Ebony, Ivory, living in perfect harmony…
They’d ignored the white cabbie’s gawking. They were in love. So, on the way from the airport, the much more pleasurable pastime was kissing and canoodling in the taxi backseat instead of paying mind to a stranger’s furtive glances at them.
While interracial marriage was taboo in many states of the US, and still illegal in some too, this was San Francisco in the sixties and anti-miscegenation laws had been repealed as late as 1948. So here interracial love was no longer a crime. Even if it was stare-worthy.
It was enlightening, all the different perspectives that people had on her love. Their opinions on who and what he should be, and mildly rage inducing infuriating to them, what he should look like. Conforming to their shopping list of physical qualities. Specifically the pigment of his skin and how much melanin absorbable receptacles that largest body organ possessed.
And conversely, including from her own backyard too, the expectations on the reverse side of the spectrum. Her ghostly appearance and what that paleness represented. The consensus largely being that she’d been taken advantage of. It was untenable to some that her knight in shining armor would be the guy in the black hat. Not the Hollywood Western Movie version of villains wearing black hats, but simply the color black. Or, more accurately, the absence of color, black. And definitely no anti-hero comparison.
He was her choice. Her chosen one.
Think a larger than life, Sidney Poitier type.
Tall, Dark and In Charge. And if one was being sappy, Handsome too.
Well, okay. She had a type. Tall, Dark and Handsome had become a cliché for a reason.
Not that she fetishized Black Men...or he, White Women.
This one simply attracted her on multiple levels; appealing on all fronts. Conforming to perfection in physique as well as intellectual acuity.
She was privately grateful for his brain and for her education. For without either, there would be no reciprocity. Her white skin alone would be no deal breaker for a man of his superior intellect. And neither would a simply physical interest be sustainable.
From Frank the taxi driver to her mother’s assistant, pompous Hillary St. George, to their gruff exterior housekeeper Mrs Mathilda Binks (loved by all and affectionately called Tillie) and to Dorothy, the stunning young Negro woman who sometimes helped Tillie out; none were exempt. Even the young white delivery guy from Larry’s Fine Foods wasn’t immune to the societal pressures and pervasiveness of thought regarding inter-racial relationships. Although, to Dorothy and him and yes, to her twenty-three year old self too, they were considered the new generation; protesting anti-mixing (grammatical double negative, so in this case two wrongs do make a right) by being the living embodiment of pro racial-equality.
The older generation though...they all seemed to think that their individual prejudices should hold sway in her life decisions. Unsurprisingly, close family friend and her father’s golfing buddy Monsignor Ryan, was the only non-judgement they experienced. Some would say that it came with the job description but she knew that was just who he was. And who she thought her parents were. Commandeering respect by the example of their non organised-religion morality. Convictions devoid of cumbersome religious dogma.
“You should have told them we were coming...you may be in for the biggest shock of your young life,” was John’s opening salvo on a topic that they’d taken great pains to avoid. For the simple reason that color wasn’t an issue to either of them, so acknowledging it as a contentious point for their loved ones, they felt, would be to give the idea credibility or an importance that it didn’t merit having. But out of their love bubble, was the big bad real world. And so they had a litany of views – from family, friends, acquaintances and yes, strangers too – hurled at them.
Cab driver Frank, had made no outright moves of aggression. They’d simply felt, but ignored, the surreptitious glances coming their way. His covert gaze a silent onlooker via the review mirror.
“How much do I owe you?”
“That’s ten-fifty, Mac.”
“Here’s twelve-dollars, Frank.”
John’s behavior was impeccable. Even to the extent of tipping the cabbie. And what had been the reward for his troubles? A disdainful sneer and not even the courtesy of common human decency.
Perhaps it was that John dared to call him by his given name, thus putting them on an equal footing? That was asinine though...John was an educated man, a doctor. But even with this disparity in stature, not of size but of mind, Dr. Prentice was the one belittled. For daring to succeed where white man, with all the advantages his privilege entailed, failed. I guess some would not call it failure if driving a cab was the pinnacle of the driver’s ambition. She had no problem with that point of view. If his career brought him happiness, then that was his success. Nevertheless, begrudging another his own victories because of falling short in your own endeavors, simply smacked of sour grapes.
These were the type of white people they’d been dealing with. Subtle racists. And scarily, just one spark, ignited by a hate fueled slick orator, could turn them into lynch mobs or, equally horrendous, Ku Klux Klanners.
