How My Italian-American husband ate his way into the good graces of my African-American family
By Emily Bernard
March 6, 2017
John, my parents, and I are heading south on Interstate 55 from Nashville to Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He is driving; my father rides shotgun. I sit in the back with my mother, holding my breath. The entire car is silent, all four of us as still as stones.
“We have to pull over,” John says.
It is a midmorning in July. I try to focus on passing cars.
“There’s a gas station a few miles up,” my father says evenly. He shifts in his seat.
The front left tire is flat.
John and I have been engaged for several months at this point in my life story. This is not his first visit to Nashville, but it is his first trip to Mississippi, where he will meet my extended family—my mother’s mother, sisters, cousins, and nieces.
The car belongs to my father, who has entrusted the wheel to John as a symbol of his acquiescence to the new order of things, namely John’s having supplanted him as the Man in My Life. But it is only a gesture. When he gave John control of the car, my father did not anticipate that John would actually exercise the authority to take us on a new course. But he does. He pulls over, right there on the shoulder of the interstate, somewhere between Memphis and Jackson. Within minutes, John is underneath the car while my parents and I stand in a grassy depression near him. I feel pride as I watch my fiancé’s strong, tan arms move in confident, rhythmic silence as he replaces the spent tire with a spare that is, distressingly, nearly flat itself. And I ache for my father, who shifts quickly from side to side, wordlessly hurrying John. There we stand—my black family, as vulnerable as an open window on a hot summer day in the South. We are bound by history and helplessness. I focus on John, willing his whiteness and masculine strength toward us, imagining these qualities shielding us from harm, like armor.
The eyes of white men in jeans and work boots travel from John to me to my parents when we arrive at the nearest gas station, which is not the one my father mentioned. He and my mother stay in the car while John, dirty and sweaty, strides into the store. I follow him, carrying a small, impractical purse and decked out in oversize sunglasses. We buy water and fill the tank, and then we’re back on the road.
My mother, in a voice sugared with amusement and pride, will tell this story to many people for many years to come. It is a story about how a black family used to do things one way, and then a brand-new white man came into their lives and nothing was ever the same.
My father is a creature of habit, someone who holds tradition in high regard. The reason for his reluctance to stop before we reached the gas station, however, had nothing to do with habit or tradition. Instead it had to do with history, both small and large. In his own experience, his preferred gas station had proven to be a hospitable place over the years. Several times, he had received service there without incident, something no black person traveling through the South has ever taken for granted.
When my father arrived in Nashville to attend Fisk University in the 1950s, a black body had to travel along known routes, relying on the experiences of other black people. For many years, a guide called The Green Book informed black travelers of places where it was permissible for them to sleep and eat. It was a map of a modern underground railroad. A black body out of place would likely encounter insults to his or her dignity, or worse. The Green Book ceased publication in 1966, but to this day there are still cities and towns in this country where the perils inherent in traveling black have not subsided.
John was not ignorant of the roots of my father’s anxiety. But the danger presented by the flat tire took precedence over any other type of danger. Somewhere between John’s clarity and my father’s concern, perhaps, lies the difference between living white and living black in America. That there is a difference is indisputable; how deep the difference runs is impossible to ascertain. I see the difference. Mostly, I despise it. But my belief that the difference can engender pleasure as well as pain made it possible for me to marry a white man.
Before the day of the flat tire, the pattern of this trip had never changed. My mother, brothers, and I always stopped at the same rest stops and gas stations. We always left before dawn in order to reach Memphis by midmorning, when we had breakfast with my mother’s aunt and her family. I had my own routines. I would spend weeks before the trip stockpiling enough books and magazines to last me through the eight-hour car ride to Hazlehurst, and then through the long, hot days of visiting relatives. On the first leg, it would be so dark in the car that I read by street lamps until fatigue weighed my eyes shut. After breakfast in Memphis, four hours of driving remained. I read and read until my fantasy life beckoned, at which point I would hug my reading material to my chest and daydream my way to Mississippi.
When I was a child, my reveries concerned the present: friends, toys, and animals that intrigued me. As an adolescent, I fantasized about the future: what kind of career I would have, where I would live, and most of all, whom I would marry.
Like many fathers, perhaps, mine expected his daughter to bring home someone who looked like him. At some point, however, he must have realized that since my entire social world was white, there was little chance of that. His concession to this fact must have happened after he sat me down when I was in high school and suggested that I attend Spelman College so that I could find a nice Morehouse College man to marry. My mother knew her husband and predicted what he would say to me that day. “Just keep your mouth closed,” she instructed me privately before she sent me to the dining room table, where my father waited to dispense his advice.
