Category Archives: Interracial Marriage

Other Side of the Lake

My Dad and me at another lake at an earlier time. I think I'm two.

The summer I was ten, my parents and I rented a big yellow farm house which was a stone’s throw from a clear, blue lake. Everyone with a weekend house in the vicinity used the lake; it was the main attraction of the place.  It had a soft (more likely than not, man-made), sandy bank and a wooden raft anchored in the middle that you could swim or canoe out to.  People would lie out on that raft and just sun themselves for half the day.  No one worried about UV rays back in the seventies; people slathered themselves with baby oil and Ban de Soleil–sometimes held those aluminum sheets under their chins–and baked copper-brown in the sun, myself included.  (I know many people of color who were cautioned as children to stay out of the sun–to keep from getting darker.  My mother, who valued a nice tan in those days, was envious of how easily I browned.)

Our second week at the house, a group of boys arrived at a nearby estate.  There were ten of them, all about thirteen, all black, hailing from a place called “Inner City,” of which I’d never heard.  These boys had been awarded this special trip as a prize for academic excellence in a program which was basically for smart kids from rotten schools.  In addition to staying in a huge, old manor house and having access to a lake and the beautiful country, the boys were also taking enrichment classes in all the major academic areas.  Sort of like The Fresh Air Fund meets Prep for Prep.

My dad loved to observe these boys as they play-wrestled and exchanged insults involving one another’s mamas.  They were loud and wild and splashed a lot.  Most of the well-heeled regulars stayed away when the boys came out to swim—Inner-City-brand hilarity not being the vacationers’ speed.   The boys always greeted my dad with respect.  They could tell he understood them, though they didn’t know what to think about our family.  The boys seemed surprised that my mother—The White Lady—wasn’t afraid of them.  She spoke to them like a teacher would, even stepping in when their routine scuffles got out of hand.   They certainly didn’t know what to make of me.  Once the boys saw that my parents had no problem with them—didn’t clutch me and flee when they arrived, like the other parents did—they felt it was safe to approach me.  They never asked my name, but addressed me as “Little Girl,” referred to me as such amongst themselves.  As in:  “There go the Little Girl, y’all.”

The way I talked, which was nasal and squeaky with prominent r’s, amused them.

“Hey, Little Girl, you better watch out: Jaws is in the water.” (The film had been released earlier that summer.)

“No he’s not,” I’d say, not realizing they were trying to get a rise out of me.  “This lake is fresh water.  Sharks only live in salt water.”

They’d howl and slap each other’s hands as someone else would come up with a question for me, just to hear me talk.

The reason my dad got such a big kick out of these boys was that he had been one of these boys.   He had grown up in the thirties on the South Side of Chicago, part of what was referred to as “The Black Belt.”  His father—whom I never met because I was born too late—was a Pullman Porter, which meant he was always employed, even throughout the Depression.  So compared to those around them, my father’s family was not poor–my grandmother even took to leaving meals out on their front porch for those who had none.  Nevertheless, they were still black; they still struggled and faced the same kind of pervasive racism that all “colored people” faced back then, regardless of class.

It was immediately apparent to everyone that my father was a smart little boy, taking after his brother, Stan, who was eleven years his senior and clearly headed for University.  My father wore glasses from an early age, which no doubt helped people take his intellect seriously.  But it was more than that.  By seven, he was reading everything he could get his hands on; by ten, under his brother’s tutelage, he could differentiate Mozart from Beethoven from Schubert.  In Nineteen thirty-seven–seventeen years before Brown versus the Board of Education–my father was one of a very few black students who began attending a white high school, where he joined the staff of the school newspaper, ultimately becoming its chief cartoonist.

Still, his friends were the boys from his neighborhood.  They splashed around in their lake—Lake Michigan—and derided one another’s mamas just like these boys did.  Of course, the mobile sunshine delineated the white section of their beach.  If the sun moved while my father and his friends were in the water—which it invariably did—the racial divide moved.  That meant trouble.   As Dad would ultimately write:

‘No one had ever designated which sections of the beach were for white and black.  There were no signs as I had seen south … saying “white only, “ or “colored.”  But rigid segregation prevailed.  And the group of pugnacious white men and boys was always there at some arbitrary dividing line, with bats in their hands, watching us.  It was a different group every time we came to the lake, but they always looked the same.  Thin, fat, or muscular, narrowed eyes, tight little mouths and hard frowns …

If any black swimmers lost their sense of direction, or place, they would hear the shouts and curses and racial epithets.  If that didn’t do the job, into the water the group would come, eager for the attack.’[1]

Watching those boys at the lake that summer brought my father back to his beginnings: what it was like to be young, black, smart and way out of place wherever he went.   He never talked to me about those days when I was a kid, only when I found drafts of his memoirs later on and asked about them.  What stories he did tell me of black life in the 1930s on the South Side of Chicago involved a world very far removed from my own.