“Dr. Prentice, so pleased to meet you,” was how Hillary had greeted John while simultaneously looking down her nose at him. Hypocritical false half-smile accompanied. She probably would have had him removed from the gallery for daring to admire her beloved kinetic sculpture, while being Black. If Joanna hadn’t been his obvious plus one, of course. The icing on the cake was her fake commiseration to Joey’s own mother for having to endure a Black son-in-law.
“Oh my dear, how awful for you,” her lips had bespoke while unsubtly gleefully gloating at what she hoped was going to be Drayton family social ostracism.
Her mother had fired Hillary’s ass. Inherited ruthless streak be dammed, she couldn’t have been prouder of her parent. A model of graciousness she’d basically guided the bigot to “hit the road, Jack – and don’t you come back no more.”
Regardless of the expression, or the Ray Charles ditty, she’d developed a fondness for the name Jack. Good. Solid. Strong. Stood for something. Even if all it represented was a good, solid, strong whiskey. She would remember the name.
Aah now, and what about Tillie? Her brusque, grumpy with a hidden soft center, housekeeper. She’d surprised her most of all. How could she love Tillie and not John, she’d asked her, if she used Tillie’s basis of skin color as a measure? Both of them were darkest ebony and both of them she loved. Not despite their hue and also not because of it. In the equation of love, color factored zero to the power infinity. Which any mathematician worth her salt – sending Astronauts to space – knew equaled…one! In a poetical context however, Tillie-dramatizing if you will, the solution would be Nil. Zero. Nada. Zilch.
To Joey herself Tillie’d said, “I don’t like seeing a member of my own race getting above hisself.”
To her father Matt, as he’d entered the house, Tillie had over-dramatically complained, “All hell done broke loose now.”
Her mother Christina was audience to a huffily indignant, “the way you talking Miss Christina, I don’ understand nothin’ no more.”
These were clearly her parents, not Tillie’s. Tillie’s parents were late and were not also a Matt and Christina. So obviously she would not be addressing her deceased ‘not Matt and Christina named’ parents.
To John himself she’d had a lot to say…
When he’d tried to win her over with nervous humor, joking about being a horse doctor, it had not gone over well. To put it mildly.
“Oh, you make with witticisms and all, huh?” she’d shot him down. “You’re one of them smooth talking smart ass niggers, just out for all you can get with your black power, and all that other trouble making nonsense,” she’d harshly judged. Then threatened, “Ain’t nobody gonna harm that girl none. I brought her up from when she was a baby in her cradle and as long as you’re anywhere near this house I’m right here watching! You read me boy? You bring any trouble in here and you just like to find out what Black Power really means!” Flouncing out the room, she’d finished him off with the cutting jibe, “And furthermore, you ain’t even all that good looking!” followed by the resounding sharp crack of a gu- nah, it was a door-slam. All the same, from John’s description, to him it had felt and sounded like a verbal gun-shot.
It saddened her to see that the Uncle Tom mentality still resided within Tillie, even after working for the fair-minded Draytons all these years. It dismayed her too that Tillie was the inflexible one, unwilling to embrace a change that bettered the situation of the collective Black population.
As Malcolm X had explained in a 1963 speech at Michigan State University, “So now you have a twentieth-century-type of house Negro. A twentieth-century Uncle Tom. He’s just as much an Uncle Tom today as Uncle Tom was 100 and 200 years ago. Only he’s a modern Uncle Tom.”
She couldn’t really blame her though. It was a form of self-preservation. Tillie identified herself as Mrs Mathilda Binks, housekeeper to The Draytons. And not as Mrs Mathilda Binks, Black Woman.
Back to her parents now though…and his too. Also how well they’d all received the surprise engagement, and very soon to be wedding, newsflash.
“I take it Joanna’s already busted out with the big news?” John had delicately interrupted the mother-daughter catch up, making his presence known. He’d yet to meet her as he’d been in the study when she’d arrived home. “She’s only known me for ten days and so she can’t tell you when I’m blushing,” he’d continued when she continued talking him up. After formally introducing him, naturally.
On noting her mother’s shocked expression he’d said, “Mrs Drayton, I’m medically qualified so I hope you won’t think it presumptuous if I say that you ought to sit down before you fall down.”
Not one to tiptoe around the subject, she’d simply put her mother on the spot. “He thinks you’re gonna faint because he’s a Negro,” she’d pointed out.
Her mother hadn’t fainted, but she had sat. They’d all sat. Her mother had “My Goodness-ed” and that was that. She was off, finding out about the next parent.
“What did they say when you told them that I wasn’t a Colored girl?” she’d asked John about the telephonic conversation he’d had with his parents.
