People wonder, and I’ve often asked myself: if my father was so involved with black culture, black politics, the survival and advancement of black people, then why did he marry a white woman? He actually died before he could explain that in his memoir (believe me, I’ve scoured the various revisions) so I’ve had to come up with answers myself. The best I can do is the following. He didn’t marry a white woman; he married my mother. He married someone who would be his student, his supporter and his best audience. Not that she’d never challenge him, but I do believe that at first, and perhaps for many years, she hung on his every word.
Though he stood just five foot eight and always looked much younger than he was, my father carried himself with an air of great importance. His deep voice, eloquence and measured way of speaking demanded respect. When he made an entrance, strangers would rack their brains and snap their fingers, whispering: “Oh, that’s—that’s … who is that guy again?”
Of course he wasn’t famous, but everyone thought he was and he never disabused people of the notion. I believe that my mother was the only woman—black, white or otherwise—who could have put up with all that.
In part, my mother’s tolerance was due to a childhood spent in the shadow of her own mother’s pathological narcissism. My maternal grandmother had been the leading lady of her own world, her daughters, little more than stage-hands. If ever my mother brought home a boy, my grandmother would flirt with him and later ask, Well? What did he say about me? Naturally, before meeting the guy, my grandmother would have asked the compulsory “is he Jewish?” which, prior to my dad, he always was.
My mother had been a very good girl all her life and had gotten no credit for it. I imagine there was no better way to stick it to my grandmother than marrying a black man—completely unheard of for a nice Jewish girl in 1950. She’d married my father for the rebellion of it, but also for the excitement. She knew she was along for the ride of her life and therefore didn’t mind being off to the side while my father took center stage.
Their marriage wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was pretty good—all things considered—and lasted forty-five years, until the end of my dad’s life.
They married at the tender ages of twenty-three and twenty-six, in Chicago: a small wedding held in my paternal grandparents’ house. In attendance were my father’s whole family, the younger members of my mother’s family, and their closest friends. My father’s parents had embraced and accepted my mother from the beginning, though her parents would remain in the dark until the young couple had safely arrived in New York City—where they’d moved for my father’s political work. My mother called her parents from Penn Station to announce her new marital status. (Oh and did I mention: he’s black?) There had been no thought to invite them to the wedding, nor any possibility of bringing my father home in advance to meet his future in-laws.
My mother was thus cut off from her parents, informally disowned. For the act of marrying such a man (a gentile as well as a schvartze), my mother got blamed for every evil that subsequently befell the family, including the death of her beloved Uncle Julius. Somehow no one managed to connect the dots from his daily consumption of creamed soups to the clogging of his arteries and ultimate heart attack. (Nah. Must have been the black guy.)
So there she was, twenty-three years old, alone with her dynamic new husband in New York City—no family, no friends—far from everything familiar to her.
They found an apartment in Brooklyn. My mother was the one who scoped out all their potential homes, for obvious reasons. She’d meet each landlord, say her husband was at work, and get the tour of everything they could afford. The landlord of the place she chose wouldn’t learn my father was black until moving day, and by then it was too late to reject them. In any case, it took only a few weeks to recognize that my parents were a lovely young couple in every sense of the word, regardless of color.
That happened a lot with my father. People who rejected his race flat out—who really believed blacks to be the scourge of this country—had a way of accepting my father as “one of the good ones.” He was familiar with the comment “if all black people were like you …” This never flattered or impressed my father; it just revealed the character of the person making the statement. My father believed a racist was a racist. Still, they needed a place to live.
My mother found a job teaching at the Brooklyn Community School where, gradually, she began to make her own friends. Soon my parents were established in a community of their own. Their friends were young, smart, black, Jewish or both. Many of these friendships would last through the era of my childhood (which wouldn’t begin until the sixties).
So New York became less strange, more like home. In some ways it was more comfortable than the Chicago my mother had known. Being Jewish was safer, for example. My mother was accustomed to being discreet about it, letting people think that Rosen (her maiden name) was German. Growing up, she’d been chased and beaten up, called a “dirty Jew” on numerous occasions. Part of her Jewish identity was—is—forever connected to the fear of being attacked. She’d heaved a sigh of relief, I think, in taking my father’s name and becoming a Williamson. It was less about shame than safety. There was some pride in being Jewish, too. My mother has described the feeling of surprise and delight at finding herself in an environment where you could say “knish” and other people would know what you were talking about.
So another piece of my parents’ bond was the experience of being hated, truly hated. While my mother could hide, to a degree, among gentiles—the way my father could not among whites—they both knew what it was to be far outside the majority. That feeling of paranoia, which isn’t paranoia at all because you’re not imagining it.
And once united, my parents shared the new experience of being an interracial couple—living with all that it meant to people who saw them together. In Chicago, they’d been chased by thugs with baseball bats. In New York, some frowned, some smiled in solidarity, some simply stared, but then went on with their own lives.