LOVE in black and white
Written by Gabby Bates, Photography by Liesa Cole
I grew up as a white girl in one of the most racially diverse school systems in the Birmingham area with parents who listened to NPR, read Martin Luther King Jr. sermons on Sundays and encouraged me to participate in anti-prejudice organizations like the Heritage Panel. I heard the “N” word but only in rap songs. I scowled at a few racist jokes delivered by attention-seeking high school boys and got chills when I saw the ghostly KKK uniform on display at the Civil Rights Museum, but overall, I regarded racism, and definitely legalized racial discrimination, as distasteful relics of my grandparents’ generation.
As a 20-year-old, things like “Whites Only” water fountains and bus boycotts have existed for me only in imagination. Despite being fixtures of a not-so-distant local past, they tend to float in a realm of almost historical fantasy, tainted with an air of thinking so backwards it borders on silliness.
For a while, rationale and personal experience told me that things like interracial marriage bans could not exist in my generation. I simply could not fathom living in a world where something as arbitrary as skin color could legally prohibit something as pure as love.
As it turns out though, I have lived in that world.
Just over 10 years ago, this ban was still in our state constitution: “The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro.”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, when finally given the opportunity to remove this language from the constitution in November 2000, 41 percent of Alabama voters voted to keep it — even though the ban had been rendered toothless by the Supreme Court in 1967. The aptly named Loving decision may have invalidated interracial marriage bans across the country, but in places where no one had the guts to stand up for it — say, in rural Alabama — it was largely ignored.
It was only recently that my eyes were opened to this tidbit of Alabama
history, and I was appalled, not just because it reeks of a hateful ignorance that affects me on a human level, but because in that moment I realized that my whole life I had been living under the illusion that legalized racism ended in my parent’s generation. Learning that 41 percent of Alabama voters believed that interracial marriage should be illegal in my lifetime shattered that illusion, and I felt compelled to find out more.
My Google search did not yield much reassurance. Alabama became the last state to repeal a ban on interracial marriage in 2000, but discrimination in the Deep South didn’t end there by a long shot. In November 2009, for example, Louisiana justice of the peace Keith Bardwell chose to resign from office rather than marry a black-white couple. Because he did not “believe in mixing races,” Bardwell refused to sign the marriage licensees of at least four couples in his last five years in office.
But even as I came across discouraging information like this, I remained hopeful that personal accounts of interracial couples in Alabama would tell a different story. Armed with a page of hastily scribbled interview questions, I headed straight to the source.
What I hoped to find by interviewing these four beautiful couples was that we Alabamians have come a long way in the last 10 years. I hoped to discover that people in Birmingham today have made massive strides in regard to their treatment and opinion of interracial marriages. What I wanted to find was validation that while I seem to have grown up in a bubble, largely unaware of the racial prejudice around me, I was not completely off-base in thinking that racism and discrimination were on the way out for good.
I don’t want to be ashamed of the place I’m from. I hoped that the stories I heard would bear zero resemblance to the shameful 41-percent vote of November 2000 and thereby restore my faith in the local humanity.
As it turns out, they did.
Jann and Boomer
Although this was our first meeting, I found myself receiving the type of hug usually reserved for your all-time favorite niece at Christmas time. Jann’s wide smile greeted us at the front door, beckoning to come inside out of the 107-degree heat. Her white tank top and flowy white skirt stood out brightly against her brown skin. Her hair was styled in a black pixie, and her toes were painted blue, one of them adorned with a simple, silver ring.
Boomer, her fiance, entered the room a few seconds later. Under his trim gray mustache was a smile as warm and welcoming as Jann’s. He wore a gray Under Armor t-shirt, navy sweat pants and tennis shoes. Given his athletic physique, I was hardly surprised to discover that he is a fitness trainer by trade.
Jann and Boomer are not married yet, but they have set the date for early December. Boomer told me he met Jann over a year ago on Match.com. Having never known a couple that met on Match.com, I was surprised. I told them they should be on the commercial.
“As it turns out, we are,” Boomer said.
“I was just about to give up,” he explained. “But then Jann ‘winked’ at me and I thought, what the heck, I’ll give it one more go.” After just a few phone conversations, it became clear to both of them that they had stumbled across something special.
“I had a list of about a million qualities my man had to have, and he met every single one of them,” Jann said. She looked up at Boomer with a mischievous smile, “Well, all but one.” Luckily for Boomer, the yacht with money falling out of it turned out to negotiable.
After hearing a little of their story, I got to the questions I really wanted to ask. But as it turns out, I didn’t even make it through one. “Has anyone in Alabama ever voiced opposition to you two getting married based on…”
“Nope,” Boomer said before I could finish the question, shaking his head emphatically. “Not at all.”
