RACE MIXING. Forbidden fruit. The ultimate taboo. In l968, they were still threatening to kill blacks for "winking" at white women where I grew up. That was the year I entered Louisiana State University, one of the first 50 blacks on the newly "integrated" 15,000-student campus.
Naturally, I was curious -- white people hardly existed in my childhood reality and now I was going to get to meet, not just white people, but white women.
Integration to me meant, in part, what it meant to some white people: It meant race-mixing. Forget about going to a cafeteria with whites. We already had Silver Moon Barbeque, better than anything on the white side of town.
Not that this was a burning desire on my part, or on the part of my buddies at Booker T. Washington High School in Shreveport.
But we had an image of white women that had come right off the cover of Glamor magazine, if not the centerfold of Playboy. Women with real blond hair. Throw in blue eyes and healthy "piano stool" legs and . . . .
And let's not forget that this was one of those rare periods in American history when white attitudes actually had changed positively about black people. A fact of life was changing, and the implications, historically, were profound.
So try to imagine the disappointment that many of us felt. For one thing, we disovered, upon close inspection, that white girls could be ugly, too. Without makeup, hell, without hair coloring, they could be as homely as a lonely night was long.
For another, some black men were content to date the sort of white women who seemed pleased to have anyone -- even a black man -- pay some attention to them. In short, the ugly ones -- as long as they had that hair. This was what we could get killed for winking at?
For still another, when a black man entered the student union with a white woman on his arm it drew the cruelest stares -- but not from whites. The irony was that, just as white people's fear and public rage over the notion of "race mixing" was moderating, some black people's public positions were changing, too: They hated the idea and they weren't afraid to say so out loud, particularly black women.
Those were weird times. I never heard a white man or woman say one of the standard racial epithets for that situation. What you heard, from black women, was: "He's got white fever." After all the lusting in my heart, I had been frozen into inaction: I wouldn't be caught dead talking to a white woman except in a classroom because the sisters were mad, burning mad, insulted, betrayed.
What is it about the white girl, they wanted to know. Why is it that as soon as a black man gets a little something going for him he has to have one? What was so attractive about pale skin, no lips and arrow-shaped noses?
On the other hand, it always seemed that black women preferred fair-skinned black men, the better that their own babies would come up with "good hair." This echoed a similar preference among black men.
"I just don't feel comfortable going out with white women," says one man I know. "My parents would die if I brought one home. But if I brought a dark-skinned black woman with short hair home, their reaction would be basically the same. A pretty, light-skinned black woman with good hair -- that's the ideal, and they know it, which is why they act so snotty."
In any case, it was black women who tended to make life the most difficult for any of us at LSU who dared to cross a line drawn by both blacks and whites.
It was more than jealousy. It came down to the huge shift that occurred when we stopped thinking of ourselves as colored people -- the many flavors of the NAACP, from light to dark reflecting the ugly caste system of the black community that, in my view, has been in post-slavery days more damaging to blacks than the differences that exist between blacks and whites.
This caste system had reached extreme proportions in Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s, where some blacks on Howard University's campus instituted a "brown-bag test" for admission to exclusive parties. Anyone darker than a brown paper bag was not allowed.
Seeing the need for unity -- unity that always had eluded blacks -- the Black Power movement tried to solve this just as we were arriving at LSU by saying that we were all black, all of us, light and dark, from light bright and red-boned to the blackberries whose juices were suddenly held to be sweeter than all the rest. We were BLACK people, with pride and an identity that must be preserved. It was decided that we had not come to LSU to integrate; we had come to start our own black organizations.
One black student had the nerve to bring his white girlfriend to a meeting of the Uhuru Sasa, a black group that had been formed on campus. He was hissed and sneered at until he and his companion left.
(Back then, black women who dated white men rarely brought them to black events, parties and the like. Many of them, it seemed to me, thought they had become white through osmosis. Black men who dated white women did not think they had lost their blackness.)
Why the organizers of black groups like Uhuru Sasa didn't go to black schools such as Grambling or Southern was not immediately clear, but when some of those same leaders got caught sneaking around the campus with white girls, well, a substantial number of black women got fed up enough to transfer to black schools.
The history of sexual politics among blacks has always been less about sex than respect. The views were rooted in racial history: Only a traitor would sleep with the oppressor. But the debate had limits that defied logic. After all, one woman told me, white women have been working for black pimps on 14th Street for years and nobody cares. If anything, she said, "they deserve each other." At economic extremes, the rules go out the window. If Diana Ross marries a white man, so what? The man owns, among other things, an island -- or two. A big-name star like Eddie Murphy can have a white woman as his leading lady. Somehow it's okay if you're rich or poor.
But for the people in between, the subject doesn't go away. Black and white alike, we're acutely conscious of it, even though we may shun public discussion.
A white woman told me that the question was posed backwards: What do white women see in black men?
"Once you go black, you can never go back," she laughed. A white man who heard this mused, "They just say that to make us mad." Then he laughed.
The politics of sex and race swirl together. See a movie such as "The Color Purple," knowing that Whoopi Goldberg was cast as "the ugly girl," and hear comments from some black women like, "Well, Quincy Jones is married to a white woman, so he made his statement before he coproduced the movie." And remember when Jesse Jackson criticized Shirley Chisholm for running for president "before a black man did"?
There are signs that these views and sensitivities may be dwindling among the young. If the smirks and stares are still there, some kids just don't care as much.
"A lot of black people don't seem to realize that slavery is dead," said one black man whose girlfriend is white. As for her parents' objections, he said: "One day they will be dead, too. I can hardly wait."
But the deep issues will remain, no matter what.
And that's too bad. You can go to such places as Rio or the Caribbean and find the most beautiful and exotic combinations of people, then come back here and have to deal in exclusively black and white. This is limiting: It's wrong, and it creates a fake definition of what is beautiful, a definition that I bought into, back at LSU or well before, without even knowing.