Love In Black And White
Preface and Chapter One from “Love In Black And White”
by Mark and Gail Mathabane
WHAT does it mean to be an interracial couple in America? For many years, decades, it has meant being analyzed, studied, categorized, labeled and collected into statistics and theories—some bizarre and others downright ridiculous—aimed at answering a question at once simple and complex: Why do human beings fall in love?
There’s little doubt that of all the kinds of mixed couples in America, the black and white relationships are among the most studied, psychoanalyzed and discussed. They provoke the strongest reactions in people. They constantly are targeted by black and white opponents of “race mixing.”
Sociological treatises and psychological studies abound about the problems of and the motives behind interracial relationships. They have fascinated and titillated society since the days of slavery. But despite extensive research into such relationships, there have been few human stories about why individuals from different and frequently antagonistic worlds defy formidable cultural prejudices and taboos to unite their lives in friendship and marriage.
There are about 200,000 married black-white couples in America, living in virtually every state of the union. Amazingly, many of these couples are in the South, where until 1967 such marriages were forbidden by law.
In Virginia in 1959 a white man and his black wife were convicted by an all-white grand jury for violating the state’s ban on interracial marriages. The penal code stated:
If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.
In his sentencing opinion, the Virginia judge stated:
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and He placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.
The couple appealed the decision, and in June 1967 the Supreme Court struck down the Virginia law, along with the anti-miscegenation laws of 15 other states, on the grounds that the freedom to marry whom one chooses is one of the “vital personal rights” protected under the Fourteenth Amendment.
But attitudes change slower than laws: 25 years after the Supreme Court ruling, stereotypes and misconceptions against mixed marriages are still rife. We have attempted, with this book, to explore and expose these attitudes.
Our book is not another “scientific” or “sociological” study of mixed couples. It is simply the story of two individuals who fell in love. From outward appearances, we could not be more dissimilar—a blond American who grew up in relative comfort in the middle-class suburbs of Ohio, Texas and Minnesota, and an African raised in segregated South Africa amid dire poverty, suffering and racism.
With the publication of Kaffir Boy and Kaffir Boy in America, our relationship came under the spotlight. It was misunderstood, criticized, praised, and subjected to all the stereotyping that America’s lingering and pervasive racism could conjure up.
Our children: Stanley Arthur (6), Bianca (11) and Nathan (9)
This book is about our odyssey as a mixed couple in America. It is about what brought and keeps us together, how we have dealt with opposition from family members, hostility from opponents of “race mixing,” hate mail, the birth of our children, the threats to our careers, our own grappling with the complex requirements and emotions of interracial love.
It is also about the moving personal stories of friends and acquaintances who decided to break long silences and talk about the true nature of their interracial relationships, often revealing painful secrets about careers, friendships and families sacrificed for their undying conviction that humanity is one, that human love can and should be shared with everyone, regardless of color or creed. For years many of these courageous individuals had been prevented from telling their stories for fear of opening deep wounds, of provoking racist attacks, or worse.
Jeanne and Arthur Ashe, Mark and Gail Mathabane and Stan and Margie Smith.
We are far from assuming to speak for all mixed couples. Nor do we have all the answers for the complex process of falling in love that is as individual as our fingerprints. Nor do we expect our book to dispel all the stereotypes about mixed couples. In some cases these stereotypes may be validated. But of one thing we are certain: interracial couples should cease being simply statistics, guinea pigs for social scientists and psychoanalysts to dissect and analyze. They should become human.
How We Met: Mark’s View
Gail and I met in 1984 when I was 24 and she 22. We were both graduate students and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. I had just committed what many considered the worst blunder of my life: I had abandoned my scholarship at the journalism school and a possible secure job afterward as a journalist.
I had few prospects except a half-completed, unpublished manuscript about my childhood and youth in Alexandra, a South African ghetto, and how I escaped from apartheid bondage to freedom in America. My leaving journalism school had partly to do with a fervid desire to finish the book, whose story had haunted me for years. A few publishers had expressed interest in the manuscript. But I held out little hope that the book, if published, would change my life – in other words, that it would be any different from the thousands published each year only to fade into oblivion, leaving the author as poor and insignificant as before.
Gail and I were living at International House—popularly known as I-House—on 122nd and Riverside Drive. Situated on the edge of Harlem and overlooking the Hudson River, the 500 rooms of I-House offered affordable housing to students of various nationalities, from all over the world, who were in the United States pursuing advanced degrees or working as interns for multinational companies in New York City. Among them were Germans, Africans, Swedes, Mid-Easterners, Japanese, South Americans, French. Scores of Americans were permitted to live in I-House to partake in the unique cultural exchanges.
