Race Relations

The wedding album arrived at my parents' house a few months after my October nuptials, the names “Lorenz and Carmen” and the date of our marriage embossed on the cover. And the first thing my mother did was carry it across the street to Buena Green.

This struck me as odd at the time. Although a longtime neighbor, Mrs. Green was not among my mother's closest friends. Not as close as the Hills or Savages, who lived on either side. Nor was she a regular on Mom's bridge or poker circuit. Perhaps for some homespun psychological reason, my mother was seeking a neutral opinion, one that wouldn't be tainted by close friendship.

Issues of race were seldom neutral. At least not in my rigidly segregated, closely circumscribed youth. Or in the Boston of my adulthood.

This is, after all, a nation that still wrestles with the question of whether or not founding father Thomas Jefferson consorted with his slave Sally Hemings — and a city that, in its not-too-distant past, has been under court order to variously desegregate its police and fire departments, public schools, and public housing.

While the Oklahoma street where my mother lived was not exactly the center of intellectual and political discourse on such topics, this particular marriage across the color line — tacitly accepted by my family — still was not a settled or neutral matter. Apparently not until we knew what Buena Green would say.

Mrs. Green, at least in my mother's subdued retelling of the story, admired my wedding suit, recognized some of the locals from the neighborhood who were in Boston for the ceremony, and inquired politely about the weather that day. Finally, with her eyes barely an inch from the largest photograph, she asked my mother about her new son-in-law.

“Is he white,” she queried, “or is he just real light?”

I imagine my mother probably swallowed before she answered as nonchalantly as she could. “He's white.”

“Good-looking man,” Mrs. Green proclaimed.

My mother scurried back across the street and placed the album squarely on the living room coffee table, “out” where it could be seen.

A marriage is never as simple as the joining of two kindred souls. There is always the anxiety of whether one's mate will be accepted or rejected, welcomed or ridiculed, adored or abhorred. That anxiety is even higher when a mate has, say, a different hometown, different religion, or a different educational or financial background. As complex as all of the variables are, race may be one of the most complicated.

And yet, while they may not necessarily be getting any less complicated, interracial marriages have at least become more commonplace. The number of mixed-race marriages has increased more than sixfold since 1960, according to census figures. Interracial coupling may be growing even faster than these statistics indicate, considering that, for every five young married couples, there's another unmarried couple living together, according to research by University of Michigan sociologist David R. Harris.

Still, there are many more white-Asian and white-Hispanic pairings in the United States than white-black. I wonder: Is this because there is more resistance from white relatives or peers to blacks than to other racial groups? Or is it because blacks themselves remain less willing to cross the color line?

There are no up-to-date statistics about the prevalence of interracial marriage in Boston. Yet some of the most prominent couples in this racially conflicted town are of mixed race. They can be found in the legal profession, among journalists, heading a major medical institution, and running a popular hotel. I, for one, will warn: If it happened to me, it could, indeed, happen to anybody.

Marriage, it seems, is never a completely private decision. And crossing the color line is fraught with psychological, political, and historical implications. The psychological baggage reminds me of adolescence and what any of us faced who dared to be different. Different was buying Keds instead of PF Flyers, or not putting pennies in your loafers. Never mind the really heavy stuff, like sexual preference or just saying “no” to sex or drugs. Being different was never easy, no matter how trivial the difference.

And race has been one of the overarching differences of the last two centuries. During my coming of age, the lines were clearly drawn between “us” and “them.” In my childhood, “they” were the ones who decided which water fountains we could use and which restaurants would serve us, whether we could attend a certain movie theater and where we could sit. “They” were the only ones on television, with the exception of an occasional sighting of one of “us” on The Ed Sullivan Show or the short-lived Nat King Cole Show. “They” were the only ones in magazine and newspaper advertisements, Ebony and Jet notwithstanding. “They” were the only brides pictured in the wedding section. We could look forward to being featured prominently in the newspapers if we got into trouble with the law.

