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Authors: Mark Mathabane,Gail Mathabane

Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #Ethnic & National, #Memoirs, #Specific Groups, #Women

Love in Black and White: The Triumph of Love Over Prejudice and Taboo

BOOK: Love in Black and White: The Triumph of Love Over Prejudice and Taboo
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Love In Black And White by Mark and Gail Mathabane

publisher unknown

copyright 1992

ISBN: unknown

What does it mean to be an interracial couple in America? For many years, decades, it has meant being analyzed, studied, categorized, labeled, and collected into statistics and theories-some bizarre and others downright ridiculous-aimed at answering a question at once simple and complex: Why do human beings fall in love?

There’s little doubt that of all the kinds of mixed couples in America, the black and white relationships are among the most studied, psychoanalyzed, and discussed. They provoke the strongest reactions in people. They are constantly targeted by black and white opponents of trrace mixing.”

Sociological treatises and psychological studies abound about the problems of and the motives behind interracial relationships. They have fascinated and titillated society since the days of slavery. But despite extensive research into such relationships, there have been few human stories about why individuals from dilferent and frequently antagonistic worlds defy formidable cultural prejudices and taboos to unite their lives in friendship and marriage.

There are about 200,000 married black-white couples in America, living in virtually every state of the Union. Amazingly, many of these couples are in the South, where until 1967 such marriages were forbidden by law.

In Virginia in 1959 a white man and his black wife were convicted by an all-white grand jury for violating the state’s ban on interracial marriages. The penal code stated: If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.

In his sentencing opinion the Virginia judge stated: Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. Alld but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

The couple appealed the decision, and in June 1967 the Supreme Court struck down the Virginia law, along with the anti-miscegenation laws of Fifteen other states, on the grounds that the freedom to marry whom one chooses is one of the “vital personal rights” protected under the Fourteenth Amendment.

But attitudes change slower than laws: Twenty-five years after the Supreme Court ruling, stereotypes and misconceptions against mixed marriages are still rife. We have attempted, with this book, to explore and expose these attitudes.

Our book is not another “scientific” or “sociological” study of mixed couples. It is simply the story of two individuals who fell in love.

From outward appearances Gail and I could not be more dissimilar-a blond American who grew up in relative comfort in the middle-class suburbs of Ohio, Texas, and Minnesota, and an African raised in segregated South Africa amid dire poverty, suffering, and racism.

With the publication of Her Boy and Her Boy in Ariea, our relationship came under the spotlight. It was misunderstood, criticized, praised, and subjected to all the stereotyping that America’s lingering and pervasive racism could conjure up.

This book is about our odyssey as a mixed couple in America. It is about what brought and keeps us together, how we have dealt with opposition from family members, hostility from opponents of inrace mixing,” hate mail, the birth of our children, the threats to our careers, our own grappling with the complex requirements and emotions of interracial love.

It is also about the moving personal stories of friends and Preface acquaintances who decided to break long silences about the true nature of their interracial relationships, ofien revealing paullid secrets about careers, friendships, and families sacrificed for their undying conviction that humanity is one, that human love can and should be shared with everyone, regardless of color or creed. For years many of these courageous individuals had been prevented from telling their stories for fear of opening deep wounds, of provoke ing racist attacks, or worse.

Gail and I are far from assuming to speak for all mixed couples.

Nor do we have all the answers for the complex process of falling in love that is as individual as our fingerprints. Nor do we expect our book to dispel all the stereotypes about mixed couples. In some cases these stereotypes may be validated. But of one thing we are certain: Interracial couples should cease being simply statistics, guinea pigs for social scientists and psychoanalysts to dissect and analyze. They should become human.

KERNERsyILLE, NORTH CARoLINA, 1991

MARK’S VIEW ,,” Gail and I met in 1984 when I was twenty-four and she twenty-two.

We were both graduate students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. I had just committed what many considered the worst blunder of my life: I had abandoned my scholarship at the journalism school and a possible secure job afterward as a journalist.

I had few prospects except a half-completed, unpublished manuscript about my childhood and youth in Alexandra, a South African ghetto, and how I escaped from apartheid bondage to freedom in America. My leaving journalism school had partly to do with a fervid desire to finish the book, whose story had haunted me for years. A few publishers had expressed interest in the manuscript. But I held out little hope that the book, if published, would change my life-in other words, that it would be any dilferent from the thousands published each year only to fade into oblivion, leaving the author as poor and insignificant as before.

Gail and I were living at International House-popularly known as I-House-on 122nd and Riverside Drive. Situated on the edge of Harlem and overlooking the Hudson River, the five hundred rooms of I-House olfered alfordable housing to students of various nationalities, from all over the world, who were in the United States pursuing advanced degrees or working as interns for multinational companies in New York City. Among them were Germans, Africans, Swedes, Mid-Easterners, Japanese, South Americans, French. Scores of American students were permitted to live in I-House to partake in the unique cultural exchanges.

I first became aware of Gail at a crowded dance party, hosted by the African cultural club, in the main hall of International House, an elaborate room with huge original oil paintings on the walls and French doors opening onto a terrace overlooking a small park.

Attending the party was a fluke. My upbringing and experiences in South Africa (which in no sense was a normal childhood) had led me to believe that life was mainly for working and learning. I had tried since arriving in the United States in 1978 to learn to relax and enjoy myself the way most Americans do, but to no avail. As a result, many women considered me a bore. At this party I merely stood awkwardly and abstractedly beside a pillar, occasionally attempting to engage this and that person in serious conversation, with little success.