“White boys only want one thing from black girls,” my father had warned me when I was an adolescent. He didn’t have to explain. I knew what he meant, and I understood that he was only trying to protect me from a history that had long preceded me. White exploitation of black female bodies was once a staple feature of life in the American South. I knew the story of my mother’s mother, who as a young woman had barely escaped the predation of white boys in a pickup truck as she and a few friends walked home one night from a long day of work. The night was black as pitch, the path in front of them barely illuminated by faint lights from houses separated by acres of fields from the road. The truck drove by slowly. My grandmother could see the pale, hungry faces peering at them from the open window.
“If that truck turns around, let’s split up and run into the fields,” she told her friends. As if on cue, the headlights reappeared. The women ran and crouched, their hearts beating fast, praying and waiting as the rumble of the engine faded and the truck disappeared into the night.
I shuddered when I imagined my magnificent grandmother so scared and running through a field to escape assault at the hands of those white men. Although the image moved me terribly, my father’s words did not.
By the time I reached high school, my father and I had been at odds for several years. There were no neutral topics. In particular, he objected to the nascent feminism I was exhibiting. Once, after church, he found me in a conversation with a peer of his, another doctor, a middle-aged black woman.
“Men are intimidated by strong women,” said Dr. Jones just as my father appeared. Sometimes I found Dr. Jones abrasive and patronizing, but in that moment I was thrilled to be taken seriously by this professional woman, so I nodded vigorously, even though my own experience in the world of romance was limited.
“It’s time to go,” my father said as he pulled me by the elbow toward the door.
“You know, the reason why Dr. Jones isn’t married is because men don’t like her personality,” he told me on the ride home. “I don’t want you spending time around women like that.”
It was clear that my father wasn’t crazy about my personality either. I was mouthy and rude, he had complained to my mother. He admonished me often for talking back. As he continued to disparage Dr. Jones, I kept my mouth shut and resolved to make a point of spending time around her and other women like her as often as possible. Defying him was my mission, much more urgent than my own feelings about the doctor, and even more compelling than protecting myself from white boys with bad intentions.
Most of all, I didn’t want to be a consequence of history; I wanted to invent my own story. And that’s what I did on the long car rides between Nashville and Hazlehurst. Among my reading materials were teen magazines with pullout posters of heartthrobs, like the white teen idol Leif Garrett. In one, he stood against a wall, dreamy, mop-haired, and half-nude in a slick black shirt unbuttoned to his navel. I mounted the poster on my bedroom wall, right next to a picture of the Swedish tennis star Björn Borg that I had ripped out of one of my father’s issues of Sports Illustrated.
There were black men among my trophies, too, like El DeBarge, the crooner whose “Love Me in a Special Way” I listened to over and over through padded headphones while lying on my back next to the stereo. Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox looked like Adonis, staring into the outfield, his bat slung over his shoulder in a picture I found in Time magazine.
My father disapproved of the posters on my wall, but my mother assured him that they were only harmless features of girlhood. It was never about the bodies. It was the dream of something else, another life, far away from Nashville, the foreign country of men—women, too—where conversations were heavy and sophisticated but unburdened by any talk about race.
John is hungry. As we enter my grandmother’s house, he looks expectantly at the table in the dining room. Aside from a bowl of fruit, meant for display, the table is barren. Much else distracts him, however, as he makes his way down a receiving line of the women in the clan to which I belong. My grandmother, delighted by the simple novelty of John’s presence, pulls him in for a hug. The joy in the room is palpable and satiating, at least for me; John is looking for a more practical kind of nourishment.
The language of food is John’s mother tongue. An Italian American, he grew up in his parents’ kitchen, where the proper texture of homemade pasta was the topic of robust disagreement. At their dinner table, past meals were remembered in achingly enchanting detail. His parents would drive 150 miles to New Jersey for their cheese. Friends and relatives made pilgrimages to enjoy the spectacle of bounty that was their garden.
John has eaten commercial spaghetti sauce only once in his life. He talks about the incident the way other people shudder at memories of nasty car accidents. He doesn’t care for the concept of the potluck; I suspect he believes it was conceived for lazy people with no appreciation of the true meaning of hospitality. Some of his closest friendships are based exclusively on mutual culinary passions and respect for the work that goes into making a good meal. When I met him, dinner for me consisted, more often than I care to recount, of tuna fish that I ate out of the can while standing by the sink.