Pleasantly surprised but caught off guard by such a dead-end response, I shuffled through my notes for another question. But when I started to reference the Alabama interracial marriage ban, Boomer stopped me again.
“Now, I’m from Florida, so I don’t know what ban you’re talking about,” he said.
I explained that the Alabama constitution contained an interracial marriage ban until just over 10 years ago. At this, he stood up abruptly and with false horror yelled, “You mean I can’t marry her?!” Clearly the family jokester, Boomer called Jann back into the living room. “Baby, come here. We’ve got to talk.”
With his woman back by his side, Boomer settled down. “Seriously though, the environment here has been just wonderful for us. We haven’t experienced any adverse play at all. Jann hasn’t, I haven’t.”
“Maybe people are saying things, but we don’t notice,” he said. “When you love somebody, you’re too busy looking into their eyes to care what’s going on around.”
“We were never taught color growing up in my home,” Jann said. “I didn’t care if the guy I met and fell in love with was from a different country, if he was white, or Hispanic… Race just does not matter to me at all.” Although active in civil rights activities around Birmingham, Jann said her family always just regarded people as people. “In my upbringing, there was no black or white,” she said.
I asked if she thought her childhood was unique in that way. After thinking for a second, she said, “You know, I think I could almost fairly say no.”
When asked about his parents and their views on race, Boomer prefaced his answer with another joke: “You probably can’t tell, but I’m just a few years older than Jann.”
Understandably, race was a bigger issue in Boomer’s youth — not for him personally, he said, but for those around him. Looking at his fiancé, Boomer clearly considers it a blessing that he never thought of race an issue.
“When I found Jann,” he explained, “Excuse me, when Jann found me…”
“Oh, whatever!” she said, obviously delighted.
“…it was an opportunity for me to meet a wonderful, glorious individual from the heart. Truly from the heart.” It is obvious from how they look at each other that they both feel they have hit the jackpot.
The shoot took place in the kitchen, where Jann — one of the most highly sought-after caterers in Alabama — has always felt at home.
While she continued preparing her tasty pimento cheese, Boomer continued gushing to me about how great she was.
“You know she’s raised the kids on her own?” he said. “Her husband died of cancer while she was pregnant with the youngest.”
I was flabbergasted, not just out of awe for this inspiring triumph of the spirit, but because I, for the first time, thought to wonder if there were children in the house.
“Wait, so there are children?”
“Yep. Six of them.”
“Under this roof? Right now?”
I remained skeptical. The house was simply too tidy and peaceful to be hiding one child, let alone six.
“Jann has done such an amazing job raising them. When we go out to eat, we always get compliments on how well-mannered they are.”
Boomer turned out to be telling the truth. During the shoot, kids of all ages trickled in and out of the kitchen, bright-eyed and polite, observing the camera equipment and umbrella lights that had taken over the room with eyebrows raised as they filled glasses of water or peered out from behind the door frame.
I asked Jann how she did it, overcoming such adversity and raising her six children so well. “The grace of God,” she told me. “Nothing but the grace of God.”
Walking back to the car, photo shoot and interview completed, I realized my face hurt. I recognized it from my show choir days — the sensation of having smiled nonstop for over an hour straight.
Lynielle, Richard and Olive
We each took turns stepping over a plushie killer whale on the floor. In the living room, a colorful baby bounce seat rested at the foot of a sleek modern record player. Three giant Ikea picture frames hung on the wall, not yet filled, and a book titled Bringing Up Girls sat on the coffee table.
Lynielle came in as Richard and I were making our introductions. She had the same big curly hair that I had secretly coveted the first time I met her last summer (we girls always want what we can’t have), and she was dressed simply but artfully in a burnt orange top, khaki pants, and a cool purple necklace.
After the hugs and squeals had settled down—Lynielle and Liesa bring out the silly in each other, apparently—Lynielle excused herself to finish getting ready. I took the opportunity to ask Richard a few questions.
Richard met Lynielle in the architecture program at Auburn University in 2000, the year that the interracial marriage ban was finally taken off the books, and after years of friendship, they finally made things official and were married in 2009. Their first child, Olive, is just over five weeks old.
According to Richard, he wasn’t going to let anyone’s disapproval get in the way of him dating Lynielle, but he was wary. “Going into it, I had this fear that there could be a confrontation with my parents,” he said. “But there wasn’t.”
Ironically, as they later found out, their families go way back. “My great uncle and her grandfather lived in the same small town,” said Richard. “One of them had a horse and the other one had a plow, so they would trade out. I believe they were good friends.”
When asked if anyone had ever voiced opposition to his relationship with Lynielle, Richard seemed stuck between a yes and a no. “I don’t think anyone has ever voiced it, but there have been several times out in public when we’ve gotten that look, you know what I mean? And that says enough sometimes.”
