I Married a Black Man
As a white college student in the 1960’s, I married my anthropology professor, who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. In the course of our 40-year marriage, we had three sons. I had the experience of raising biracial children as a white woman. Below is an excerpt from our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief, in my own words:
Life in a Midwestern City
First of all, let me mention that my kids grew up in Flint, Michigan, during the good years. There was a strong black middle class and my boys had black teachers as well as white. There were black judges and a black mayor. My husband was a professor at the U of M-Flint and well known in the community. So my experience raising biracial children is probably skewed. Plus the fact, that if my boys got into trouble or had racial struggles, they didn’t tell us.
My three sons were raised with a strong white influence because of me and my family. They were all baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran faith. They grew up loving their grandparents dearly, spending holidays and summer visits on the farm. Only when they were grown did they learn hints of my parents’ initial rejection.
Their African Heritage
Even so, they moved between white and black American society while incorporating an African heritage as well. In a sense, they became world citizens with connections to a range of people and cultures. They met many Liberians in America, including three who lived with us for a while. Because of Ben’s connections with Africans, they were familiar with those in the African Association of Greater Flint. And yet, despite our travels and their year in Liberia, the Mende and Gbandi cultures were not central to their lives.
White society labeled them as black, but they were just my boys to me. Strangely, Ben and I didn’t discuss race or racism with them. While they had black friends, especially in grade school, they weren’t deeply attached to the black American community, since Ben was African. They might mention that someone was “mixed,” as they were, but it wasn’t until our book, Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, was published that they told us some of their experiences. Ben Jr. mentioned being chased during a riot in Paris, having been mistaken for a Turkish immigrant. Joe told me about white teenagers who imitated the dress and lifestyle of blacks. Peter resented any comments I made about the difficulties blacks faced since I had no “understanding” of it.
Raising Biracial Children: An American Childhood
Throughout their American childhood, there were the usual birthday parties, Halloween costumes, Christmas gifts under the tree, and various school activities. They attended the integrated Flint public school system and did well academically. Like everyone else, we made our parenting mistakes. And yet, they somehow managed to survive us and become successful adults. As they grew, they each had their distinct personalities, interests, and share of accolades, awards, and scholarships, as well as their struggles and challenges.
I was determined that they learn to work and demanded they do their best in household chores. Ben said, “If you can work for your mother, you can work for anyone.” As young teenagers, Ben Jr. and Joe had paper routes and worked at Mitchell’s grocery store. When Peter was in high school in Ft. Myers, he waited tables at a yacht club. They all contributed toward paying for their clothes, as well as other expenses. When Ben Jr. was a sophomore in college, we gave him Ben’s old Renault Encore. Joe inherited our Ford Tempo as a junior in high school. We helped Peter buy a Volkswagen Cabriolet convertible when he was a high school sophomore.
Who Will They Marry?
A light-skinned black woman once told me, “Your sons will probably marry white women because they’ll be looking for their mother.” Her prediction was correct, but I’m not sure they were looking for me. My 5 grandchildren can all pass for white. One of the reasons I wrote my story is to keep alive their African heritage.