I first became aware of Gail at a crowded dance party, hosted by the African Cultural Club, in the main hall of International House, an elaborate room with huge original oil paintings on the walls and French doors opening onto a terrace overlooking a small park.
Attending the party was a fluke. My upbringing and experiences in South Africa (which in no sense was a normal childhood) had led me to believe that life was mainly for working and learning. I had tried since arriving in the United States in 1978 to learn to relax and enjoy myself the way most Americans do, but to no avail. As a result, many women considered me a bore. At this party I merely stood awkwardly and abstractedly beside a pillar, occasionally attempting to engage this and that person in serious conversation with little success.
Gail was joyously leaping about to the reggae music, laughing and clapping her hands as if she had no cares in the world. She was the epitome of a free spirit. Because I frequently brooded over the fate of my impoverished family back home in South Africa, her carefree attitude was like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy hut. It gave me momentary relief from heavy and depressing thoughts.
Gail was dancing with a tall, gangly white fellow. A strange feeling akin to envy arose in me as I saw them sit down on a couch together to talk. I watched them out of the corner of my eye, wondering if they were more than friends. But what reason did I have to wonder at such things? I didn’t even know her. Besides, she was white and we seemed to have little in common.
Some of the women I had dated through college had been white, and I had enjoyed and benefited from the experience, but I still hoped eventually to marry a black woman. Repeated attempts to establish serious relationships with a compatible black woman, however, ended in painful failure. Some considered me ascetic, too serious about life and too much of a bookworm. Others thought me too “feminine” because I openly expressed my feelings and disdained a macho image. Still others were bewildered and even ashamed at finding out about my background of poverty, squalor and degradation.
This befuddled me as I thought we had much in common, emotionally at least, given our similar experiences under white oppression and common African culture. But many black women saw themselves as more American than African. They judged me and my worth in American terms, and because I had no prospects, no money, and no status and was a foreign student, I was presumably considered a risky investment for a long-term relationship.
Realizing this, and being somewhat wounded by it, I vowed to stick with the woman, whatever her race or color, who would see that beneath the poverty, seriousness, and lack of material success, there was a feeling, caring, and loving human being worthy of being befriended, loved and depended on.
Gail and I continued to run into each other. At meals I saw her enter the cafeteria carrying her lunch tray, look around for an open table, and sit down at a distance from me. She seemed taller and stronger than other women; she wore her blond hair short and usually dressed in shabby men’s clothing. Her favorite outfit consisted of a dark blue men’s suit jacket she had bought the previous summer at a yard sale in San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury district, denim jeans, army-style boots, dangling earrings and multi-colored scarves around her neck in the bohemian style reminiscent of the 1960s. Her devil-may-care manner of dressing was part of her charm. She would have been out of character in high heels and dresses.
One evening while doing my regular exercise routine of skipping rope and doing push-ups on the sixth floor, Gail happened to walk by. Without warning, she dropped to the floor, did ten quick push-ups, smiled at me, and then vanished behind a closing elevator door.
I was perplexed. Who is this strange woman? Why is she so independent of societal pressures, especially the pressure many women felt to act weak and feminine? At the time I was rereading John Stuart Mill’s classic essay “The Subjection of Women” and was strongly interested in feminism, particularly in comparing the role and struggles of women in South African and American societies.
My early introduction to feminism was through my mother and grandmother. Though the two indomitable matriarchs daily groaned under the yoke of a triple oppression – they were women in a patriarchal culture, blacks in a white-dominated society and unschooled in a world where education was increasingly vital – they remained strong, caring, loving and compassionate individuals, full of earthy wisdom and resolute in striving to better their lives and those of their children. Granny had raised my mother and my mother’s four siblings alone after her husband abandoned her for another woman. And my mother, following my father’s emasculation by the apartheid system, effectively kept the family together.
My mother and grandmother were the first feminists I knew. Their characters, example and deeds heavily influenced my values and outlook on life. They liberated the other important half of me, the feminine part, and made it grow and fully complement my masculine half. Whereas my father had sought to teach me that however deep the pain, men never cry, ever, and that they should suppress, deny and keep their emotions bottled up, my mother and grandmother taught me that a man can cry, love, care, change diapers, clean house, iron, and still be a man.
Once I came to know Gail well, I saw a lot of my mother in her. Her being white did not obscure the fact that she was intensely human. She felt deeply and cared about others. She possessed in full measure what in my mother’s Tsonga culture is called rirhandu (“human love, kindness”).