Everyone who knows John has a food story about him. My mother never forgot the first time he ate at her table. She served a slow-cooked pot roast dripping with gravy, yams dressed with honey and lemon, and bright, buttery, sautéed green beans. John also remembers that meal even now, but I don’t.
He appreciated the flavor, color, and texture of the food, but even more, he understood the love and labor involved in its preparation. He saw that my mother was offering him a glimpse into her world, who she had been and who she was now. As much his mother’s protégé as her son, John understood the dynamic between women and kitchens, maternal sacrifice and sweat. Beneath his words of praise for my mother and her demure reception, an unspoken understanding coursed between them in which I had no part.
Years before, the father of a friend from college—a trim, angular tennis player of New England stock—stopped in on my parents when he was in Nashville for business. He had never met them before. He was a direct person, artless yet charming. In her fashion, my mother welcomed him with a traditional southern breakfast—creamy grits, both ham and sausage, eggs over easy, perfectly cooked. My friend’s father had a bite here and there, commenting all the while on calories and cholesterol. When my mother recounted the morning to me, she sounded more bewildered than offended. Now she was bewildered again: her daughter had found a man who had the skills that she herself had proudly determined not to pass on. “My daughter doesn’t cook,” she once bragged to a friend, who was clearly confused by the boast. Now, here was her daughter, engaged to a man who did. “We marry our mothers,” a friend once told me.
Their kitchen communion was probably the reason why my mother sat alone with John after that first meal, sharing intimate stories from her past. She talked about Mississippi and the joys and privations of her childhood. She talked about her parents: the pleasure her mother took in the natural world and her father’s military commitment that took the family to Germany for a year. She segued into stories about the racism she had experienced in the Jim Crow South. My mother was, like her mother, a true raconteur. In the telling of her stories, in all their horrible richness, she showed John the scars of her anger and bitterness. I fought the urge to protest, to insist that he had nothing to do with her history, just as I, as a child, had not wanted to be claimed by the history of racism. But I remained silent; the stories weren’t for me. John was silent, too, ingesting her words as seriously and respectfully as he had consumed the food she served him. He knew she was explaining that her lovely home and exquisite meal were evidence of struggle and triumph, emblems of her resourcefulness and strength. When she cooked, she remembered and bested the past. In the kitchen she created a new world. Her conversation was an invitation for John to enter and witness the miracle that she had made.
My father had left the table, as usual, just after that first meal. I excused myself, too, leaving John holding a napkin-covered glass, tapping his fingers lightly on its sides, rocking his heels a bit to the rhythm of her stories.
“Emily’s going to marry a preacher,” snickered one of my Mississippi cousins to another as we lumbered along in my grandmother’s car on a dirt road on a blazing August afternoon. I sat in the back by myself, my palms sticking to the buckling leather. My cheeks burned. I had been a bookish child and was growing into a deeply self-conscious teenager. I appeared, I am sure, disconcertingly detached from the world around me. Other people sometimes found it hard to feel at ease in my presence. I may have been odd, but prim enough for a preacher I was not. No one saw the passion that burned inside.
I encountered people like me only as characters in books and on television. On the tube I found my perfect white boy: Richard Thomas. He was loyal and prompt, arriving in our den every Thursday night to play the role of John-Boy on The Waltons.
Like me, John-Boy was bookish, solitary, a dreamer. He was an intellectual, a poet. His artistic dreams set him apart from everyone around him. His heart-shaped face, the large, disc-like mole on his cheek, and his ever-present pout consumed me. He would understand me, I thought. Every week, I willed myself into the Waltons’ residence, where John-Boy and I would sit at their long wooden table and tell each other things we had never before said out loud.
John-Boy’s turn on Roots: The Next Generation changed my life. It was the actor Richard Thomas, to be precise, who played Jim Warner in the sequel to the mini-series Roots. Like John-Boy, Jim was a lover of poetry, and his artistic sensibility set him apart from those around him. The only person who shared his love of art was a young black schoolteacher, Carrie Barden (played by Fay Hauser), who, like my parents, had attended Fisk University. Their story took place in Tennessee, where Carrie and Jim fell in love and married. Ultimately, their unlawful romance became a conventional love story, and their married life bored me. Their secret courtship, however, I found thrilling.
