Last Thursday, I wrote about children and home in Jeff Nichols’ Loving (2016). Today, I want to continue that conversation by focusing on one image from the film. Unfortunately, I do not have a picture of the scene because I could screen capture it. However, I will describe the pertinent parts of it below.
Appearing during the scene where Mildred gives birth to Sydney, the image stays on screen for less than five seconds. After going through labor, the camera enters the house at night, a house lit by oil lamps. Entering the house, we see a burning oil lamp at the right of the screen with the bed and individuals on the left out of focus. The oil lamp, at the bottom of the glass bulb, has words inscribed upon it. I cannot make out the all of the words, but it appears that they read “manufactured in the USA” or “product of the USA.” Whichever the case, the message is the same, this lamp originated in the United States.
This fact is important, especially in regard to the history of interracial intimacy. For me, the image of the words on the oil lamp brings to mind the long historical context of laws forbidding interracial intimacy that arose from the depths of slavery. With this image, the film links the struggles of the Lovings to the long history of oppression in the United States that sought to keep them apart merely for capitalistic gain and the maintaining of power.
Interracial intimacy was not always forbidden in the colonies. The laws against interracial intimacy between Blacks and Whites arose from the case of Elizabeth Key, who in 1655 successfully sued for her freedom in the colony of Virginia. Born to a white father, Thomas Key, and an unnamed African woman, the biracial Key was the product of quite possibly a forced interracial relationship. Thomas planned to have Elizabeth freed at fifteen, but that did not occur because the man who he left in charge of Key when he went to England did not adhere to Thomas’ wishes.
Later, she marries an Englishman, William Greenstead, became a Christian, and had a daughter. Even though White men had relationships with Black and Native American women, “the Key-Greenstead union,” as Sherryl Cashin points out, “was a rare recorded marriage between a white man and a Negro or mixed-race woman in the colony.” In 1655, Greenstead and Key sued for her and her daughter’s freedom, and they won. The case led to the 1662 law that the status of the child would follow that of the mother, opening the door for further exploitation and sexual assault against enslaved women and children. As Ibram X. Kendi notes, “With the  law in place, White enslavers could now reap financial rewards from relations ‘upon a negro woman.’ But they wanted to prevent the limited number of White women from engaging in similar interracial relations (as their biracial babies would become free).” Even after slavery, lawmakers would rely on the “fate of the children” when arguing that interracial marriages should not become legal.
Virginia’s 1662 law paved the way for White landowners to exploit enslaved women even more. Now, if the enslaved woman had a child, that child would add to the landowner’s stock in a monetary manner. Plus, the legal repercussions of a slave owner raping an enslaved woman (his property) were not readily enforced. As such, what did the slave owner have to lose? Gain? Cashin continues, “The only class perpetually exempted from these prohibitions [against interracial sex] was slave owners who had sex with their property. Virginia’s restrictions on love and lust between pale and dark people originated not from any innate antipathy to interracial sex but from a capitalist desire to promote black chattel slavery.”
The Civil War ended slavery thus ending restrictions against interracial intimacy because they were no longer financially useful, right? The short answer is, “No.” After the Civil War, White landowners sought to maintain any shred of power and prestige that they could. So, they stoked fear within the populace, claiming that interracial intimacy would rip the very fabric of the community apart. These fears had roots firmly entrenched in capitalism, as E.W. Clay’s The Fruits of Amalgamation (1839) clearly show through depictions of Blacks individuals in lavish settings.
To fan the flames of hatred and fear, Whites sought to protect the pristine, virginal image of White Southern Women from the lascivious prying hands of Black men. Rebecca Latimer Felton spoke to the Georgia Agricultural Society in 1897 about the need for vigilante justice to protect white women. She told the crowd, “When there is not enough religion in the pulpit to organize a crusade against sin; nor justice in the court house to promptly punish crime; nor manhood enough in the nation to put a sheltering arm about innocence and virtue—-if it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession form the ravening human beasts—-then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.” This type of language, along with court cases such as Pace v. Alabama, continued to create an atmosphere of division, fear, and hate that saw interracial intimacy as a threat to the existence and power of whites.
Anti-miscegination laws existed in the United States since its founding, and Virgina’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act serves as a piece of legislation that highlights the fallacious underpinnings of these laws. This act was the one that led to the arrests of Mildred and Richard in 1959, and the Supreme Court overturned it in 1967. The act legally defined race to maintain power.
It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white and American Indian. For the purpose of this act, the term “white person” shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons. All laws heretofore passed and now in effect regarding the intermarriage of white and colored persons shall apply to marriages prohibited by this act.
The 1924 act sets a definition of “white person” as anyone “who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other that Caucasian.” The act does not recognize the power structures that led to mixed-race individuals in the state and nation. Instead, it uses the law to set up social hierarchies in order to maintain their own positions at the top and their ready access to monetary gain.
In Loving, this history crystallizes in the image of the oil lamp during the birth of Sydney. The historical weight of the ways that the United States has limited interracial intimacy, interactions, and equality coalesce in a single image that occurs during the birth of Richard and Mildred’s first son. This is important because it shows that Sydney is being born into a nation whose history does not love and respect him or his family and purposefully sought to regulate his entrance into the world.
Next post, I’ll conclude this discussion by looking at some scenes from Jean Toomer’s Cane and Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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