“Err-ahh-it felt like too many shocks for the telephone. After all, an awful lot of people are gonna think we’re a very shocking pair. Isn’t that right Mrs Drayton?” he’d quickly included the parent now in the know.
She’d brought her mother up to speed on the situation. How John had been invited to lecture at Hawaii University and how they’d met at a big party at the Deans. How they’d been inseparable since. How John was supposed to fly back to Los Angeles that weekend to see his parents, but how he was now having to leave that night for New York to meet a friend of his at Columbia University and then the following day flying off to Geneva for three months work at the World Health Organisation. And the blockbuster bulletin, that she intended flying to Geneva the following week so that they could be married. The whole situation in a nutshell.
“Except that John thinks that the fact that he’s a Negro and I’m not creates a serious problem. I’ve told him ninety-seven times that it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to you or to dad, but he just wouldn’t believe me. So that’s why we’re here.”
“She’s absolutely right Mrs Drayton. I’m sorry. I told her not to spring all this on you so suddenly.”
Before they could confer further, they’d heard the honking of a car horn. Her father was home. It was update time for this here parent.
Okay, so she’d put them both on the spot. Her parents, that is. She trusted them and while their acceptance was simply a courtesy, both she and John wanted to start off their married life on a good footing with all the families. Yes, the period of adjustment was short but her parents had never let her down before.
“What the hell is all the rush?” her father had asked.
“Well we know that we want to get married. Unless somebody does have any objections, why should we waste any time? John and I aren’t gonna change our minds,” she’d answered her dad.
“Are you saying…are you telling me that you want an answer...today...about how your mother and I feel?”
“Well, of course we do. We want you and Ma to state absolutely clearly that you have no objections whatsoever. And that when we do get married, we’ll have your blessing.”
Giving her parents time to ruminate, she’d confessed to John, “I’ve been nervous. Oh, not about what they’d ultimately feel, but just their first reaction. I thought it was just possible that for the first time in twenty-three years that they might let me down for the first half hour.”
“You’re a big phony!” John had teased her.
Her father, Matt Drayton, intrepid former reporter had conscripted an informant. Ferreting out information by way of his assistant Edie. Having her call up the library and if they didn’t have anything then the Medical Association. To “get the dope on a John Wayde Prentice.”
Edith was to her dad then what Google was to the world today. Being that a person, and not the faceless internet, was behind the evidence, he wasn’t able to hide his mortification as the credentials panned out.
“Prentice...A doctor of medicine. Fellow ’bout thirty-five, thirty-six. He’s a Colored fellow,” were the search parameters he’d handed Edie. The unflattering basics, as it were.
E-Google did not disappoint.
“He’s an important guy. Just the main facts…Born Los Angeles 1930, graduated Maxima Cum Laude Johns Hopkins ’54; Assistant Professor Yale Medical School ’55; Three years Professor London School of Tropical Medicine; Three years Assistant Director WHO; Two text books and a list of monographs and medical society honors as long as your arm.”
And the important personal stats any shot-gun toting father would be interested in. One on the lookout for any philanthropists interested in his daughter. Philanthropist? Obviously she meant Philanderer. Which John was so not and which Edith confirmed.
“Married Elizabeth Bowers 1955; one son John Wayde. Both killed in 1959 in a train accident in Belgium.”
Of course, she already knew all this. But, to her parents, if his respectful asking for her hand and refusal to go against their wishes – if they absolutely disapproved of the match and the lightning speed of the nuptials – failed to convince, then this further humanized him.
What did surprise her though, was the passing down of the baton of the family name. Almost like a genealogical bequest, this non-physical family crest. Would their son be a John Wayde Prentice too?
“Would you think it some kind of cowardice that no matter how confident you two are, I’m just a little bit scared?” her father had asked John, positing the future of their, as yet hypothetical, children. His grandchildren.
“No, it wouldn’t. But you never know…things are changing.”
“I have a feeling they’re not changing anywhere else quite as fast as they are in my own backyard. Just tell me this,” her dad had continued, “don’t you think this quick decision about how we feel about this thing, is a little unfair?”
“In a way I do. But it wasn’t my idea that everything be settled so quickly,” John had responded, following up by referencing their past conversation on the subject. “Your daughter said ‘There’s no problem.’ She said, ‘My dad is a lifelong fighting liberal who loathes race prejudice and has spent his whole life fighting against discrimination.’ Then she said, ‘My parents…well they’ll welcome you with open arms.’ And I said, ‘Oh I sure wanna meet them.’ You made her Mr Drayton,” John had paused, “I just met her in Hawaii.”