I spent my whole childhood without a single overt incident of racism—that I noticed.  I know I was raised in a bubble: a city where biracial was common, a private school where the black kids were no different socioeconomically from the white kids.  I had no frame of reference for relating to my father’s tales of segregation and fear.  Also, my father’s job in publishing meant later hours and more business trips than those of my mother, who was a teacher.   Mom was with me more, meaning I negotiated the world accompanied by a white, educated woman.  We may have gotten more than our share of looks when we went places together, but that was an easy trade.  No matter where we went, my mother’s race provided access.

Still, the trials my father endured as a youth, the character they built in him, paved the way for me to have a very different sort of life, in a different sort of time and place.


[1] From Untitled Memoir by Mel Williamson (The manuscript is undated, but he worked on it continuously between 1985 and 1994. ) This excerpt takes place in the summer of 1940.

When Cancer Chose Him

(This is the second of two short excerpts I’m including in this blog from my essay First to Go: A Nice Jewish Girl Survives the Love of Her Life, about my parent’s marriage.  For the first excerpt, “A Mixed Marriage in 1950,” click here.)

About 25 years before his diagnosis

I must have been a junior in high school the night my dad got mugged, because he had yet to give up smoking.  They followed him into the elevator—two young black guys—with a hey man and a what’s going on? to which my dad responded in kind.

“You got a light?”  One of them asked (a lot of people ignored the rule against smoking in the elevators—understandable, since they all still had ashtrays in them.)  My father reached into his pocket and pulled out his lighter, only to discover that it was dead.

“Too bad …” the one sighed.  “Maybe this will work …” and produced a long switchblade which he proceeded to press against my father’s neck.

While the unarmed one stopped the elevator, the one with the knife turned my dad around and shoved him face first into the corner.  He held him fast, keeping the knife to his neck, shouting, Come on, come on!  at his partner–who frantically stripped my dad of everything he had on him except for his keys (still in his hand), his wedding ring (on the same hand), and the defunct lighter.

When the men were done, they started the elevator again and got out at the next floor, leaving my father physically unharmed.

I know I woke up when he got inside our apartment on the seventeenth floor.  I heard the anxious voices of both my parents, as my father told my mother what had happened.  I don’t remember if I got out of bed then and joined them, or fell back asleep and heard the story the next morning.  In any case, my father was still badly shaken.  He kept repeating the part about the knife against his neck and how, if the mugger’s hand had been any less steady, he would have been dead.

It was the first time my father had ever seemed vulnerable to me.  My whole life, no matter what was going on, he’d always seemed in command of every situation.  Now some stranger had robbed him of all his authority in a matter of five awful minutes.  He never fully recovered it.

Dad spent a good part of the next day at the police station, going over volume after volume of mug-shot books.  Endless photographs of young, black men on the wrong side of the law. What did it mean to him, I’ve always wondered, that the muggers were black?  What did he have to grapple with as a result?  My father’s brother, Herman—one of my least bright uncles, whom I never met because he’d died long before my birth—had frequently prefaced statements with the phrase:  “If niggas would just learn to act right …” directly attributing the persistence of racism to the bad behavior of black people.   This had outraged my father.  Still—all those photographs.

Nothing had changed outwardly after the mugging, yet my father was never quite the same again.  He suddenly seemed older, smaller, more fragile.  He got sick more frequently.  It felt like he was living—writing—on borrowed time.

I’ve never been able to shake the notion that the mugging was when Cancer chose him.  I know my theory is totally unscientific, but it’s possible that the emotional trauma was extreme enough to affect his body chemistry.  My father’s doctors initially gave him just three years.  The cancer had already metastasized, so removing the prostate would have been pointless.  The best they could do was keep things in check, slow down the progress of an already slow-moving cancer.  They tried him on a new experimental treatment—a form of oral chemo—a set of pills to be taken three times a day for the rest of his life.  There were some side effects, including some weight gain and moodiness.  But for the most part, the drugs were effective and did what they were supposed to do.  He survived more than five years, remaining mostly symptom-free for the first three and a half.

Once my father died, my mother made a very conscious decision not to.   She poured herself back into life with a vengeance.  It would be another four years before she retired, but she began to travel almost immediately.  We went to London together the summer after he died, though we were both still part-numb, part-reeling from the loss.  We made ourselves to go; we had to do something to mark a new stage, where we would celebrate life the way Dad would want us to.   We had a great time in his honor.   By day we’d split up and take in different sights—museums and shoppes and parks and streets and squares whose names I recognized from so many books I’d read over the years.   In the late afternoons we’d come together again and wind around the city until we found a restaurant for dinner.  Sometimes we took the Tube, but more often we walked, talking the whole time, and all through the meal, mostly about my father.  The memories of him as he’d been in his prime—strong and whole and laughing and free of disease—began flooding back on that trip, replacing those of the last year and a half he’d spent in bed.

