Black is an invisible colour

I used to say I like every kind of music except Country. That was until my good friend Steve Abel made me sit down and listen to ‘Johnny Cash at San Quentin’, recorded live at the infamous prison. I was an instant fan.

So when “Walk the Line”, the Johnny Cash biopic, was released in 2005 I was eager to see it. I thought it was a great movie, with some brilliant scenes, like the one where Ma and Pa Carter see off Cash’s dealer with shotguns as he quits cold turkey. They seemed to epitomise the best of White Southern Christian Decency, in contrast to the usual treatment we see of Southern hypocrisy, malice and racist cruelty.

The romance between Johnny Cash and June Carter was of course the main thread of the movie. It winds around his protracted wooing of her and ends with a caption celebrating their 35 year partnership on and off stage after she finally agrees to marry him. His first wife Vivian is portrayed as a woman just never suited to be his wife and who drove him away with her bitterness, jealousy and resentment. I remember idly wondering what she was really like, and whether this was a fair portrayal of her character, as the story moved back to his great love for June.

Watching the movie for a second time the other day I was again swept up in what a nasty, bitter woman Vivian was, even as another part of my mind again questioned the representation. In the garden with my wife the following day, we began deconstructing the movie as we worked. As we talked through different elements of the plot, I began to feel more and more uneasy. Later I decided to google Vivian Cash. I found a review of her book ‘I Walked the Line’, written after the film came out. Not surprisingly it gave a very different story to the film, suggesting that their marriage had been very happy until June stole John away. What WAS surprising, though, was when I looked at photos of Vivian. Turns out that she was a black woman.

john and vivian cash 1jonny and vivian cash 3

You’d never know from reading any of the articles about her.

You’d certainly never know from watching the movie, where she is played by Ginnifer Goodwin.

ginnifer goodwin

In fact the only thing I found in my admittedly brief search that referenced her ethnicity was a newspaper headline from when he was busted for drugs that says “ARREST EXPOSES JOHNNY CASH’S NEGRO WIFE”. Presumably exposes her for the sin of being black in the USA.

Interestingly, in contrast to the newspaper article from the time, the film shows him leaving court alone and coming home to her censorious displeasure. It is shortly after this arrest that the chronology of the film shows them separating.

johhnycash

I’d noticed before that there are almost no black people in the film. Two shoe shiners are the sum total are far as I remember. I imagine the director, James Mangold, justifies this by saying that there are no black characters who are important to the story. That is if you don’t include his first wife.

Suddenly the treatment of Vivian makes complete sense. In the world of American Country music, of course the black woman is the villain of the story – even when her husband leaves her and her four daughters for another woman. June and John are considered one of the most iconic couples in country music history, and no black woman is going to undermine that narrative. Her character has to be destroyed. But even that is not enough. Her very identity is robbed from her, made invisible by whitewash.

They say that black is not a colour, it is the absence of light. That certainly seems to be true in Hollywood.

EDIT: I have been asked in some of the comments to withdraw my post because Vivian’s birth certificate and recorded genealogy state that she is white. I will not do so, for two reasons:
1. Regardless of what was written on her documents, it is apparent to many of us (especially those of us of mixed ancestry ourselves) that she is black / mixed (there must be a better word for that). This is an opinion based on every single photo of her to be found. There is a one photo from later in life which some say shows that she is white. I guess if you don’t have elderly multiracial friends or family (and ignore every other photo of her) you might think so but it is not convincing. There are numerous possible explanations for the discrepancy between her official papers and her appearance, many of them outlined in the comments.
2. Given the effort made in the movie to try to cast actors who resembled their characters, casting Ginnifer Goodwin for someone who is at the very least ethnically ambiguous is still whitewashing. Her ethnicity was important to their story, as evidenced by the attacks upon them both.
Ethnicity and racism are very touchy subjects to be sure. I have never had such interest in a post, and almost exclusively from North America. Why? Perhaps the USA needs some kind of national reconciliation process to help it deal with the trauma and shame of its past.

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475 thoughts on “Black is an invisible colour

  1. Belle2264 says:

    To the “genealogist” – the census means little. Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s quadroon slave, is listed as white on the 1830 census. Their presumed son Eston moved to Wisconsin and began living as a white man named Eston Jefferson. My whole family is listed as white for generations, but I did a DNA test and along with Northern European, I have Basque and Iberian DNA, so that may explain my very dark curls. Vivian Liberto obviously had African blood. I think she was beautiful. It does shed light on their divorce, though. It appears that Johnny left her when her race was questioned.

    • NORA says:

      He said in an article in Penthouse she left him because he was strung out on pills. He said had he not been addicted, he believes their marriage would have remained.

    • Micheal says:

      It’s more likely that Vivian was Latino given the ethnicity of the surname “Liberto.” She certainly looks as though she could also have had West African ancestry; but the ancestry could also be North African, Middle Eastern, or Filipino/Austronesian.

      Certainly it’s no surprise that any African-American or “Negro” ancestry was kept under wraps. Under the one-drop rule observed by many states (e.g. Nevada law provided that the offspring of white and black was black; of white and yellow, yellow; of white and red, red; etc.), any African ancestry anywhere in the family tree made you legally “Black.” (Exception: Louisiana, for a time, distinguished between “White,” “Black” and “Colored.”)

      Many states made it a crime for people from different ethnic groups to marry. Even liberal California prohibited “miscegenation” (mixing of the races) until the California Supreme Court held the law violated the California Constitution in 1948. That was the first time a miscegenation law was struck down by a court. It was not until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that anti-miscegenation statutes violated the federal constitution. So, if Vivian had been a legally “Black” or “Colored” woman married to a man who was legally “White,” she and Johnny could have been tried, convicted of miscegenation, and thrown in prison for a few years in as many as 29 states, in the early days of their marriage.

