Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Bean, Jonathan


Writing the history of sexuality in the United States is a notoriously slippery task. For years, scholars ignored the history of American sexuality, abiding by the assumption that sex belongs in the bedroom, the private realm, and thus has no bearing on the high politics and economics that used to dominate American historiography. Interracial sexuality occupied a particular historical silence in a nation whose Supreme Court would not strike down all laws against interracial marriage until 1967. In his 1995 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, Gary Nash declared that of race-mixing and mixed-race people in America to be a "hidden history." Since the late 1990s, however, dozens of monographs and anthologies have appeared exploring sexuality in colonial and early America. Despite the best intentions of colonial authorities to establish order and social hierarchy in the New World, both environment and human nature militated against the observance of ironclad sexual regulations and racial boundaries. Reinforcing this new American sexual history has been a sophisticated historiography on legislation against interracial marriage. These works recognize the public nature of marriage as a means of ordering society, defining citizenship, and even constructing racial and gender difference. While the physical act of race mixing has occurred throughout American history, the settings in which this mixing acquired meaning - positive and negative - have necessarily been linked to imperatives of social control and the maintenance of that control. Yet scholars of interracial marriage assert that antimiscegenation laws were not historical absolutes but contingent, contested, shifting measures across time and space subject to debate and contravention. The twin revelations that interracial sex was both privately common and publicly important do not yet tell us how the civil and political associations that operated as intermediaries between individuals and the state dealt with it. And in the case of associations that sought emancipation and civil rights for African-Americans, we still lack a thorough understanding of how they grappled with the strong prejudice against interracial marriage and mixed-race people as they agitated for black inclusion in society and the polity on equal terms. This study contributes to that understanding by taking a broad view of both the African-American civil rights struggle and the paradoxical history of interracial marriage in the United States between 1833 and 2000. It divides that one hundred sixty-seven-year span into five periods of struggle (with occasional overlap) and focuses on those organizations that were in the vanguard of protest at the time: the American Anti-Slavery Society (1833-1870), the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1865-1910), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909-1967), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1960-1972), and the Multiracial Movement (1975-2000). Each of the civil rights organizations under study here possessed a historically-informed understanding of the role antimiscegenation laws played in establishing and maintaining racial hierarchy. This historical awareness created an internal logic, or "organic intellect," that shaped the attitudes these organizations adopted to interracial sex, marriage, and love as potential protest targets or as long-term means of ending prejudice. Part of this study recounts these organization's unexpected engagement with interracial intimacy despite its long history of criminalization. Far from a non-issue or a liability better left ignored, criticism of the sexual enforcement of racial boundaries permeates the sources these activists left behind. As much as they were influenced by external hostility, however, attitudes toward interracial love were also shaped by their internal organic intellect. This organic intellect acknowledged that restrictions on cross-racial intimacy served the ends of white supremacy. It also knew that interracial sex was as old as America, and neither it nor the presence of generations of ambiguously-complected mulattoes had eradicated that prejudice. This historical pragmatism acted with a sense of group loyalty that complicated any advocacy of wholesale interracial marriage, because to do so suggested a racial self-loathing and hankering after whiteness that ran counter to the freedom struggle itself. For all its apparent power, antimiscegenation laws never convinced activist African-Americans and their white allies that the color line was impermeable or that black and white could not love each other. Even so, the black freedom struggle could also never be convinced that love - or at least sex - would fix everything. This study uncovers the unexpected ways in which racism and white supremacy have infiltrated not only American sexual mores but our very notion of family and our definition of love. Both the permissive and prohibitive impulses that have shaped the contradictory history of interracial sexuality in America reveal complicated truths about our ancestors and ourselves.




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