My first conversation with Gail was about women’s issues. One day in the hot and humid laundry room in the basement of I-House, I overheard Gail telling Katie King, another journalism student, about her visit to a battered women’s shelter in Harlem. I joined the conversation. My sympathy for women’s issues and my hatred of male violence against women surprised Gail and Katie. But I was merely speaking from personal experience: my father used to beat my mother for such trifles as answering back when he lectured her, which he called “insubordination unbecoming the woman he bought.” At the age of thirty-seven, he had paid about twenty cattle in lobola for my mother when she was seventeen and without a say in the matter. The patriarchal tribal culture at the time invested men with almost dictatorial powers over women. Wife beating was so widespread and accepted that many women considered it a sign of a man’s affection. Not my mother. She was a quiet, but determined, rebel.
As I mentioned at the beginning, about the time I met Gail I was leading a life, largely self-imposed, of an intellectual hermit. Having dropped out of Columbia J-School to concentrate on completing the manuscript for Kaffir Boy, I followed a rigid schedule of reading, writing and exercising and spent most of my time in my cell-like dorm room. I only went out to purchase food at a Korean fresh market on Broadway or to browse through my favorite used bookstores on Amsterdam Avenue and downtown at the Strand.
Because I had dropped out of school, my immigration status was precarious. Technically I could have been deported because I had ceased being a full-time student. I was in the process of applying for a green card. If that were denied, I was ready to request political asylum rather than return home, where the Pretoria regime had escalated its repression and killing and detention of blacks. Letters from home brought only bad news and entreaties for money. I had none. I was still unable to support myself and relied on my benefactor, Stan Smith, one of the closest friends I have, black or white.
Shortly after quitting journalism school, I published a few articles in the St. Petersburg Times sharply critical of apartheid and its brutal suppression of black dissent. Soon I began receiving anonymous threatening phone calls in the middle of the night.
I knew it was dangerous to write the truth about black life under apartheid, but I felt it was my duty, having had the rare opportunity of escaping from the bondage of legalized racism and segregation, to inform Americans, in human terms, that blacks in South Africa were fighting and dying for the same rights and freedoms that Americans could not imagine life without: the rights to vote, to live where one wished, to speak freely, to work for just pay, to have equal justice under the law.
One night around three, the ringing of the phone jarred me from a deep slumber. I picked up the receiver.
“Hello?” Silence. “Hello?”
A low, deliberate voice with an Afrikaner accent said, “You’d better watch out, kaffir.”
“Who is this?” I demanded.
“We can stop you, if we have to.”
“Who is this?”
No answer. The phone went dead.
I dropped the receiver into its cradle, switched off the lamp and crawled back under the covers. But I could not sleep a wink. Fear, doubt and anxiety tormented me.
I found comfort only in daylight and in routine. I rose each morning at seven, wrote until noon, ate lunch, read all afternoon, ate dinner, read, then worked out. One evening, not long after sunset, I carried my ball hopper and tennis rackets downstairs to the gym, hoping to bang out my fears and anger by practicing ground strokes against the wall. In Manhattan, tennis courts were scarce and private clubs were prohibitively expensive. To keep playing my favorite sport, tennis, I had resorted to hitting against the gym wall.
The mysterious telephone calls in recent nights had put me on edge. I trusted few people, and those I did trust, black or white, had earned my confidence.
As I approached the gym, I noticed the lights were on. I paused, for I rarely encountered anyone else during my solitary tennis sessions. I opened the door a crack and saw Gail, who was stretching out. It turned out she had just returned from a jog through Riverside Park, in snow and ice. I hesitated. Should I come back later? I decided to enter. I strode in nonchalantly, placed my rackets and ball hopper in their usual spot against the back wall, and slipped the cover off one of the rackets, gifts from Stan.
“Hello,” Gail said as she bobbed over an outstretched leg, reaching for the toe of her well-worn, gray running shoe.
“Hi, how are you?”
“All right,” she replied, turning to stretch her other leg. “I survived my run. It’s too icy out there for running shoes, but the snow isn’t deep enough for skis.”
Never having skied before, I found this statement intriguing. “Do you ski in New York?”
“Whenever I can,” she said. “But the snow is much better where I come from, Minnesota.”
Not knowing what else to say, I started whacking tennis balls against the wall. The whole time I was thinking of what a comely, radiant face she had, boyish in shape but feminine in feature. Her shoulders were broad for a woman, probably those of a swimmer, and in her turtleneck, sweats and parka, she appeared rustic, outdoorsy and unself-conscious. Flustered and embarrassed by my attraction to her, which I was convinced was one-way, I concentrated on establishing the rhythm in my strokes and smooth weight transference from the back to the front foot as I struck the ball. I did not look in her direction.
What made me uncomfortable about my attraction to her was that she was white. My predicament was this: Since coming to the United States I had come under increasing pressure to choose sides in America’s racial battles. Militant blacks wanted me to prove my solidarity with their cause by disassociating myself from whites and confining my friendships to the black community. My refusal to adopt the attitude that all whites are racist by abandoning white friends who had earned my trust and respect led me to be labeled an Uncle Tom.
