The Issue of Race Enters My Life
In the 1960s, race slapped me in the face when I fell in love with the wrong person – my black African anthropology professor. A girl in the dorm advised, “If you go with a black man, no white man will have you.” Another said, “If you go black, you never go back.” I paid a high price for that love. My parents took me out of college my junior year and forbade me to have any contact with him. A year later, I was permitted to leave home on the condition that I never contact Ben again.
I didn’t do so directly. By then, I was in a training program in New Haven, Connecticut, and I thought there was no hope. I happened to write a friend at Ohio University and simply mentioned, “By the way, how’s Ben?” since she was a friend of his as well. She quickly carried my letter to him, although I never requested it.
A week later, when I opened his letter with trembling hands, I realized I’d never stopped loving him. Still, we were apart for two years for several reasons. That time seemed like forever. While I was working at Macy’s in New York City, my Jamaican boss warned me, “Black women will hate you. You’re taking one of their good men.”
This will sound funny but I realized I was interracially married when I first cleaned black kinky hair out of the bathtub. I bought skin lotion for Ben’s ashy legs. I asked him why the palms of his hands and soles of his feet weren’t dark. He answered with a creation joke about Negroes being last to wash in the river when the water was almost gone – just being able to wet the soles of their hands and feet. He told me that in the 1950s, Negroes wanted to be white – all other things being equal, which they could never be. Now you have a white woman in the media passing for black because of the attention it gave her.
My marriage simultaneously closed and opened societal doors. From that moment on, I was no longer enveloped in white society. Ben never belonged in white society although he had white professional faculty friends and personal student friends. Black society was open to me on a certain level because of who I married. I had access to Ben’s family in Liberia, West Africa – the Mende and Gbandi tribes. In fact, I was accepted into the Mende tribe in 1972 and renamed “Baindu.”
In the course of our marriage, my husband confided in me incidences of racial slurs and mistaken identity. During the 1980s in Michigan, he was taken for a gardener at our home, a janitor on campus, and called “nigger” when he helped a white man get his car out of a flooded area. Each time I heard the hurt and discouragement in his voice. When we moved to Florida in 1992, it was like racially stepping back in time. Not long after, Ft. Myers was named the 11th most segregated city in America by the University of Michigan.
Does race still matter? It depends on who you ask. In my opinion, race currently has about as much impact as it did in the 60s. It matters more or less, depending on where you live, your economic situation, and what social circle you’re in. I recently had a white woman ask me, “Does it mean you’re a racist if you don’t want your daughter to marry a black man because of the challenges she’ll face?”
Differences in race and culture imply barriers to intimacy. Those who are different from ourselves can only come so close and no farther. I believe there’s healing power in sharing our hearts and emotions through a dialogue in race – the deepest level of communication.
Dialogue in Race
In telling our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief, I shared my heart with readers. I had to be honest and transparent, revealing my flaws and weaknesses in my racial and cultural struggles so others could relate to me and share their truth. Honesty breaks down barriers by generating empathy as others walk in my shoes.
It’s my hope that my story will encourage people of different races and cultures to talk openly with each other having an honest dialogue in race. Let’s begin here!
What is your racial experience? Does telling it bring healing for you? Can you speak openly before members of a different race? I’m eager to hear your views.