impression that racial discrimination was never a core element in either nations political development. In reality, racial hierarchies remained deeply embedded in Brazilian and Cuban economy and society throughout the twentieth century. While interracial relationships did not have to be legitimized as they did in the United States, mixed-race individuals remained in subordinated systems supported by governmental institutions that refused to acknowledge the social and economic meaning of color. In recent years, movements seeking racial solidarity and empowerment have begun the hard work of dismantling these hierarchies, with mixed-race individuals and groups playing important roles in the process.

SEE ALSO Marriage, Interracial; Race Mixing; Race Relations; Racism


Butler, Kim. 1997. Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolition São Paulo and Salvador. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Helg, Aline. 1995. Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 18861912. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Marx, Anthony. 1998. Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States, South Africa, and Brazil. New York:Cambridge University Press.

Novkov, Julie. 2002. Racial Constructions: The Legal Regulation of Miscegenation in Alabama, 18901934. Law and History Review 20: 225277.

Romano, Renee. 2003. Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sawyer, Mark. 2005. Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wallenstein, Peter. 2002. Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage, and Lawan American History. New York:Palgrave.

Julie Novkov


views updated May 14 2018


Although the concept of miscegenation was known in Europe and England, the word was a New World neologism, first suggested by the authors of an 1863 pamphlet "Miscegenation," who coined it seemingly to advocate abolition and "the blending of the races," as stated in the work's subtitle. In fact, the tract was actually written by the anti-abolitionists David G. Croly and George Wakeman, who hoped to suggest the Republican Party and President Abraham Lincoln, who had just issued the Emancipation Proclamation, favored racial amalgamation. From its very coinage, then, the term "miscegenation" was intended to fuel racist fury. Racist attitudes toward intermarriage predated the term, of course, and the possibility that white men or women would have children with members of other races engendered hatred and fear among many people. The Puritans, for example, were outraged by the North American colonial leader Thomas Morton's suggestion that his young men, far from home and English women, should take Native American women as wives. Likewise, cultural and legal prohibitions against "amalgamation" with African slaves and free blacks were created and, to some degree, enforced. If, as W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) stated in The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903), "the problem of the twentieth-century is the problem of the color-line" (p. xi), mixed-race characters and miscegenation in fiction pose and interrogate that problem. Literary discussions of miscegenation are, to a great degree, the history of how society tried to insist on an ineradicable line between the races, while mixed-race characters, by definition, propose a redrawing of the lines or their complete abandonment.


With the end of slavery, one of the legal lines between black and white was removed, but legal definitions of race were not, nor were laws against miscegenation; in fact, the term was given new legal life, with dozens of states passing antimiscegenation laws from 1867 to the 1880s. As a result, the novel of "the tragic mulatto" who is an alien in two worlds remained fashionable even after the Civil War. Such stories feature a character who may appear white but who is in fact racially mixed. Albion Tourgée (1838–1905), a northerner who served as a federal judge in the South during Reconstruction, wrote several such novels. While the best known is his autobiographical novel A Fool's Errand (1879), recounting his experiences as a "carpetbagger" during Reconstruction, Tourgée wrote many other novels about the race problem in the South, including some that dealt with intermarriage between blacks and whites. Toinette (1874), later republished as A Royal Gentleman (1881), features a slave owner who falls in love with his mixed-race servant only to reject her even after emancipation because she is not white. Pactolus Prime (1890) likewise tells the story of a mixed-blood character who hopes for equality as well as freedom after emancipation but ultimately comes to dour conclusions about the future.

George Washington Cable (1844–1925) perfected the novel of the tragic mulatto who is alienated from two societies in The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life (1880). Against the backdrop of a history that blended Native American, African American, French, Spanish, and British cultures and bloodlines, Cable's novel of postbellum Louisiana features seemingly infinite gradations of race and ethnicity. Cable's novel relates the practical difficulties facing people of mixed heritage who rise economically but who fear they will never be accepted socially. Cable's narrator observes that even legal protections are insufficient guarantors of real freedom in a society where the law of racial purity is written in culture. The novel Ramona (1884) by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885) is one of the most successful works of the 1880s treating the theme of miscegenation; in it Jackson challenges many mixed-race stereotypes and social strictures against intermarriage. Ramona, the daughter of a Scotsman and a Native American woman, attempts to find a social identity uniting and honoring both parents.