To regard all whites as racist by failing to judge them as individuals is as harmful as the white attitude of stereotyping all blacks. But this argument of mine fell on deaf ears. Bitterness, rage, suspicion, fear and hate had largely supplanted reason, tolerance and common sense in America’s race relations.
Some whites, on the other hand, also victims of the racism and intolerance that pervaded society, were unable or unwilling to deal with me on my own terms, as an individual, rather than as one of the many stereotypes about blacks they had imbibed growing up self-segregated from black America.
Suddenly Gail jumped up, picked up one of my other rackets and tested the grip size.
“Do you play?” I inquired.
“I used to play a lot when I lived in Austin, Texas.”
“Let’s see,” I said, and tossed her two balls.
She hit the balls hard, stiffly, but with determination. They bounced back to her at odd angles, making her look ludicrous as she lunged and twisted and spun with little success in hitting the balls back. Both of us laughed uproariously. “Hold the racket firmly but don’t choke it,” I said. “And don’t forget to watch the ball carefully. And follow through, transferring your weight forward. Like this.” I demonstrated.
She tried again, but control of the ball kept eluding her. I noticed she was frustrated and a bit embarrassed. I took the pressure off her by patiently demonstrating the proper technique. We took turns hitting. Gradually some of her old skills came back. Gail ran nonstop all over the gym attempting to return my best shots. Finally she dropped from exhaustion.
“Don’t stop, you’re doing great,” I said. “You’re a natural athlete.”
“I’ll never be a tennis champion.”
“Are you still holding your racket properly?” I walked over to Gail, placed my hands gently on hers, adjusted her forehand grip, and guided her arm through the correct swing. I did not let go of her hand right away. Our eyes met.
How We Met: Gail’s View
I wondered if he were intentionally looking into my eyes or if he had simply forgotten himself. I was puzzled by the way his dark brilliant eyes seemed to penetrate right through me. I stepped away from him and hit a few more balls.
I had never before been attracted to anyone of a darker race, and I did not know how to react to my own emotions. Interracial love, white society had loudly and insistently said, was taboo. I did not forget for a second that I was alone in a gym with a black man. But I also knew he was a remarkable human being from what I had heard from colleagues at the J-school, and I felt excited at the opportunity of finally meeting and talking to him. I gathered my belongings nervously and headed for the door, overcome with the strangeness of the situation. I had learned to relate to blacks with respect and as equals from interviewing them in Harlem and the South Bronx for journalism classes, but I was aware of the racist attitudes of many whites and wondered at my own subtle prejudices. Simply put, I dreaded getting involved, however platonically, with a black man.
“Leaving already?” Mark asked.
“Yes, I have to go.”
He seemed to want to say something more, so I waited.
“Would you like to accompany me to a tennis match Sunday afternoon?” he asked.
I felt paralyzed with a potent mixture of joy and fear. I spoke from my heart, not my head, when I said, “I’d love to.” Then I fled from the object of my emotional turmoil. I ran upstairs to my tenth-floor room and sat on my bed looking out the window at Riverside Church and the Hudson River and the gray sky, deep in thought.
I first became aware of Mark during a Monday morning lecture in the World Room of the journalism school. I saw a well-dressed black man, whose shirt had apparently been carefully ironed and whose short Afro had been neatly combed, stand up and question the speaker about an issue related to apartheid. He spoke with a strange British accent, and the speaker cleared his throat several times before attempting to evade the question and mumble some obscure, unrelated answer.
Michelle Nayman, a fellow journalism student from Australia, leaned toward me and whispered, “That was Mark Mathabane. Have you met him?”
“No,” I said. “Who is he?”
“Oh, you’ve got to meet him,” she whispered. “He’d led an incredible life and he’s writing a book about it. He escaped apartheid with the help of Stan Smith, the tennis player. He grew up in a ghetto outside Johannesburg in a shack made of tin, plastic and brick, and slept most of his childhood on pieces of cardboard under the kitchen table. He’s the eldest of seven, and in the winter his mother wrapped them in old newspapers to keep them warm.”
“How awful!” Couldn’t they afford blankets?” I asked naively, unaware, like most Americans were at that time, of the horrible living conditions in South African townships.
“No, they were very poor. His father made only ten dollars a week,” Michelle continued. “But most of the time he couldn’t find work. The family had to scavenge for food at garbage dumps.”
I shook my head in disbelief, then looked at Mark, several rows up. “You’d never know from looking at him that he’s lived through all that.”
“He has amazing determination,” she said.
Michelle’s admiration for Mark sparked my curiosity. I yearned to hear more about Mark’s life under apartheid, a system I understood only superficially from newspaper accounts.
