It’s corny, I know: interracial couples the world over, and their friends, getting together en masse to publicly celebrate interracial relating. Yeah, it’s kind of a gimmick too. Yet, I can’t help but get excited about it every time the annual reminder shows up on my calendar. I even confess that I looked on the Loving Day site yesterday to see if there are any Loving Day celebrations planned for NH and Boston today. Alas, there are none.
I often reflect on how we stand on the shoulders of giants. Mildred and Richard Loving who challenged the State of Virginia for criminalising their marriage – and won in the US Supreme Court on this day in 1967 – are one set of these giants. Their victory legally enabled and gave social permission to many black-and-white couples in love to be together. Sure, it was only 18 years later that that change rippled to South Africa’s shores. But, it got there in the end. In any case, I’m living in the US now so I’d say it matters that it’s legal for Dan and me to be married here :) And that’s because of their fight.
Putting the Lovings’ grand victory aside for a moment, I want to reflect on the steps of much smaller proportions that long-predated my existence and yet somehow led to my being able to even contemplate being – let alone actually be – making a life with Dan in the first place. Dan and I have written about how, during the course of our lives, we slowly came to ponder an interracial union as a real possibility. But here, recognising that the personal is indeed political, I want to reflect on this from a very different angle than we’ve done before by focusing on the social formation of plausibility frameworks over protracted periods of history.
My sentimental focus on the historical in the extended sense is partly provoked by the recent passing of some real legends of our time in rather close succession: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Nomaka Epainette Mbeki and Maya Angelou. (I will hold off, until a future post, on reflecting on the latter two and the importance of the rarely discussed victories won by black women of the last century or more for black – especially African – women of my generation.)
In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes:
It was at Healdtown that I made my first Sotho-speaking friend, Zachariah Molete. I remember feeling quite bold at having a friend who was not a Xhosa.
He continues to describe a Sotho-speaking teacher that he admired at the same school, including that:
what most amazed us about him was his marriage to a Xhosa girl from Umtata. Marriages between tribes were then extremely unusual. Until then, I had never known of anyone who married outside his tribe. We had been taught that such unions were taboo. But seeing Frank and his wife began to undermine my parochialism and loosen the hold of the tribalism that still imprisoned me. I began to sense my identity as an African, not just a Thembu or even a Xhosa.
Mandela here tells of how that which was virtually unimaginable until then suddenly became highly conceivable merely by his seeing someone whom he respected doing it. For the young version of himself, this encounter started to disabuse him of the hegemony of tribalism and the assumed primacy of his inflicted identity of “Xhosa” over that of “African”.
I made sure my students in the Law and Society in Africa course I taught this last year understood that the essentialised notion of “tribes” that prevailed on the African continent in the last century – and in many ways still plagues African countries in the contemporary problems they face – was largely a historical construct imposed by colonial governments. Before that, African communities were much less regimentally defined and experienced a lot of migration and intermarriage.
Nevertheless, it’s just as important to acknowledge that things changed dramatically with the arrival of new authorities bent on “civilising the natives” by “bringing law and order”; organising, controlling and ultimately taking ownership of and profiting from their land; and subjugating and using the people found there as “labour”. From spending a lot of time in deep rural, indigenous and traditional communities in my work, I know that we black South Africans have largely forgotten the time before the settlers arrived. (I know too, from reading News24 comments, that many white South Africans deride this pre-colonial time as purely barbaric and awaiting salvation by white masters, if they care to acknowledge it at all; but that’s a piece for another day.)
The pain and suffering – and sheer struggles for survival and liberation – that we, Africans, have endured since this invasion have obliterated our memory. Though, rhetorically, we remain highly aware of the roots or essentials of “who we are” (ubuntu betfu, ubuve betfu – literally, our humanity and personhood, our nationality and identity … the strength of our dignity), we have all but forgotten what that really looked like or meant. Sadly, you see that borne out in the destructive ways in which we often inhabit our post-colonial/post-apartheid freedom.
As one who lives in the contemporary era of forgetfulness, I can quite easily live into Mandela’s childhood assumptions and, at some level, share in his surprise at the first intercultural marriage he happens upon. After all, “tribal” identity was still a bit of an uneasy “thing” in my formative years in the latter days of apartheid, during the late ‘80s and entering into an interracial marriage is a socially big deal even now. But, more importantly, it’s amazing to me to, through Mandela’s telling of his childhood experiences, live into a time when someone, who was ultimately able to see beyond our dehumanising subjugation and intellectual imprisonment in rather remarkable ways, was undergoing his slow process of awakening from the nightmarish classifications and segregation imposed on us as a people(s). In other words, it’s just amazing to think that what, today, seems like a non-issue (that inter-“tribal”/intercultural marriage is perfectly acceptable) was, at a time, a to-do of such epic proportions.
To me, it is beautiful to think of the arc of the history of Dan’s and my union as finding its beginning in this sort of paradigm shifting encounter that Mandela had in his late teens. In my mind, the progress made in socio-legal consciousness in that time can be likened with something my father said to explain to me how he was able to make an uneasy peace with my moving so far away from home as NH. At the turn of the century, my grandfather had left his deeply rural family to work for the railroads and ultimately settled, with his four wives, as labour tenants on a white farm in Mpumalanga. Subsequently, my father, when he was older, left the farm to pursue prosperity in Johannesburg and there became a self-made businessman. To his father, his leaving by car to go to Johannesburg was not unlike my leaving by plane to go to the US. My leaving was therefore the mark of each generation stretching the plausibility framework just that little bit further than did the previous one.
I guess, I have done just this with regards to marriage too. My grandmother married a man of her same cultural group by means of family connections. My mother, Sotho, met and married my father, who is Swati, in Johannesburg. In England, I, as a South African woman, met and married an American man. (Another way of describing the same would be to say that this ethnically Swati-Sotho woman married an ethnically Scottish-German man.)
Perhaps, on reading this, you are wondering to yourself if I spend most of my marriage feeling badly about having married a man of a different race to myself. The answer is I don’t. I spend most of my marriage feeling grateful for the oh-so-many blessings bestowed upon me and it is that gratitude which frequently draws my attention back to an awareness of the extended trajectory of how I came to be where I am.
Mandela’s narrative therefore brings me delight on looking closely at the past and, in it, seeing the hope it offers for tomorrow. For the big socio-political leap taken in the 76 years between the 19 year old Mandela who came to realise that intercultural marriage was not anathema and me today who is in an interracial marriage leads me to hope. In fact, it may even lead me to dare to believe that, one day – perhaps a “mere” seventy-odd years from now – my grandchildren’s generation will think an interracial marriage to be an unquestionably viable option.
Yet, I do hope that they will no less celebrate Loving Day, then, than I do now. If only because I hope that they will share my reverence for the victories of the past and their contribution to bringing us to the blessings of the present.