Brother Pain

How a black woman came to terms with interracial love

Content Tools

“How could he?” one student said. 

“It hurts,” said another. . . “When I see a black man with a white woman, I think that I have not measured up. That something is lacking in me.” 

“We grow up feeling not pretty, not good enough, not wanted,” a third student said. “Feeling invisible, feeling the need to change ourselves in order to be accepted. Acceptable. And it’s more than just about cosmetics. We feel pain at the deepest level.”

I understand the pain and anger of these young black women because their pain and anger had once been mine. The passing of decades has not removed the abandonment I once felt when my newest heartthrob on screen, record, or the playing field married a white woman. The news would flash, and my friends and I would go into mourning, grieving our own deaths. That was how we felt: nonexistent in the eyes of those men who gave us visibility and voice in a world that denied us both.

I remember in my high school and college years being proud of the black man in Mod Squad. He was so very hip, so very visible, so very much an equal in the trio that fought crime. “Day-O. Day-O. Daylight come and me wanna’ go home.” I would Calypso dance in front of the mirror to Belafonte’s scratchy voice singing melodiously. And like other black women, I was proud of Sidney Poitier, that ebony brother of tight smoothness, who was the first of the big stars. There was something in the way he walked, leaning down in his hips, in the way he read a script through his eyes, in the way his deep blackness spoke of a power that was mine to claim. I remember wanting the mellifluous voice that made James Earl Jones brilliant in any role—from “street” to Shakespearean. All married white women.

The pain we experience as black teenagers follows many of us into adulthood, and if we are professional black women, it follows with a vengeance. As a colleague in an eastern school explained our situation, “Black men don’t want us as mates because we are independent; white men, because we are black.” We have to organize our own venting sessions. The only difference between us and black teenagers is the language we use, our attempt at some kind of analysis, and our refusal to mourn. Teenagers see an individual heartthrob; we see an entire championship basketball team. Teenagers know about athletes and entertainers; we know about politicians and scholars. Teenagers see faces; we see symbols that, in our opinion, spin the image of white women to the rhythm of symphonic chords.

I look at my past participation in venting sessions with gratitude for the liberation I now experience, a liberation that was slow and gradual, and yet that seems to have happened overnight, as if while I slept someone or something cut the straps of the straitjacket that was stealing my breath and, miraculously, I awoke able to breathe with arms freed for embracing. It must have been a good spirit who knew the weight of anger had become too much for me: anger over what integration did not mean for the masses of black people; anger over the deterioration of black schools; anger over battering and homicide of black women; anger over violence against our children, our elderly, and our young men. It was a long list; it was a heavy weight which I had to lighten or lose my mind.

The question was, What could I remove? What was important and not important? What could make a difference in the world?

The answer came to me with the clarity of a mockingbird singing from the rooftop in the North Carolina dawn, identifying herself and the place she has claimed as her own. I could see myself flying to a spiritually high place, identifying myself as a woman who loves herself, and claiming as my own a different place for struggle. Perched there, singing, I knew I would never again give my mind and my emotions over to something I could not change, and something that was not the cause of suffering in the world. I decided to remain focused in my anger, the better to be useful in a struggle for change, for the new justice we so desperately need. Anger over black men with white women, I sang, took me out of focus.

Weariness was one factor in my liberation; so was my love for children. How strange (and yet not so strange if I believe Spirit works in our lives) that when I was struggling with my liberation, interracial children became more visible than ever in grocery stores, shopping centers, and other public places. In almost all cases, their mothers were white. In the past, I would see them and think about the same old pattern: white mother, black father. Now I see the children and forget their parents, having decided that I cannot truly accept them if I question the union in which they were conceived. And the children I will never not accept.

At a different spiritual place, I made a new list of concerns that, working in coalition with others, I have a moral obligation to address. Black men with white wives didn’t make it on the list. I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said I believed that most black men with white wives don’t have problems with themselves, with the race, and with black women. I will not lie. I believe many of them wear the aroma of disdain we can smell miles away. I believe that for most of them the choice is not a matter of the heart; but not knowing who in the group followed his heart, I have decided not to judge. Like a recovering alcoholic who is hooked all over again with one sip, I have written my own recovery program. It is composed of one step: Remember how much lighter you feel without the weight of anger and the weight of judging.

That must have been the spirit I was exuding when a friend revealed a pain that, even in my recovery, I did not realize was so deep for some black men married to white women. “This, Gloria,” he said, referring to the O.J. Simpson tragedy, “implicates us in the eyes of many people. They think all of us are obsessed with white women.” He paused. “Obsessed to the point of violence.”

I had met my friend two years earlier in a long-distance phone conversation. He had called to tell me that my rememberings in my book Pushed Back to Strength were his rememberings as well. He was reminiscing about growing up black and male in segregated South Carolina when he said suddenly, “My wife is white.” Had the phone fallen, he would have known not to continue. Had my energy changed, he would have regretted the call. I made no response. Only in retrospect did I realize I had passed a test I did not know was being administered.

