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Midnight miscegenation Sexploits: 'Bulworth' reinforces rather than undercuts certain racial stereotypes about white men and black women.

Surrounded by reporters pushing and shoving each other, the nationally known politician says to hell with it and in the glare of television lights and flash bulbs, passionately kisses the young woman who is not his wife. His advisers look at each other in dismay, knowing that their careers have just been flushed down the toilet.

President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky? No, it's Warren Beatty, playing Sen. Jay Bulworth and Halle Berry, playing his lover, Nina, who is African-American. Fed up with reciting the worn-out nostrums necessary to get re-elected, Bulworth starts saying exactly what he thinks about the state of race and politics in America. The way to end racism, Bulworth announces to his startled supporters, is to eliminate the color line through interracial sex. As the senator raps at the height of his truth-telling campaign, "All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative deconstruction."

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Bulworth sets out to practice what he's preaching, and as the film approaches its finale, he finds himself in the arms of Nina, a light-skinned woman of color. At the edge of the frenzied crowd, which watches in shock as the senator and his lover embrace, is an old black man, a kind of spiritual guru to Bulworth. Played by Amiri Baraka, the grizzled sage cries out to the throng, "Why you looking like you never seen this before?"

And he's right: We have seen this before. In fact, white men have been eroticizing the bodies of African-American women, especially light-skinned women like Halle Berry, for a long time. Beatty, in many of his interviews plugging the movie, has been advancing the cause of interracial love as the only way out of the nation's racial dilemma, apparently unaware that Bulworth actually reinforces rather than undercuts certain racial stereotypes.

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Just because a white guy falls in love with, or simply lusts after, an African-American woman doesn't necessarily mean that he supports racial equality. On the contrary, this sort of interaction among races and genders played a central role in affirming the ability of white men, especially in the South, to call the shots before and after the Civil War.

Well-known example

One of the most well-known examples from the antebellum South was that of James Henry Hammond, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives, the governorship of South Carolina, and finally the U.S. Senate. Hammond not only had an affair with Sally Johnson, a seamstress on his plantation, but also with her daughter Louisa, and he acknowledged that he might have had children by both of these slaves.

And for years, another South Carolina politician, Sen. Strom Thurmond, has been hounded by rumors that he called for segregation by day and secretly practiced integration at night. According to Thurmond's biographer, Nadine Cohodas, the rumor that Thurmond fathered a child with an African-American woman during his bachelor days has been around for many years. As Cohodas remarks in her 1993 biography, regardless of whether the story is true, it underscores the belief that "powerful white men were assumed to have their way with black women."

Under slavery, any offspring produced by a black woman and a white man inherited the status of the mother. So, if the woman was a slave, having sex with her not only reinforced the gender and racial hierarchy of the plantation, but it was also good business for the master, who could augment his labor force in this fashion. "Let any one look at the positive licentiousness of the south," wrote Harriet Martineau, a British social observer who traveled through the United States in the 1830s, "and declare if, in such a state of society, there can be any security for domestic purity and peace."

The responsibility of white men for much of the race mixing that occurred in the South did not escape the notice of African-American men. Abraham H. Galloway, a black leader in North Carolina during Reconstruction, remarked with more than a little sarcasm in 1865, "The white man says he don't want to be placed on equality with the Negro. Why, Sir, if you could see him slipping around at night trying to get into Negro women's houses, you would be astonished."

In Storyville, the prostitution district of New Orleans, African-American women earned their livelihood at the turn of the century by capitalizing on the desire of white men to cross the color line as legal segregation became entrenched.

Lulu White and Countess Willie Piazza, women of color, ran two of the most popular brothels in New Orleans. White was particularly attuned to the desires of white men looking to have sex with nonwhite women: "What is the good of living if you can't have a good time?" she advertised in the pages of the Blue Books, the notorious guides to Storyville. Light-skinned women of color were in particularly high demand, and there is evidence that white prostitutes tried to pass as black to charge their male clients a higher fee.

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Prohibitions

Of course, engaging in sexual relations with an African-American woman was one thing - trying to marry her was another. With the end of slavery, which had provided its own tools of racial control, Southern legislators rushed to pass new laws against intermarriage and to strengthen old ones. Western states also joined in, extending the ban to Asians; by the end of the 19th century, at least 26 states, mainly in the South and the West, had legal prohibitions against interracial marriage. Not until 1967 did the U.S. Supreme Court, in Loving vs. Virginia, strike down laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

Intermarriage between social groups implies not only a kind of rough equality among these groups but also social mobility across them. White fears about such potential changes ran deep. Admitting African-Americans into the "family circle by the sacred rite of marriage," warned a prominent Southern journal in 1868, would give them the "power to open family vaults in graveyards, order the white ancestors' bones to be disinterred and removed elsewhere, and their own transferred into these hitherto held sacred white family sepulchres."

These were the kinds of nightmares that kept white Southerners from sleeping easily after emancipation. Besides intermarriage, the possibility of illicit sexual encounters between white women and black men kept white men awake at night. Indeed, anxiety about such relationships sparked an unprecedented wave of lynchings across the South in the late 19th and 20th centuries. White dread about black male sexuality mixed with the threat after emancipation of African-American political and economic autonomy to create the explosive myth of the "black beast rapist."

The vision of black men preying on unsuspecting white women led one Southern politician, Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman, to rage at the end of the 19th century, "Whenever the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of white women in the South, I say to hell with the Constitution!" These feelings did not die easily. As late as 1978, Southern appeals courts were denying divorced white women custody of their children solely on the grounds that they were sleeping with African-American men.

Unless we confront this intricate history, and try to untangle the knotted causes of racial violence and hostility that lie at the heart of it, the rising rates of interracial marriage will not necessarily tTC lead to the elimination of racism. After all, racial intermixture already has a long tradition in this country. By not demonstrating a greater awareness of America's complex past regarding the interplay of race, gender and sex, Beatty runs the danger of trivializing the subject. In the end, the story of Senator Bulworth leaving his failed marriage to an uptight WASP and seeking salvation in an affair with a woman of color tells us more about the souls of white folks and their sexual fantasies than it does about the promise of racial equality and justice.

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Peter W. Bardaglio is associate professor of history at Gouche College and author of "Reconstructing the Household: Families, Sex, and the Law in the Nineteenth Century South" (University of North Carolina, Press, 1995).

! Pub Date: 6/07/98


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