During the 1890s, literary depictions of mixed-race characters became, if anything, more provocative. This change was precipitated in large part by the increasing legal oppression of people of color, including those of mixed race. Legally, the "separate but equal" theory was codified in law by the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Consequently, a person with "one drop" of so-called black blood could be legally defined as black and segregated from whites. The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) by Mark Twain (1835–1910) responds directly to the issues raised by the Plessy v. Ferguson case. This work features several mixed-race characters, among them Roxy, who appears white but has 1/16 part of "black blood" and is, therefore, a slave. She is the product of several generations of miscegenation. As the nursemaid to two children, hers and her master's, she switches the two. Her action goes undetected for decades but, ironically, her own son, trained as a white slave owner, mistreats and even sells Roxy. The master's biological son, named Chambers, might look white but is in every cultural sense black. Twain satirizes American racial attitudes, particularly the notion that such racial distinctions as the "one drop" theory have a real validity. When Roxy's switch is uncovered, her son, who has been trained as the master of the house, is sold downriver, and the illiterate Chambers inherits property, including slaves. Twain thus satirizes the very idea of such arbitrary racial distinctions, revealing race to be a cultural construct rather than a biological fact. Twain also uses race to discuss gender and vice versa by having the character Tom dress like a woman as part of the novel's mystery plot. In having a "black" pass for white and a man pass for a woman, Twain uses the novel to undermine racial and gender categories. Further, Roxy's "sermon" on free grace has her speaking on the text, "Ain't nobody kin save his own self " (p. 931). In this way, Twain describes the inevitability of the white and black bond in American society, suggesting a shared identity, fate, and community along with the shared kinship at the heart of the miscegenation plot.

The novel Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892) by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911) seems in some ways to begin where The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson leaves off but from the perspective of a woman. At the beginning of the novel, the title character is a Scarlett O'Hara–type southern belle, at one with regional politics and mores. The daughter of a wealthy planter, Iola discovers only after her father's death that her mother was part black, a "mulatta." Sold into slavery, this flower of white, southern race training eventually escapes and becomes an advocate for black Americans. Iola ultimately embraces the identity society confers upon her, refusing to pass as white, though she certainly is capable of doing so.

An ironic twist on the theme of miscegenation is presented by Kate Chopin (1851–1904) in "Désirée's Baby," which was first published in her collection of stories Bayou Folk in 1894. The short story depicts the horror with which "accidental" miscegenation was held in the South, when people were uncertain of the racial heritages of those closest to them or even their own backgrounds. In this story, the formal conflict is provoked by racist prohibitions against intermarriage and by the existence of characters who can "pass" as white or who do pass as white without even being aware of their background. Having given birth to a child with a complexion suggesting he is a "quadroon" and one-quarter black, the title character is suspected of having "black blood" in her lineage. Her punctilious husband rejects her and the child and sends them away from the house, discovering later, to his horror, that he is the one with such an ancestry. In the language of their society, he is the one "guilty" of miscegenation, and his wife, from the perspective of racist laws, is the injured party.


Related to the novel of miscegenation is the novel of "passing," a novel featuring a character who appears white but who is, in fact, of mixed race. Such a person often "passes" as white for social or economic reasons. The incentive to do so grew as so-called Jim Crow laws proliferated in the South, as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) became an active force of oppression and intimidation, and as large numbers of blacks were lynched. Drawing from his own observations of society, and from his own mixed-race heritage, Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858–1932) announced in his essay "What Is a White Man?" (1889) that "the line which separates the races must in many instances have been practically obliterated" (p. 5). In his fiction, Chesnutt illustrates this idea frequently, portraying many mixed-race individuals and instances of intermarriage, most famously in The House behind the Cedars (1900) and The Marrow of Tradition (1901). In the former, Chesnutt tells the story of brother and sister, children of a woman of mixed blood. John Warwick passes as white and marries the daughter of a plantation family, while his sister is on the verge of contracting a similar marriage when her past is revealed. Chesnutt returned to the theme in The Marrow of Tradition.

Pauline Hopkins (1859–1930) explores similar situations in her novels Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (1900), Hagar's Daughter: A Story of Caste Prejudice (1901–1902), Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest (1902), and Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self (1902–1903). In Hagar's Daughter, Hopkins introduces the theme of miscegenation through two young women, Jewell and Aurelia. Both are accepted in white society until the secret of Jewell's ancestry is revealed. While Aurelia is more "successful" by all contemporary social definitions, Jewell is the moral center of the novel. Hopkins's character Reuel Briggs in Of One Blood is one of her most interesting. The opening chapters of the book find Briggs, who believes himself white, reading a treatise called "The Unclassified Residuum," referring to a passage in William James's (1842–1910) study "The Hidden Self," which Hopkins uses as a subtitle for her novel. James had used the term "unclassified residuum" while discussing psychical phenomena, and Hopkins exploits it both for psychic and social purposes, to discuss the "residuum" of blood prejudice in American culture (p. 361). The novel charts Briggs's journey to self-discovery as he travels to Africa, finding that he is "of one blood" with Africans and, in a larger sense, that all humankind is "of one blood."

