Thursday, August 15, 2013

Greg Carter's "The United States of the United Races"

Greg Carter is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Here he dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, The United States of the United Races: A Utopian History of Racial Mixing:
As a survey of positive ideas about racial mixing, The United States of the United Races spans over two hundred years, so a miniseries like Roots would best present the eras in the story I tell.

The book starts by contrasting views on race held by three men: Thomas Jefferson; his secretary in Paris, William Short; and Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, who wrote Letters from an American Farmer, which characterized America as new and mixed. Damian Lewis plays the President; James McAvoy is his more liberal protégé; and Michael Sheen is the Frenchman. On Monticello, Nicole Lyn plays Sally Hemings, with whom Jefferson fathered six illegitimate children. He only manumitted two of these, Madison and Eston. Complicating appearance and race, I cast two Weasley brothers, Rupert Grint and Chris Rankin, as these fair-skinned sons.

The Civil War era hosts the most tumultuous chapter of my book. At one end, the New England Anti-Slavery Society accepted interracial marriage over the racist laws that prohibited it. Wendell Phillips (Tom Wilkinson) expressed this position most regularly, outdoing his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison (David Strathairn). At the other end, David Croly and George Wakeman wrote a pamphlet in 1863 that seemed to praise mixture, but was actually a hoax associating the Republican Party with compulsory intermarriage. Seth Rogen and James Franco offer comic relief as these pro-Southern journalists.

The tension around racial mixture continued during the Reconstruction, culminating in Plessy v. Ferguson. Creoles of Color initiated this case, using their mixed background to invalidate racial classifications. One of their leaders, Rodolphe Desdunes (Giancarlo Esposito), presented his white-appearing son, Daniel (Michael Ealy), to challenge Louisiana’s Separate Car Act. Later, they hired Albion Tourgée, a former Union officer and federal judge to bring the case to the Supreme Court. Russell Crowe is the carpetbagger, and Naomi Watts is his wife, Emma, who supports him as long as she can. Wentworth Miller is Homer Plessy, the other white-appearing Creole who sat in the “white only” car in 1892.

Through the work of progressive intellectuals, the early twentieth century shifted the rhetoric around racial mixing. The playwright, Israel Zangwill, popularized “the melting pot,” providing a way for Americans to celebrate mixture. The novelist, Jean Toomer, and the Mexican educator and politician, José Vasconcelos, took him to task for his under-developed notions of diversity: Ben Stiller adds levity to Zangwill’s inconsistencies. Although white, rather than mixed like Toomer, Jon Hamm shows his skill at portraying a man with a complex past. Clifton Collins, Jr., adds fervor to Vasconcelos’s promotion of a “cosmic race.”

Concurrent with the civil rights movement, the story of Mildred and Richard Loving concluded with the Supreme Court deeming seventeen states’ laws against intermarriage unconstitutional in 1967. I’m imagining Zoe Saldana and Jeremy Renner as the Lovings, and Liam Neeson as Chief Justice Earl Warren.

My book’s adaptation will be the first to dramatize the efforts to put a multiracial identifier on the 2000 census. Andy Garcia plays Carlos Fernandez, who stressed how multiracial activism hailed from earlier civil rights efforts. Mary-Louise Parker plays Susan Graham, who emphasized the self-esteem of the children. A Georgia resident, Graham gained support from Newt Gingrich, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The final episode of the miniseries shows Barack Obama’s (Harry Lennix) 2008 campaign. Flashbacks tell the story of his parents, Ann Dunham (Rooney Mara) and Barack Obama, Sr. (Don Cheadle). At his side is Michelle Obama (Regina King). A montage of current events shows that, even with public acceptance of mixed figures, the U.S. is not “post-racial,” and the screen fades to black.
Learn more about The United States of the United Races at the NYU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue