Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was on TCM today. I watched again and remembered that the first time I saw it, sometime in the 80’s, interracial marriage was still shocking; something that made you look twice and perhaps judge negatively. Watching it again now, 20 years later and 41 years after its release, it seems to me that the shift in our culture toward acceptance of interracial marriage has been phenomenal. The year 1967, when the movie was released, was the same year the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs. Virginia, in which the court “declared Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, the “Racial Integrity Act of 1924″, unconstitutional, thereby overturning Pace v. Alabama (1883) and ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States.” It’s amazing that it took so long for those laws to be overturned, but it’s equally amazing how far our culture has progressed since then.
The messages of this film are especially significant now because of the election. Barack Obama is of mixed race, a fact that people who interpret the Old Testament literally have used against him. Citing prohibitions that God gave the children of Israel against intermarrying, literalists view intermarriage as a sin and the children of those marriages to be “less than.” These ideas remain with us, a legacy of racism and bigotry. But a legacy that is dying.
In the film, Spencer Tracy stated that he thought that public opinion against interracial marriage would not change within 50 or even 100 years. Yet only 41 years later, look how far we have come. In spite of the fact that there are still people out there who object to Obama because he is black or part black, there are many more people for whom race and mixed race is simply irrelevant.
It says a lot about our level of maturity, our ability to accept people of all nationalities, races, creeds and mixtures thereof, that Barack Obama is electable in our nation. Not a month ago, when I told a colleague that I thought he would win, she responded “Oh no, not in this country. We’re not ready. There are still too many bigots.” But today the polls say something else, projecting Barack Obama to win 351 electoral votes to John McCain’s 187. Last week, Obama gave a speech attended by thousands in front of the St. Louis State and Federal Courthouse – a building on whose steps slaves were sold and where Dred and Harriet Scott in 1850 had their petition for freedom overturned because they were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
The 158 years since that decision have brought massive changes in our human and civil rights. It has been a long struggle, and it isn’t over yet, but is encouraging to note that in my lifetime (I’m 40) interracial marriage in this country has gone from being illegal and “wrong” to being legal and no big deal for most people.
Our movement toward tolerance can also be viewed in our acceptance of same-sex-marriage. It’s easy to imagine the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with two fiances of the same sex instead of two fiances of different races. The same objections are raised – the problems the couple is likely to face in society, the judgment and condemnation they may receive regarding children, the objection that they have no right to marry at all. But Spencer says it very well in the film – what matters is love. “…because in the final analysis it doesn’t matter a damn what we think. The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel, for each other. And if it’s half of what we felt- that’s everything. As for you two and the problems you’re going to have, they seem almost unimaginable, but you’ll have no problem with me, and I think when Christina and I and your mother have some time to work on him you’ll have no problem with your father, John. But you do know, I’m sure you know, what you’re up against. There’ll be 100 million people right here in this country who will be shocked and offended and appalled and the two of you will just have to ride that out, maybe every day for the rest of your lives. You could try to ignore those people, or you could feel sorry for them and for their prejudice and their bigotry and their blind hatred and stupid fears, but where necessary you’ll just have to cling tight to each other and say “screw all those people”! Anybody could make a case, a hell of a good case, against your getting married. The arguments are so obvious that nobody has to make them. But you’re two wonderful people who happened to fall in love and happened to have a pigmentation problem, and I think that now, no matter what kind of a case some bastard could make against your getting married, there would be only one thing worse, and that would be if – knowing what you two are and knowing what you two have and knowing what you two feel- you didn’t get married.”
And to circle back to Obama, and America, we have a choice now. We can choose love or we can choose fear. We can focus on our separateness or on our unity. Obama said, “We can come together as one nation, and one people, and once more choose our better history.” Obama represents, in so many ways, that what matters is what is in our hearts and minds (not our pigment). What matters is how we treat each other. If we choose our better angels and focus on our more noble history, then we can make our way into a better future.