Interestingly, while "passing" undermines imposed racial definitions, it is often depicted in literature as a negative action but from different perspectives. Thomas Dixon (1864–1946) wrote the historical antimiscegenation and antiblack novels The Leopard's Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), which were adapted by D. W. Griffith into the controversial film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Both books feature mixed-race characters who pass as white as part of a covert plot to exploit the South and transform the United States into a "mulatto" society rather than one dominated by Anglo-Saxons.

However, neither is "passing" portrayed positively in James Weldon Johnson's (1871–1938) The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). Born to a mulatto mother and white father in the South, the narrator tells a story reminiscent of many other narratives featuring miscegenation as a theme. In this highly complex and delightfully ironic novel, Johnson's narrator details how passing is for him a joke. At whose expense the joke is has been a subject of much critical debate. On the one hand, the narrator plays a joke on himself, losing an integral sense of his own identity by passing as white. On the other hand, the joke is at the expense of the society that creates the context for passing through its racism and racist laws. The novel ends with the narrator passing as an anonymous white man, a racial trickster set loose within racist society. By showing that the narrator is able to pass, Johnson asserts that race definitions are artificial constructions.

Edith Maude Eaton (1865–1914), who wrote under the pen name Sui Sin Far, was born to a Chinese mother and an English father. Thus, like Charles W. Chesnutt, her own mixed-race background probably influenced her frequent choice of themes of miscegenation, passing, and crossing boundaries and borders. One is tempted to suggest that her pen name, Sui Sin Far, is itself an inversion of the usual pattern of passing, for it allows her to "pass" as Chinese. Eaton wrote in her autobiographical work "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian" (1909) that she was a stranger in the world by virtue of her racial heritage, distanced even from her parents. Many of the characters in her story collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912) are similarly estranged from two worlds, rather than belonging to both.

Indeed, the miscegenation plot itself might be defined as a literary form that foregrounds estrangement even as it imagines community. At the heart of the form is the question of the "color line" that Du Bois saw as America's preeminent challenge.

see alsoThe Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; The Birth of a Nation; Blacks; Civil Rights; Iola Leroy; Ku Klux Klan; The Marrow of Tradition; Mrs. Spring Fragrance; Race Novels; Ramona


Primary Works

Chesnutt, Charles. "What Is A White Man?" Independent 41 (30 May 1889): 5–6.

Croly, David G. Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. New York: H. Dexter, Hamilton & Company, 1864.

Dixon, Thomas. The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Doubleday & Page, 1905.

Dixon, Thomas. The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden—1865–1900. New York: Doubleday & Page, 1902.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. New York: Signet, 1969.

Eaton, Edith Maude [Sui Sin Far]. "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian." Independent 66 (1909): 125–132.

Eaton, Edith Maude [Sui Sin Far]. Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Hopkins, Pauline Elizabeth. Hagar's Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice. In The Magazine Novels of Pauline Hopkins, pp. 1–284. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Hopkins, Pauline Elizabeth. Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self. In The Magazine Novels of Pauline Hopkins, pp. 439–672. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Hopkins, Pauline Elizabeth. Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest. In The Magazine Novels of Pauline Hopkins, pp. 285–438. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

James, William. "The Hidden Self." Scribners 7 (1890): 361–373.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960.

Twain, Mark. The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson. In Mississippi Writings, pp. 915–1056. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Secondary Works

Berzon, Judith R. Neither White nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

Bost, Suzanne. Mulattas and Mestizas: Representing Mixed Identities in the Americas, 1850–2000. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003.

Cutter, Martha J. "Struggling across the Borders of Race, Gender, and Sexuality: Sui Sin Far's Mrs. Spring Fragrance." In Mixed Race Literature, edited by Jonathan Brennan, pp. 137–164. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Fabi, M. Giulia. Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Fredrickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Fulton, Joe B. "Mark Twain and the Multicultural Imagination." In Multiculturalism: Roots and Realities, edited by C. James Trotman, pp. 238–251. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

Ings, Katharine Nicholson. "Blackness and the Literary Imagination: Uncovering The Hidden Hand." In Passing and the Fictions of Identity, edited by Elaine K. Ginsberg, pp. 131–150. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.