Lynielle later elaborated on the subject. “Oh yeah, you get different looks. You get the one look that’s like ‘Really?’ with a disapproving glare, and then you get the ‘Heyyyy’ look – more of a delighted surprise.”
No one has ever said anything outright racist to Lynielle or Richard, but when they are with each others’ families, they sometimes have to maneuver around some uncomfortable language. “People will tell race jokes to try to make me feel comfortable, like ‘Look, we can all laugh at this together!’ but usually it’s not funny to me,” said Lynielle.
“They think they’re breaking the ice,” Richard explained.
“But instead of bringing us together, it just points out that I’m the one that’s different,” added Lynielle.
Richard was somewhat prepared for the teasing. “I was the only white boy on my school’s basketball team, so I was used to getting picked on.”
Lynielle and Richard are sensitive to the fact that they are raising a biracial child. “I think it’s really important for the minority race to be encouraged,” explained Lynielle. “The world says that blonde hair and blue eyes is beautiful, or you know, skinny and tall, but a lot of black people are more round, usually with big curly hair, dark skin, and dark eyes… You have to really celebrate that side so they don’t feel like one side is better than the other.”
Although their daughter is only five weeks old, Richard and Lynielle have already discussed the influence that media can have on a little girl’s identity. “Even books.” said Lynielle. “If you always get the princess books with Belle or Cinderella on the cover, well, Olive doesn’t look like that and she never will.”
The first glimpse I got of Olive was of her sleeping, laying on her back in an unsnapped hot pink and green onesie. She had a healthy head of black hair and features as dainty and feminine as a pink rosebud. When Lynielle picked her up, I noted that their skin was almost the exact same butterscotch brown. People tend to say that babies are beautiful even when they’re not; I can assure you that, in this case, the compliment was well-deserved.
After the shoot, despite her periodic bouts of fussiness and untimely bathroom breaks, Richard and Lynielle showered their daughter with praise. “You did a good job,” Richard said, bouncing her gently in front of him. Lynielle agreed. “Yes you did,” she said, her voice a good octave higher than usual, her face so close they were almost rubbing noses. “Yes, you did.”
Darius and Bethanne
Bethanne stepped out to greet us in the front yard of a stone bungalow with rust-red accents. Clearly a believer in accessories, she wore multiples of every kind — two pairs of earrings, two necklaces, five rings and an eclectic array of bracelets. The morning light, just beginning to sift into the yard, tangled itself in her wavy blonde hair, and without the help of a mirror or a hair tie, she twisted half of it back into an artful knot.
When Darius came outside, he towered over us all despite his temporary reliance on a blue metal cane. His black Converse sneakers struck a cord of youthful rebellion in his otherwise prototypical attire of polo and jeans. His long dreadlocks and goatee were frosted with gray.
The two met in the ninth grade at Alabama School of Fine Arts. A shared passion for visual art made the two fast friends, but they didn’t go on an official date until their junior year. Bethanne showed me a black and white photo of them from about that time: a dread-less Darius looked at me with slightly surprised eyes, and a young Bethanne laughed, her face cheating in his direction, blonde hair pulled back into a loose ponytail.
Bethanne remembered their first date well, not just because it was to the zoo and she was finally getting to go out with the guy she liked, but because of her father’s surprisingly unpleasant reaction.
Bethanne said that she never heard racial slurs growing up. She can even remember her father driving her to 16th Street Baptist Church and talking to her about why things like apartheid were wrong. Her parents, two liberals from Ohio, had moved to the South in 1965. “They told me all the time growing up how appalled and sad they were see the state of race relations in Alabama.” But when it came to his own daughter, Bethanne’s father sang a different tune.
If Darius’s parents had a problem with it, they kept it to themselves. Even then though, he said, the 1980s weren’t far from the Civil Rights Movement. “My parents were not saying, ‘You can’t do this’ or ‘You shouldn’t do this,’ but they were concerned, too. They basically just said, ‘Be careful.’”
“One of my father’s arguments somewhere along the way was ‘I just don’t think it could work because you come from two different cultures,’” Bethanne said. “I just laughed because I thought, ‘I don’t have anyone that I’m closer to!’” Because they went to the same school, participated in the same critiques and shared the same interests and passions, they felt that if anyone shared a culture, it was them.
“The cool thing about ASFA, and it’s still this way, is that you have a bunch of different people: different socioeconomic backgrounds, races and religions all coming together for a common cause, which is to become excellent in whatever their specialty is,” said Darius, who now teaches there.
