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.


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.

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426 thoughts on “Black is an invisible colour

  1. Party Anderso says:

    ……well I be damn, never knew this before, not even after taking american music history in college!

    • Kate says:

      You didn’t know because it’s not true. The woman in those photos is not Cash’s wife.

      • Deborahlad says:

        I looked it up on the internet and discovered that it was her picture. She looks more like partially black. Either way, she was beautiful!

  2. Kat says:

    Where are their children now?

    • Joseph T Dean says:

      Roseanne Cash is their eldest daughter. Country singer song writer. Pretty famous in her own right. Not sure about the other 3…

  3. Bill Gould says:

    She was a Latina from San Antonio, Texas!

    • Eric says:

      You can be both Black and Latina.

    • Kate says:

      She was Italian

    • Whitley says:

      I just looked up her family history in census records from the early 1900s. She is not “Latina”. Her mother and maternal grandparents were Robinsons – all white and from Texas. Her “father” (Liberto) is a white American from Texas. His parents were white and born in Italy. She is NOT Italian. Born in Texas.

    • Monica says:

      That woman is black whether she is American black or of Hispanic descent. Does making her a Latina make you feel better about Johnny being with her.
      Either way African blood definitely is in her blood.

  4. HV says:

    She was Italian

    • deedee says:

      Dumb as rocks…I am a fair skinned african american creole woman and there is no question that this woman was BLACK. Dumb a$$

    • Whitley says:

      She was NOT born in ITALY. Both “parents” are listed as White in the Texas censuses, both of her parents were born in Texas. Her maternal grandparents were white and from Texas. Her “father’s” parents -Libertos- were white and they are the only people born in Italy. Italian is not a race.

    • Golden Rule says:

      We all can agree that Italian is not a color? Yes Vivian can be mixed with African blood, even with ancestors from Italy. There are black Italians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, English, Australian people (see where im going here). The times article gives evidence to the hateful, bigoted, disfunctional mind set of the citizens in the US. They went out of their way to cause such a ruckus over her beautiful skin AND features that this poor family was forced to pass for anything other than black. I used to only imagine the type of hate black people endured in those days. Sadly today its easy to understand their plight. With all of our advancement, education and technology Americans are still so gullible. God bless America, our text books, our minds and our ability to think outside the racist box that this country was founded on. Lord knows We sure need it.

      • Sam Hedrick says:

        Well said. As a historian, the injury is in making assumptions that end up entering the historic narrative- with no credibility other than the editorializing of a Jim Crow-era, non-cited newspaper article. This could be from the KKK Weekly.

      • Hateful, bigoted came honestly with the colonists that came from where? Think of the way the indigenous peoples are treated to this day in Australia, by whom? South Africa, let us not overlook. Bigotry is a human failure. Think of how deadly it became in Germany and Rwanda. Your comment reveals bigotry in you. There are bigots everywhere. We are not all bigots over here in America. Ask Barack Obama, who served two terms as our president. His mother was white, his father hailed from Kenya.

      • Eric Jones says:

        Well said! !! May God bless you!

      • James Bell says:

        Liked your comments on Johnny Cash and america.

      • jsusnme says:

        Heather uses Barak as a good example. Yeah, he’s bi-racial. And in his book he stated he hated his mother for being white. Hello? Good example of not being racist?

      • janilee says:

        Let us hope that you aren’t held up for criticism for admitting feelings you had as a child, influenced by the behavior of those around you. Your nick would suggest you not be judgmental.

    • Pam says:

      Trust me her family was “passing”

    • Kate says:

      Thank you. This whole thing is going viral and it is a load of fake hooey.

  5. strandwolf says:

    The remarks regarding Hollywood playing fast and with historical accuracy apply to the Disney-made melodrama What’s Love Got to Do With It, which portrayed Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship in a manner at odds with accounts if those who were close to them. Their long-term keyboardist defends Ike against the perhaps baseless allegations that he was an evil brute:

  6. Sand fur says:

    Black is the presence of Life and Light!!!

  7. Jas says:

    Reminds me of our current relations. The Pilot of the Airline that crashed on the way to the White House on 9-11 was …….. BLACK!! Where was he in the movie? The more things change the more they remain the same .. in Hollywood!!

  8. Valerie J Petty says:

    Re Do the story so the truth would be told!

  9. Bern Roberts says:

    Cash not only walked the line… he also tiptoed though the hood

  10. Robin says:

    Someone posted that Vivian was Italian. Let’s confirm before we go further. The press may have been wrong as well.

