Passing through New York on her way to school in southern Africa, 18-year-old Ruha White met Shawn Benjamin at Columbia University’s dormitories. Talking for almost 10 hours into the next day, Ruha went to the airport and Shawn went to work. When she got to the airport, sitting at the gate, something compelled her to get in a cab and head back to him.
“I joke sometimes that he put a spell on me. I’m a Virgo, so I’m usually rational. But I felt like our conversation wasn’t finished.” When Shawn got word that Ruha would be there one more day, he left work early to be with her.
“What distinguished Shawn from my encounters with other men was that it wasn’t all about me. Observing him in a group of people struck me—he makes other people happy. And somehow that was reassuring that this is who he is.” She confirms, “That stood out initially and that hasn’t changed.”
Shawn recalls, “I thought Ruha was amazing, beautiful. We started talking and she was smart and focused on what she wanted to do with her life. I was very attracted to that too.”
Pre-email, Ruha lived in Swaziland for nine months. They kept in touch through letters and the very occasional phone call (one call was rather expensive for their young pockets). Ruha isn’t quite sure how the lines of communication broke down. (Perhaps the $200 per call thing.) By November 1996, she returned from southern Africa to New York before going to her parents’ home in Marshall Islands.
All about reconnecting with Shawn, Ruha “was like, ‘where you at?’ ” That summer, Shawn had moved to New Mexico. “ ‘What?! You’re supposed to be here!’ ” Ruha remembers saying. Shawn doesn’t know why he didn’t get that memo.
“I didn’t think she was really coming back.” The distance devastated both of them. “I explained to my boss that I had to go to New York. I had to go.” Leaving work early (again) for his love—like the makings of a romantic comedy—Shawn hopped on the Greyhound bus to NYC, a two-day trip fueled by his excitement to see her. When he arrived, however, he had the flu. Through teas, herbs and lemons, Ruha nursed him to health. Shawn was well by the third day, which left them with a healthy three days together.
“Ruha was really straightforward. She even mentioned marriage and I was like, ‘uh yeah… in the distant future.’ ”
Turns out, the future was the following July 1997. They wed in Conway, South Carolina, the summer before Ruha would enter Spelman College. She was 19 and Shawn was 21.
Ruha Benjamin believes that maturity matters, and she’s learned that marrying young can be daunting to the psyche of ripening minds in a relationship. “So much of your character and personality are still forming in your late teens, early twenties. You’re trying to get to know someone who is in the midst of this major self-discovery—finding your place in the world, finding your passions. So, you think you know someone and that person is still growing and changing. It’s those changes that get you. Like, ‘wait, that’s not what I signed up for!’ You have to stop and say, ‘okay, this is what we do have in common—we’re both growing and changing.’ ”
A scholar of Arabic, Shawn was born in St. Croix, Virgin Islands and grew up in a Christian household. However, he didn’t start going to church again until a year after he was married. Ruha, born in India, is of the Baha’i faith, a global religion that includes “daily prayer and communion with God” and “fellowship with followers of all religions.” Ruha says, “In the abstract, people’s faith’s have a lot in common. But how you practice your religion in everyday life, this was challenging.”
Mr. Benjamin agrees. “Marriage is hard enough with people of the same faith. But when you’re of different faiths? Good lord! That was not a smooth situation at all!” Shawn exclaims.
Coming from a conservative Caribbean tradition as far as Christian values, when Shawn reignited his practice, the questions ensued: “How are we going to raise our kids? What did I think about her faith? Is she a believer in Christian text? How do I fit my wife into my belief system? These are the things I was wrestling with,” he recalls. “Being a husband and loving my wife, how would I share my faith with her?” Shawn pauses. “It’s funny I use the word share, and her faith [shares] the teachings of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.”
After a while, in his attempt to share his religion, Shawn realized, “I was not being loving. Trying to be a good Christian man, I didn’t have the best approach. I absolutely love my wife. That goes beyond trying to win her over to my beliefs.”
Shawn takes the same stance with his kids. “I want them to be able to decide later on. We say, this is mom’s religion and this is dad’s religion. You can decide when you’re ready.”
The Benjamin family had their first child four years after they married. “It was the week after I graduated from Spelman. Two years later, Khalil was born during my second year in grad school at Berkeley.” Author of the book People’s Science and a professor at Boston University, Ruha says that motherhood has made her deal with her ego in a way incomparable to other life experiences. Also, it’s made her value what’s constant and most important.
“I think my sense of self would be more invested in validation from my colleagues,” she says. “In academia, it’s easy to get sucked into a cycle of affirmation and accolades and feeling down based on a lack of affirmation. I think motherhood helps me be detached from that.”
Challenge and grace are recurring themes the professor embraces. “Childhood for me was based on being challenged. I never felt overindulged. My mother and father created an environment where I always felt like I needed to live up to certain principles and standards. The challenge was fun. I didn’t feel burdened by it.” Just last month, January 11, Ruha faced what she calls the ultimate challenge: putting her father to rest. “To me, that was the climax. I felt like my whole life my father had prepared me for that day.” Assigned to read scriptures, she didn’t know if she could do it. “I could feel his presence. I felt he was saying, ‘I prepared you for this. You can do it.’ ”
That sense of expecting life to be a challenge has helped her in her marriage. “My dad helped me develop the character and disposition towards life that is awaiting challenge. The morning of his memorial, I was overwhelmed by a sense of gratefulness.” The daughter takes her cues from her father, parenting with compassion, but “not to indulge my sons, to teach them to grow from circumstances characterized by difficulty,” Ruha states.
Shawn describes his kids with a sense of joy. “Malachi—our first -born, he’s like Ruha—studious, focused, doesn’t need encouragement to do his homework.” Malachi’s first day of school, he didn’t want his dad to “walk him” to the door. “This is the first day of kindergarten! He said, ‘Dad, you don’t have to come in. You can go.’ All these kids are getting out of their cars holding their parent’s hand. I was like, ‘No! You’re a kid.’ ” Their oldest son is now 12. “As long as Malachi has a book and his computer, he’s good.”
Khalil, 10, a spirited people person who still enjoys hanging out with his parents, is their renaissance kid. “In a heartbeat he’ll write a song or poem. He’ll choreograph a dance with his friends for the talent show. He loves the energy of it. Khalil is our artist, Malachi is our CEO.”
Like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Ruha feels like her 16-year marriage is getting younger with time. “Our marriage started out so burdened and heavy with expectation. I think that with any marriage, the challenge is trying to reconcile expectation with reality.” They discovered, “Shedding the expectation made us feel lighter, happy, and not burdened with baggage.”
Shawn believes the Benjamin family of Brookline, Massachusetts is the coolest because “There’s always laughter in my house.” Proudly, he states, “One of the things we do nightly, which I don’t think many families do, is we watch The Cosby Show! If the Gordon Gartrell episode comes on, forget it! The boys are quoting that for days. We’re still recycling The Cosbys! I love it!”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn't always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as