In regard to Bethanne’s father’s comment about different cultures, Darius said, “What’s happening at school is often a lot different than what’s going on in the parents’ world. There’s a lot going on that the parents aren’t necessarily privy to. What her dad meant probably was that he was separated, that he lived in a different world.”
People have used the argument that “life is hard for biracial kids” to defend their opposition to interracial marriage. I asked how this claim held up in light of their children’s actual experience.
“That was one of my father’s arguments,” Bethanne said. “He said stuff like, ‘Your children will not be accepted by anyone. They will be outcasts.’ But I was never worried about that happening.” Neither was Darius. As it turns out, it’s a good thing they didn’t waste any time on worry; far from being outcasts, their kids seem to fit in everywhere.
Back then, Bethanne saw her father’s opposition to their relationship as hurtful and ridiculous, but now, having been married for over 20 years, she can more easily empathize. “Bless his heart,” she said. “He was just doing it out of fear and love and concern.”
“Now we’re in our mid-40s with kids and can so much more relate to their fear.’ she said. “And both of them really came around before they died… I still have little Mickey Mouse cards that my father made on the computer for Olivia when she was three. He really came around.”
Olivia is their oldest, now 17. She is a lifeguard and studies creative writing at ASFA. Esme, the second oldest, is the resident gymnast, ready to pursue a concentration in performing arts. Atticus, the youngest and the only boy, is gearing up for his eighth birthday. Darius calls them “super kids.”
Unlike most I interviewed, Bethanne remembered the November 2000 vote well. “I went across the street to vote, and the language of it was so confusing that I remember thinking ‘I hope I just voted that my marriage is legal.’” Bethanne is no dummy, but she had to reread to make sure she was interpreting the question correctly in light of what appeared to be a double negative. She isn’t the first to say something like this; many criticized the vote for its convoluted wording, and some have claimed that the results were heavily skewed by voter confusion.
Confusing votes and Bethanne’s father aside, Darius and Bethann hold that they have never felt anything except completely welcome in Alabama. Although they don’t recommend getting married before age 25 —age 30 if you’re Olivia — I have to say it seems to have worked out alright for them.
“We’ve just been really fortunate,” Darius said.
Nik and Angela
By the time I interviewed my fourth and final couple — separately and over the phone, since I couldn’t be there for the shoot — I already had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Sure enough, their experiences as an interracial couple in Alabama have been overwhelmingly positive.
Nik and Angela’s relationship started at a magazine release party; he had taken the pictures, and she had done the make-up for a Portico fashion spread. “I always thought he was cute,” Angela said, “but he made me mad at the photo shoot… He wanted the shine taken off the models, so I had to go back three times to touch them up.” At the party a month later, however, her anger had worn off, and she sent a co-worker to go talk to him for her.
“Her friend came up to me and asked if I liked girls,” Nik said, laughing. And the rest is history. The two were married last October.
“Nobody has ever voiced disapproval at us being together, but every once in a while people will ask what it’s like for us, living in Alabama,” Nik said. “When we first started dating, we noticed some people looking at us funny, but I don’t notice it much anymore.”
No one has ever voiced disapproval directly to Angela, but she has heard things through the grapevine. What’s more, she said, is that when the two of them go out to eat, the waiters often bring them separate checks; when she goes out with her black friend, however, the waiters always bring them one. “When I was younger it probably would have bothered me,” Angela said. “But not anymore.”
Angela said that when people find out her husband is white, they always ask whether or not she gets along with his parents. I hated to be that girl, but I went ahead and asked the exact same thing.
“He made me meet his mom after a month of dating, which I thought was a little weird,” she said, but it could not have gone better. “I love them to bits,” she said. Unlike some of the other couples I interviewed, Nik and Angela’s parents were nothing but supportive. “Oh, they love her,” Nik said, and as for them dating, the parents “were all about it.”
Sepia-toned photographs of Richard and Mildred Loving, taken for Life magazine by Grey Villet, have become icons of inspiration, not just for interracial couples in the South, but for victims of discrimination everywhere. To this day, their faces, caught in a perpetual kiss or caring gaze, bring to light the power of love to triumph over institutionalized ignorance and hate.
Likewise, these photos taken by Liesa Cole capture and celebrate the realm of normalcy in which these once estranged couples are now free to thrive. The South has come a long way since the Lovings were arrested from their bed in the 1960s; this being said, I think it is safe to say that we still have some growing to do. The couples I interviewed may not be the first to make a stand for love beyond color borders, but they still represent a relatively rare willingness to defy social norms and an uncommon ability to see past labels and into the hearts of individuals. My hope is that one day in the not-too-distant future, the final vestiges of racism will drain from Southern society and we will all be able to view differences as something to embrace, not to fear. I am grateful to have spent time with four very special couples who are already doing just that.