    • Barbara C Blackmon says:

      Oh my! The worse thing in the world…
      Ooo let’s confirm!
      Trust me back in the day white news paper reporters knew the difference because the researched her family.
      You exposed yourself.

  11. Lee Ann says:

    According to census records Vivian’s mother is Irene Robinson Liberto, Irene’s parents are Dora Minnie Kornmeyer Robinson and George Edgar Robinson. Per the 1920/30/40 census Dora’s parents were born in Germany so she has German roots and her father George Edgar Robinson is listed as white, born in TX to a French/German mother and White father. Vivian’s father was Thomas Peter Liberto who’s parents were born in Italy. Census records and other research can be done for free at

    • Skai Juice says:

      Ok…but you are talking about Nationality…not race. That is different. There are Black people in all these countries. Look at her pictures…they are very clear. And Robinson…that is a black name if I ever heard one. The article is saying that she was passing…clearly looking at her pictures you can see that the family was too.

      • bfredd71 says:

        Black Americans have no true names. Robinson is not a Black name. We carry the name of ex masters, rivers, plantations or whatever was picked at the end of slavery. Free blacks picked as well in this country when they were brought over. So there are no true black names for us. We carry other people ancestral names.

      • Cupcake says:

        No Robinson isn’t just a black name! I have a friend who’s maiden name is Robinson and she isn’t black.

    • Whitley says:

      Wrong parents… her grandparents were born in Texas and were not of German descent.

  12. Ronald says:

    That’s always the case in this country and colour. Hollywood just protests it in the movie as he wanted it. Just like our white people before him use us and throw us away. No-one knows the wiser.Why didn’t she come forth with the truth or her kids, they didn’t want to hurt him out his career? Either way they did what they wanted to do, keep the sister hid and Johnny still the great white music man, no wonder I never liked him OR music.

  13. Earle Fowler says:

    Presumably exposes her for the sin of being black in the USA……….this is what you say when you think you’re right about what you are saying……….sin of being black, that makes God an idiot, really reporter, really……….sin of being black.

  14. sgboone says:

    I’m shocked that this was covered up! Just as Black History supposedly didn’t exist, I find erasing her presence to be so pre 1954! I wonder what his kids think.👎🏽

    • janilee says:

      There are a lot of things about America that would shock you, I’m sure. There is a tsunami of political shocks right now, for instance. As for the cover ups, it’s the American way. I, myself, was shocked to see that my father’s birth certificate showed his father’s information, but his mother’s information was blank. Imagine no mother information on a newborn’s birth certificate. My father was upset when I asked about it. It turns out his mother was not white-she was a Native American of the Creek tribe. My father angrily asked, “Are you satisfied, now?” I said, “Oh, wow! That is so cool.” Then, he was shocked.

  15. Kate says:

    Please research this further and correct your post if you agree this is a hoax. Here is a link to Cash’ first wife’s obit. She’s Italian.

    Here is a link to Vivian Cash’s Wikipedia page. A shame to obliterate the real accomplishments of a back woman who founded her own record company all to sully the reputation of a great singer who tried to be a good man.

    • Skai Juice says:

      who is Vivian Carter?

      • Kate says:

        A record executive. The whole story about Johnny Cash’s supposedly black wife was a very early example of fake news put forth by the far right press. They took advantage of a photo or two of Cash with a black woman. No doubt they found the idea of a black woman owning her own recording company hard to stomach. So they took advantage of photos to put forth a story that Cash had a black wife. He didn’t his first wife was white, of Italian extraction.

      • Whitley says:

        What is Italian extraction? Either you are born in Italy or you aren’t. Italian is not a race. Police don’t put out an APB looking for an Italian person.

    • Jimmi hawk says:

      Italian is not a race I know blonde blue eyed italians.The Moors invaded Italy. That woman is a black woman period. She might have some white in her like Obama. Definitely black.

      • janilee says:

        True, President Obama identified as black. He is also an amazing, intelligent, sensitive, patriotic, and extremely classy gentleman.

      • Kate says:

        The woman in the photo with Cash in the newspaper is black. The thing is, she’s not Cash’s wife.

    • Lisa S. says:

      You should go back and read the Wikipedia link you posted here; this is NOT the Vivian Carter that was married to Johnny Cash.

    • human says:

      Wrong person

    • Whitley says:

      She was not born in Italy. Look at the census records. She was born in Texas. Italian is a nationality, not a race.

