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Multiple Melting Pots and Miscegenation

When push came to shove, the color line between “the Negro” and everyone else mattered far more to patrician Americans than the markers within whiteness.

Matthew Pratt Guterl, The Color of Race in America

There is a new race in America. I am a member of this new race. It is neither white nor black nor in-between. It is the American race, differing as much from white and black as white and black differ from each other. It is possible that there are Negro and Indian bloods in my descent along with English, Spanish, Welsh, Scotch, French, Dutch, and German. This is common in America; and it is from all these strains that the American race is being born. But the old divisions into white, black, brown, red, are outworn in this country. They have had their day. Now is the time of the birth of a new order, a new vision, a new ideal of man. I proclaim this new order.

Jean Toomer, “A New Race in America”

Long after its heyday in the early 20th century, the melting pot concept continued to shape public and academic debates. Ruby Kennedy’s research into patterns of intermarriage led her in 1952 to propose a triple rather than single melting pot theory, as she found that in American society, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish “pool[s]” (in other words, ‘pots’) functioned as “fundamental bulwarks” into which different nationalities and ethnicities ‘melted’ (“Single” 56). These findings were corroborated by Will Herberg’s study Protestant - Catholic - Jew (1955), in which religion also figures as a crucial sociological factor in processes of group identity formation in American society. George Stewart’s concept of the “transmuting pot” (American Ways 23) on the other hand is more conformist, as it assumes that “as the foreign elements, a little at a time, were added to the pot, they were not merely melted but were largely transmuted, and so did not affect the original material as strikingly as might be expected” (ibid.). Building on the research of Kennedy, Herberg, and Stewart, Milton Gordon in 1964 reviewed the divergent positions on assimilation promoting Anglo-Saxon conformity, the melting pot, and cultural pluralism, respectively, with the intent to establish an empirical approach to processes of assimilation that would not rely on a normative ideal, a political doctrine, or a vague metaphor. He dismissed the “single melting pot” as an idealistic “illusion” (Assimilation 129), which led him to develop it into a theory of multiple melting pots or “subsocieties” that are com?prised not only of different religious identities (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish) but also for example (and somewhat surprisingly) of “intellectuals:”

All these containers, as they bubble along in the fires of American life and experience are tending to produce, with somewhat differing speeds, products which are culturally very similar, while at the same time they remain structurally separate. The entire picture is one which, with the cultural qualifications already noted, may be called a “multiple melting pot.” And so we arrive at the “pluralism” which characterizes the contemporary American scene. (ibid. 131)

As this quotation shows, Gordon focuses primarily on structural divisions in the composition of American society, and in that context also points out that “Negroes, Orientals, Mexican-Americans, and some Puerto Ricans are prevented by racial discrimination from participating meaningfully in either the white Protestant or the white Catholic communities” (ibid. 129). Gordon thus explicitly addresses the exclusion of African American communities from white society at a time when marriage between African Americans and whites was still legally prohibited in 22 (mostly Western and Southern) states (cf. ibid. 165) - these and other Jim Crow laws regulating racial segregation were only abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (it should be noted, however, that recently several state legislatures announced their intention to pass what would amount to neosegregationist laws after the Supreme Court decided in Shelby County v. Holder on June 25 2013 that important anti-discrimination measures provided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were unconstitutional). Yet, somewhat symptomatically, the categories ‘black’ and ‘negro’ are not further problematized in Milton’s study. Due to the one-drop rule in US cultural and legal history, an example of hypodescent that classifies as black individuals with any African ancestry, African American communities are racially mixed in unacknowledged ways, which led some scholars to state that the ‘black’ segment of the US population constitutes the only genuine melting pot in American society:

The melting pot is hardly a suitable metaphor for a system characterized by an unstable pluralism. But - bitter irony - isn’t there a sense in which the melting pot notion is more applicable within the black American nation than within the white? There was great diversity in the African origins of American Negroes: regional, linguistic, and tribal differences, as well as in their prior condition of freedom. [...] Despite this diversity, however, Africans were forcibly homogenized after several generations into a fairly singular Afro- American mold with common folkways. Thus, the only American melting pot has perhaps been a black one, though in this case the putative pot has been reluctant to call the kettle black. (Kammen, People 82)

It is ironic, if not outright cynical that the exclusion of those considered ‘black’ from the national melting pot has led to the creation of this social category of the ‘black’ melting pot. The horrendous violence that fuelled this particular melting pot and created this ‘new’ identity by eradicating all prior cultural markers from forcibly uprooted individuals makes one wonder whether the melting pot is not, after all, a metaphor of destruction. At the very least it appears as a symbol of “renouncing - often in clearly public ways - one’s subjectivity, who one literally was: in name, in culture, and, as far as possible, in color” (Goldberg, “Introduction” 5).

