Sex Across the Color Line: Marcus Dixon, Emmett Till and the New/Old South

Published in the Black Commentator,, Issue 71, 1/1/04

This is the story of a real American tragedy. The kind they make movies about. The victim — and let there be no mistake that is the only word that fits here — is Marcus Dixon: an ‘A’ student in high school, member of the National Honor Society, and one of the best defensive football players in the country, who scored a 1200 on his SAT, and had signed a letter of intent to attend Vanderbilt. Yet today, Dixon sits in a prison cell in Georgia, staring at a 10-year sentence, because — and let there be no mistake about this either — Marcus Dixon is black, and that makes all the difference. Barring a reversal of his sentence by the state Supreme Court, Dixon, who lived in Rome, Georgia, about an hour Northwest of Atlanta (but much further away in cultural terms), is going to spend the next decade in prison for having consensual sex with a white girl.

Though Dixon was accused of raping the young woman, a jury of nine whites and three blacks took only 20 minutes to dispense with the charge. The Rome DA had brought the case to trial based on the claim of the supposed victim, but was soundly undone by witnesses who said the girl had admitted the sex between she and Dixon was consensual. Apparently she feared that her father, a virulent racist, would kill both Dixon and herself if he learned that she had willingly slept with a black guy. So she changed her story, but not before undercutting her own credibility, and not before re-enacting one of the longest-standing Southern traditions on record: that of a white female falsely claiming to have been raped by a black man in order to save face with daddy. It’s a tradition that speaks to the way sexism and racism have long interacted: white men in this case, maintaining their own domination of white women by rigidly circumscribing the sexual freedom of the latter in explicitly racial terms, thereby hoping to keep blacks in line as well as their own daughters, wives and sisters.

Like I said, it took 20 minutes to throw out the rape charge, so at least that much has changed about the South. Needless to say it would have taken fewer than that to lynch Marcus Dixon a century ago, so good for us; we’ve become a little more civilized. Or maybe not; because civilization is a relative concept, after all, such that when expectations rise about how civilized people are supposed to treat others, the fact that they proceed to be dashed in a manner slightly less bloody than might once have been the case is little comfort to the injured. Little comfort to Marcus Dixon, who the jury was still forced to convict on a lesser-included charge of aggravated child molestation. You see, at the time of the consensual sex, Dixon had just turned eighteen and the young woman was two years and seven months his junior, making him eligible for prosecution under Georgia’s Child Protection Act, which makes any sex between such persons a felony.

The Act’s author is adamant that the law was not intended to punish willing sex between teens, but to the Rome DA it matters little. Neither does he seem to find it worthy of comment that no other teenagers in Georgia have ever been prosecuted under this law, despite the almost certain likelihood that somewhere, as I write this, the law is being broken by several couples up and down the length of the Peach State, including somewhere in his jurisdiction.

That such a charge would never have been brought against a white boy who had engaged in consensual sex with the same girl is so obvious as to be totally unworthy of further discussion or debate. Likewise, had Marcus Dixon had sex with a black girl, instead of one who is white, he would be sitting in a dorm room a few minutes drive from my house right now, rather than a prison cell. But Dixon violated one of the oldest taboos in the book, which has yet to be fully expunged from the Southern or national consciousness. Marcus Dixon, not unlike Strom Thurmond, crossed the sexual color line. But very much unlike Ol’ Strom, he has the misfortune of being on the darker side of that line, thereby lacking the power to keep his activities secret. By acquiring carnal knowledge of a representative of so-called southern virtue, however willing said flower might have been, Dixon crossed the line in a way almost guaranteed to bring about his doom. The saddest fact of all being that he likely had no clue as to the risk he was taking, no idea of the racial minefield onto which he had stepped.

Which sadly brings us to an under-appreciated aspect of this case; one that in part explains why Marcus Dixon was likely not to fully understand the danger of his tryst. Namely, Marcus was being raised by white guardians, who all but legally adopted him at the age of eleven, thereby “saving” him from a dysfunctional home. But Ken and Peri Jones, for all their love and stability were profoundly unprepared to raise a black male child in this country. Many black parents aren’t prepared either — how can one ever be ready for all of the traps and snares that have been set in the path of African Americans even now — but at least they know the drill.

