Some of the best stories start with an unexpected phone call that changes everything. In this case, the call came from Christelyn. On the other end of the line, she was breathless and talking faster than her normal rapid-fire gabbing. She was excited, ecstatic really. Having just returned from New York days before, where she had attended a conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, she had been pitching a story to literary agents about how she came to marry her husband, a story that she had pitched to Elle earlier that year, a personal essay she thought the editors might be receptive to. And while there was one that did, the piece never made it through the editorial labyrinth at the haughty New York glossy. So she began suggesting it as a book on how to go about dating interracially. (I’ll say this for Chris: She is nothing if not doggedly persistent.) Her resolve was rewarded: three agents wanted to see the book proposal—which she had not yet written. “I want you to write it with me,” she said.
“Why me?” I asked. In my mind, this story was hers, not mine.
“You have discipline and stamina. I need you to be my security blanket to make sure that I get it done,” she said, after spreading the honey-coated compliments about my skills as a writer. “And with your contacts in the publishing industry, and my writing style—which you could complement well—I really think we could do something great.
“Plus, I can’t write a book by myself—not the whole damn thing!”
For many reasons, I wanted to say no—not the least of which that I had just written a two-hundred-and-fifteen-page novel not less than two years prior, my thesis project in graduate school (it has not yet been published); researching and writing it almost buried me, even though I had decided to spin off the idea into a documentary film, for which I had just finished writing and editing a sixteen-page treatment.
That, and I wanted my first book to have my name on it alone. I felt that after twenty years as a writer, I had earned that vanity point.
And yet, as a single African American woman, now divorced for more than a dozen years, I felt I had something to say on the subject of interracial and crosscultural romances. Just weeks before Chris’s call, I had read a study about how black women were the least likely of any ethnic group to marry and the myriad reasons why, including the reluctance to dating out. But for me, the timing was right on a personal level. I was looking to jump into the dating pool again a little more seriously, having ended a relationship that, quite honestly, should have never begun in the first place and went on much too long, creating too much residual pain; requiring a lot of therapy-induced introspection and evenings spent with Barbra Streisand’s “Stayed Too Long at the Fair.” Sometimes smart women do dumb things in relationships; and as black women, I have found, we are oftentimes a little clueless when it comes to seeking relationships outside of our race or ethnic group. This I realize is a generalized statement. But it’s also true. As a journalist, I felt it my job to understand the reasons why and to give insight on how to get past it.
So I agreed to coauthor the book with Christelyn.
It surprised her that I said yes so quickly. “I thought I’d have to negotiate, I thought I’d have to cajole,” she told me later, as we raked through the edits of this book on my living room floor on a postcard-perfect mid-October afternoon in Los Angeles. “I really thought I’d have to beg and plead for a while because I knew this was going to be a big undertaking, like godmother-to-my-children big.”
And she’s never asked me to do that.
It had been sixteen years since we met at Loyola Marymount University, when I was paired with her as an alumni mentor, she an eager, wide-eyed sophomore with dreams of becoming a reporter like me; here we are now, writing colleagues with a like-minded mission: to dare black women to think differently.
That said, this isn’t a book that is trying to convince you why you should date outside your race and culture; there are enough books, studies, news reports and specials, documentaries, and “experts” on the subject to tell you that. What we want to do is help you do it.
Dating out can be wonderfully sublime. But for the novice, it can be daunting and intimidating. And we’ve both been there, with differing degrees on the outcome. In us, you get the perspectives of a woman who found marital bliss with someone of another race, and another happy to date a rainbow of men without the down-the-aisle end game. Playing to both our strengths and interests, my chapters tackle such topics as where to find a mate, flirting, dating, and sex, because Christelyn, despite having had four children, is girlishly coy on the topic of coitus. For her part, she wanted to focus on the weighty issues that need to be addressed once the relationship gets into a deeper level when friends and family, and the people staring at you and your rainbeau in the supermarket, begin to play a factor in the relationship.