For obvious reasons, no one could know during the courtship that Carrie and Jim were becoming intimate. They developed delicious strategies for keeping their secret, like discussing the work of Joel Chandler Harris while sitting back to back in Jim’s carriage. Literature bound them. For Carrie, it was the source of her purity; for Jim, his passion. Carrie tried to resist, but dreams of Jim pestered her. Nothing could keep Jim from Carrie, not the disdain of his family, not even Carrie herself. “I will marry you!” he thundered as Carrie ran away.
I imagined that I should work on cultivating a disposition as modest and demure as Carrie’s, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Instead, I recognized myself in Jim’s furious passion, his fervor, his recklessness, and the ferocious, boundless desire that lay just beneath the placid surface.
We had gone to Hazlehurst for a family reunion. About a month before the trip, John and I had received a flyer in the mail describing the weekend’s events. On the program was a list of the meals planned: a fish fry, a country breakfast, and finally a barbecue on the family property that we call the Jefferson place, which consists of nearly 200 acres, 83 of which are pristine woodland, except for a few acres cleared for family use. John had started dreaming of the feasts long before we arrived in Nashville to join my parents for the drive to Mississippi.
The first event of the reunion, the fish fry on the Jefferson place, is already under way by the time we reach my grandmother’s house. After the introductions, John watches as my father sits down in the only easy chair in the room and immediately becomes engrossed in a baseball game on TV. The women gather at the dining room table to trade details about a family squabble that has soured feelings about the reunion altogether. Hours pass as the house buzzes with female muttering and the incessant drone of the television and air-conditioning unit. We miss the fish fry because the women are talking. We miss the fish fry because my father wants to watch baseball. No one asks John what he wants, not even me, caught up as I am in the savory details of the family feud. Eventually, my aunt Julia emerges from the kitchen with a plate of spaghetti covered with homemade sauce. She and John have enjoyed a warm relationship ever since.
Always the optimist, John sets his sights on the country breakfast to be held the next morning, also on the Jefferson property. The family feud has not been resolved by the morning, however, and my father has already eased himself into the overstuffed leather chair in front of the television. John tries to rally the family, but between the feud and my father we are stuck. He appeals to me, but I am again too engrossed in the gossip and intimidated, as always, by my father’s silence, to try to influence the course of the morning.
The final reunion event, the barbecue, is scheduled for the afternoon. John successfully herds my parents, aunt, and grandmother out the door. The heavy, heady smell of grilling meat saturates the air from a hundred yards away. We are spared the wilting sunshine by the awning of a gazebo that has been erected specifically for the reunion. John peers excitedly around the brown bodies in front of him as my curious relatives, one by one, walk over to us and welcome him to the family.
We are near the front of the line when my father approaches, laughing and shaking hands all the way up to our place in line. He takes my elbow and says he wants to make it back in time for the last innings of yet another baseball game. My father has ruled the family, and we have always done as he pleased. There was never a choice. But now there is a choice. “We are not leaving until I get some of this barbecue,” John says in a voice that is friendlier than the voice he used on the highway, but just as firm. I hold my breath, but my father goes back to glad-handing, ceding to John’s assertion of authority just as easily as he had entrusted to him the steering wheel of his car. My mother, who has been watching, is clearly impressed—another story about John for her to tell.
John himself has told this story many times. I wince when he does, because it is a shameful reminder that when presented early with an opportunity to perform the duties of a good partner, I failed. But the imaginary wife who wags her finger at me in judgment was not, and never had been, the kind of wife John wanted. At any rate, he has put up with my passive relationship with food as well as the more obnoxious elements of my personality. As for me, I endure regular critiques of the way I boil eggs. “We marry the problems,” said another friend.
My aunts have used the family reunion story as a lesson and have made sure, in every subsequent visit, that the dining room table is crowded with food when John crosses the threshold. In fact, their favorite food story about John is set during one of those later visits. John entered the house, sweaty from the drive, and focused immediately on the mountain of food prepared in his honor. He dispensed quickly with greetings and headed toward the table, where he piled macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and potato salad onto a plate. Spiced, blackened shrimp and chicken wings coated in barbecue sauce disappeared into his mouth. That was the moment, my aunts say, when they knew for sure that beyond and beneath his skin, John was one of them.