Kaplan, Sidney. American Studies in Black and White: Selected Essays, 1949–1989. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Kinney, James. AMALGAMATION! Race, Sex, and Rhetoric in the Nineteenth-Century American Novel. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Sollors, Werner. Neither Black nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sollors, Werner, ed. Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993.

Wald, Gayle. Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Joe B. Fulton


views updated May 21 2018


Miscegenation is a term that is used to describe sexual relations, cohabitation, marriage, or procreation between people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. At its core miscegenation is based on scientific racism and the belief that human blood and genetic material establish an individual's race. As a category of "difference," race has lost much of its currency, especially in light of scientific evidence showing that race is culturally and socially constructed. However, in the nineteenth century, with the rise of imperialism and colonization, physical attributes such as skin color, hair texture, and the shapes and sizes of body parts signaled a dramatic difference between white Europeans and the "other."


A preoccupation with racial difference and amalgamation began in the United States during the slave era (1600s–1865), and miscegenation resulted in social stigma and legal penalties for those who wished to "cross the color line." Almost every southern state had a set of codes or laws delineating standard procedures for slaveholders; included in those laws were harsh punishments for cohabitating with slaves, usually involving a substantial fine for the white perpetrator and corporal punishment for the slave.

The word miscegenation comes from the Latin miscere ("to mix") and genus (a class or group of species), and the term was coined in a post-Civil War pamphlet titled "Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro" written by David Goodman Croly in 1864. Although the pamphlet extols the virtues of interracial relationships and the potential for interracial couples to produce superior offspring, its main goal was to stir up an antimiscegenation fervor that would hurt Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party and tarnish the abolitionist movement.

The propaganda piece was distributed widely in the United States and spawned a national debate about social tolerance of interracial relationships. Anxiety over interracial intimacy and miscegenation led to the heightened implementation of miscegenation laws, which forbade any official ceremony uniting people of different races in marriage. The first miscegenation law was established in 1661 in the colony of Maryland, and the slow adoption of the law would span hundreds of years and include every state except Vermont. Miscegenation laws also made it possible to convict individuals of adultery and fornication on a wide scale; because interracial couples could not legalize their unions, any sexual intimacy between whites and nonwhites was punishable by law. Eventually miscegenation laws were expanded to include other racial and ethnic groups in state legislation; for example, in the West, white citizens were not allowed to marry Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiians, or Filipinos.

Claiming that sex between whites and nonwhites was unnatural, against God's law, and immoral, lawmakers attempted to strengthen the severety of punishment, and by the mid-nineteenth-century individuals charged with misgegenation could face two to ten years in prison or fall prey to lynch mobs. Between 1882 and 1968 an estimated 3,446 lynchings took place in both southern and northern states, with approximately 19.2 percent of those lynchings stemming from supposed interracial rape and 6.1 percent from attempted interracial rape. These statistics reveal a pathological anxiety toward interracial sexual relationships and the violent attempt of a nation to maintain strict racial separation.

After the first implementation of miscegenation law, three hundred years would pass before the Supreme Court would rule that forbidding marriage on the grounds of race is unconstitutional. The case that changed interracial marriage laws in the United States was Loving roman v. Virginia in 1967. In the ruling Chief Justice Earl Warren stated,

Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

The legal ramifications of interracial sexual relationships permeated many social and cultural institutions. For instance, the Motion Picture Association's implementation of the Hays Code or Motion Picture Production Code after 1930 prohibited any depiction of interracial sexual relationships in movies and set a standard in film production that would last until 1967. In addition, colleges and universities, mainly in the South, developed policies that prohibited interracial dating. The most widely recognized adversary of interracial dating was Bob Jones University, whose community relations coordinator wrote in a letter to a possible candidate that intermarriage "breaks down the barriers God has established. It mixes that which God separated and intends to keep separate." During an interview on March 3, 2000, the university's president, Bob Jones III, revealed that the long-held sanction on interracial dating at Bob Jones University had been abolished.

In one nation's history the immense struggle to prohibit miscegenation in its myriad forms indicates a larger preoccupation with bloodlines, racial hierarchies, shifting power dynamics, and white supremacist ideologies.