A few weeks later I was having lunch with a Belgian journalism student named Geert when Mark joined us at our table. He directed his conversation to Geert, and gesticulated with his hands a lot when he spoke. Having seldom sat so close to a black person before, I was fascinated by the simple fact that his palms were a lighter color than the backs of his hands. He had the smallest, cutest ears I had ever seen, and I admired his large brown eyes and the way his gold-rimmed glasses, watch and white sweater contrasted with his dark skin..
Geert asked him questions. Mark infused his replies with incisive observations about race and such poignant details about his life in the ghetto that an overwhelming feeling of empathy arose within me. I had never before heard of such horrors or such a graphic description of the plight and resiliency of South African blacks. He left a deep impression on me.
One evening as I rode the elevator to the tenth floor, the car stopped on the sixth floor to let someone off. As the doors opened, I saw Mark jumping rope in the hallway, wearing nothing but yellow running shorts and tennis shoes. He was taking a breather, and his muscular chest glistened with sweat. He smiled bashfully as he stepped aside to let people by. He must have been popular, for everyone greeted him with a “Hi, Mark,” to which he replied with a slow and drawn out, “Hello, how is everybody?”
Then the doors slid shut and the elevator jolted upward. It had just lasted a few seconds, but that image of him stuck in my mind. As a former swimmer and cross-country runner during high school, I had always admired well-conditioned athletes. A few days later, as I headed for the sixth floor elevator, Mark was doing push-ups. I pressed the elevator button and waited, trying to act casual and keep my eyes off him. I had a sudden urge to show him that he wasn’t the only athlete at I-House so I dropped to the ground and did ten quick push-ups, then dashed onto the elevator with a quick “‘Bye.” As the doors closed I saw a funny smile spread across his face.
I never imagined Mark would ever become my boyfriend, let alone my husband. At the time I had a steady boyfriend named Glen. Though we were both PKs (preacher’s kids) from Minnesota, Glen and I had met, of all places, in Budapest in 1983. He was a blue-eyed graduate of the University of Minnesota with a full-blooded Norwegian ancestry and a middle name of Thor, after the Norse god. As soon as I was accepted to Columbia, he started applying for jobs in New York City so he could be near me. He got a job with a nonprofit group started by Ralph Nader that fought to keep consumer prices down and advocated safe, reliable and affordable public transportation. I admired his devotion to the public good and his dedicated efforts to help the poor. He rented a small room in Brooklyn and we would commute by subway to see each other.
I excitedly told Glen about Mark and his remarkable odyssey from a violent and desperate South African ghetto to the journalism school. One night I happened to run into Mark when I was with Glen, so I introduced them.
“I have heard a lot about you,” Glen said, shaking Mark’s hand with enthusiasm. He did not have the slightest hint of jealousy in his voice, probably because Mark was black and, therefore, presumed not a threat. Glen wanted us to live together and eventually get married. Commitment scared me. My career ambition was to become a foreign correspondent. I was applying for jobs at Reuters News Service in London, at Radio Free Europe in Munich, and at the U.S. Information Agency for an internship in Germany. In case I could not get a job abroad, I had sent resumes to papers all over the country: on forested islands off the coast of Alaska, near Hawaiian beaches, in the wilds of Arkansas and Louisiana, high in the Rocky Mountains. I poured my random desires into the mailbox and patiently waited for my future to decide for itself what I would do and where.
Glen liked me to wear a white scarf because he felt it made me look “pure.” He sometimes had jealous dreams in which I told him I had been seeing someone else. He wanted me to be his and his alone. He made me feel that I could have no male friends. He could never forgive me for having had boyfriends before him. Instead of being proud of my accomplishments, he felt threatened by them. He hated the Ivy League, and all it stood for, and resented the fact that I had graduated magna cum laude from Brown University, an institution he pegged as a tool for perpetuating the elite ruling class. Envy gnawed at him when he learned I was taking a literature class at Brown taught by Susan Sontag. It came to a peak when he learned I was taking a law course at Columbia taught by Benno Schmidt, now president of Yale University, and New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis.
I should have terminated the relationship much earlier but I was afraid to hurt him. So I stuck it out, growing more miserable each day, and silently longing for a man who would let me be myself and trust me enough to let me have male friends.
At Christmas time in 1984, back in Minnesota, I skied alone through snow-filled woods, sliding silently between evergreens laden with ice crystals. I brushed the snow off a fallen tree and lay down on it, facing the deep blue sky and watching the steam rise from my body. As I lay there, thoughts came to me that changed my life. I grew convinced that I should develop my talents and creativity fully, let my spirit thrive uninhibited, and avoid any man who sought to stifle and kill that spirit, the only thing that gave purpose and meaning to my life.