They’re less likely to be blindsided by white racism having learned to expect it long ago. At least they aren’t silly enough to think that love is all it takes to raise a child into a healthy adult. At least they would have warned Marcus; warned him that to be black, and male, and 6’5″ and 265 pounds, is to be the walking, talking embodiment of white anxiety; it is to trigger every known stereotype in the book–stereotypes that trump the straight-A grades and render moot the SAT score every time.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting the Joneses were wrong to take Marcus in, nor that white parents should never adopt children of color. I am only saying that before white parents decide to “rescue” black and brown children from homes they consider dysfunctional (and which may well be), perhaps they could take a moment to consider their own dysfunction: the kind that doesn’t manifest as poverty perhaps, but which manifests as ignorance, as a Pollyanna-like optimism about the power of love alone, and an uncritical trust in America: the kind most people of color long ago learned to temper with caution.

For while Marcus Dixon is first and foremost a victim of an overzealous prosecutor playing to white fears, he is also the victim of white naivete and good intentions. Yes, the Joneses are good people, who on balance did a good thing by taking Dixon in at a time when his mom was unprepared to raise him, and his father wanted nothing to do with him. They may have saved his life; they surely improved it. But by virtue of their own innocence, and I use that term in only its most ironic sense, they put this child at risk in a way that his black family likely would not have. They made the mistake of trusting that people are more decent, and the society in which they live more humane than they, or it, really are. Such preciousness is bad enough when it blinds parents to the problems of their white children, but at least then it doesn’t likely end in those children’s destruction. Yet, for a black child to be raised amidst that kind of naivete is to play fast and loose with his or her life. At a minimum, it teeters on the brink of neglect.

It would be comical were it not so insidious. Consider how amazed the Joneses were when Ken’s mother moved out of their home, disgusted at the decision to take Marcus in, and when his brother disowned him because of his dislike for any form of “racial mixing.” Or how Peri couldn’t believe it when a longtime family friend said, after the charges were made against Marcus, that raping white girls was “just what niggers do.” “I didn’t know she felt that way,” Peri lamented in a recent interview: a stunning admission, even in a society whose majority is fairly characterized as infantile in their understanding of race and its meaning. Honestly, let us reflect for just a second on the subtext of Peri Jones’s wide-eyed amazement at her friend’s bigotry, indicating as it does that at no point in their friendship had they ever discussed matters of race: a remarkable if not-particularly stunning acknowledgement of white privilege, which privilege renders the issue of race and racism utterly off the radar screens of most members of the dominant group.

The Joneses and their white friends have been able to go through their whole lives never thinking about race, or at least not discussing it, in a way that no black person could possibly do, and in a way that Marcus, for his own protection needed desperately not to mimic. Yet their assumption that race wasn’t an issue, for their friends, their community, for their own family, was without foundation, as they now realize a bit too late. Or maybe they still don’t fully realize it. Ken, for his part, doesn’t appear ready to say that racism has anything to do with Marcus’s predicament. When asked he merely says, “I have no idea of what is going on.” Truer words have never been spoken. Nor, given the circumstances, will we often hear words more heartbreaking.

Yet behind that truth and heartbreak lay a lesson, if we are prepared to grasp it: for Ken and Peri Jones, for white America more broadly, and for all the loving white parents who are adopting (or thinking of adopting) children of color. Parents who are rushing off to China, Korea, South America, or the ‘hood across town, trying to fulfill their desires for a child, and also give a kid a good home who otherwise might not have one. It is a lesson about how much they have to learn, and how little they know at present.

Perhaps they will understand that to raise their black or brown child the way they raise their white children if they have them (or as they would if they did) is to set in motion a process that may well end in tragedy. It is to ill-prepare those children of color for the real world; a world in which they will too often not be treated like their white siblings; a world in which they will too often not be as warmly accepted by family members or neighbors, or teachers, or cops, and all because of race.

