- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Obama Effect is being felt in this household too. One reason I’m following this year’s campaign particularly closely is that I like to see my people making their mark. By “my people,” I mean mixed-race folk. My father, you see, was Jamaican (although he was actually born in Cuba, but that’s another story) and my mother was a white Englishwoman with a large chunk of Welsh and Swedish ancestry thrown in for good measure.

When I was a child, in the 1960s, “half-caste” was still an acceptable term for people like me. Naturally, it always made me wince, and I was very glad when it was superseded by “mixed-race.” The American word “biracial” has never gained a foothold on this side of the Atlantic, and I can’t recall the last time that I heard anyone use the word “mulatto” in conversation. I did, though, once find myself being categorized according to an even rarer word by a well-meaning, middle-aged BBC executive who was trying to define my light complexion. “Oh, I thought you were an octoroon.”

Considering how important a role the fear of miscegenation used to play in Anglo-American mores, it’s surprising how rarely the question of race-mixing surfaces in literature — that is, leaving aside poor Desdemona. Of more modern works, Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” and Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” come to mind, obviously, as does Colin MacInnes’ “City of Spades” — published half a century ago. One of the odder examples I came across recently was a Maugham short story which showed a woman’s cultured and personable mixed-race husband lurching back into savagery as the result of a fever. It’s a curiously repellent little tale, the ugly sentiments made palatable by Maugham’s elegant prose and his manner of simply reporting an interesting yarn.

Last summer, on holiday in Spain, I whiled away some of the time reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s shorter stories. One of them, the South Seas tale, “The Beach of Falesa” (accent on last “a”), ends with the central character, an Englishman living in a remote outpost, musing on how he will raise his daughters, the product of a union with a native woman: “They’re only half-castes of course; I know that as well as you do, and there’s nobody thinks less of half-castes than I do; but they’re mine, and about all I’ve got. I can’t reconcile my mind to their taking up with Kanakas, and I’d like to know where I’m to find the whites?”

Thus the story ends, on an odd note of pathos and brutality. Naturally, we’ve come an awfully long way since then, although I can’t help noticing that, even in the age of Denzel Washington, interracial couples are still not that common in movies. Blacks have their own color codes too, as Clarence Thomas learned early in his life — and as you can see by the fact, that when a black husband or boyfriend appears in a movie or sitcom, his Significant Other is almost always lighter-skinned.



Whether or not Obama wins the nomination in the end, his presence on the national stage might just help all of us — Americans and Brits alike — to outgrow the categories imposed on us. Nevertheless, there seems to be a distinct difference in how he is perceived, depending on which side of the ocean you stand. In Britain quite a number of commentators appear happy to label him as “mixed-race.” In the United States, “black” or “African-American” is the rule.

•••

Crossing the color line has been a recurrent theme in the writing of the grand old lady of the London literary scene, Diana Athill, who has just published a new volume of memoirs, “Somewhere Towards the End.” Given that she has just turned 90, this will presumably be her farewell. On the other hand, Ms. Athill is such a committed nonconformist that she may well confound us all yet. A late starter — she didn’t publish her first book of reminiscences until she was in her early 40s — Ms. Athill was the doyenne of British editors, a self-confident member of the upper classes who helped to steer the publishing house of Andre Deutsch to supreme heights, and nurtured the careers of V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, among many others. (Her memories of a life in the book world are contained in “Stet,” which appeared when she was in her 80s, and takes its title from the proof readers’ Latin instruction, “Let it stand.”)

It’s hard to think of anyone who has been quite as frank as Ms. Athill on the subject of interracial attraction. “Make Believe,” published a decade and a half ago, is a chilling account of her tempestuous affair with Hakim Jamal, a follower of Malcolm X and a charismatic sociopath, who cast a sexual spell over her in the 1960s. Ms. Athill was well into middle age by then, which makes her account of the affair all the more compelling (not to say lurid). As well as her decades-long relationship with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord — who was recently taken back to the Caribbean by relatives as his health failed — the new book describes how, in her 60s, Ms. Athill still had a penchant for weekly escapades with a West Indian by the name of Sam.

In interviews she talks about all this with a seemingly complete lack of self-consciousness. Her class, perhaps, insulates her from the kind of opprobrium which would be directed at other women who discussed their sexuality so openly. And old age gives her a license to be absolutely open. As the end of her life beckons, she reflects on her passions, her failures and her successes with an unflinching gaze. All in all, quite a woman.

Clive Davis writes for The Times, and blogs for The Spectator, www.spectator.co.uk/clivedavis

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