I would break up with Glen.
The new year came and I returned to New York. I had been back a week when I went for a run along the Hudson River through snow, listening to Corelli and Telemann on my Walkman and watching the sun set in a glorious serenity of colors whose beauty made the heart ache.
I was stretching out in the gym when Mark walked in. My heart beat faster. I could not resist watching in silent awe as he began hitting tennis balls against the wall. He seemed to glide across the floor, like a ballet dancer, as he steadily and gracefully struck the yellow tennis ball, hard and fast against the wall in a lulling rhythm of bounces and swats. His jaw was firm in concentration and his eyes were riveted on the ball. His smooth black arms and legs moved in a sychronized manner with precision and grace. It was beautiful to watch. I was thrilled when he invited me to the tennis match.
But alone in my room, guilt set in. How would I tell Glen I was going to a tennis match with Mark? Did I have the courage to break up with him? When Mark called to confirm the date, I said, “Can I take a rain check?”
“Sure,” Mark replied.
“Who was that?” Glen asked as I hung up.
“That was Mark. He wanted to take me to a tennis game.”
As I expected, Glen flew into a jealous rage. “You were going to go on a date with another guy!” he screamed. “What were you thinking? How would you feel if I told you I was going on a date with another woman?”
“It would be okay with me, because I trust you.”
The next morning on the front page of the New York Times I saw a photograph of John McEnroe holding a huge, ornate silver trophy above his head in triumph: he had just won the Grand Master’s title. I regretted not having gone to the match at Madison Square Garden with Mark, and I worried that he might have ascribed my refusal to his being black.
I wrote a short and honest note to him, explaining why I had decided not to go and adding, in no uncertain terms, that I admired his character. Upon rereading the note, I realized I might be making a fool of myself if he were already in love with someone else. My cheeks flushed red and my heart pounded as I added a timid postscript: “P.S. Do you have a girlfriend?”
The next day I found in my mailbox a letter written on pink stationery. It read:
- Dear Gail:
Many thanks for your candid letter. I do not know if you expected a reply, but my heart willingly gives one. Bear in mind it is my heart speaking, and as we mortals well know, hearts have a curious language of their own, intelligible only to a select few. Such persons have about them that rare wonder called “beauty of the soul.” The thoughts in your letter tell me you are one of them. They are spontaneous, down-to-earth and unpretentious. Put differently, they are the essence of you. They make you extremely attractive intellectually, emotionally and otherwise. It is a joy to know you.
True friends are too hard to come by for us not to open our hearts when someone special comes along. Of course opening our hearts entails risk, leaves us vulnerable to the vicissitudes of human nature. But I have yet to meet true friends who knowingly hurt one another. That’s what I believe we have the potential of becoming: true friends.
Finally, I don’t presently have a steady girlfriend. The reason: I’ve yet to meet a woman who sees me the way you have described me; a woman who understands that true friendship is the basis of a relationship; a woman who accepts the maxim that “love is that relation between man and woman in which the independence is equal, the dependence mutual and the obligation reciprocal.” I hope I’m not looking for an angel on earth.
With love, Mark
Like two nervous high school kids on a blind date, Mark and I met downstairs in the lobby of I-House the next day, bundled up against the arctic wind screaming outside. But to us it might as well have been spring. We sauntered to Broadway where we boarded a bus for the Cloisters, an old medieval monastery on a cliff beetling over the Hudson that had been converted into an ancient art museum. Mark wore an amusing pink and green plaid tie. We strolled through the warm monastery discussing unicorns and tapestries, brass statues and carved doors, and much more that was communicated without words by shy, sidelong glances and sheepish smiles.
That evening, alone in my overheated room, I wrote in my journal:
“The sun has just set over the Hudson, and I have just fallen in love with another man. He is refined and highly educated though he grew up in a ghetto. He sees with his soul and he writes with his heart. His thoughts sometimes roll by me as I struggle to pursue their meaning, his mind teams with philosophy and noble ideas, his shelves overflow with great literature, his face shines with the radiance of his convictions. He is a great artist, an independent spirit, a rebel in disguise, a believer in truth and right in a world full of deception and cynicism.”
The phone rang, breaking my concentration. It was Glen. I told him I wanted to date “someone” else. We argued.
He rode the subway all the way uptown to talk to me in person. I told him I had spent the day at the Cloisters with Mark.
“You two have been seeing a lot of each other lately, haven’t you?” he fumed.
“If you call one day ‘a lot,'” I replied.
He paused, then asked, “Did he kiss you good-bye?”
“Yes.” “On the lips?”
