Don’t Adjust Your Color: A Brief and Incomplete Look at TV’s Interracial Kisses
By Alexa Day
In the United States, February is Black History Month. (The U.S. government is apparently okay with calling it African-American History Month, too.) I took a little detour in anticipation of Valentine’s Day last week, and my homage to May Day earlier this month was more about Alexa Day history. But today, I’m looking at one of my favorite parts of black history: the interracial kiss.
You don’t have to be a geek to know that the credit for television’s first interracial kiss usually falls to Star Trek. It’s not a bad story, really. In the social turbulence of 1968, Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura share an embrace before an audience of aliens who have compelled them to kiss each other. The story in real life is that the network folks worried that the kiss wouldn’t play so well in the South, so they tried to film an alternate scene, but when William Shatner ruined all the takes by crossing his eyes, they had to use the kiss.
It’s a nice story, and it sure looks good, right?
But this is not television’s first interracial kiss. The fact that so many people think it is … well, that’s a marvel of television marketing.
In 1967, Sammy Davis, Jr. kissed Nancy Sinatra on television, the year before Kirk and Uhura kiss on Star Trek. Sammy and Nancy were in a musical number on Nancy’s show. I dare you to watch it without wanting to get your boogie on, but don’t blink or you will miss that kiss.
I’m not counting this as television’s first interracial kiss, either. Let’s be honest. Sammy gives Nancy the sort of kiss a man should give a friend’s daughter. No doubt most of us have received similar little pecks from our parents’ friends. Most of us are not coming away from that experience saying, “He kissed me.” (And if you are, you probably wrote Penthouse about that. Admit it.)
So much of the trouble with identifying television’s first interracial kiss comes from our definition of the word “interracial.” I have a blind spot of my own here; I usually think of interracial in black and white terms. Literally. If we define the term more fairly and inclusively, we need to look at Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. No one’s going to dispute that Lucy and Ricky kissed long before Sammy and Nancy or Kirk and Uhura. Indeed, Lucy’s pregnancy caused quite a censorship stir in the 1950s.
But if we regard Lucy and Ricky (and at Lucy and Desi) as more of an interethnic couple than an interracial one, we can point to Lisa Lu and Michael Landon in Bonanza. In Day of the Dragon, Lu’s character, Su Ling, gives Little Joe a sweet goodbye kiss. (Instead of a photo, how about a whole post from Brian Camp’s Film and Anime Blog?) That was in 1961, post Lucy and Ricky, but before Nancy and Sammy and before Kirk and Uhura. Lisa Lu was, as I understand it, one of several Asian actresses who shared a kiss with a costar across color lines before 1968.
Still, the question remains: Did Star Trek give us television’s first passionate, black on white interracial kiss?
The answer is still no. In 1964, British television beat the U.S. to it with Emergency – Ward 10. Dr. Louise Mahler
and Dr. Giles Farmer acted on their longstanding feelings four years before Kirk and Uhura had to be forced into each other’s arms. I don’t know anything about Emergency – Ward 10 – I sure hope one of our Lady Smut friends and family does! I’ve got lots of questions, starting with why it’s so hard to find a picture of the Mahler/Farmer kiss.
Today, television features so much interracial smooching that I often get up in arms when the characters aren’t kissing across color lines (hello, Sleepy Hollow folks, looking at you). I cheered for lots of my era’s scripted kisses. What can I say? This is my chosen subgenre, after all, and I’ve got to enjoy this while I can. One day very soon, this won’t even be a thing anymore. We’re already at a place where scripted television and its commercials have moved on to interracial families and parenting issues.
I still think it’s important, though, to remember where all this started. We can take the interracial kiss, couple, relationship and marriage for granted today because others made it a big deal when they had the chance.
This is a really good time to follow Lady Smut. Kisses are just the beginning around here.