Historically, African Americans thus were excluded from the melting pot; participants in the envisioned amalgamation process have mostly been European groups (e.g. in Zangwill’s The Melting Pot), and even as Crevecoeur includes Native Americans in his account of racial and cultural mixing, Natives (as well as African Americans and Asian Americans) have been mostly absent from melting pot rhetoric. In a speech held in 1919, then-president Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) “appealed for the extension of the melting pot principle to all the nations of the world” (Saveth, American Historians 147) “even as he segregated government employees by race” (Browder, Slippery Characters 146). The policing and prohibition of racial mixing in America has amounted to what some scholars have termed “American Apartheid” (cf. Massey and Denton’s book of the same title) through Jim Crow legislation, segregation based on racial discrimination, and black ghettoization across the country - which is why subnational perspectives on the melting pot myth unsurprisingly have found it exclusive rather than inclusive. ‘Racial’ mixing (i.e., social/sexual relations between whites and blacks) was commonly referred to as miscegenation and as such was illegal in many parts of the US for most of its history. The term ‘miscegenation’ was first used in 1863 in a pamphlet titled Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro (cf. Croly), which advocated the mixing of the races; supposedly published by the Republican Party, it turned out to have been an attempt by Democrats to discredit their political opponents. Before the term miscegenation was coined, the term ‘amalgamation’ was in common use, but whereas ‘amalgamation’ could also refer to the intermixing between non-racially defined groups (e.g. Irish Catholics and Protestants), ‘miscegenation’ has always referred specifically to black-white relations and can be considered to be part of a particular kind of American exceptionalism:

One theme that has been pervasive in US history and literature and that has been accompanied by a 300-year long tradition of legislation, jurisdiction, protest and defiance is the deep concern about, and the attempt to prohibit, contain, or deny, the presence of black- white sexual interracial relations, interracial marriage, interracial descent, and other family relations across the powerful black-white divide. Even the term “miscegenation” is an American invention. (Sollors, “Introduction” 3)

Laws prohibiting racial mixing were passed in the colonies as early as 1664 in Maryland and 1691 in Virginia. In 1883, the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of anti-miscegenation laws in Pace v. Alabama, a decision that was overturned only in McLaughlin v. Florida (1964) and Loving v. Virginia (1967). The latter case involved Richard and Mildred Loving, who in 1958 went to Washington, D.C. to get married because interracial marriages at that time were still illegal in their home state of Virginia, where they were prosecuted for and convicted of violating the state’s anti-miscegenation laws in 1959. Their sentence of one year in prison was suspended after they agreed to leave the state. Forced to leave their home and families, the Lovings decided to challenge the constitutionality of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statutes in court; after the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed the legality of the statutes, they were finally ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1967 (cf. New- beck, Virginia). Barack Obama reflects on this history in his memoir, Dreams from My Father:

Miscegenation. The word is humpbacked, ugly, portending a monstrous outcome: like antebellum or octoroon, it evokes images of another era, a distant world of horsewhips and flames, dead magnolias and crumbling porticos. [...] In 1960, the year that my parents were married, miscegenation still described a felony in over half the states in the Union. In many parts of the South, my father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way; in the most sophisticated of northern cities, the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mother’s predicament into a back-alley abortion. [...] Their very image together would have been considered lurid and perverse, a handy retort to the handful of softheaded liberals who supported a civil rights agenda.

Sure - but would you let your daughter marry one?

