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Love in Black and White by Mark and Gail Mathabane

By chowardbc | Books | November 19, 2009 |

By chowardbc | Books | November 19, 2009 |

During my art history studies in college, I became obsessed with South Africa. The connection between the history of apartheid and that of the civil rights movement in the South (my birthplace) captivated me. I spent months devouring any books I could find on South African history, artists, authors, and activists. Even though I had read, like most students, Kaffir Boy in high school, Mathabane’s story resonated even more strongly in my heart this go round. Learning that he had continued to write after Kaffir Boy, I decided to track down and anything he had written.

Love in Black and White is hard to come by, so I ordered my copy directly from them during my quest. Upon opening my copy after receiving it in the mail, Mark and Gail had both jotted well-wishes and signed their names. How sweet are these people?

Like all his books, Mathabane’s writing is superbly melodious yet succinct. His wife, Gail, who co-wrote the book, is equally captivating. The two alternate sections, discussing their backgrounds, the history of their relationship, and their perspectives on race relations. Gail and Mark overcame their own insecurities, the stares from a disapproving society, and opposition from Gail’s family to create a harmonious and loving family. However, Love in Black and White is not just a memoir. Mark and Gail both interviewed other mixed race couples in order to try to parse out the frustrating and (whether open or subtle) prejudiced reactions to their love for one another.

In Kaffir Boy in America, Mathabane mentions his move to North Carolina from New York and his settlement in Kernersville, which dropped my jaw. Kernersville is, now in 2009, only about 24,000 people, and in 1992, when Love in Black and White was written, was closer to 15,000. Kernersville is the town where I grew up, where I rode my bike, went to public school, had my first kiss, fell in love with my husband. Mark touched my heart with his description of our small bedroom community in between three cities with rich histories:

Despite an influx of corporate Northerners into Kernersville’s new housing developments, the town retains much of its provincial Southern feel. Barefoot children still play in the yards of large dilapidated farm houses along winding country roads; white-haired men with weathered faces and faded bib overalls still gather at the Farmer’s Feed and Seed to shoot the breeze in their drawling North Carolina dialect; flocks of blond children and their parents still crowd the Moravian and Methodist churches on Main Street every Sunday; loyal citizens read the biweekly Kernersville News cover to cover to keep up with the latest weddings, church picnics, and high school sports scores; groups of shirtless young men still harvest the tobacco fields and hang the leaves to dry in fragrant bunches… (p 177)

I welled up with tears when I read that passage for the first time. That’s my home! I hold the deepest respect for this man, for the trials he has stared down, for his fearless wife and children, for his desire to shine a light on injustice. And he knows my home, he shares my love for and connection to the small group of people. And he, of course, witnessed the same shortcomings of small town North Carolina that forced me to move to New York:

Many people, particularly Northerners, seem disappointed when we cannot relate harrowing stories of persecution at the hands of hooded Klansmen. There have been times, though, when I have wondered just how tolerant people truly are in the South…I had walked nearly half an hour in the new development when a sheriff’s patrol car suddenly pulled up beside me. The deputy, a large mustachioed man in a blue uniform, rolled down the window, and said, ‘You live around here?’… I saw the confusion in his face. I proceeded to explain who I was. There was only one South Africa black writer in Kernersville. The officer, apparently recollecting my name… said in an apologetic tone, ‘Listen I was only doing my job. I was told to come out here and find out who you are.’ (p 178)

Despite my (albeit some might think me silly for feeling) personal connection to the Mathabane family, Love in Black and White is an inspiring account of love’s obstacles and rewards and thought-provoking attempt at deconstructing the prejudices still held in the United States and South Africa alike.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of chowardbc’s reviews, please check the blog, Drown in a Pool of Books.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.