Glen started trembling all over. Soon he was shaking so violently he put on his coat. “You have to choose between me and Mark,” he said, “and I want the answer right here and now.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Glen hurled his shoulder bag at the wall, then grabbed it and left, his face flushed with anger. He called me later to say he was cold, wet, lonely and terrified of losing me. He said he had been wandering around the city like a madman and had wet feet and was shivering in a phone booth. I felt awful.
“How could you just throw us away like that?” he demanded. “Your biggest fault is that you can be so damn cold-hearted sometimes. I can’t stand the thought of losing a woman to another man. If you leave me, my life is over.”
The next few months my joy at getting to know Mark was overshadowed by my guilt at having hurt Glen. Glen seemed to think I was just going through a passing phase and would soon come to my senses. The fact that I had left him for a black seemed to make him even more desperate to win me back. He wrote long, tortured letters. He called me at odd hours to make sure I was in my room. He composed depressing poems I could not interpret. He waited for me outside my classes with bouquets of flowers. I wished Glen could just let go. Our relationship was over. All my devotion was now directed at Mark, whom I knew I could never stop loving. I carried my pain over the breakup inside me, and did not share much of it with Mark. But without my saying a word, Mark could always tell when I was upset or troubled. He would stop whatever he was doing to listen to me, comfort me, try to understand.
“I don’t understand why you stayed with him for nearly two years,” Mark said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You are so brilliant, such a free spirit, that it pains me to see you feeling confined and depressed. You deserve all the opportunities to grow. There’s nothing wrong with stopping to ask yourself whether you are happy and trying to change your life if you are not.” I recall these memories not to revel is the pain I inflicted on someone I once cared deeply about, but to address a pervasive stereotype about mixed couples. Many whites believe that a white woman would only stoop to loving or marrying a black man if she were too ugly, too ignorant or too poor to find herself a white mate. This could not be further from the truth. I have met dozens of bright, attractive white women from respectable families who have fallen deeply in love with good men who just happen to be black.
Another popular theory is that white women who date blacks have low self-esteem and want to degrade themselves as much as possible by prostituting their hearts, souls and bodies to black men, who will supposedly take them for granted and treat them like trash. This, too, is a racist stereotype. Most white women I have met who date black men are more confident, self-assured and independent than average. They are strong-willed and open-minded individuals who choose to go against the social grain rather than give in to pressure from parents, friends, coworkers and society to break up with men they admire, respect and love.
In my case, my friendship with Mark has been an uplifting experience, not a degrading one. Mark has been unstinting in his support of me as a writer. He constantly encourages me to do my best without fear of criticism or rejection. He has instilled in me one of his mother’s favorite maxims: In life you never fail as long as you keep trying. He was even more of a feminist than I, and convinced me that women, like blacks, should strive to realize their potential without letting prejudice and discrimination define, rule and ruin their lives.
“Most obstacles to self-actualization can be overcome,” he said. “If I did not believe that, I would still be in South Africa.”
Mark was all the things I had ever hoped for in a man – an intellectual, a lover of books and philosophy and classical music, an athlete, a fellow writer, a sensitive and compassionate human being and a loyal friend. To be honest I had not expected my ideal man to be black, but the fact that he was did not keep me from falling in love with him.
That spring Mark and I spent hours in one of the soundproof study rooms off the library, facing each other across the huge table covered with books and papers. We talked deeply and intensely about topics ranging from injustice, fate and the Cold War to apartheid, history and writing. He would read me Dover Beach, The Prelude, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Adonais, and other favorite poems. He shared with me the history of Africa’s contributions to literature, art, music, dance, science, religion and warfare so that I gained a greater respect and sensitivity for truly one of the world’s great civilizations.
I heard so many tales of his painful childhood that I knew his life story by heart long before Kaffir Boy was published. On my part, I told him what it was like growing up in the Midwest as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister: how I always had a congregation of adoring faces smiling down on me, how my father would take us sailing every Sunday, how I spent my summers mountain climbing in the White Mountains, and several of my off-beat adventures. “What a vivid storyteller!” Mark exclaimed. “You’re the writer, not I!”
I laughed at his childlike enthusiasm and wished I had half the confidence he had in my potential. Mark heightened my desire to write and made me regularly think about life’s deeper meaning. I thought of all the people who toil through life, suppressing their emotions and ideals, forsaking or shunning those eager to love them, single-mindedly pursuing their careers up some mythical ladder with blind persistence, only to grow old and die, leaving nothing behind but a hole in a corporate structure. I realized that the importance of life lies deep in one’s relationship to others. People make our lives meaningful. Human interaction is the essence of our being. When we die, we are kept alive only by the memories of those who loved us, only by those whose lives we touched.