The fact that my grandparents had answered yes to this question, no matter how grudgingly, remains an enduring puzzle to me. (11-12)

In the history of these legal statutes, the melting pot myth becomes undone. Throughout American literature, interracial figures appear as ‘tragic mulatta/os,’ i.e. stereotypical characters who decide to ‘pass’ as white in order to evade being subjected to an exclusionary and frequently violent racism; passing in American literature is variably interpreted as loss or treason and as a tragic metamorphosis that destabilizes one’s identity and oftentimes ends in death. Troping mixed-race individuals as tragic mulatta/os who do not fully belong to any group in American society went along with the notion that unions between blacks and whites should be prohibited, or in any case avoided. When the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) featured Hollywood’s first interracial kiss, it could only be shown in the mirror of a taxi, with the taxi driver gazing through the mirror at the couple in the backseat as the only (shocked and dismayed) eyewitness. Mary Dearborn has pointed out that the taboo on miscegenation furthermore has been coded in American cultural and literary history in a way that likens racial mixing to incest (cf. Pocahontas’s Daughters 158).

Throughout American intellectual history, writers and activists have voiced opposition to segregationist laws and practices. 19th-century writer and activist Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) and 20th-century philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) both advocated racial mixing as a means to overcome social and racial divisions in American society. Writing on the eve of the American Civil War, Child developed plots of miscegenation in which whites and non-whites could no longer be told apart, and racial conflicts were resolved through infinite racial mixing; she thus fictionally realized “a truly egalitarian society, one in which blacks and whites in all walks of life could mingle freely and easily” (Clifford, Crusader 280), even though her writings, like many abolitionist texts of the 19th century, clearly reflect a white middle class ideology (cf. Karcher, “Lydia Maria Child’s” 81). In the decades after the Civil War, it was particularly African American writers like Charles Chesnutt who took up the notion of a ‘new race’ and questioned constructions of the color line (cf. Chesnutt, “Future American” and “What Is a White Man?;” McWilliams, Charles W. Chesnutt). In her famous essay “Reflections on Little Rock,” published about one hundred years later, Hannah Arendt provocatively remarked that school desegregation could never bring about integration and social change as long as white and black adults were not allowed to marry each other, which at that time was still legally prohibited in 29 states by laws that Arendt considered “a much more flagrant breach of letter and spirit of the Constitution than segregation of schools” (231). Werner Sollors has reconstructed the uproar this essay caused among contemporary audiences for explicitly addressing a widely accepted taboo (cf. “Introduction”), and for criticizing

[t]he reluctance of American liberals to touch the issue of the marriage laws, their readiness to invoke practicality and shift the ground of the argument by insisting that the Negroes themselves have no interest in this matter, their embarrassment when they are reminded of what the whole world knows to be the most outrageous piece of legislation in the whole western hemisphere. (Arendt, “Reflections” 246)

Both Child and Arendt each in her own way were advocates of a melting pot that included African Americans, yet their voices have been marginalized by sanctimonious segregationists who have been in denial about the realities of human relations - as the protagonist of Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998) bluntly asserts: “Everybody’s fuckin’ everybody else till you can’t tell the difference” (qtd. in Elam, Souls 9).

Within the African American community, we can trace different reactions to the melting pot myth over time: accommodation with racial segregation and acceptance of restricted access to the American melting pot; harsh criticism of the melting pot ideology and its mechanisms of exclusion; a clear rejection of racial mixing with whites in an inverted discourse of racial supremacy (for instance in many publications of representatives of the Nation of Islam) based on racial pride; and, last but not least, an affirmation of a more inclusive melting pot that is explicitly multiracial and moves past the tormenting “double-consciousness” and its “two unreconciled strivings” which W.E.B. Du Bois has diagnosed for African Americans in the US (Souls 2).

The first position - accommodation with segregation and African Americans’ exclusion from the melting pot after the Civil War - has often been associated with former slave and black intellectual Booker T. Washington (18561915). In the so-called Atlanta Compromise Speech given by Washington on September 18, 1895, he stated in regard to black and white interaction and coexistence that “[i]n all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (Up from 100). This analogy accepts and affirms the cultural logic of racial segregation and opts for a strategy of gradualism for which Washington was sharply criticized by some of his African American contemporaries, because they considered his position to be submissive to whites and accepting of racial discrimination.

