Today is Loving Day. Forty-five years ago, Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple living in rural Virginia, prompted the landmark Supreme Court case and decision to legalize interracial marriage in America. The long battle is beautifully profiled in a documentary by Nancy Buirski, “The Loving Story,” which premiered on HBO earlier this year.
I am grateful my son does not remember a time when his parents were not legally allowed to marry, although he knows that such a time existed — in as much as he can comprehend at nearly seven years old.
I wanted to marry a Black man. I was going to marry a Black man. That was the mandate. He would validate my own Blackness, and allow me to reemerge as the Black woman I always knew I was but wasn’t able to express. I would happily, freely shed any and all remnants of an identity shaped by being raised in a white family, attending all-white schools, and the imbued notion that I would be a better and more appealing person, friend, girlfriend, if I were white.
When I was in the sixth grade we had an assembly featuring young Black breakdancers, which in retrospect, was pretty impressive for a small regional middle school in New Hampshire. But it was the early 80s and breakdancing was hot. I had never been in the same physical space with Black teenage boys. I was 11 years old. After the performance, the guys stuck around to talk with students and answer questions. They found me with their eyes in the way that Black people find each other in rooms full of white folks. I was standing with friends. I looked back, terrified and giddy. One smiled at me in a mischievous and playful way. I shrank in fear from the perceived connection and what it might mean. I believed that if I acknowledged this imaginary lifeline between me and this boy, I would lose my status within the popular group, which I had managed to broker my way into at the start of the school year by precarious means (another story for another time).
I leaned into the friend next to me — the boy I had a crush on; the boy every girl in sixth grade had a crush on — and pressed myself into him with feigned abashment. Oh please, save me! Save me from this frightening Black boy who is clearly delusional in his assumption that we are somehow connected or similar or anything like each other, AT ALL! The breakdancer picked up on my act, shook his head and turned away. I felt like a traitor.
Fast forward a decade, after a steep but reasonably effective enlightenment curve, and several Black boyfriends, I met the man I thought I would marry. The first time I saw him I about died. He was beyond. Beyond everything — sexy, charismatic, funny, creative. It was love at first sight and I was determined to be with him. Nearly a year into dating, a woman showed up at my apartment. A white woman six months pregnant with my boyfriend’s child. This was how I found out that my boyfriend — the one who was going to save me as a Black woman — was cheating on me. We were off and on for another year, because that was how much I wanted to marry a Black man. I was willing to be lied to, cheated on, played with, undervalued, all because I wanted to come home at night and look at my Black man, and my Black children, and feel whole. Because I had never in my life been surrounded by Black family that was mine.
This is not to say that all Black men are liars and cheats — rather, that I was shallow and misguided enough at the time to make the significance of his race for my purposes more important than his failing character.
The first time I met my husband, we were standing on a subway platform in Brooklyn. He walked up to me after I’d dropped a piece of gum, and bet me a quarter that someone would step on it between then and the time the train came. He was handsome. His eyes were kind. He approached me with a gameliness and ease that I found immediately appealing. I agreed to the bet, which I lost. On the subway, I paid him his quarter owed. We held the silver pole between us and made small talk. It was a Friday afternoon and he was carrying an overnight bag. I asked him if he was going away for the weekend. “Actually,” he said, “I’m heading up to Harvard for a conference on race and social policy.” He had me at “race and social policy.”
We didn’t plan to fall in love. And neither did Richard and Mildred Loving, whose valiant fight for the right to be married helped to change my fate, and assure my happiness. My husband and I have been married for seven years, and our son will turn seven next month. They are my family, and I am Black. That is enough. Thank you, Richard and Mildred Loving. Happy Loving Day.