No, not every black child raised by whites will fall victim to the kind of evil that has descended upon Marcus Dixon like fog on a cool Georgia morning. Not every black child raised by white parents will face the kind of viciousness to which he has been subjected. Many, indeed, will thrive. But that is not the point. What most assuredly is the point is this: so long as whites continue to believe in the principle of color-blindness (which almost always means being blind to the consequences of color, no matter how profound), and continue to believe that our neighbors, families, colleagues and white countrymen place higher priority on justice than on the color of their skin, we and any persons of color whose lives we touch will be at risk. So long as we are allowed to exercise the privilege of cross-racial adoption without having to demonstrate that we know even the first thing about racism and how that poison might destroy our interracial home, we will be setting the brown-skinned objects of our affection up for a fall.

And please note, I am not speaking of the importance of something we famously call “cultural competence.” It is most certainly not sufficient to show that one has read a book about Kwanzaa, or bought some Miles Davis CDs, or learned how to cook Hoppin’ John, or purchased African artifacts, the meaning of which one doesn’t even comprehend, or filled one’s closet with Kente. For the culture white folks need to understand if we are going to have any constructive interactions with black people, let alone raise them in our homes, is our own; not the ways of black folks but the ways of whites, for it is the latter and not the former that will pose the danger to our black and brown friends, colleagues, or children.

Had the Joneses understood the ways of the white folks in charge of the justice system, for example, there is virtually no way that Peri would have advised Marcus to cooperate with police and “tell them anything they wanted to know,” even without an attorney in the room. Few black parents would have told their black male child, suspected of raping a white girl, to do such a thing, and precisely because they would understand the intrinsic danger of the lamb trying to make nice with the wolves who have encircled it. Indeed, it was in those early discussions that Dixon, fearing the girl’s father, initially denied knowing her, let alone having sex. When he later told the truth he was snaring himself in a lie, thereby making his story seem less credible to a DA already predisposed to think the worst. It’s a mistake he wouldn’t have had the chance to make had he been taught a bit of self-defensive cynicism–the kind rarely practiced by those who can afford the luxury of thinking the system is fair and just, but which is long-nurtured by those who can’t. Had the Joneses appreciated the ways of white folks, especially the ways in which sexual predator stereotypes still push so many buttons for so many of us, they could have given Marcus the kind of lessons at home that he was not likely to receive in school.

After all, for Marcus to receive that ‘A’ he got in history class, he no doubt had to memorize a lot of dates: like 1776, and 1787, and 1863. The one he needed to know, however, was 1955. For in truth, Marcus Dixon’s life and those of other black men like him have never hinged on whether they knew the correct year of the American Revolution, the passage of the Constitution, or even the Emancipation Proclamation. But his life (and little did he know it) most definitely did hinge on whether he knew the year when Emmett Till was murdered. And more than the year, the reason for which his body was thrown off a bridge, into the Tallahatchie River, weighted down by a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied tightly around Till’s neck.

One suspects the Joneses never told Marcus Dixon about Emmett Till, about how he was murdered because he was alleged to have said “bye baby” to a white woman behind the counter of a store in the heart of the Mississippi Reich. Perhaps they don’t know the story themselves. Many white folks don’t. And needless to say, Till’s story wasn’t likely to have been prominent in any American history class that Dixon might have taken. Not in Rome, Georgia, where probably more than most places American history is a collection of triumphalist narratives about the greatness of the country in which its students live.

Dixon’s ‘A’ in the class signifies that he must have learned well the glories of the nation into which he was born, and he must have regurgitated those glories upon demand for his teachers. But like most American high school students, Dixon was taught a lie. That he is now paying for that lie with his freedom, if not his life, is merely the latest obscenity in a state, in a region, in an empire that views the lives of black people as expendable.

Unless the lies and phony innocence stop, however, it is unlikely to be the last.

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