  16. Pruiett says:

    Some of country music is but i can’t embrace it, because it’s the music most white supremacist seem to prefer, to hear some of the racist things some of the country music say put it in the category of trash and i really like some of it, but i equate it as racist

  17. Lucy says:

    Walk the Line is one of my all time favorite movies. I don’t think the color of her skin had anything to do with him falling in love with June Carter. He was deeply in love with that woman and he would have left a white, Asian, or Chinese woman for her. They were soulmates. And my understanding is he never left his children or stopped caring for them. I am very surprised and disappointed that the movie did not depict her as black or bi-racial if she actually indeed was!! That’s a travesty!!

  18. Wow!!!! Shame on Hollywood!

  19. Celestine says:

    Wow This is a story that needs to be told.

  20. Salih says:

    Very good summation.
    Thank you.

  21. Jay Corden says:

    Why was Johnny played by a white person and not Cherokee like, the film is, and remains false, made to make money .

  22. Since I wrote Vivian’s autobiography (“I Walked the Line”) for her, I can tell you with all certainty she was not black. She was Italian. And, she was one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met. She was pure of heart, gracious, smart, funny, and entirely devoted to Johnny and her children.

  23. John says:

    A well written piece that provides food for thought. Ironically, in pigmentation, black is the presence of all color. I am Latino and my birth certificate states I’m white. In reality, I am tri-racial yet was born at a time when the notion of color amalgamation was a generally unacknowledged or denied reality by the dominant U.S. culture.

  24. janilee says:

    If you do a search for Vivian Cash on Google, then choose the images, rather than articles option, you will see the lady had Negroid/Congoid features, as opposed to the typical Caucasoid features. Chances are good that her background is a mix of the two types. Apparently, this was not an important factor in Johnny Cash’s attraction to his first wife. I never cared for him, or his music, frankly. However, I now have great respect for a man who would follow his heart, given the atmosphere he, and Vivian, had to overcome. If it was not important to him, why does it matter to us?

    • Dave says:

      I am black, and I know black when I see it and I know mixed black when I see it. There is no doubt she is mixed black, she has black african in her. If you have not been born as a black person in the black culture, you maybe wouldn’t understand what to look for in a person’s facial structure. But most black people can tell. Her face has african/black features, period.

  25. Mildred Campbell says:

    Nothing really changes. I never heard of Vivian Cash. What happened to her and her children?
    Did Johnny Cash take care of his children.

  26. Beverly says:

    They are both dead, so who cares. Why is that important to anyone but the four girls.

  27. Tracey says:

    Not true!

    Leaders of the National States’ Rights Party, a white supremacist group in Alabama, seized on the photo, which, when reproduced in grainy newsprint, made Vivian look dark-skinned and possessed of facial features some considered African American. Whether outraged by the apparent miscegenation or eager to get back at him for his protest stance in the song “Ira Hayes” (Native Americans were also a target of white supremacists), the group reprinted the photo in its newspaper the Thunderbolt and undertook an aggressive campaign against Cash.

  28. brionboyles says:

    She didn’t claim her black heritage, she didn’t “look” it, it had zero effect on the story or the storyline. This is just someone looking for “offense” to bolster their own agenda.

  29. jean a foster funk says:

    Why not concentrate on Cash’s talents rather than his wives? His deep, mellow voice;
    the songs he’s written and his performance superiority are some of the qualities that
    make Johnny Cash so exciting and well-

  30. Rajendra Chhetri says:

    The nation they prides to be the leader of the Free worls is so obsessed with colour of human skin. How can you call this nation a Christian nation. It segregated people on the basis of the colour of skin be it Red skin or black. Ye the white folks loved and still do spend a fortune on tanning skin. The white American pre-occupation on their white skin–short on pigmentation is an unconscious confirmation of their feeling of inadequacy that they feel that the colour of their skin short on darker pigmentation makes them a Superior race. They stole the Natives’ land and brought the African from AFRICA TO WORK ON THEIR PLANTATION. The White folks should have had stayed in Europe and let the other Races live in their land of their ancestors. The White Americans inability to accept other races of darker colour of any other complexion is their own Inferiority Complex. They came from Europe and poached other races Homeland–Day Light Robbery.

  31. HokuStars says:

    Wow! That was really cool. Impressed and grateful for your energy spent here!
    Poor Vivian deserves proper representation!

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