Forbidden Love: The Historical Taboo of Biracial Relationships
By Neely Kennedy
In the January Ladies' Home Journal Book Club selection Calling Me Home, debut novelist Julie Kibler tells the story of two unlikely best friends from Texas; Isabelle McAllister, a feeble but sharp witted white woman in her eighties, and her younger sympathetic black hairdresser, Dorrie Mae Curtis. When Isabelle asks Dorrie to drive her to a funeral in “Cincy” Ohio, Dorrie knows that she is the only person with whom Isabelle wants to share the experience - the death of someone of great significance in Isabelle’s unspoken past.
Along the highways, pit stops, and crossword puzzles of their journey, Isabelle shares the heartbreaking teenage love story of her taboo biracial relationship with her childhood friend, Robert Prewitt, the black son of her family’s housekeeper, and her fight against cruel racial discrimination and miscegenation laws.
The excerpts below demonstrate both the undercurrent of racism Dorrie experiences in the present day, despite the growth in societal attitudes, and Isabelle’s violent experiences coming of age in Shalerville, Kentucky during the Great Depression.
Isabelle: “My mother harrumphed. ‘Imagine this town if coloreds were allowed here after dark, Harriet, or – heaven forbid—permitted to live here again. Goodness, they’d probably want to go to our school. Next thing you know, their children would be mingling with ours, they boys trying to sully our girls.’ I detected the shudder in her voice.”
Dorrie: “Even now, in the sprawling metropolitan area of Texas where Miss Isabelle and I lived, we ran into racism. A young white girl who had rented a station from me in the shop for a while has a child who was biracial. Her little girl had come home from school crying more than once because she didn’t fit in with either the black kids or the white kids. And one time she’d been invited on an after-school playdate, but when the other mother came to pick up the kids, she made some excuse about having an emergency and not being able to take the kid home with her. The school secretary called Angie to have her pick up her daughter at the office because the woman had just left her there.”
Isabelle: “He described how we’d be treated every time we emerged in public as a couple—and sometimes even in the privacy of our own home by people we thought were friends, colored or white. He described how a young black man had been lynched recently by a white girl’s family for attempting to marry her. The girl had been thrown out on the street, left to become what girl’s became when nobody else would have them.”
Dorrie: “Later when I explained to Stevie Junior that he couldn’t go to VBS the next day, first, he cried, and then, he pestered me about it until I finally broke down and stopped making excuses. I figured at almost seven, he was old enough to know the truth if he was old enough to be the victim of it. ‘Son, some people still don’t think black folks are as good as white folks. They say and do ugly things that make it hard for us to get along.’”
Isabelle: “'Why didn’t you try your own kind first?’ The man sneered and rolled his eyes. His town left no uncertainty as to what he thought of our relationship, as though it were somehow perverted….’Now go on, I don’t have time to waste on the likes of you.’ He spat on the pavement, then crashed the door closed.”
Dorrie: “But more than seventy years since Miss Isabelle’s wedding, some folks still weren’t ready for us—and who some of those folks were would surprise you. This old boy and his wife were eating at the table next to ours. Before we even got settled, he proceeded to stare, nudging his wife’s foot with his toe when he thought I wasn’t looking and quirking his head at us, trying to get her attention. She just looked, gave a tsk with her tongue, and shook her head, then went back to buttering her pancakes, but her fool husband kept ogling me and Miss Isabelle like we’d each sprouted an extra nostril.”
Isabelle (telling the story of Robert): “Jack said, ‘This won’t hurt at all—you’re an animal, after all. A big hairy animal who can’t keep his hairy thing in his pants around white women.’”
Dorrie: “Back home in Texas, even when no sign stood at the side of the road, I still wouldn’t be safe driving through some towns, especially at night….These little sundown towns had been established everywhere South of the Mason-Dixon Line, east or west of the Great Divide. Maybe it wasn’t in your face now as it had been back then, maybe it was no longer politically correct to keep someone out of your town just because of skin color, but that didn’t stop some folks.”
Isabelle: “The knock became a crash. My brothers kicked in the door, desperate I suppose to rescue their sister from the monster they believed Robert to be. Why else would a Negro think he had the right to marry a white girl.”
Dorrie: “As progressive as I claimed to be, with my white clients, and the fact that I wasn’t freaking out over my son’s white girlfriend—not because she was white, anyway—who might be the future mother of my half white grandbaby, I wondered how well I could mother children whose biological mother was white—if it came down to that. Even more I wondered what she would think. Sure, she’d run off and left Teague to care for them most of the time, but how would she react if some black woman, a very black woman—started playing the role of mother in their lives.”
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