I Married a Black Man
In the 1960’s, as a white college student, I married my anthropology professor, who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. We faced tremendous opposition, especially from my father. Once I had married interracially, I began to see things from the black point of view. I was no longer fully accepted in the white community, nor the black community and became a “white racial rebel.” Below are excerpts from our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief. In my words:
My Parents Take Me Out of School
That fall of my junior year, when I arrived back on campus, all the wonderful memories from the previous spring flooded my mind. Nothing was the same without Ben. Three weeks after classes began, I stopped by his apartment, rationalizing to myself that I simply wanted to see if he was okay. As soon as I saw him, I melted, knowing how much I still loved him. During that fall semester of my junior year, we resumed our relationship until the Thanksgiving break.
When I arrived home for the break, Dad wasted no time as we sat at the kitchen table for supper. With Mom watching, he asked directly, “Are you seeing Ben?”
I meekly answered, “Yes.”
After they took me out of school, dead silence ruled on the drive home from OU. I sat in back, lost and in shock.
A White Racial Rebel – Meeting with My Pastor
The next morning at breakfast, Dad said, “You have to meet with the pastor.” I didn’t look forward to it, knowing what he’d say, but I had no choice. In the pastor’s office at the parsonage, he sat behind his desk in a black suit, his dark hair slicked with Brylcreem. He fiddled with his tie clasp. I knew instantly that Dad had filled him in when he began by saying firmly, “This relationship is sin because he’s a married man. When you take what doesn’t belong to you and you repent, you give it back. There can never be any future relationship with him, because of how it began. The only way to be right with God is to have nothing more to do with him.”
He never addressed race. Since Ben was still married, I had no counter argument. Deep down inside, I agreed that everything with Ben had started out wrong. I left feeling forlorn. A week later, a letter from Ben arrived. Excited, I ripped it open, only to read how devastated he was. I hardly had time to digest it before Dad walked into the living room and demanded, “Hand it to me. No more letters.” I became more dejected.
That winter on our remote, all-too-quiet farm, I was a zombie, snatched from the life I loved. The Ohio skies were gray; my life was grayer. I moved into Jim’s empty front bedroom and sunk into a deep depression. Long hours of sleep were my only escape. I went through the motions, taking one step after another with no idea what came next. Solemn politeness ruled the home atmosphere. I wanted to escape my life that had no future. I didn’t even want a future. There was no hope, no promise of anything.
My parents’ drastic action took its toll on them as well. Their world was turned upside down, just like mine. People at church wondered why I hadn’t gone back to school after the Thanksgiving break. In February, Dad was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer; three-fourths of his stomach was removed.
Going Back to School After We Married
In the fall of 1971, when our son, Bengie, was two and a half, I enrolled as a junior majoring in sociology with a minor in anthropology. I wanted to major in anthropology, but there weren’t enough courses since Ben was the only anthropologist at the time. During my last two years of college, I took three sociology and three anthropology classes from Ben. My favorite subject was social psychology (how society determines behavior), and my favorite course was “Culture and Personality” (how culture shapes personality).
My “Religion in America” sociology class, taught by another professor, turned me into a Lutheran rebel. I discovered that churches had white congregations with white pastors, and black congregations with white and black pastors, but there were no integrated churches or white congregations with black pastors. I decided to write my term paper on how well the membership of local churches reflected the makeup of their surrounding neighborhoods. Some didn’t. The district president refused to give me access to any membership statistics. He said, “What would be the point?” I said nothing but thought, He knows exactly the point.
A few students complained to the administration that I spoke too much in Ben’s classes, asked too many questions, and received favorable treatment regarding grades. I got As in his classes, but I did the same in my other subjects. The university dismissed the complaint.
On school days, I dropped Bengie off at the campus child care center at the adjacent church. I enjoyed my classes, relishing being back in the intellectual atmosphere of college life. At twenty-six, I was older than most of the other students, but I identified more with them than the faculty. I related well to the other faculty wives who were taking classes since we shared that dual identity.
However, I quickly realized that my carefree college days were gone forever. I had a husband and child to care for and a house to maintain. After I picked up Bengie, there were no extracurricular campus activities for me, and going to school full-time with a toddler didn’t leave much time or energy for socializing.
I Receive My Degree in Sociology with a Minor in Anthropology
The following April in 1973, Ben’s book The Gbandes: A People of the Liberian Hinterland was published. Nelson Hall, the publisher, used my photograph of a Gbandi woman displaying a woven basket on the cover. Not only that, I had spent umpteen hours typing and editing it. Ben inscribed my copy as follows: “The first woman I really loved and trusted completely was my mother. That’s why I decided to write a book about her tribe. Nita, you are the second woman I love and trust as much, and even more.”
In May I graduated with a BA in sociology with a minor in anthropology. The entire family was invited, but Dad was angry with Jim and told me he wouldn’t come if he was there. Mom and Dad’s absence dampened the occasion, but Jim and his wife and Sandy came. In the home movies Jim took, Ben is sitting up front with the faculty as I walk across the stage to receive my diploma.