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Monday, June 12th, was the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1967 decision, Loving v. Virginia, that finally ended state prohibitions of interracial marriage. The anniversary comes at a propitious moment in U.S. history, the early, tumultuous days of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Trump — backed by VP Mike Pence, AG Jeff Sessions and a Republican-controlled Congress — has renewed the culture wars, with increased battles over a woman’s right to control her pregnancy, transgender identity, gay marriage and other social issues. It has also legitimized a growing, virulent white nationalist movement consisting of members of – or those self-identified with — the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, racist skinhead and Christian Identity groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) identifies dozens of such groups. Most disturbing, there seems to be increasing incidents of violent white rage inflicted on innocent people. A recent incident took place in Portland, OR, and involved a 35-year-old white supremacist, Jeremy Joseph Christian, who killed of two good Samaritans defending a Muslim teenage girl on a public light-railway train.
The renewed culture wars are a fierce reaction to the economic, social and demographic changes reshaping the nation. Most critically, they involve the transformation of the most intimate aspects of personal relations, those involving the sexual other, especially involving people of different races, ethnic groups, genders and religions.
Key Supreme Court rulings over the last six decades have radically transformed sexual relations in America. Three areas are of special note: (i) a married couple use of contraceptives (Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965), (ii) interracial marriage (Loving) and (iii) gay sex and marriage (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003, and Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015). So far, these landmark decisions — as opposed to Roe v. Wade (1973) legalizing a woman’s right to determine her pregnancy — do not seem to be targeted by the Trump administration and the religious right.
These rulings, along with others, represent a profound shift in the nation’s sexual culture. However, recent demographic data are more revealing. In 2013, Fox News reported that 42 percent of couples getting married were from different religions, regardless of educational status or income level. Another report finds that 40 percent of individuals who married in the early-21st century kept their religious beliefs compared to about 20 percent in the 1960s.
In 1967, Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled in Loving, “Marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival,” thus legalizing interracial marriage. That year, 3 percent of marriages were defined as interracial. Pew Research reports that, in 2015, about one-fifth (17%) of newlyweds consisted of a spouse of a different race or ethnicity. This is a nearly six-fold increase since 1967.
Since the nation’s founding — the four-centuries of European occupation and remaking of the New World — sexual relations between what is recognized as the other has profoundly changed. The marriages of Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Obama, Sr., in 1961, (whose son would become the nation’s 44th president) and Chirlane Irene McCray and Bill de Blasio (who is New York’s 109th mayor) in 1994 signify stepping-stones in the evolution of the nation’s sexual culture. Pew reports that of the 3.6 million adult interracial marriages in 2013, more than half (58%) involved Native Americans, a quarter (28%) Asians, a fifth (19%) Africa-Americans and other (7%). This is profoundly different than when, four centuries ago, Pocahontas married John Rolfe.
Pocahontas is one of the great American mythic figures, immortalized in Disney animated children’s movies and in Terrence Malik’s beautiful film, The New World (2005). She is the subject of innumerable dolls, toys, comic books, animated TV shows and videogames, even wallpaper. She has been effectively whitewashed into a popular-culture icon, the truth about her relatively short and remarkable life — and the scandal she precipitated — has all but been lost.
Pocahontas died four centuries ago, in 1617, suffering an illness during a voyage back to the New World from England. She had traveled from what became Virginia to the Old World with her (second) husband, the Englishman John Rolfe, in search of both financial support for the Virginia colony and to promote his new commercial product, tobacco. She became, as they say, the toast of the town, feted by all. While in England, she had a son, Thomas.
Pocahontas, a Powhatan woman and reputed daughter of Chief Powhatan, is the nickname for a girl born Matoaka in 1595 or 1596 upriver from the settlement of “James Towne,” first established in 1607. According to the Native American scholar, Paula Gunn Allen, the nickname has a variety of meanings, including “wanton,” “mischievous,” “sportive,” “frisky” or “frolicsome.” She notes the nickname, “at least as it was understood by the English,” was related to the rabbit or chipmunk, both considered tricksters by the Powhatan people.
More important, Pocahontas was of royal blood, a chosen-one with the power of “Dream-Vision”; she was a female visited by spirits that foretold the future. As a child, she had a prophetic vision involving the landing of a ship that would change the course of history and the appearance of a strange man whose life she would save.
