There are times when it's way too easy to jump to conclusions. The supermarket was busy yesterday, at least at the time I showed up, and at the register that looked most promising, a tall black man was unloading a cart for the shortish white woman who was standing in front of the card terminal. "Can't beat the service here," I thought to myself, and then it dawned on me that the man was not wearing the standard-color employee shirt.

I felt slightly abashed. Interracial relationships are no big deal these days, of course, but evidently I don't get out much, or something, because it didn't immediately register with me that those two were together, as it had with the whitish guy and the Asian woman I'd spotted a few minutes earlier on the bread aisle.

Growing up in the South, I learned an ugly-sounding word: miscegenation. I knew what it meant, and I knew that the powers that be weren't prepared to approve of that sort of thing. What I didn't know was where the word came from, and nobody was particularly interested in explaining the matter. Unlike most words in common English use, "miscegenation" can be traced to one specific source:

"Let the war go on ... until church, and state, and society recognize not only the propriety but the necessity of the fusion of the white and black — in short, until the great truth shall be declared in our public documents and announced in the messages of our Presidents, that it is desirable the white man should marry the black woman and the white woman the black man."

This passage comes from an 1863 pamphlet called Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. And by "our Presidents," it meant to start with Abraham Lincoln, who was presumably going to run for a second term in 1864; the book urged Lincoln to add a plank to the Republican platform supporting interracial marriage.

It was a scam, of course:

[T]he Miscegenation pamphlet had not been written by a Republican abolitionist. Instead it had been written by a couple of Democratic newspapermen who had penned the pamphlet, and then circulated it as a way to insert the inflammatory issue of miscegenation into the presidential election.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

In 1967, all the states where slavery had once been legal — plus, um, Oklahoma — still had anti-miscegenation laws on the books. The Supreme Court took care of that in Loving v. Virginia:

The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

And regardless of my own knee-jerk reactions now and then, good riddance.

On a not-unrelated topic, a schoolgirl left this question on Yahoo! Answers:

okay im heinz 57 which basically means im a person with mixed blood, i have too many to list all of them. but we were talking in history class and when they asked me what i was my first response was Heinz 57 because that is what my parents always told me to say. not 5 seconds after that left my mouth some girl shouted out (exact words) "you should be ashamed little mutt" i was wondering if that is bad, an if i should stop saying it. i used to be so proud of it but now i dont know what to think. help!

The post-racial society is evidently a bit farther off than I'd hoped.

Incidentally, despite its appearance, "miscegenation" does not contain the prefix "mis-"; it's a fusion of the Latin miscere, "to mix," and genus, "kind". So "cegenation," the title of this piece, is not technically its opposite. Still, given the word's dubious origins, I have no qualms about making up its dubious opposite.

The Vent

  9 January 2011

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