Melvin Steinfield similarly criticizes the hypocrisy of the melting pot myth in the context of the continued exclusion of African Americans from national models of cohesion and belonging in the mid-20th century by asserting that “[e]very instance of racism or discrimination was a vivid contradiction of the myth of the Melting Pot [...],” or what he calls “cracks in the Melting Pot” in his book of the same title (xvii, xx). In his well-known poem “The Melting Pot,” Dudley Randall (1914-2000) contrasts the experience of European immigrants to the US with the experience of African Americans:

There is a magic melting pot where any girl or man can step in Czech or Greek or Scot, step out American.

Johann and Jan and Jean and Juan,

Giovanni and Ivan

step in and then step out again all freshly christened John.

Sam, watching, said, “Why, I was here even before they came,” and stepped in too, but was tossed out before he passed the brim.

And every time Sam tried that pot they threw him out again.

“Keep out. This is our private pot.

We don’t want your black stain.”

At last, thrown out a thousand times,

Sam said, “I don’t give a damn.

Shove your old pot. You can like it or not, but I’ll be just what I am.”

(167, emphasis in the original)

In Randall’s poem, the melting pot signifies assimilation to the dominant culture (as it commonly does in modern day usage) rather than a form of hybridity: all European immigrants regardless of their ethnic backgrounds become “Johns,” i.e., their Americanization amounts to Anglicization. The African American’s reaction to being rejected - “But I’ll be just what I am” - anticipates the development of modern Black nationalism, whose proponents responded to racial discrimination and exclusion by programmatically rejecting racial fusion with whites and thus by rejecting the melting pot logic on their own terms. African American intellectuals in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s thus negated and ridiculed notions of racial and cultural mixing. Malcolm X for example used black coffee as a symbol for racial purity and integrity:

It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep. (“Message” 16)

In the last decades, in which American society has been labeled “post-racial” or “post-ethnic” by critics such as David Hollinger - who has also (half-seriously) suggested that American society may be described as a “quintuple melting pot” (Postethnic America 24) differentiated into Euro-Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, and Indigenous peoples (cf. ibid. 23) - more inclusive versions of the melting pot have been articulated that attempt to bridge the divide between blacks and whites (cf. Randall Kennedy, Interracial Intimacies; Elam, Souls). Upon the founding of the Association of MultiEthnic Americans (AMEA) in 1988, activist Carlos Fernandez quipped:

We who embody the melting pot [...] stand up [...] as intolerant participants against racism from whatever quarter it may come [...]. We are the faces of the future. Against the travails of regressive interethnic division and strife, we can be a solid core of unity bonding peoples together in the common course of human progress. (qtd. in Kennedy, Interracial Intimacies 141)

Currently, the AMEA is one of the most influential mixed race organizations; it prompted the reform that in 2000 allowed census respondents for the first time to check more than one box for racial self-identification. Activists campaigning for the recognition of multiraciality assert that they are the outcome of the ‘true melting pot:’ “This then is my claim: I am in all America. All America is in me” (Taylor Haizlip, Sweeter, epigraph). The oftentimes uncritical celebration of multi-raciality in the new mixed race literature prompts Michelle Elam to ask what the much-touted “New Amalgamationism” and the “Mulatto Millennium” (Senna qtd. in Elam, Souls 12) imply for black people in US society; the arrival of this new melting pot ‘in black and white’ to her is a hollow emblem of faux cultural and racial hybridity that invokes an ‘American multiracial democracy’ which seems to be serving various ideological interests: the ‘multiracial American’ appears to be vested with a precarious domestic exoticism more than slightly at odds with the identity politics of its representatives.

Besides European immigrants and African Americans, whose ambivalent reactions toward the melting pot myth have so far been at the center of my discussion, other groups of course have also dealt with the topic: Native American, Asian American, and Mexican American critics and writers have articulated alternative models to the melting pot such as “mestizaje” (cf. Anzaldua, Border- lands/La Frontera) and “crossblood” (cf. Vizenor, Manifest Manners), which emphasize the hybridity, fluidity, and multidimensionality of American identities. Owing much to theories of cultural and racial difference that had been gaining ground since the 1960s, these more recent models have strongly influenced public debates around collective identity, especially in regard to American multiculturalism, which has been hotly debated in particular during the 1980s.

 
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