John Smith, a mercenary soldier and adventurer, was the leader of the Jamestown settlement. Legend and subsequent scholarship tell us that, in 1608, he was captured while attempting to reach Chief Powhaten. The initial settlement at Fort James, established only a year earlier, was a near disaster, with the British suffering from hunger, illness, loneliness, Native assaults and other privations. Rumors of sodomy among early settlers were not uncommon. To survive, Smith ventured forth to find the mighty chief and establish diplomatic relations.
As Allen tells the tale, Smith was captured and brought before the chief in the colony’s great house during an important religious ceremony. He was forced to the ground with two warriors holding him down, their spears at the ready. He feared imminent execution, only to be saved at the last moment. As Allen dramatically envisions the scene in Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat:
Pocahontas rises to her feet and swiftly runs the thirty feet to the center of the Grand House. She hurls her small body upon Smith’s, wraps her arms tightly around him, and lays her head over him. Everything stops in a great tableau; only the smoke swirls upward through the roof. Then it is known and a great wail goes up among all the people. They are thanking the spirits, and they begin to dance.
Pocahontas, aged 12 or 13, recognized Smith as the fulfillment of her Dream-Vision. Had she not, his life would likely not have been spared. (This incident is much debated and is based on Smith’s account published 17 years after it allegedly took place and following Pocahontas’ death.)
Early English settlers did not know how to relate to Native people, especially males to females when it came to intimate matters. Robert Godbeer, in his essential study, Sexual Revolution in Early America, paints a compelling portrait of the complex and often contradictory sexual relations that defined this aspect of America’s first century-and-a-half of nation formation. On one side, English settlers “were for the most part loath to join in sexual communion with Native Americans.” Yet, “Englishmen clearly found Indians beguiling; native women also had a reputation for being hard-working and faithful as wives.”
Smith reports that Englishmen who stayed overnight with a Native community were presented with “a woman fresh painted red with pocones and oil to be his bedfellow.” According to Allen, the well-dressed Powhatan woman of the time — anyone at and above puberty — wore a capacious garment that resembled an apron. It was made of a length of cloth that draped downward from the hips, falling over the crotch to a length of maybe ten inches below the navel. And she adds, “the outfit was sans bodice, a fact that undoubtedly contributed to the Englishmen’s view of the woman of the tsenacommacah, the largest Powhatan community, as uncivilized ….”
Smith described an “antic,” or wild fete, in which “thirty young women came naked out of the woods (only covered behind and before with a few green leaves), their bodies all painted.” And, as Allen claims, after performing, “they solemnly invited Smith to their lodging, but no sooner was he within the house, but all the nymphs tormented him more than ever, with crowding, and pressing, and hanging upon him, most tediously crying, love you not me?”
Upstanding British leaders back in the Old World were deeply threatened by the sexual temptation of Native women, whether in Ireland or the New World. Such intimacy, especially for settlers alone in an alien land, could bring about “cultural degeneration.” The great fear was that sexual relations with “savages” would lead to the erosion of what made the British “civilized.” In response to this fear, the British passed the “Laws Divine, Moral, and Marital” in 1610 that called for the death penalty for any settler who raped an Indian woman or ran away with an Indian.
Many leading colonists saw Anglo-Native sexual intimacy as degrading and potentially dangerous, yet sexual relations among willing participants appear to have flourished. A goodly number of reported incidents of sexual intimacies between settlers and Native people, both in the Chesapeake region and further north, took place.
Jacob Young, of Maryland, was charged with marrying and fathering children with a woman of the Susquehanna Nation. Godbeer found a doctor in Northampton County, Virginia, who claimed that an early female settler “defiled herself” in a sexual relation with an Indian male. Most scandalous, the Puritan Thomas Morton took over a plantation in 1626 and renamed it the Merry Mount. Members of the nearby Plymouth Colony were enraged that he “set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about in many days together, inviting the indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together.”
Given this cultural environment, how did Pocahontas come to marry John Rolfe? After she saved Smith, Pocahontas became his “spiritual guide” (and Smith was given an Indian name, Nantaquod), making regular visits to Fort James, enjoying the friendship of other settlers and serving as a go-between for the British and Chief Powhatan. During this period, Smith returned to England and was replaced by Thomas Dale as leader of the settlement. Also during this period, Pocahontas married Kuocum, a fellow Powahan, and they had a child.