That conversation was followed by another and yet another until, finally we met in person at a Unitarian-Universalist anitracist conference in Spokane, Washington. My friend was a mover and shaker in the group and through him I met another mover and shaker who, like my friend, is a black man married to a white woman.  The three of us stole time to discuss “the problem.” The question was not, “How could you?” but rather, “How does it feel to be a black man in racist America married to a white woman?”

“People never come right out and ask,” my friend from the long-distance conversation says.

“How can can we?” I interrupt. “It’s such a private and personal matter. We don’t dare ask without . . .”

“Without judging,” he replies, giving me the word for which I was searching. “They don’t ask, but I see the question in their eyes. Why? Why did you marry a white woman?”

Most black women, he explains, reject him immediately when he says, “My wife is white,” but it is the eyes that engender the strongest response. “Disdain. Disgust. Immediately, they pull out their mental list of misconceptions about black men with white wives.”

“I need her in order to feel good about myself and to feel more powerful.” 

“She is from a lower socioeconomic group or, if economically privileged, she is angry with her family.” 

“He has always been interested in white women.” 

“Dated them rather than us.” 

“He doesm’t like who he is as an African-American—therefore he does not like black women.” 

Something in my face or my body movement betrayed me:

“But if we can’t get a white woman, then we will get the next best thing: a high-yellow woman with flowing hair and aquiline features.”

Did my eyes say that? Did my body movement speak about the high percentage of prominent black men, many of them dark-skinned, married to very fair black women? Did he know I had shifted my interest from black men with white wives to the difficulties of dark-skinned black women in all areas? He continues: The one thing he did not ever want to do was marry white. Are we ever in charge of where and with whom we find ourselves? Can we dictate to the heart? Some experts say we can, say that we choose whom we love, which means, then, that the heart beats only when the mind says, “Beat.” And this business of romantic love might be what Toni Morrison says it is: one of three dangerous concepts in human thinking. I listen again to my friend.

“If I could not have loved her, I would not have loved her.” I know some revolutionary-talking brothers and sisters who say black men should make a political decision not to marry white, choose not to love white. But I think to myself, what black woman or black man wants to be married politically to someone who loves another but politically cannot marry him or her? Romantic love might be a dangerous concept, but it has its hold on me. I am an incurable romantic who believes that people should marry because they love each other. Period. Mix in a political agenda—like birthing of babies for revolution—and you have real problems. I remember a black man who confessed his love for a white woman to a “sister” he later married. They are divorced.

Twenty years later, my friend and his white wife are together. They are friends and they are activists working for justice to the applause and pride of their two children. To see the father and son together is to see two men comfortable enough with their manhood and their racial identity to hold hands and actually embrace in public.

“Our children’s psychological health,” my friend says, “is the strongest proof of what we feel for each other.”

It is true, he admits, that an interracial parentage can create problems for children. Are they black? Are they white? What exactly are they? But he hasn’t seen any data that document the absence of confusion for children of noninterracial marriages. Neither have I.

If he could not have loved his wife, he would not have, because doing so, he was convinced, would mean giving up home. He was in Germany at the time and ready to return to the States, but that joy he would give up. “I didn’t set out to love,” he says again. They found themselves together for hours in a train station in Germany. Stranded. “We spent hours just talking. We found a comfort zone,” he tells me. “You know how it is when someone knows your secrets and you didn’t know they knew.” It was that way with them. Not her race, but a “comfort zone” brought them together.

How could he return to the States with a white wife? The derision, disdain and rejection he did not want to face, did not want her subjected to, didn’t want their children to endure. He remained in Germany for ten years until both he and she found the courage to return. His reentry was difficult. At first the black community was in denial: “My wife was German, not white.” Then many—but not all—went the expected route, he said.

He remembers meeting a former sweetheart, a black woman from his pre-German years. He is with his wife. There is a second of dread. Will she judge? The breath leaves his body. “She pauses,” he says, “and then with her eyes she tells me ‘It’s okay,’” He is fighting the tears. “I can’t tell you how good it felt to breathe again.”

“Is it that important for black women to embrace you?” I ask.

His eyes are moist. “More than you can imagine. The pain for me is that I am expected to cut myself from the wisdom of all those black women I grew up with,” he says. “It’s a deep pain, cutting off a lifeline.” I knew that some black men married to white women experienced discomfort, but this kind of pain was beyond my imagining.

Their courage lightens the pain. Together, they are fighting the myths and misconceptions. It is not easy for either of them and, in many ways, it is more difficult for her. As a man in this nation, he has voice which she, as a woman, is denied. But they awake each morning, he says, relieved that they returned. It is the heart that makes them so.