At the top of each chapter, we have identified those authored by Christelyn, and those I have written. And it is a book you can read out of sequence or in; all are self-contained works giving you the information you want when you need it. Writing Swirling has been nothing short of a positively transformative experience for Chris and me; my dating life alone has never been so wildly robust. And in your reading of Swirling, we hope, brings a deliciously fruitful and satisfying change in your dating experience.
—Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, with Christelyn D. Karazin
Jumping the Broom with a White Boy
Marriage is for white people.
It’s hard to say what I felt exactly when I read that Washington Post editorial a few years ago—offended, outed, but mostly just sad. Finally, writer Joy Jones had exposed the furtive secret, the dirty laundry. Despite the fact that my own parents had been married for forty-five years, I learned early that marriage for whites and blacks was distinctly different. In my pubescent, wide-eyed youth, I remember the image I had was of hands clasped against one cheek, me sighing dreams of love, marriage, mutual understanding and cooperation. I would relate them to some friend or relative only for them to scoff, “That’s some fairy-tale-white-people-shit.”
If black women—regardless of class and education—were really honest, most would tell you that their ideal mate is a black man. It’s only natural to want to be with someone who looks like you. The problem is, the chances are slim—African Americans have the lowest marriage rate of all races, and black women are at the back of the line. I once knew a single black woman with a thriving career as a civil engineer and cofranchiser of a Subway sandwich shop, who told me, “I’m still holding out for my black man.” In her church, work, or circle of friends, she could not find one single, solitary black man who could fit the bill. “I don’t care if he’s a FedEx carrier, I just want a good one,” she had said.
We lost touch, so I never found out if the deliveryman ever came knocking with that ring in hand. But if I were a gambler, I’d say she must have faced some tough odds on finding her black man, given a statistic such as 42 percent of black women will never marry, compared to 21 percent of white women.
So, if marriage is for white people, what option does an educated, fertile, marriage-minded black female have? Know this: Prince Charming comes in all colors. It’s time to expand your horizons and simply find a good man.
I realize that some black women, steadfast in their quest to find the ultimate brother, may bristle when they read this. If they want motherhood, some would rather concede to “babymama” status if they can’t get their partner to commit for life, for reasons here too presumptuous of me to assume. I can only speak for myself. My twelve-year-old daughter’s father, who is black, outright refused to marry me when I became pregnant in college, despite dangling the marriage carrot in front of my nose for a year prior. His parents never married. His own father has three illegitimate children (that we know of at least). As my belly swelled, I remember being so ashamed that I bought a cubic zirconia to wear on my ring finger when we were out together in public. It didn’t bother him a bit. To him, marriage was nonessential.
And still others, like my engineer friend, would rather forfeit marriage and motherhood than ever consider marrying outside their race. It’s a betrayal of the Afrocentric us-against-the-world groupthink, and a heartbreaking remnant of slavery. It’s the pebble in all our shoes. Marriage for slaves was not legally or spiritually binding by the ruling class. Defiant lovers still found ways to express their eternal devotion by jumping the broom, which symbolized the leap into a new life, and living together. Such “frivolity” did not stop the slave owners and foreman from raping the women, while husbands and sons watched, helpless and impotent. Some of us still have not forgiven.
My husband and I jumped the broom the day we married. My mother insisted on it, perhaps as a not so subtle reminder to me from where I’ve come. So with clenched teeth and sweaty palms I took the leap with my white husband, and into a world that was neither black nor white, but brushed with of wisps of gray. An interracial marriage is truly risky. You join the ranks of odd couples who abdicate their anonymity and risk ridicule. Tall and short, skinny and portly, black and white. Someone stares a millisecond longer than what is comfortable, and then you wonder. A salesman snubs you and then you speculate. You weren’t invited to a party and you can’t help but think, Is it because my husband is white?
Is it because I’m black?
I have been called a nigger three times in my life. The first time was in elementary school: a blond boy with dirty clothes and flies perpetually circling his face spat the word at me while I sat on a swing. Then it happened again in high school—some cowardly adolescent thought it was funny to yell out the slur while I was walking alone from school. The last time came just before my wedding.
