February 16, 2014

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?

Is *the* kiss just *a* kiss?
Is *the* kiss just *a* kiss?

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.

You know what all that smooching leads to? Having to find another way to say "pregnant."
You know what all that smooching leads to? Having to find another way to say “pregnant.”

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

No coercion here on Emergency - Ward 10!
No coercion here on Emergency – Ward 10!

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.

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  • Post authorchristineblackthorn

    I think you are being by far too optimistic here. It can be argued that television and movies, especially smaller more independent ones, have become more racially segregated in the last decade. I was interested to overhear a recent conversation among a group of students where they discussed movies – the upshot being that they had seen very few of the same movies. It turned out to be because of racial division – the three black girls in the group were watching only movies with exclusively black actors, the two indian ones had mainly watched indian TV and the white ones had no idea either even existed. What was interesting was that I would not have classed any of that group particularly race-conscious nor did they themselves seem to realise what the dividing line in their movie preferences seemed to be. So I am a lot less optimistic about the presentation of inter-racial normality in the media.

    Reply to christineblackthorn
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      Well, I think movies are going in the wrong direction, and they’re going as fast as they possibly possibly can. The movies need help and lots of it; I touched on that a little while back when I was complaining about Twelve Years A Slave. I didn’t think television would find itself at the forefront here, especially network television. But I am always open to a pleasant surprise. 🙂

      It sounds to me, though, that you saw a racially mixed group of students talking with each other about things not all of them had seen and things they would not have been aware of, but for that conversation. I think that’s grounds for optimism. 😉

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorAuthor Charmaine Gordon

    Back in the FORTIES, folks, I hugged the delivery man from the corner drug store-my pal, Charlie. A shot rang around the neighborhood and zinged me . Mom said, “You hugged Charlie. . .on the corner and everyone saw my daughter, the banker’s daughter. How could you?”
    Friendly me, silly me later to kiss a black guy on campus at Purdue. And I haven’t changed. Just older and even wiser. Thanks for a super good post.

    Reply to Author Charmaine Gordon
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      Charmaine, you were hugging in dangerous times! People were Made to Disappear for that sort of thing! In my neck of the South today, people are just staring at me for indulging in interracial hand-holding. (And if they’re like me, some of them are hopeful/curious; I often catch myself trying to see if the pair at the other table are friends or a couple.) The world is changing. I only need patience because women like you had courage. 🙂

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorElizabeth Shore

    We’ve certainly moved on from an interracial kiss on TV being front page news. However, it’s still interesting to me (or maybe depressing, depending on my mood) how much conversation that Cheerios commercial caused. Yea to Cheerios for airing it, but boo to society for raising eyebrows at the depiction of an interracial couple on TV when the situation is everyday reality.

    Reply to Elizabeth Shore
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      I’ll share with you something my parents told me when I integrated my high school. In the 1980s. The *late* 1980s.

      They said there will always be people who take issue with the reality that the races are intermingling and have been for many years. There will always always always be those people. They said those people don’t run your life unless you decide you want them to.

      I mention that because what General Mills is doing gives me more hope than ever. We used to live in a time — like within my lifetime — when a company like General Mills would have let the naysayers dictate what became of that ad campaign. In that time, they’d have pulled the ad and maybe even have apologized. Today, they stand behind the first ad, brought the family back for a second ad, and then made the family even bigger by adding another member. I gave them double points for showing the wife pregnant. It was almost like they were daring the naysayers to say something else. “Keep it up,” implies the Big G, “and maybe we go to breakfast in bed. Up to you, folks.”

      Naysayers are a constant, I think. But if this situation is everyday reality — and General Mills and I definitely agree with you that it is — then who cares what they’re whining about, unless it drives us to further progress? 🙂

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    Meanwhile, I remember hearing an interview with Damon Wayans talking about how tired he was of playing the ‘one black dude’ in a movie or on a TV show. Someone was listening, because now he’s on New Girl with a fellow black dude in the house and yes, they dialogue with each other. I call this progress, even if it’s a wee tiny step and it took ten years + to make it happen.

    But Sleepy Hollow….Alexa, you know Tom Mison makes my teeth curl, yet Nicole Behaire is a bit of a yawn for me…and it’s like he’s trying to have chemistry with her, I think, but she’s just not having it. I like her sister a lot better. Hell, I like Orlando Jones a lot better. Either of them as Mison’s love interest would be so much more interesting.

    Reply to Madeline Iva
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      It’s funny, Orlando Jones said on Twitter that we in the Twitterverse might be more respectful of Katrina. 🙂 I had to agree with him, grudgingly. I even like Katrina, which makes things harder for me. Scandal’s so much easier to work with because I wouldn’t mind if Mellie burst into flames. I think Abbie’s sister has her eye on Ichabod, though. I think she’s got her eye on Orlando Jones, too, but you know I approve of a girl’s keeping all her options open. In the meantime, I have the tragic almost-was that lay between Abbie and Dead Andy … and there’s still hope for The Walking Dead, once we find out what’s going on with Glenn and Maggie and what might lie between Michonne and Rick. 😉

      Reply to Alexa Day
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