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American Literature 73.2 (2001) 365-386
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Sidney Poitier’s Civil Rights:
Rewriting the Mystique of White Womanhood in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night
By the mid-1960s, the interracial emphasis of the Southern Civil Rights movement had begun to give way to the ethos of black power nationalism.1 The continuing desperation of many African Americans in Northern cities (exacerbated by a federal budget strained by the mounting cost of the U.S. presence in Vietnam) prompted some Civil Rights activists to reconsider the tactics that had led to their legislative victories. A 1966 Newsweek article describes the emergence of Stokely Carmichael “and his radical confreres of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee”: “SNCC speaks for a growing bloc of the disaffected when it argues that . . . a black man ought to hit back when a white man hits him, that white liberals are all right only if they know their place and stay in it.”2 SNCC struggled internally over its organizational future and more moderate Civil Rights groups often repudiated the ideas of Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and their followers;3 still, the subtleties in the debates over SNCC strategy were perceived in similarly reductive terms by the mainstream media and young white activists. A subheading of the Newsweek piece proclaimed bluntly: “‘Integration is Out.’”4 By the summer of 1967, as cities across America burned and “the politics of identity swept across the movement,” Todd Gitlin wrote that increasingly “marginal” white radicals sought political texts that would “explain our helplessness.”5
Representations and evocations of the American South, I will argue, functioned in the mid- and late 1960s not to “explain” but to transform the “helplessness” Gitlin bemoaned. The classic “liberal” Civil Rights film In the Heat of the Night (1967) negotiates the white male’s aggrieved response to his diminished importance in the arena [End Page 365] of racial politics and, in particular, to his rejection by black male activists, whose approval many progressive white men explicitly sought.6 The personal sacrifices associated with the period’s reigning political imperative—to “put your body on the line” for the movement—had previously served to promote white males’ identification with their black male peers, who were so often positioned as primarily corporeal sites of authenticity within the political culture of the 1960s.7 As the advent of black nationalism began to foreclose the expression of this kind of “homopolitical desire,”8 however, media representations of interracial relations, especially in the South, increasingly replaced idealized portrayals of African American male bodies with ambivalent, and even potentially hostile, depictions. The Southern setting of In the Heat of the Night, I maintain, enables Norman Jewison to stage the constant threat of violence against black male bodies, while simultaneously allowing a range of white male responses, from heroic intervention to spectatorial identification with both victims and agents of that violence.
Robyn Wiegman has called In the Heat of the Night perhaps the first example of an interracial male narrative in which the black male functions “as cop, symbolic father of the cultural order.” She maintains that the character of the black police officer, played by Sidney Poitier, “helps to settle that era’s fear of racial violence by locating black masculinity on the side of cultural law and order.”9 As I will suggest, however, it is the white man in the film who is in the position to bestow—or withhold—the black man’s full access to the masculine—and the articulation of this dynamic depends on the film’s explicit evocation of the tortured history of race and gender relations in the South.
Historically, inextricable ideologies of racism and sexism in the South had constructed an image of virtuous white womanhood that required violent safeguarding from dangerously rapacious African American males. Resting on the presumption that white women were the fragile property of their white fathers, husbands, and brothers, the mystique of white womanhood...