The gazebo that had been built for the reunion was the source of the family feud. My cousin George, my grandfather’s nephew, lives in a trailer on the property. Some members of the family worried that after the reunion George would transform the structure into his personal workshop. They were right. Two years after the reunion, John and I sat in its shade amid a collection of George’s stuff: tools, car parts, a refrigerator, old washing machines, and fishing equipment.
Like most of the Jefferson men, George is solitary, reserved, and very tall. His dark gray dreadlocks fall to his shoulders; his skin is a deep, even brown. He is a sometime carpenter, full-time jack-of-all-trades, hunter of deer, and collector of things. He is at ease in the natural world, so much so that it is hard to imagine him anywhere else, and even harder to imagine him in the New England in which John grew up. And yet the two men took to each other quickly. John teased him about the junk as the three of us sat under the gazebo. Both of them laughed when John nearly fell off a rickety lawn chair.
“Let’s go fishing,” George said to John. I stayed behind and stepped out from under the awning to enjoy the steady Mississippi heat and sunshine that my body craved during the long winters and cold, muddy springs in Vermont. The men came back with a floppy freshwater trout that George gutted and fried on a grill, one of the few working pieces of machinery under the gazebo. The dirty chaos that surrounded us made it difficult for me to concentrate on the small glory of the meal. But John and George ate the flaky, delicate fish with their hands, sucking every morsel from its reedy bones.
When my mother and her sisters were young, the two manmade ponds on the Jefferson place were always stocked with fish, and the land was replete with family. Jeffersons lounged in rocking chairs on the wraparound porch of the ranch-style house where my grandfather was born and raised. His brother and his sister-in-law, called Brother and Sister, brought up their 13 children on the property. “It was like a fairground,” my aunt remembers. Family and friends from all over Mississippi came on weekends to cook, eat, pick berries, and visit on the porch and grounds. The children played games and ate apples, peaches, figs, and plums from the trees that populated the land.
The Jefferson family inherited this Edenic place from its own Adam and Eve. The original owner of the property was Thomas James Jefferson and his wife, Susan (called Susie) Keys Jefferson. Thomas was the son of a white man, a slave owner, whose surname was Meeks. Meeks had a common-law wife, possibly named Mary, who was black and a slave. The family story goes that Meeks essentially gave up his whiteness and lived with his black family for the rest of his life. His son, Thomas James, severed his ties to slavery by casting off the name Meeks when he became an adult and taking on Jefferson instead. His brother, James Alfred, my great-great grandfather, did the same.
Choosing a new name was not an uncommon practice among African-American slaves upon liberation. It may seem curious that Thomas James would renounce his ties to slavery by adopting the name of a slave owner, but his father would have grown up hearing a lot about President Thomas Jefferson, who died within a few years of Meeks’s birth. Perhaps Thomas James heard his father speak of Jefferson’s antislavery views. Maybe he or his father was intrigued by the relationship between Sally Hemings and President Jefferson, which had been a public scandal since the first term of Jefferson’s presidency. Whatever the reason, Thomas James was hardly unique in his choice of surname. According to a 2000 survey conducted by the Census Bureau, 75 percent of Americans with the last name of Jefferson are black. As a “black” name, it is surpassed only by Washington; 90 percent of those bearing that surname are African American.
My great-aunt was named Vergia Octavia Jefferson, but she was always called TJ, after her uncle Thomas James. His father may have abandoned his whiteness, but at least some of his white descendants socialized with their black relatives. Aunt TJ would occasionally entertain them at her home. Like Malcolm X, however, Aunt TJ’s brother, my grandfather, despised the white blood that ran though his veins. He hated that he was biologically bound to the Meeks family and wanted nothing to do with them. He counted some white people among his friends, but he didn’t want them among his kin.
John enjoys the Meeks-Jefferson story almost as much as I do. He and I talk a lot about race. We like racial difference—to experience it and then discuss it. There are interracial relationships in which each party claims not to see racial difference. I don’t understand those couples and consider their relationships fundamentally humorless.
For John, race is a topic of intellectual interest and aesthetic enjoyment. He listens to and writes about jazz, blues, and soul music. He has always had black friends, and I am not the only black woman with whom he has been romantically involved. “A white negro,” a friend smirked when I first described John to her. She meant it derisively, and I forgave her. I felt then that the barb was borne of envy. Her boyfriend was awkward. When he drove a car, he jerked his foot up and down on the brake, as if it were the pedal of a sewing machine. But when John drives, at least in the summer, he glides down the street with his elbow out the window like a hero in a movie about noble neighborhood toughs. From the time we first met, I saw that he moved through the world with a fluidity that was both unselfconscious and theatrical. John would say that this is Italian masculinity, and that it has very much in common with black masculinity. One of the things first pointed out to me by the woman who introduced us, a black woman, was how well he could dance.