Miscegenation in German history is bound inextricably to the study of eugenics and the belief in Aryan supremacy. In 1935 Germany established the Nuremberg Laws forbidding marriage or sexual relationships between Germans and Jews. Mirroring miscegenation laws in the United States and enthusiastically adopting scientific racism, Germany's policies were an attempt to safeguard racial purity and prevent the "pollution" of pure Aryan blood.

In Portuguese history early colonizers believed that intermixing with native peoples would result in strong and virile offspring and help bolster diminishing populations. Unlike other European colonizers, the Portuguese would marry and grant citizenship to their biracial children in places such as Brazil, São Tomé e Príncipe, and Cape Verde. The presumed benefits of miscegenation for the Portuguese colonizers resulted in a society of diverse skin tones and created a social system in which color codifies class division.

South Africa's system of apartheid is perhaps the best example of twentieth-century miscegenation law. In the 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act interracial marriage was outlawed until it was overturned in1985. Stricter laws adopted in 1950 stipulated that any sexual contact between a white person and a nonwhite person was criminal under the Immorality Act.


Croly, David G. 1864. Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. New York: H. Dexter, Hamilton.

Lemire, Elise Virginia. 2002. "Miscegenation": Making Race in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Plait, Jonathan. 1998. "Letter from Bob Jones University Re: Interracial Dating." The Multiracial Activist. Available from http://multiracial.com/site.

Sollors, Werner, ed. 2000. Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

                                                     Melissa Fore


views updated May 23 2018


MISCEGENATION is the intermarriage of people of different races. In the United States the term is primarily used to describe the marriage between a black person and a white person. Miscegenation is an American word, and it is difficult to translate into other languages. It is derived from the Latin "miscere" (to mingle) and "genus" (kind or category). Miscegenation plays a larger role in American history than perhaps in any other nation's history. The states, plagued by racial division between blacks and whites, codified the racial divide by prohibiting mingling of the races in marriage with antimiscegenation laws during colonial times. Prohibition of interracial marriage did not exist under the common law or by statute in England when the American colonies were established. Antimiscegenation laws were first drafted in colonial America.

The enactment of antimiscegenation laws can be attributed to a variety of factors, including economic considerations and a desire on the part of some for the maintenance of so-called "racial purity." The first antimiscegenation statute appears to have been enacted in Maryland in 1661, in part for economic reasons. The statute forbidding interracial marriage in effect gave slave owners the ability to increase their number of slaves through birth. The statute deemed any child born of a free mother and slave father to be a slave of the father's

master. The statute was designed to deter free white women from marrying black men. Before the statute, the freedom of a child was determined by her or his mother's free or enslaved status. If the mother was a free woman, the children would also be free. The 1661 statute changed this and increased the number of children born into slavery. The effect of the statute, however, was to increase forced interracial marriages because of the economic incentive for slave owners to force indentured white female servants to marry black male slaves to produce more slaves by birth from a slave father. Many other states in both the south and the north followed suit. America's first federal naturalization act, passed in 1790, limited the right to become citizens to "free white persons."

Some states' antimiscegenation laws prohibited marriage between any races, but most laws were more concerned with preserving white racial purity. Many antimiscegenation laws were enacted at a time when slavery and notions of white supremacy had already become fixtures in the epic of American history. The notion of white supremacy and preserving "whiteness" encompassed the idea that marriage between races producing "mixed" children would "muddle" the purity of the white race. The "one drop rule" of classifying a person as black because the person had one drop of black blood exemplified the concern of some in the United States for preserving whiteness. To preserve white racial purity and prevent production of mixed offspring, many American states forbade the marriage between whites and blacks. This view was vindicated in the Supreme Court's opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which Homer A. Plessy, whose only non white ancestor was one of his eight great-grandparents, was determined to be black in the eyes of the law. Other states, such as California in 1909, added people of Japanese descent to the list of those banned from marrying whites.

Antimiscegenation laws remained in effect in many states from colonial days until 1967, when the Supreme Court declared Virginia's antimiscegenation law unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia. The Supreme Court found that Virginia's law, which specifically prohibited and prevented the recognition of marriage between blacks and whites, denied citizens the fundamental right to marry. Soon after Loving v. Virginia was decided, most states repealed their own antimiscegenation statutes. Others kept these now unenforceable laws on their books, and some even kept the prohibition in their constitutions. The people of Alabama voted in November 2000 to remove the section of their constitution that prohibited interracial marriage. South Carolina took a similar step in 1998. While "mixed race" couples and their offspring continued to suffer discrimination in the twenty-first century, no state is allowed to deny recognition of a marriage between a black person and a white person or between persons of any different races.