My other friend had remained mostly silent during this dialogue. “Talk about irony,” he said—he once judged black men married to white women, judged them harshly. That was definitely not something he would ever do. Have sex with white women? Yes. Indeed yes! Marry one of them? No Absolutely, no. He was one of those “brothers” in the sixties who devoted a lot of their revolutionary time to sleeping with white women. “I set out to get them as my revenge against the man.” As “many conquests as possible,” that’s what he wanted.

Marrying white, however, was never an option for him. “I believed white love was inferior to black love,” he said. It was not an option for him because of the difficulties he believed those relationships pose for children. It was not an option because he was wed emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and politically to black women—to all black people.

His wife was not a woman he used to seek revenge against “the man.” In fact, he met her by chance after that period in his life had ended. She was a “little lady on somebody else’s arms” with a resonance that drew him to her, but my friend says he pulled back because “that was never something I would consider.” As if by fate, they found themselves together when they were not supposed to be, when he did not want them to be. Again and again they were together until “It happened,” he tells me. “All I can say is that it happened. I knew she was my soulmate.” He smiles. “I wanted it to go away, but it wouldn’t.”

He laughs frequently as we talk. Levity helps when you are in pain. He laughs when he tells me of a friend’s description of him and his wife. “You are like salt and pepper.” He laughs until he tells me of his decision to ask her to marry him.

“It was a major struggle. I remember going out into the night and standing between two giant trees, looking up to God and crying out loud, ‘Help me. What am I supposed to do? You’ve called me to fight for justice, but I love a woman who is white. Help me.’”

He had no option not to marry her. “One of the rarest gifts is to find someone whom you love and who loves you.” Full of fire, talented, and charming, he was on his way to leadership in the black empowerment struggle. “I gave it up,” he says, neither his tone nor his eyes suggesting regret. “I took myself out of the leadership track.” Married happily for over 20 years, he does not regret the sacrifice. He gave up leadership in the movement, but not his commitment to racial justice. That is his passion, his life’s work, his other heart.

To the question, “Do you understand the pain of black women?” He answers, “In a way you can’t imagine. I hurt with them,” and the thought that they hurt because of him makes him want to weep. And sometimes he does. “I can’t get away from black women’s pain,” he says, his voice breaking. “I can’t, and as crazy as it sounds for a black man married to a white woman, I am motivated in my work in part by my sensitivty to black women’s pain.” I believe him. “Because I know we brothers haven’t made it easy for black women. We got our pain, but it doesn’t begin to compare with yours.”

My eyelids are cups, but I do not dare tilt them, lest rivers of pain rush from me. The pain is not his marriage, but rather the negative reading of relationships between black men and black women. How different that reading is from my friend’s description of his marriage-friendship.

When the dialogue ends, he says, “Can we talk again? We only scratched the surface of my feelings. I need to talk. I have to talk.” We leave the room where we have been sitting. “Those were good questions,” he says.

“Not too offensive,” I ask.

“Are you kidding? It’s as if you read my mind. It’s as if you knew what I wanted to say.” He pauses. “But Sister Glo, I’m more worried about you than I am about me.”

I don’t understand.

“I’m used to being beat up on when the subject is black men and white wives. I’m used to the fights. But you?”

For the first time since my decision to write about my liberations from the old pain, I begin to wonder how friends will interpret my new attitude, what judgments they will render against me. So much for your spiritual spinning, they might say, but let us get to the critical question: Would you want your daughter or your son to marry one? I prefer that they do not and hope that they will not, but if they are following their heart, I pray they will.

“So what was the point of these two stories?” I ask myself. “What, if anything, do they prove?” I don’t know that I ever set out to prove anything. Certainly the fact that two black men married to white women—two out of thousands—remain committed to our people, feel and understand the pain of black women, want to do what they can to erase it, and married following their hearts does not end “the problem.” But it might make us pause before we judge individuals. It might make us rethink giving an interracial couple that look of disdain my friends say hurts so very much.

“But how can these men be so sure,” some black women will ask, “that their analysis is right? How do they know that whiteness did not make ‘it’ happen? After all, there is this thing, this monster, called mind control, called conditioning, called psychological scarring, even enslavement . . . . The truth is, they can’t be sure.”

Perhaps my friends can't prove that race did not make “it” happen, but can we prove that race did make it happen? How will me measure? With what instrument? Under what circumstances? And for how long?

If we could enter the heart and know, would our pain be altered? Would our knowing create jobs, build better schools, stop the trafficking of drugs, or dethrone patriarchy? Would it save the children and care for the elderly? Would it jettison our people from the dark side of the moon where injustice never sleeps? In the long run or the short run, in their lives or in the lives of others, does it matter whom my friends married and whom they say they love? For me, it no longer does. I have already taken my anger elsewhere.

Reprinted from Rooted Against the Wind by Gloria Wade-Gayles.