      In Arizona, which had the most expansive anti-miscegenation law — no person of any race identified in Arizona law (White, Black, American Indian, Hindu, Filipino, etc.) could marry anyone outside of their own race; and people of mixed racial heritage (like Vivian Liberto Cash) could not legally marry anyone at all — the marriage of European-American Johnny Cash to Multi-Ethnic American Vivian Liberto would have be void ab initio (and if they had attempted to marry within Arizona itself, they would have been committing a criminal offence). But if Vivian were legally “White” and just looked like she had African-American (or Spanish or whatever) ancestry, they were safe from prosecution.

      On the other side of the inter-racial coin, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (which passed is anti-miscegenation law in 1705 and repealed it in 1843), race was classified solely according to the paternal line of ancestry. That is why the famous Black poet Langston Hughes was legally “White” in Massachusetts – because his father was legally “White,” because his paternal grandfather was actually “White”; and the racial ancestry of his mother and paternal grandmother did not count.

      Otherwise, according to a documentary aired on PBS, and in addition to other factors (such as Johnny’s drug use): When Johnny Cash met June Carter, then married to her second husband, it was love at first sight for both of them. They began touring together in 1961 but remained with their spouses until June and Edwin Nix divorced in 1966. June’s availability for marriage increased the tension in Johnny and Vivian’s marriage until Vivian simply had enough, and they were divorced in 1968. Johnny and June then immediately married.

      • Kerry says:

        I have often been mistaken for being Latino and I can assure you I’m Half black, a quarter white and a quarter German

  2. Janet says:

    Thank you for this. And for not withdrawing it. x

  3. linda doyle says:

    I love the man in black but dam backnin the days wow who would know thank you for share it

  4. Saundra says:

    At least he was a nan and married her. Those crackers know they are black passing as white.
    They want to think they are superior to black people when they are the same color. We need to pray for these ignorant folks to accept reality.

  5. Tiffiney says:

    I was also curious to see what the real people looked like and when I saw Vivian’s pictures I was just stunned ….. by how gorgeous she was! Then I thought she looked like she had black features. How could the movie leave something like that out when it HAD to be a big part of their relationship, especially at that time. Even if she identified as white and both her parents did to; looking like she did had to draw attention both positive and negative and I wish the movie had done a better job of including that aspect of their relationship. But then again, John and June are the only characters in the movie with any dimensionality. It is too bad the movie industry dumbs everything down for mass consumption.

  6. tri says:

    Dude. I just got here from some random Mic fb post about passing in America in the 1950s etc. Someone commented ‘have you seen Johnny Cash’s 1st wife?’. Now, I’m from Trinidad and Tobago. Johnny Cash is famous enough for me to know the name so I googled and found this incredibly strange story. As a mixed race person, Vivian looks very much mixed to me. But I’ve grown up around mixed people, with a mixed granny, in a mixed family. Growing up like that, sometimes you can tell what ethnicities and percentages someone has from looking at them. Anyway, I think its an element of the story that was deliberately ignored because there seems to have been a legendary love story involved. Still, I’d like to see us mixed women triumph some days instead of just walking the line.

  7. Thelma Pointer says:

    You are a total idiot. You shouldn’t claim as fact that which you do not know. You don’t know anything about Johnny Cash‘s first wife. By your own admission you know only what you see in pictures and your conclusions only reveal your own prejudice.

    Clearly, in your mind black women all look a certain way and anyone else who looks that way must certainly be black. How dare you make a claim on someone you’ve never met and most certainly know nothing about.

    My disgust at what you have written has nothing to do with any belief that had Vivian been a black woman she would have been any less than the woman she was. I have no problem with mixed-race marriages. I could very well be in one myself. Perhaps I am a mixed-raced person. I assure you, you don’t speak for all mixed-race people.

    My disgust comes when I see people act like they know more than they do and make claims as fact things they know nothing of. THAT infuriates me.

    The things in life you know for sure, you write about those. Unless you have firsthand knowledge about something, don’t put yourself forward as an authority on the subject or make claims of fact concerning what you actually only THINK is true. In this situation, you are wrong on SO many levels.

    By the way, I see this is a New Zealand server. Are you from New Zealand? You admit you didn’t know Vivian, so if you are from New Zealand, is it possible that despite being thousands of miles away, you could somehow see the color of her skin from where you live? Curious.

  8. Thelma Pointer says:

    Oh, just read these comments and I see how it is now. You are not posting any comments that disagree with you. Not only are you an idiot but you’re a coward.

    So, I guess I can assume I won’t be seeing my post on your blog anytime soon. You don’t have the guts to post it.

  9. Kerry says:

    I enjoyed reading this, very much.
    You have described perfectly as to why there is such denial in Vivian’s ethnicity- it makes for a far better Hollywood story if she is white rather than dirtying up the king of country’s reputation and name and tainting it with her blackness. Funny how the public seem to care and Johnny clearly didn’t give a toss – hence why they were married and had kids!.
    If people actually believe that Vivian was white/Italian/french – whatever – you’re deluded! That clearly is a person of black origin. I’m mixed race myself so am a little bit of an expert in recognising another mixed race person. Don’t strip her identity from her just because it’s easier for you to swallow and it makes for a better story – it is what it is! Johnny was clearly not only a man of genius and talent but an open minded man who took people for who they are rather than what they are and what society deemed acceptable. There should be more men like Johnny.
    As for Hollywood and their disgusting, fabrication of what Vivian was – I’m not surprised but I expect better from the public – at least use the eyes and the good sense you were born with!
    Again, amazing reading – thank you and keep at it.

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