Ferber, Abby L. White Man Falling: Race, Gender, and White Supremacy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

Sollors, Werner, ed. Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Williamson, Joel. New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States. New York: Free Press, 1980.

Akiba J.Covitz

Esa LianneSferra

Meredith L.Stewart

See alsoLoving v. Virginia ; Plessy v. Ferguson ; Race .


views updated Jun 08 2018


The fear of racial mixture migrated to the New World with the earliest colonists. In 1609, planters headed for Virginia were reminded by a preacher of the injunction that "Abrams posteritie keepe to themselves." Of course, they did no such thing. From the beginning, there was a shortage of women; white men freely interbred with both Indian and black women, even before the great waves of slave importation. During the era of slavery, interracial sex cut across all strata of the white male population, from the poorest indentured servants to the wealthiest planters. thomas jefferson was merely the most celebrated of the latter. Mulattoes were, in fact, deliberately bred for the slave market. Miscegenation laws, forbidding an interracial couple to marry or live together, were not designed to prevent interracial sex but to prevent the transmission of wealth and status from white fathers to their interracial offspring. Laws governing illegitimacy served a similar purpose, particularly in southern states. To this day, a majority of "blacks" in the United States are of interracial descent.

The adoption of the fourteenth amendment offered an obvious opportunity for the Supreme Court to hold miscegenation laws unconstitutional on equal protection grounds. When the occasion arose in pace v. alabama (1883), however, the Court unanimously upheld such a law, saying that it applied equally to punish both white and black partners to an intimate relationship. The constitutional validity of miscegenation laws went largely unquestioned until the great mid-twentieth-century rediscovery of racial equality as the Fourteenth Amendment's central meaning. Following brown v. board of education (1954), it was only a matter of time before the miscegenation issue would reach the Supreme Court. As it happened, the period of time was short. In Naim v. Naim (1955–1956) the Court fudged, dismissing an appeal in a jurisdictional evasion that Herbert Wechsler properly scored as "wholly without basis in the law." Unquestionably, the Court adopted this avoidance technique because of the political storm that had greeted the Brown decision. Playing on the white South's fear of race mixture was a standard scare tactic of politicians favoring segregation. Recognizing this fear, the NAACP, in planning its assault on segregated higher education, had deliberately chosen as its plaintiff in mclaurin v. oklahoma state regents (1950) a sixty-eight-year-old graduate student. The Brown opinion itself had been carefully limited to the context of education, and the Naim evasion was cut from the same political cloth.

For a decade, the Court was spared the inevitable confrontation. In Mclaughlin v. Florida (1964), it invalidated a law forbidding unmarried cohabitation by an interracial couple. Assuming for argument the validity of the state's law forbidding interracial marriage, the Court nonetheless held that the cohabitation law denied equal protection. The reasoning of Pace v. Alabama, the Court said, had not withstood analysis in more recent decisions. Finally, in loving v. virginia (1967), the Court put an end to the whole ugly pretense about "racial purity," holding invalid a law forbidding interracial marriage. Equal protection and substantive due process grounds served as alternative basis for the decision. Loving thus stands not only for a principle of racial equality but also for a broad "freedom to marry." (See freedom of intimate association.) The principle of equality is often liberty's cutting edge.

Kenneth L. Karst


Frazier, E. Franklin 1939 The Negro Family in the United States. Chap. IV. (rev. ed. 1966). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Myrdal, Gunnar 1944 An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Chap. 5. New York: Harper & Brothers.


views updated May 29 2018

mis·ceg·e·na·tion / miˌsejəˈnāshən; ˌmisəjə-/ • n. the interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types.


views updated May 21 2018

miscegenation mixture of races. XIX (orig. U.S.). irreg. f. L. miscēre MIX + GENUS race + -ATION.


views updated Jun 11 2018

miscegenation Literally ‘mixing of races’, a racist term denoting sexual relations between different races, especially White and Black. Miscegenation was promoted in some systems–for example Portuguese colonialism and the Baha'i religion–as a means of overcoming artificial ethnic barriers. The concept is treated pejoratively in racist ideology as a source of social and economic degeneration.


views updated May 11 2018


Mixture of races. A term formerly applied to marriage between persons of different races. Statutes prohibiting marriage between persons of different races have been held to be invalid as contrary to theequal protection clauseof the Constitution.