I was 31 when I met John. By that point, my father had taken a broader view of what kind of man I should choose for my husband. My father, who is from Trinidad, liked John’s Italianness right away. “Italians and Caribbeans,” he said, “we care about food. We care about family.” My father wasn’t any more of a food person than I was in those days, and compared to my mother, at least, he spoke very little about his family. But he was clearly impressed with John, this intellectual who was unafraid of physical labor, who felt as content in front of a football game as he did with his head inside a book. He was something my father and I could finally agree upon. I was both surprised and annoyed by how much this pleased me.
“Emily needs someone to ground her,” my father said to my mother, who relayed this curious diagnosis to me. Because I had done all the things they had expected of me—performed well in school and become a professor—I felt I had been grounded all my life. The truth is that I have used my marriage to John as an opportunity to fly, at least figuratively.
Our relationship was born at a way station. We met in New Haven at the home of our mutual friend. At the time, John and I were living temporary lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, respectively. When we decided to marry, I moved to Harrisburg to take an adjunct position at Penn State. We were there when we dreamed up a trip to Sapelo Island, one of the Sea Islands of Georgia. The culture and history of the place called to us as a site of resilient Africanness. For almost 300 years, it has been home to the Gullah community of Hog Hammock. Sapelo is unique in that it is a state reserve whose economy, therefore, is not determined by the whims of tourists. This difference between it and its neighboring islands was obvious immediately after we landed. In the McIntosh County airport, black men from Jekyll and St. Simons stooped to heft the sleek leather suitcases and bulging golf bags of white men who ignored them while chatting happily with one another.
Our flights were delayed, and when we arrived after midnight, the ferry to the island had shut down. An island resident offered us a ride on his motorboat. He, John, and I were alone on the still water that night. The moon looked heavy, worn, and magnificent. The water was the color of obsidian; it sparkled as it crested in thick, gentle waves. We got engaged the next day.
While we were on the island, we met another interracial couple, Sandra and Tim, a black woman and a white man, with a handsome, big-eyed child. The five of us quickly became friends. Sandra and Tim laughed when I described the scene of the proposal. John had still been on his knees holding the box with the engagement ring when a rattlesnake emerged from the woods and wriggled past us. Sandra invited me for a walk. We sat on a bench near the water, and she told me about the day her son was born. It was the middle of August, she said, and her skin had darkened. She was hot and huge, desperate to deliver. Moments after the birth, white nurses rushed inside her room, not to care for her but to see the light-brown color of her baby’s skin.
The food at our hotel was unremarkable. If it weren’t for John, I would not have registered this aspect of our stay, but an unwritten condition of our marriage is that I improve my appreciation of food. At first I faked it, then I became passably proficient, and finally I became sincerely interested. Over the years, we have designed several vacations to suit our culinary curiosity. One summer, we used the guidebook Roadfood as a compass. We began with an investigation into the country of barbecue—Memphis, New Orleans, and Texas—then headed north. The quality of excellent beef was simple to appreciate, but the landscape stumped and overwhelmed me. My heart raced with terror as our drive into Wyoming took us into the clouds. I breathed deeply and read Willa Cather and Gretel Ehrlich to unlock the mysteries of the foreign world around me. We ate thick, marbled, juicy steak on the same day we visited the Badlands, whose rugged, ancient grandness nauseated me.
In its everyday incarnation, our marriage is generally mundane. We live in a small house with two children in a quiet neighborhood. We are both professors who teach courses on African-American culture. Unlike my television John, my real-life John’s kin did not exile him when he chose to marry a black woman. Unlike my white forefather Meeks, John has not felt compelled to renounce his whiteness, at least so far.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston’s character Janie Crawford has a revelation while marveling at a bee pollinating a bloom on a pear tree. “So this was a marriage!” She lay on her back and enjoyed the spectacle of a perfect union. For me, marriage is, in large part, the doing of laundry, the tending of children, and of course, the preparing of food. The union between John and me is perhaps most fascinating when I see it through the eyes of other people.
“He refuses to pull the car up all the way into the driveway,” I said to a friend during a long conversation about the routine domestic crimes our husbands had committed against us. “He says it’s because of the icicles that form on the side of the roof. But it’s July!”
