Shakespeare's "Othello" used to be among the hardest plays to stage in America. Although the actors playing Othello were white, they wore dark makeup, so audiences felt "disgust and horror," as Abigail Adams said. She wrote, "My whole soul shuddered whenever I saw the sooty heretic Moor touch the fair Desdemona."
Not until 1942, when Paul Robeson took the role, did a major American performance use a black actor as Othello. Even then, Broadway theaters initially refused to accommodate such a production.
Fortunately, we did not enshrine our "disgust and horror" in the Constitution -- but we could have. Long before President George W. Bush's call for a "constitutional amendment protecting marriage," Representative Seaborn Roddenberry of Georgia proposed an amendment that he said would uphold the sanctity of marriage.
Roddenberry's proposed amendment, in December 1912, stated, "Intermarriage between Negroes or persons of color and Caucasians ... is forever prohibited." He took this action, he said, because some states were permitting marriages that were "abhorrent and repugnant," and he aimed to "exterminate now this debasing, ultrademoralizing, un-American and inhuman leprosy."
"Let this condition go on if you will," Roddenberry warned. "At some day, perhaps remote, it will be a question always whether or not the solemnizing of matrimony in the North is between two descendants of our Anglo-Saxon fathers and mothers or whether it be of a mixed blood descended from the orangutan-trodden shores of far-off Africa." (His zoology was off: orangutans come from Asia, not Africa.)
In Bush's call for action last week, he argued that the drastic step of a constitutional amendment is necessary because "marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society." Roddenberry also worried about the risks ahead: "This slavery of white women to black beasts will bring this nation to a conflict as fatal and as bloody as ever reddened the soil of Virginia."
That early effort to amend the Constitution arose after a black boxer, Jack Johnson, ostentatiously consorted with white women. "A blot on our civilization," the governor of New York fretted.
In the last half-century, there has been a stunning change in the US' racial attitudes.
All but nine states banned interracial marriages at one time, and in 1958, a poll found that 96 percent of whites disapproved of marriages between blacks and whites. In 1997, 77 percent approved. (A personal note: My wife is Chinese-American, and I heartily recommend miscegenation.)
Bush is an indicator of a similar revolution in views -- toward homosexuality -- but one that is still unfolding. In 1994, Bush supported a Texas antisodomy law that let the police arrest gays in their own homes. Now the Bushes have gay friends and Bush appoints gays to office without worrying that he will turn into a pillar of salt.
Social conservatives like Bush are right in saying that marriage is "the most fundamental institution in civilization." So we should extend it to America's gay minority -- just as marriage was earlier extended from Europe's aristocrats to the masses.
Conservatives can fairly protest that the gay marriage issue should be decided by a political process, not by unelected judges. But there is a political process under way: State legislatures can bar the recognition of gay marriages registered in Sodom-on-the-Charles, Massachusetts, or anywhere else. The Defense of Marriage Act specifically gives states that authority.
Yet the Defense of Marriage Act is itself a reminder of the difficulties of achieving morality through legislation. It was, as Slate noted, written by the thrice-married Representative Bob Barr and signed by the philandering former president Bill Clinton. It's less a monument to fidelity than to hypocrisy.
If we're serious about constitutional remedies for marital breakdowns, we could adopt an amendment criminalizing adultery. Zamfara, a state in northern Nigeria, has had success in reducing AIDS, prostitution and extramarital affairs by sentencing adulterers to be stoned to death.
Short of that, it seems to me that the best way to preserve the sanctity of American marriage is for us all to spend less time fretting about other people's marriages -- and more time improving our own.
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