For my mother, the London trip had sparked a new passion for adventure.  Or maybe it wasn’t so new (she’d married my father, after all) but simply dormant.  In any case, the first thing she did when we got home was begin writing a grant for a new curriculum for her school on the journeys of Columbus and his fellow European explorers.  She got the grant, which meant a month-long, research-filled European tour for her—Spain, Portugal, Italy.   She devised the trip and booked everything on her own; she went alone.  She speaks only English, so it was a daring endeavor which basically showed everyone in her life—herself included—just what sort of stuff Lorraine Williamson was made of.   I believe it impressed everyone just how well she stood up on her own after nearly half a century of marriage.

Since her retirement, she’s taken traveling to the next level.  She’s been back to Europe several times, China twice, visited Viet Nam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Ecuador, and Africa three times—North, South, and Central.  She’s ridden camels and elephants, hiked the Himalayas, and snorkeled off the Galapagos Islands.

My mother has been busy at home, too.  She tutors; she’s a docent at the Jewish Heritage Museum, and the most loving, involved grandmother my two children could ask for.  She’s part of a book group; she goes to plays, concerts museums—everything the city has to offer.  On some level, I think she’s afraid that if she’s still for a moment—or has too quiet a weekend—age will find her and get the best of her.

When my father was dying, my mother had been part of a support group for women whose husbands were battling cancer.   Seventeen years later, a handful of the widows, my mother included, continues to meet for monthly dinners out.   They still discuss their late spouses—who brought them together after all—but these days talk centers primarily on the here and now: whose daughter is getting married, whose grandson’s bar mitzvah is coming up, and who’s finally moving to Florida.  Some of the younger ones have remarried; others, like my mom, are busy with the grandchildren their late husbands never got to meet.  The discourse flows, I imagine, from past to present and back again.

At one point during the most recent of these dinners, the conversation turned, as it frequently does, to fond reminiscences of the departed.  One of the women sighed, lamenting:  “I wish I’d been first to go.”

As the others took in the statement and gravely nodded their assent, my mother cleared her throat.   “No you don’t.” she said.

A Mixed Marriage in 1950

(This is the first of two short excerpts I’m including in this blog from my essay, First to Go: A Nice Jewish Girl Survives the Love of Her Life, about my parent’s marriage.)
*

My Parents Sometime in the Mid-sixties

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.

Why I Believe Marriage Equality = Common Sense

I am glad to say that by now—nearly a week after Valentine’s Day, 2012, the day  “The Loving Story” aired on HBO—interracial marriage is more accepted in this country than ever.  According to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, about one out of every seven new marriages in the U.S. is interracial.  (Which you can read about in this link from GOOD Magazine.)  On that note, I believe it’s time to extend marriage rights to same sex couples.

As the child of a very long and happy interracial marriage, I know that it is possible for two people to have a loving, lasting bond even if there are societal barriers to “their kind” of union.

I believe that a marriage between two people of different races is no less a marriage than one between two people of the same race.

I believe that a marriage between two people of the same sex is no less a marriage than one between two people of different sexes.

If you love and wish to marry someone of a different race, and I love and wish to marry someone of my same race, I do not believe that your marriage in any way undermines my marriage.

If I love and wish to marry someone of a different gender and you love and wish to marry someone of your own gender, I do not believe that your marriage in any way undermines my marriage.

But what about the children?  One reason people used to give (and still give) for opposing interracial marriage was the children.   As in: Think of the children!  Won’t they have issues?  Well, yes we do have issues, just as every other group or combination of groups has issues.  We are also teachers, doctors, lawyers, dancers, writers, husbands, wives, same-sex partners, parents … and—oh yeah—the U.S. president.  We’re doing OK.   As are children of same-sex parents, last I checked.

What about that business about undermining the sanctity of marriage in general? 

I believe that if one couple’s inter-sex marriage is undermined by another couple’s same-sex marriage, then the first marriage wasn’t particularly strong to begin with.  Same-sex marriages don’t undermine marriage any more than same-race marriages do.

What undermines marriage is marrying someone because your publicist told you to.   What undermines marriage is doing it for reality show ratings.  What undermines marriage is infidelity.  What undermines marriage is denigrating other peoples’ marriages when you are supplementing your marriage with extramarital partners.  What undermines marriage is going into it while keeping your options open.  What undermines marriage is violence.

My parents—a black man and a white, Jewish woman—got married in Chicago, Illinois in 1950, eight years before Richard and Mildred Loving wed.  At the time, interracial marriage was illegal in over thirty states.  My parents were married for forty-five years when my father died.  In four and a half decades, their interracial marriage did not threaten the sanctity of anyone’s same-race marriage.   Not even a little bit.

I think it is time to acknowledge that marriage is a loving, committed relationship between two people who love and commit to one another.