21 Portraits of a Generation
This series of portraits was commissioned to accompany our February centerpiece, the documentary series The Loving Generation. But we think it stands on its own as a snapshot of a uniquely American demographic: Folks born to one black parent and one white parent in the years just before, and after, the Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, which overturned all remaining statutes outlawing interracial marriage in the United States. (Between the 1970s and 1980s the number of black/white couples in the United States doubled in size.)
2017 saw a slew of events and stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of the SCOTUS decision, including accolades for the feature film Loving, which told the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the interracial couple that sued the state of Virginia following their conviction for miscegenation (interracial marriage), which was considered illegal in the “Old Dominion” state. What many of the stories about Loving v. Virginia leave out, however, is what happened next, namely, the birth of generation of children born to interracial couples, a generation that is now squarely in, or about to enter, middle-age.
Topic’s documentary The Loving Generation trains its lens squarely on this generation, and some of the individuals who came of age in the wake of the progress made by civil rights activists fighting for the recognition of the full humanity of African-Americans. The series explores issues of identity and belonging, and outlines how this generation of Americans sought to identify themselves in a society that considered them simply black. (The United States Census Bureau did not allow for the designation of a biracial or multi-racial status until the very late 20th century.)
Jessica Green, a documentary film programmer and the daughter of Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine, says that she identifies as a black-identified, mixed-race person but that she’s always checked black on the census. “I think there’s a certain amount of self-determination involved in all of this, and a certain amount of fluidity,” she explains. “I think it’s fairly healthy for mixed race people, for those identities to shift, you know, depending on different stages of life that they’re at and how their identity shifts and how they might explore their identity.”
Nicholas Jones is a member of that generation, and works as the director and senior advisor of race and ethnic research and outreach in the Bureau’s Population Division. Jones says that, based on research he and his colleagues have done, the children of black/white unions born after 1985 are much more likely to self-identify as black and white, or multi-racial, than those born before. “I think the 2000 Census was really a watershed moment in data and discussions about race and multi-racial identity,” he says. “People are much more comfortable in talking about this [and] I think that all goes in the context of how we might find and expect that people are more readily identifying as multi-racial now, than they were, even in my generation growing up.”
Though exploring one’s biracial identity can be complicated, especially in adolescence and young adulthood, most folks wouldn’t want it any other way. “I do consider myself and am very happy to be biracial,” says Ruby Lawrence, a waitress in New York, where she was also born and raised. “It means I am my parents’ child and the product of two families that looked beyond race and religion—Jewish and Catholic—and just saw the people they loved in love. I feel a responsibility to that. It is also part of the reason I will not tolerate being put in a category or box just to make other people comfortable. I will not have my life experience stifled by the unwritten rules of race, class or gender.”