There were no role models in my youth for interracial relationships. I have vague memories of people mumbling about the Sammy Davis Jr.-Mai Britt union in 1960. There was also famed contralto Marian Anderson. Even though married to the white Orpheus Hodge Fisher, she couldn't get past the Daughters of the American Revolution into Constitution Hall to sing. But Anderson and Davis were “celebrities,” not real people. In my hometown, Calvin Coolidge Richardson went away to World War II and came home with a German bride. They raised their beige boy among us on the black side of town. She worked and worshiped with us, becoming a part of the social fabric. I wonder now who the local barometer of the uncharted territory was for them.

The civil rights years brought more psychological hurdles when, in the late 1960s and early '70s, the Black Power movement brought forth a renewed ethos of race pride and solidarity.

Black Panther power couples Elaine Brown and Huey Newton, and Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver were exemplars of that period. Against that backdrop, many in mixed marriages were sometimes viewed as, if not traitors, then at least disloyal to the race. It was all very confusing, because some of these so-called traitors were also staunch civil rights activists, most notably Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte.

During our courtship, my betrothed presented me with a very special gift. A history buff, he found the marriage license of my grandparents, the Reverend Thomas Jefferson Fields and Miss Mary Garrett, married in Nacogdoches, Texas, on January 1, 1886. I was touched and called my father to tell him about this find. My father was pleased, too, but for a different reason. “All that searching to make sure he knows you and your people are all right,” he declared with a chuckle.

Now I had a pedigree, like the prized papers of my father's hunting dogs. Yes, Dad, now he knows we're proper people. Bewildered at my father's reaction, my husband-to-be shook his head. But I guess it was only fair. Long before we became engaged, my family checked “them” out, too.

Because of my father's failing health, Ernie Fields had dispatched his son, Ernie Jr., to look this fellow over. I was grateful for the gesture. I was a woman of a certain age. Statistics suggested that I had a better chance of being struck by lightning than marrying. My brother traveled from Los Angeles to Northampton for an Easter Sunday dinner. His mission: Size the man up. Look him in the eye and tell me whether, instead of wiser, I was getting older and stupider.

My brother pronounced Lorenz Finison, Ph.D., “fit for a Fields,” following which nothing but encouragement and good wishes came from my family and friends. My husband, too, insists that none of his relatives ever tried to “talk some sense into him” about his choice. They have also provided nothing but acceptance and support.

What was the reaction to our pairing back in Boston? It's hard to gauge. When we settled into my husband's Roslindale home, I noticed two things. The next-door neighbor on one side was friendly, always offering a warm greeting or a neighborly exchange. But for some reason I could never make eye contact or elicit any conversation from the next-door neighbor on the other side.

When we came home one weekend afternoon to find our doorway had been pelted with rotten apples, I was ready to call in the hate crimes unit of my then-employer, Suffolk County District Attorney Ralph C. Martin II. My husband dismissed it as a “youthful prank.” If we are the target of stares or looks of puzzlement or disapproval, I haven't noticed. But my husband admits engaging in his share of furtive looks at other mixed-race couples. What never would have drawn his attention before we were together now appears to fascinate him. He sneaks a peek and wonders at the how and why of each particular pairing.

It is the actual living of a marriage that tests one's mettle and ability to transcend differences. Yes, my husband is white, but he is stubbornly, irresistibly himself. A patient man. A man of high principles and ideals. Adventurous. Affectionate.

I would later say these things to my father, speaking into his good ear as he lay in a nursing home near the end of his life. As he lapsed in and out of consciousness, I would alternately sing hymns and give him updates on relatives, news headlines, and the progress of the baseball season. He would sometimes open his eyes to let me know he understood. I told him it was the proudest day of my life when he walked me down the aisle. “I'm happy, Daddy,” I would say. “He's a good man. Except he won't buy me a Cadillac or a Mercedes like you did for Mom. Other than that, he takes almost as good care of me as you do of Mama.” My father opened his eyes and grinned.

Sammy Davis Jr. married for a second time in 1970, this time to Altovise Gore. During his many television appearances after that, he usually commented on two things. He talked about all the hell he got for hugging then-President Richard Nixon. And he talked about how happy he was with his new (black) wife. I remember one host pointing out what seemed to him a contradiction. It was so controversial when the legendary entertainer married a white woman; now he's made a different choice. Did it mean anything? Davis answered with something I think all betrothed should note. “Man,” he said, “I think you ought to be able to marry whoever you want to.”

On that Sammy and I can agree.