Gail was joyously leaping about to the Reggae music, laughing and clapping her hands as if she had no cares in the world. She was the epitome of a free spirit. Because I frequently brooded over the fate of my impoverished family back home in South Africa, her carefree attitude was like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy hut. It gave me momentary relief from heavy and depressing thoughts.

1Gail was dancing with a tall, gangly white fellow. A strange feeling akin to envy arose in me as I saw them sit down on a couch together to talk. I watched them out of the corner of my eye, wondering if they were more than friends. But what reason did I have to Iwonder at such things? I didn’t even know her. Besides, she was white and we seemed to have little in common.

Some of the women I had dated through college had been white, and I had enjoyed and benefited from the experience, but I still hoped eventually to marry a black woman. Repeated attempts to establish serious relationships with compatible black women, however, ended in painful failure. Some considered me ascetic, too seriIous about life and too much of a bookworm. Others thought me too efemininett because I openly expressed my feelings and disdained a macho image. Still others were bewildered and even ashamed at finding out about my background of poverty, squalor, and degradation.

This befuddled me as I thought we had much in common, emotionally at least, given our similar experiences under white oppression and common African culture. But many black women saw themselves as more American than African. They judged me and my worth in American terms, and because I had no prospects, no money, and no status and was a foreign student, I was presumably considered a risky investment for a long-term relationship.

Realizing this, and being somewhat wounded by it, I vowed to stick with the woman, whatever her race or color, who would see that beneath the poverty, seriousness, and lack of material success, there was a feeling, caring, and loving human being worthy of being befriended, loved, and depended on.

Gail and I continued to run into each other. At meals I saw her enter the cafeteria carrying her lunch tray, look around for an open table, and sit down at a distance from me. She seemed taller and stronger than other women; she wore her blond hair short and usually dressed in shabby men’s clothing. Her favorite outfit consisted of a dark blue men’s suit jacket she bought the previous summer at a yard sale in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, denim jeans, army-style boots, dangling earrings, and multicolored scarves around her neck in the bohemian style reminiscent of the 1960s. Her devil-may-care manner of dressing was part of her charm. She would have been out of character in high heels and dresses.

One evening while doing my regular exercise routine of skipping rope and doing push-ups on the sixth floor, Gail happened to walk by.

Without warning she dropped to the floor, did ten quick push-ups, smiled at me, and then vanished behind a closing elevator door.

I was perplexed. Who is this strange woman? Why is she so independent of societal pressures, especially the pressure many women felt to act weak and feminine? At the time I was rereading John Stuart Mill’s classic essay The Subjection of Women” and was strongly interested in feminism, particularly in comparing the role and struggles of women in South African and American societies.

My early introduction to feminism was through my mother and grandmother. Though the two indomitable matriarchs daily groaned under the yoke of a triple oppression-they were women in a patriarchal culture, blacks in a white-dominated society, and unschooled in a world where education was increasingly vital-they remained strong, caring, loving, and compassionate individuals, full of earthy wisdom and resolute in striving to better their lives and those of their children.

Granny had raised my mother and my mother’s four siblings alone after her husband abandoned her for another woman.

And my mother, following my father’s emasculation by the apartheid system, effectively kept the family together.

My mother and grandmother were the first feminists I knew.

Their characters, example, and deeds heavily influenced my values and outlook on life. They liberated the other important half of me, the feminine part, and made it grow and fully complement my masculine half.

Whereas my father had sought to teach me that however deep the pain men never cry, ever, and that they should suppress, deny, and keep their emotions bottled up, my mother and grandmother taught me that a man can cry, love, care, change diapers, clean house, iron, and still be a man.

Once I came to know Gail well, I saw a lot of my mother in her.

Her being white did not obscure the fact that she was intensely human.

She felt deeply and cared about others. She possessed in full measure what in my mother’s Tsonga culture is called rirbandu (inhuman love, kindness”).

My first conversation with Gail was about women’s issues. One day in the hot and humid laundry room in the basement of I-House, I overheard Gail telling Katie King, another journalism student, about her visit to a battered women’s shelter in Harlem. I joined the conversation. My sympathy for women’s issues and my hatred of male violence against women surprised Gail and Katie. But I was merely speaking from personal experience: My father used to beat my mother for such trifles as answering back when he lectured her, which he called ininsubordination unbecoming the woman he bought.” At the age of thirty-seven, he had paid about twenty cattle in Jobota for my mother when she was seventeen and without a say in the matter.

The patriarchal tribal culture at the time invested men with almost dictatorial powers over women. Wife beating was so widespread and accepted that many women considered it a sign of a man’s affection.

HowWe MetIT Not my mother. She was a quiet, but determined, rebel.

As I mentioned at the beginning, about the time I met Gail I was leading a life, largely self-imposed, of an intellectual hermit.

Having dropped out of Columbia J-school to concentrate on completing the manuscript for Her BoA, I followed a rigid schedule of reading, writing, and exercising, and spent most of my time in my cell-like dorm room. I only went out to purchase fruit at a Korean fresh market on Broadway or to browse through my favorite used-book stores on Amsterdam Avenue and downtown at the Strand.

BOOK: Love in Black and White: The Triumph of Love Over Prejudice and Taboo
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