I was walking alongside a coworker passing out notices to homeowners about freeway work to be done in Costa Mesa, California. We made the best of it, laughing about the ridiculous job, how the execs liked to hand off the grunt work to the juniors. We took in the sunshine. We talked about our significant others. He knew my intended was white, and asked me about it.
“What’s it like?” he asked, innocently. “Do you ever worry about what people say?”
“Not at all,” I said, full of cosmopolitan bravado. “This is California, not Mississippi.”
Almost immediately after, a white pickup blazed passed us, a little too close to the curb. A man hung his elbow out of the window. Then it had happened a third time.
“Nigger!” The cowards hit the gas and zoomed away.
My coworker, who was white, seemed incredulous, almost embarrassed, and a little scared. Then, unsure of what to do, he chuckled nervously, “You’re not offended by those jerks, are you? Ha! What jerks!” Then, he looked at me and saw my face, brown and burning, tears swelling against the bridge of my nose. “God, Chris. I’m sorry.”
I remember thinking at the time about how absurd it was. Why apologize for what those chumps yelled out? Did he think that I would hold him responsible in some way, like some collective condemnation for all bigots of the world? In a way, he did. In some ways, we all do.
Before that incident I lived in a bubble of self-imposed denial about what it would be like to be married to someone white. I grew up in the 1980s, but I was only one generation removed from drinking out of the “Blacks Only” fountain. That day, something grabbed hold and shook me. I began to overanalyze the incident, rewinding and replaying it. Seeing us laughing and walking together must have looked like intimacy to those men. They must have thought we were on a date.
Later that evening I told my fiancé about it. He kissed my tears. He called the men bastards. Then we went on, one foot in front of the other, down the aisle. Because no matter what, nothing changed the fact that we loved to cook and garden together, and debate the latest news outrage in bed on Sunday mornings. It didn’t erase that we completed each other’s sentences. He had an uncanny way of reading me and knowing my secrets, and loving me still.
When it was time to take the leap, my palms slick with sweat, part of me was giddy with love and promise; the other, secret part was full of fear and dread. I would begin a life with a man who had never known open prejudice, never been called a name meant to humiliate and dehumanize him. He would have to understand why that word “nigger” had so much power, how it could cause me to crumble into tears. He would have to toughen up to hear a few slurs of his own, now that he was going to be married to me.
At our wedding, I gave one last look at the audience. To my left was his family and friends—mostly white—and to the right was my family. Black sand, white sea foam. As the tide ebbs and flows, each part takes and leaves a little of itself with the other. I looked at my soon-to-be husband, with his wide smile and hopeful green eyes, and I knew in an instant that no matter what the future brought, this was my man. He was the man.
Almost equally ironic as was the drive-by name calling fluke, my husband and I have been lucky thus never to have experienced blatant outrage or bigotry about our biethnic, bicultural relationship. Indeed, the world is changing. At almost twelve, my oldest daughter has never been called a nigger. There are more families that look like us, both in real life and on television. Finally, the ghosts of slavery and all the isms—racism, colorism, classism—that go along with it are being exorcised. Of course we get the furtive looks and stares of bald curiosity or disdain that comes along with being different. And I must admit I still hold my breath when we walk together past a cluster of black men for fear of their stares of disapproval, or worse—words spoken into action, action into deed. Rational or not, I fear the sting of being called a “sellout” just as much as I do the word “nigger.”
I sometimes think about that person who once told me that marriage was a fairy tale in which white people cornered the market. They were wrong. Imperfect and glorious, this little black girl got her fairy-tale ending. My marriage works, just not in the confines of tradition or with the ease of anonymity. We continue to transcend together, beyond Jim Crow and the “n” word, beyond the fear of ridicule. Knowing what I do now, I wish I would have told the engineer-slash-sandwich-shop-owner that you just have to snatch love for yourself when it comes knocking, in whatever color or cultural package he’s wrapped in. That’s the purpose of this book, and my hope is that all who read it will find love, however it arrives.