This story, however, takes a strange turn in 1612 when Pocahontas was apparently abducted by an English settler, Samuel Argall (aka Argyall), and held in captivity in Jamestown for over a year. During this period, she apparently met Rolfe, a 28-year-old widower and tobacco planter, and, as a condition of her release, agreed to marry Rolfe. What happened between them remains a mystery. But what is known is that Pocahontas converted to Christianity, was renamed Lady Rebecca, and radically changed her appearance, adopting British formal dress.
To legally marry Pocahontas, however, Rolfe had to secure permission from Dale. In 1614, Rolfe formally petitioned to marry her, arguing that his intent for union with Pocahontas was not based on an attraction derived from “the ugly sort, who square all men’s actions by the base rule of their own filthiness”; he insisted that his intent was due to true love, “not any hungry appetite, to gorge myself with incontinency.” He assured Dale that he was motivated by a higher calling than “the unbridled desire of carnal affection.”
Rolfe argued that his marriage to Pocahontas would be a form of spiritual redemption. It would save her from evil: “for the converting to the true knowledge of God and Jesus Christ an unbelieving creature, namely Pocahontas.” Finally, he pointed out the alliance would strengthen the political relations between the settlers and the Powhatan people.
Following Pocahontas’s death, the inherent tensions between the ever-growing numbers of settlers and the Powhatan people broke out into open warfare that lasted from 1622 to 1646. It was a period in which social relations, let alone sexual unions, became more and more difficult to achieve. In the end, the Powhatan’s people were decimated and a form of colonization was established that defined the dominant white culture’s relations to the Native peoples for the next two centuries.
On April 5, 1614, Pocahontas married Rolfe near Jamestown, Virginia. The marriage took place just eight years after this first-permanent English settlement was established in what would become the United States. It is the first recorded interracial marriage in the newly-colonized territory.
Sixty-seven years later, in 1681, the first recorded legal marriage between an African man and a European woman is reported to have taken place on William Boarmans’ plantation on the western shore of Maryland. The couple — Eleanor Butler, a white servant girl called Irish Nell, and Negro Charles, a black slave — was married by a local Catholic priest.
During the early days of the settlement of the new nation, voluntary and noncommercial sexual relations between whites and people of color were not yet illegal. Nevertheless, colonial male leaders were particularly troubled by such relationships. While they were initially between British males and Native females, as the immigration of both free and indentured European women and the forced importation of African slaves, both male and female, increased, the complexity of such interracial relations multiplied.
Columbia University sociologist Aaron Gullickson argues that “interracial sexual contact likely peaked sometime during the early colonial period when white indentured servants and black slaves were in close contact in large numbers.” Complaints about such liaisons drew various forms of protest.
One of the most surprising complaints was raised by Lord Baltimore, Nell’s master, and other local whites. While they did not seek to prevent the marriage between Nell and Charles, they could not understand why a white woman would marry a slave and thus not only lose her own freedom but the freedom of her children.
Equally disturbing, sex between a white woman and a nonwhite man could result in a child that was legally white. This concern found expression in what are known as “female captivity narratives” that helped rally settler resentment against Native people.
These tales were popular in the late-17th century and championed women like Mary Rowlandson and Hannah Swarton who escaped capture by Native tribes while preserving their virginity. These tales were intended to undercut or deny the stories of women like Mary Jemison, Frances Slocum and Eunice Williams who, after captivity, chose to marry and live out their lives with Native people.
Bans on interracial marriage arose in the late-17th century. For example, in 1662, nearly a half-century after Pocahontas married Rolfe, the Virginia Assembly established the first law against interracial sex. In 1691, it passed a much stiffer law banning “negroes, mulattoes and indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, [and] their unlawful accompanying with one another.” Other colonies followed with similar bans, as exemplified by the North Carolina colony that, in 1715, adopted laws prohibiting interracial marriages.
Two centuries later, Virginia adopted the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, a law designed to prevent racial intermixing. In 1950, Virginia residents Mildred Jeter met Richard Loving met and, eight years later, they got married. Jeter was black, Loving was white; they married in Washington, DC, to circumvent the prohibitive 1924 Virginia law. Nevertheless, they were arrested, lost at a trial and, ultimately, appealed to the Supreme Court where the local law was overturned and new era of legal sexual intimacy was established. In 2008, America elected its first president of mixed-race origin, a child of once-scandalous interracial sex and marriage. Perhaps most surprising, the story of the Lovings is the subject of popular movie, Loving (2016).
One can only wonder if the new culture warriors — Trump, Pence, Session and company — will seek to reverse the Loving decision, let alone the changed demographics and values of 21stcentury Americans.