This story is told in a movie that I'm looking forward to, Prom Night in Mississippi. Directed by a Canadian, Paul Saltzman, it covers Morgan Freeman's successful effort to end this racist tradition, by offering to pay for an integrated prom. Or rather, his successful effort to almost end it. Although last year's integrated prom at Charleston High School was a success, a group of white parents still held a separate prom for some white students.
And what are white parents' justifications for allowing their children to attend school with black students, but not the prom?
Saltzman, the film's director, provides this answer: "When I was doing the research and asking people 'What was the problem in having the prom together?' what whites usually said is, 'You know, blacks are into drugs; they're into violence' and on and on and on."
Chasidy Buckley, a black student who attended the integrated prom, provided a similar answer: "A lot of the white parents were concerned about safety. They were afraid that fights were going to break out, but the prom went smoothly. It was great; nobody got hurt or anything."
A rich irony is that while the integrated prom went smoothly, a fight broke out at the whites-only prom.
While unfounded fears of violence fueled white parents' fears, it seems clear that there's another, more covert reason that some don't want their children dancing and partying with black kids--their heads are filled with stereotypical images of black hypersexuality. Many parents fear drinking and fighting at such events, but they also fear heightened possibilities for sexual contact. And, as one white student notes in the clip from Prom Night in Mississippi below, that includes sexy dancing, especially "grinding."
White kids often grind when they're dancing too, but black and white kids grinding together? "Heavens no," many white parents think, "not my daughter!"
I remember talking once to a young white woman from another deep Southern state about her dating experiences in high school. She said she'd only dated white boys, "because like my mother always warned me, everyone knows that black boys are only after that one, single thing."
"Oh really? And what's that?" I asked, thinking that if it was the one thing I thought she meant, a lot of white boys are pretty much only after that one thing too.
"Sex," she said. "Especially with a white girl!"
"Oh come on," I said. "Do you realize what you're saying?"
"Right," she answered, "I know it sounds racist, but my mother was right. I proved it."
"You're kidding. How?"
"Well, there was this one time that a black boy sat next to me in the cafeteria. And guess what? He asked me out on a date!"
"Um, okay. So? Hasn't a white guy ever asked you out on a date?"
"Sure lots of times." She furrowed her brow in thought. "But it's different, you know? Because like, I'm white. So, it's easier for white guys to ask me out."
"You mean, it shouldn't have been that easy for that black guy to ask for a date?"
"Right. But he did ask, right away like that. So it was obvious, if he was going to ask so soon, even though it was harder to ask, then all he wanted was sex."
"Needless to say, you didn't give it to him. I mean, you didn't agree to a date."
"Of course not. I knew what he was after. My mom was right. I'll never date a black guy."
Now, this was about ten years ago. I hope that attitudes among today's younger white Americans have changed, and that their parents are also less delusional about supposedly predatory black sexuality, and the supposedly heightened threat from black kids of drug use and violence.
Fortunately, that such a generational change is happening appears to be one point of this intriguing new film, Prom Night in Mississippi. From what I can tell, it still lacks a distributor; if so, I hope it finds one, and soon.
*According to CNN, "Federal courts forced schools in Charleston, Mississippi, to desegregate in 1970, but no judge ordered the high school proms to merge."
[h/t to Jessica Yee, who wrote at Racialicious about white oblivion in Canada, where she attended the opening of a photo exhibit based on this film]