“It’s the damndest thing you ever heard of. They pick up the brightest native kids and they put them through courses. They are all specialists trained to do one special task, like sewing up a wound or delivering a baby, or what have you. For every thousand kids they train, they can save a million lives a year.” Her father was impressed. Not only with John’s credentials, which were remarkable. But with what he did with that knowledge. The upliftment of the underprivileged. Inculcating within them a sense of pride and of purpose.
“He got the best breaks because everybody he met didn’t want him to think that they were prejudiced against him. I wouldn’t know how to fault him,” she’d overheard her father praising her John. And it made her proud that the shock seemed to be wearing off and he was coming around.
Until she heard his comment to her mother. “You’re so wrapped up in Joey’s excitement over the whole thing that you’re not behaving in her best interest.”
She was not a child. She knew what and who she wanted. The asking was simply a courtesy to her parents. A mere formality. Definite thumbs down for her father.
What her future mother-in-law had to say to her dad though, deserved her applause. She’d said, “You and my husband, you might as well be blind men. You forget what true passion is.”
Yes, John’s parents had been invited to the objection intervention – unaware, of course. They’d been surprised to say the least. The upshot of the pre-dinner conversation, was that John Wayde Prentice Sr. was unable to see past her lack of color too.
“It’s very interesting indeed and rather amusing too, to see a broken down ol phony liberal come face to face with his principles,” the good Monsignor had humorously taunted her father. “Of course I’ve always believed that in that fighting liberal façade there must be some sort of reactionary bigot trying to get out,” he’d further laughingly mocked the seriously scowling Matt Drayton.
By the end of that single day, everything was topsy turvy. With John’s father against the union, his mother (and hers) bent out of shape that their respective husbands were prepared to stand in the way of true love, thereby having forgotten the passionate love of their youthful days, and John…he being prepared to reject her in the face of her parent’s objection. When their approval was entirely unnecessary.
Her father had ended up surprising her. By being exactly who she thought him to be.
He’d made a few personal statements. His observations, essentially. After introducing Tillie to the senior Prentices, he’d begun with her.
“Mrs Mathilda Binks, who’s been with us for twenty-two years…and who today has been making a great deal of trouble. ‘All hell done broke loose now’ she’d said to me. After some preliminary guessing games, at which I was never very good, I found out what circumstances she referred to. And that drove the mind-set of the day.”
Her mother was next in the firing line.
“My wife decided to ignore every practical aspect of the situation and was carried away in some kind of romantic haze…which made her inaccessible to anything in the way of reason,” he’d smilingly mocked.
And onto Uncle Mike – Monsignor Ryan…
“I have not yet referred to His Reverence,” he’d gotten his own back for the earlier digs, “who began by forcing his way into the situation and then insulting my intelligence by mouthing three hundred platitudes and ending by challenging me to a wrestling match.”
It was then the turn of her would be in-laws, The Senior Prentices.
“Now Mr Prentice, clearly a most reasonable man, says he has no wish to offend me but wants to know if I’m some kind of a nut. And Mrs. Prentice says, that like her husband, I’m a burnt-out old shell of a man who cannot even remember what it’s like to love a woman the way her son loves my daughter.” He’d smiled at the thought, which had given her hope. “Strange as it seems, that is the first statement made all day with which I am prepared to take issue. Coz I think you’re wrong. You’re as wrong as you can be.” Gazing at her mother he’d whispered, “The memories are still there; clear, intact and indestructible.” Looking towards John he directed the next statement solely to him. “In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter a damn what we think. It is completely unimportant.”
Then it came, the father she knew and the acceptance – and advice – she’d expected, perhaps hoped to impress the equally extraordinary man she’d fallen in love with. That she was admirable in her own right, by virtue of the example she’d had and that his own choice of picking her held substantial weight.
“When Christina and I and your mother have some time to work on him, you’ll have no problem with your father,” he’d directed towards John, with the slightest hint of a self-deprecating grin at John Sr. Thus humorously mocking himself too.
“There’ll be a hundred million people right here in this country who will be shocked, offended and appalled at the two of you.” This time the address was aimed only to John and her. “And the two of you will have to ride that out. You’ll just have to cling tight to each other, and say…screw all those people!”
He’d paused, seemingly emotional. She’d realized that this hurt him…that he was unable to protect her from the hate fueled barbs of strangers. But she was strong, because of who he’d brought her up to be.
He’d continued, “Anybody can make a case against your getting married. You two wonderful people, who happened to fall in love, and happen to have a pigmentation problem.” And the kicker, “No matter what case some bastard can make against you getting married…there would only be one thing worse, and that’s if you didn’t get married.”