When Mark and I talked about writing, we sometimes whipped ourselves into amazing sates of optimism and euphoria. Writing, to us, was a religion. Great writers were our prophets. We modeled our relationship after that of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and the author of Frankenstein, whom we saw as two perfectly matched non-conformists and free spirits.
I admired Mark’s discipline so much that soon I acquired many of his habits: I drank no caffeine, ate no red meat or sugar, woke up around seven and typed journal notes or articles, ate piles of fruits and vegetables and worked out every other day. We went for runs together through Riverside Park from 122nd to 72nd and back up again.
Mark, in turn, wanted me to share elements of my life with him. I was doing my master’s thesis on foreign artists living in the East Village. I took him to a few art openings packed with artists with spiked hair that had been dyed fluorescent pink, in galleries reached only by passing prone derelicts, drug dealers and rotting garbage. The paintings on the walls burst with color and expression, but neither of us could make any sense of their meaning or relevance to reality.
One winter evening, after hearing the New York Philharmonic play Stravinsky and Debussy at Carnegie Hall, Mark and I walked to a rustic restaurant crowded with heavy wooden tables on which burned thick white candles surrounded by piles of dripping wax. The place reminded me of the wine cellar under the Budapest Castle. Mark sat across from me in his meticulously clean and ironed white shirt with his gold necktie pin, telling me about his childhood and youth. Neither of his parents had gone to school, yet he consistently came out first throughout primary and high school, which he attended after winning a government scholarship. After a childhood deprived of books, he fell in love with English, his fifth language, and by his early teens books had become his only solace, his best friends, the liberators of his mind and soul.
My eyes filled with tears as he spoke, but I tried to hide them so he would not see my distress. His eyes too seemed glazed with tears at bringing overpowering memories back to life. He had once told me that he had trouble finding the right woman because many women thought him lachrymose and mistook his sensitivity for a sign of latent homosexuality.
I told him that his not being afraid to feel, to cry, to care, made him more human, and thus more of a man to me.
Here before me, I thought to myself, is a wise and sensitive spirit, born in black skin and surrounded by the dirt and sorrow of utter poverty and powerlessness. But since the human spirit can have no race or color, he rose steadily and naturally, led not by what others told him he was or was not, but by what he believed himself to be. He is an admirable, yet most intimidating, companion.
“A courageous, painfully honest, captivating love story.”
— Miami Herald
“Remarkable…A thoughtful exploration of the complexities of interracial relationships and a great love story.”
— Lynn Neary, National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered”
Mark Mathabane, author of the bestsellers Kaffir Boy and Kaffir Boy in America, grew up fearing and hating whites in a South African ghetto. Gail spent the first ten years of her life in lily-white communities in Ohio, and feared the people her Texas girlfriends casually called “niggers.”
The two never dreamed of marrying outside their races. As many Americans gave up on the racial ideal of an integrated society, and two segregated, opposed, and hostile camps emerged—one black, one white—Mark and Gail fell in love.
Love in Black and White is the dramatic, revealing and riveting story of how they overcame their own prejudices, society’s disapproval, family opposition and personal self-doubts to be together. Woven into their intimate account of falling in love, getting married and raising children in the fishbowl of an interracial relationship are the beautiful, complex and heartrending stories of other interracial couples in America and South Africa.
“A personal and candid account of what it means to break an intransigent taboo—and a heartwarming affirmation of love and commitment.”
— Kirkus Reviews
“Intriguingly structured with alternate accounts by husband and wife, Love in Black and White is a hymn of praise to the power of love in the face of deeply felt societal prejudices…Highly recommended.”
— Library Journal
“The Mathabanes write well of the sweet, nervous first days of their love, and they don’t flinch from the bad stuff…As they show, all it takes is love, and defending yourself at nearly every turn.”
— front page, Washington Post Book World
“The honesty that is deeply rooted in every paragraph makes this book a moving one.”
EXCERPTS ON THE INSIDE FLAPS
“I felt completely natural around Gail when we were alone together, but as soon as we stepped out the door I became acutely sensitive to the way people regarded us. It was difficult for me to regard our love as an aberration in social norms. Only when people stared did I remember how deeply race as an issue still permeates American society.”
— Mark Mathabane
“One night on my way home, a black gang waylaid me. I would have been knifed to death had I not outrun them. A brick that smashed into my face, knocking out my front tooth, reminded me of the risks I was running for my refusal to consider all whites racist.”
— Mark Mathabane
“Love is complex. Sometimes it doesn’t need to be understood. It needs only to be accepted.”
— Gail Mathabane’s mother
Mark Mathabane touched the hearts of millions with his sensational autobiography, Kaffir Boy. Telling the true story of his coming of age under apartheid in South Africa, the book made the New York Times and Washington Post bestseller lists and was translated into several languages. Today, the book is used in classrooms across the U.S.
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