“Marriage is hard,” Tanya sighed, “but interracial marriage must be really hard.”
I held the phone away from me and stared at the receiver. Tanya is white, and so is her husband. I thought we had been talking as women married to men, that the minor grievances we held against our respective husbands had to do with sex and not race. I had not been complaining to her about anything interracial, but rather the institution of marriage itself, which requires compromise, which is not always easy, at least for me.
“What’s it like, being married to a white man?” asked Sophia at a college reunion as we walked together across campus. Sophia was born in Mexico. We hadn’t seen each other in the 25 years since graduation. John and the girls were in town, too. He had just called to remind me that he didn’t have the car keys. So, at that moment, being married to a white man was like being married to a man who needed the keys to our car to take our children to a museum. I knew she wanted emotional stories, interesting stories, about struggle, triumph, and difference. But the sun was shining, and I was taking a walk with someone whose company I had forgotten how much I had enjoyed, so I had only funny stories to tell.
“Once John said to me, ‘When black people say, I haven’t done such-and-such in a minute, they mean anything from an actual minute to several years,’ ” I told Sophia. We both laughed.
Then I told her the watermelon story. On the same trip to Hazlehurst that led us to George and his succulent trout, John and I had stopped to buy a watermelon from a roadside stand. The vendor was African American; he had salt-and-pepper hair and wore a white T-shirt and jeans. I stayed behind in the air-conditioned car while John and the man chatted. John, who was dressed in a light blue T-shirt and worn brown khaki shorts, put one hand on his hip and gestured with the other. I leaned back into the headrest and tilted the brim of my hat toward my eyes. John must be talking about one of his favorite summertime topics, I thought, which is how difficult it is to find a decent peach north of the Mason-Dixon Line. When I peeked at them from beneath the brim, he and the man were still talking, bowing deeply as they laughed, like rocking toy penguins.
John balanced the watermelon in his hand as he returned to the car. I asked him what the man said to him, and he smiled.
“He asked me how I was enjoying retirement,” he said. We laughed a little together, and I remembered why I loved him, for not feeling diminished by being mistaken for some other white man, for not wanting to embarrass the man by pointing out his mistake, and for not taking an inordinate amount of pleasure in his error.
“What did you talk about for all of that time?” I asked.
John turned the car engine over and guided us back on the road. “Fruit,” he said.
This is what marriage to John is like, I told Sophia. I did not tell her about the long-ago days of early courtship when, afraid of disapproving looks from strangers, particularly black strangers, I was reluctant to hold John’s hand in public. I didn’t tell her because I hardly think about those days anymore. And when I do, well, after 15 years of laundry, child care, key retrievals, and egg-boiling debates, those days seem like episodes from another life.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” my mother asked me a few months before the wedding. John and I were in Nashville taking care of last-minute plans. I sat on the edge of the bed in the dark room where my mother spent most of her days in the last few years of her life. She turned on her side to face me. My mother’s marriage had not been happy for a long time. She had endured many years of isolation and loneliness. Even though my father took good care of her as her health declined, the heft of all of those lonely years bore down on her to the point where she rarely left her room.
“I think so,” I said. I had planned the wedding she wanted for me, or so I thought. We were quiet. I waited for her to say more; perhaps she was waiting for the same. I had been waiting for a long time, storing up the joy I knew I would feel on the day that she finally got up from her bed and smiled at the world again, maybe on the day of my wedding. But as I took her hand, my chest sagged with the understanding that I could not save her, not with a wedding, not with a son-in-law interesting enough to tell stories about, not with anything.
My mother passed away on a Christmas Eve morning. She was only 70 years old. It was early when I received the call from my brother. I sat on the edge of the bed, holding the phone, and touched John’s arm.
“Mom died,” I whispered.
In a single motion, John swung his body out of the bed and encircled me with his arm. On the way to the airport, the highway was barren and dark—as dark as the night that held my grandmother as she fled from the predatory white men, as dark as the stretch of the Atlantic Ocean that carried John and me to Sapelo Island. We held hands and drove in silence, both of us staring at the road ahead. This is marriage, I thought, or at least my marriage. It is not the stories of forbidden desire that thrilled me as a girl, or even magical rides through clouds and on dark waters. It is John’s right hand in mine, and his left one sure and steady on the wheel.
Emily Bernard is a professor of English and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont. She is working on a collection of essays called Black Is the Body.