Black and White or How Our Parents Reacted to Our (Interracial) Relationship
On Good Friday of 1962, Ty and I travel from Iowa to Saginaw, Michigan, to visit his family. On the way, we hit a rib joint on 63rd and Cottage Grove, in Chicago. It’s seven o’clock at night, but up and down the street people bustle to buy groceries, clothes, toiletries. Women enter beauty parlors, men get their hair processed. “Is this safe? You and me in Chicago?” I ask, because I’m white and he is black.
He laughs. “You kiddin'? Chicago? Never. This is the only place where a woman tried to beat me up.” Ty is in his senior year, a tackle and co-captain of the University of Iowa’s football team, which is number one in the nation.
We drive through Gary, Indiana, then start the zigzag up the Michigan palm to reach Ty’s family. There’s no easy way to traverse Michigan. The roads run north-south or east-west and we need a diagonal heading from the south west part of the state to the northeast. That road doesn’t exist, so we crisscross the distance on two-lane blacktops through empty towns that slow our progress.
There’s something comforting about moving in the night on a road with your lover while headlights form light streams to the horizon. There’s something comforting about the tree shadows with new leaves shushing in the breeze. Something comforting about being in the darkness, talking as we still do, insatiable to know everything about one another, as though what we want is to crawl into each other’s lives and have each other from the beginning.
We arrive at his parents’ home at two a.m. His street is lined with hushed houses shielded by maples. We stand on the step, suitcases in hand, ringing the bell. There’s rustling in the house, an unlocking of the front door. The curtain is peeled back and Ma smiles.
“Give me some sugar,” Ma says as she grabs Ty. Her hair is wound in pink foam rollers and she wears a baby-blue bathrobe. She reveals not a flicker of uneasiness, not a hint of surprise, as if there is nothing unusual about her son bringing home a white girl unannounced in the middle of the night during Easter weekend in 1962.
Before we eat, we bow our heads and hold hands around the circle. “Jesus wept,” says Ma. The children say, “Love God.” Darlene says, “Thou shalt honor thy mother and father.” And then it’s my turn. I silently say the Hebrew, Baruch ata Adonai Elohenu melech haolam hamoyzi lechem min haaretz in my mind and when I come to the English, I say out loud, “Blessed art Thou, oh Lord our God who bringeth forth bread from the earth.”
Together, the family says, “Amen.”
Ty is on his way to the All-American Bowl when I tell my parents about him. We’re sitting in the living room, smoking after dinner — me alone on the sofa, my parents in separate chairs, both of them reading. They have noticed his calls, his letters, his soft baritone, and they ask me about this young man of mine.
I tell them he’s an art major, with a focus on painting, and that he’s drawn constantly since he was a child. I tell them about his kindness and sensitivity, about his football playing. I tell them how he’s a leader and respected by his peers — the co-captain of the football team, Most Valuable Player and All-American.
My mother shifts in her chair, lights a cigarette, confused that I haven’t mentioned him before and am making this announcement. “How far has this gone?”
“I can’t imagine my life without him.” I inhale.
They sense my uncertainty, the absence of pure buoyancy in my announcement.
Dad’s legs are stretched on a black and brown leather ottoman. He doesn’t say anything. Mother watches clouds of smoke roll around the ceiling. Then they look at each other.
“This is social suicide,” Daddy says. “Do you have any idea what you’re letting yourself in for? How cut off you’ll be from society — your friends.” His feet are on the floor, the ottoman kicked away, his elbows on his knees, one hand, a finger in between pages, holding his book.
“I haven’t lost my friends. None of my friends feel alarmed by my choice of Ty. They like him.”
“The discrimination you’ll face in terms of employment, housing, education,” Mother says. We talk on top of each other.