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While interracial relationships are not nearly as uncommon as they once were, we’d be lying if we said that the dating and marriage histories of some of the nation’s most outspoken black social activists didn’t come as a surprise to us. Let’s take a gander at socially and politically active black men who dated outside of their race.

Frederick Douglass

Famed orator, activist and abolitionist Frederick Douglass became one of the nation’s most revered figures during the pre-Civil War and Civil War eras. After escaping slavery, Douglass turned his attention to the budding abolitionist movement sweeping the North. It wasn’t long before he would pen his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. His commitment to the anti-slavery movement and, later, to women’s suffrage was undeniable. In an era when tempers flared and tensions were high on a number of social and political issues, it came as a shock to 19th-century sensibilities when Douglass married his second wife Helen Pitts, a young, white feminist. Though the couple’s relationship was widely decried, Douglass answered criticism just as eloquently as he always conducted himself, saying his first marriage was to someone the color of his mother, while his second was to someone the color of his father.

Sidney Poitier

One of the most well-known, yet surprising interracial unions belongs to famed Bahamian actor and trail blazer, Sidney Poitier. The first African-American actor to win an Academy Award (for his role in Lilies of the Field), Poitier instantly became an icon for generations of soon-to-be black actors and actresses. His status as one of cinema’s preeminent black stars made his 1976 marriage to Joanna Shimkus, a Canadian-born actress, somewhat surprising. Despite a little shock-value, the couple has remained hopelessly in love for the past 36 years and has brought into the world actresses Anika and Sydney Tamiia Poitier.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Arguably the most surprising and least known details of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life was his alleged romance with a German transfer student. Though rumors of King’s extramarital romances have circulated for years, on one hand his supposed dalliances with white women aren’t that surprising based on his life-long mission of equality and racial justice. Regardless of his extracurricular activities, though, there is little denying the impact and historical significant that King as well and his civil rights mission have had on black people and society as a whole.

Henry Louis Gates

Scholar and intellectual Henry Louis Gates has spent the vast majority of his life studying African-American identity politics and literature. Aside from becoming one of the most well-respected African-American scholars in the world, Gates has spent much of his time publicly speaking about the issues that impact the way black culture is viewed and understood by society. He has also been an avid champion of expanding the literary canon to include works that are more reflective of the United States, and that gives greater credit to African-American authors. Given Gate’s commitment to elevating the works and identities of black Americans, some may be surprised to find out that in 1973 he married a white woman named Sharon Lynn Adams. The couple had two daughters, but later divorced.

Kanye West

A slightly unconventional choice, however given Kanye West’s political leanings and his general desire to encourage black empowerment, it was surprising that his latest fling happens to be with Kim Kardashian. For someone who accused then President George W. Bush of hating black people and for someone whose lyrics often speak to the struggles young African-Americans face — and black men getting on and leaving black women for white girls— it definitely came as a surprise that West would get his swirl on.

Harry Belafonte

“The King of Calypso” made a name for himself far outside just the entertainment industry. During the height of the civil rights movements, Harry Belafonte became a dear confidante of Martin Luther King, Jr., helping to provide financial support to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other causes in the civil rights movements. After King’s assassination, Belafonte continued the push toward equal rights and even became an executor of King’s estate. Aside from civil rights issues, Belafonte has been outspoken politically, openly criticizing the Bush administration. Given Belafonte’s relentless racial activism, it might come as a surprise that he has had a number of relationships with white women, including with former dancer Julie Robinson and photographer Pamela Frank.

Gordon Parks

Shaft director and co-founder of Essence Magazine, Gordon Parks spent his early years as a photographer chronicling life in Chicago’s South Side and in the nation’s capital. He attempted to show social injustice, racism and the need for change through many of his photos, including American Gothic, D.C. He moved on to his most lasting work, the blaxploitation film Shaft in the 1970s and continued to champion civil rights. Though obviously showing an affinity and love of black women, Parks became romantically involved with railroad heiress Gloria Vanderbilt later in his life.

James Brown

“The Godfather of Soul” James Brown was more than just an influential musical artist. With an eye toward social justice and a desire to help usher in equal rights, Brown used his music to deliver a message about self-pride and identity. “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” continues to be one of Brown’s biggest and most heralded hits. So it may come as a surprise that Brown carried on a relationship with singer Tomi Rae Hynie.

Dave Chappelle

Dave Chapelle starred in a number of classic films before finally making his jump to Comedy Central to present “Chappelle’s Show.” The classic comedian often tackled sensitive issues such as racism and other hot button topics in a way that was both amusing yet very much real. Chappelle was far from bashful in making his views on race a secret and was quick to point out social injustice in the African-American community. So it may comes as a bit of a shock that he has been married to Filipina Elaine Mendoza Erfe.

Van Jones

Former White House adviser Van Jones has spent much of his career working on matters of environmental advocacy and civil rights. He founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights as well as Color of Change, an organization created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to encourage African-American political awareness and action. Though his career in the White House ended abruptly after a series of questionable associations came to light, one of the more surprising aspects of Jones’ life might be his long-time marriage to a white woman named Jana Carter.

Charlie Wilson

Recording artist Charlie Wilson has rubbed elbows with some of hip-hops biggest names. From collaborations with Snoop Dogg, Pharrell, Kanye West and U.G.K., the soulful Wilson has put his stamp on the music industry also as a solo artist with his Grammy Award-nominated single “There Goes My Baby.” Little-known, however, is his marriage to drug rehab social worker, Mahin. The two have been going strong since 1995.

Flavor Flav

It’s surprising that a woman of any race would get with Flav, but there’s something especially surprising about the rapper behind such socially conscious hits as “Fight the Power” and “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” to get involved with a white woman. In all fairness, Flav is an equal opportunity lover, having fathered a number of children by black women, but later in life he developed a liking for white women and got involved with Danish model Brigitte Nielsen.

Charles Barkley

Charles isn’t exactly a social activist, but he is quick to deliver his in-the-face sports commentary with the disclaimer, “As a black man,” or “coming from a black man.” Plus it’s also a little ironic for a man who tried to pull Tiger Woods’ black card, saying he wished he could put some of his blackness in him, to be putting his blackness in a white woman, but the former pro baller did indeed jump the broom with  Maureen Blumhardt in 1989.

Cornel West

Though Google is swamped with searches like “cornel west white wife, cornel west white girlfriend, is cornel west married to a white woman,” there appears to be no conclusive answer to any of these questions. Cornel West has been said to have married a white woman, have a white girlfriend, and to even have impregnated a white undergrad student but when you Google the professor all you get is more questions, rumors, and images of just him with no women, white or black, and the name Elleni Gebre Amlak. If he is/was involved with a woman who wasn’t black it would be a surprise coming from someone who is so outspoken about the black experience and our struggle, but then again many feel he has his own issues with his black identity and wouldn’t find his interracial romantic choices the least bit shocking.


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