06/01/2012 05:18 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

On the 'Public' Role of Love

Love is a democratic ideal. This notion of love is what Martin Luther King, Jr. called "the love that does justice," a love that intentionally supports and cultivates personal and systemic change towards equality, a love that is threatened as long as injustice thrives. In King's words, love holds social obligation and individual values and challenges us to attend to the collective needs of others as we concern ourselves with our own private worlds. It is a love that listens toward correcting inequality. This love is at the heart of what it means to live in a functioning democracy.

We witness this kind of love portrayed in the literary works of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, in songs by the Beatles and Bob Marley, and in this nation's Constitution, which protects a legally sanctioned right to live, be free, and pursue happiness. Ideally, it is at the "roots," as Cornel West said at the Princeton Day School on May 23, "of the routes" we travel as a nation. How striking that such rights pulse at the foundational heart of our United States.

Marriage, another kind of union forged, ideally, from love, has been a part of the fight for civil rights throughout the history of the civil rights movement and the fight for racial equality. Under slavery, many enslaved blacks married, or "jumped the broom." But one of the horrors of slavery was that these marriages were not legally sanctioned. No wonder that post-Civil-War, marriage was one of the very first civil rights that African Americans exercised. A vast majority of newly freed men and women married with a joy that grows from the once impossible becoming recently possible. What better way to begin living a life of freedom with a celebration marking one's humanity through a public expression of love?

However, with the abolition of slavery came a rise in the number of statutes banning certain kinds of marriage -- particularly interracial marriage. This marriage prohibition between blacks and whites later extended to ban marriages between Asians or Native Americans and whites -- and interracial sex ("miscegenation"). Remember that the boxer Jack Johnson was famously tried and convicted under the Mann Act of 1910 for marrying a white woman. Clearly, marriage has often been mediated and negotiated in American culture, law, and values.

In 1948 California rescinded its ban on interracial marriage, ruling in Perez v. Sharp, "The essence of the right to marry is freedom to join in marriage with the person of one's choice." Only as recently as 1967, the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia ended all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States. In this ruling the Supreme Court deemed Virginia's statute limiting marriage based solely on racial identity unconstitutional. The justices wrote, "The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men." These signature cases -- Perez v. Sharp and Loving v. Virginia -- served as key precedents in Massachusetts' decision in 2003 to legalize same-sex marriage.

I began thinking about love as a negotiated, mediated space and its public role more, oddly enough, after attending a Broadway performance of the racially controversial folk opera Porgy and Bess. April 12, 2012, was my first visit to Catfish Row, the slightly imaginary black/Gullah coastal town that serves as the setting for Porgy and Bess. I went to the show curious about how this current production would deal with the portrayal of its black characters. Although Porgy and Bess was celebrated when it opened in 1935, for the exposure it gave to African-American performers, the opera has been criticized throughout its production history for what many called its unflattering, stereotypical depiction of African Americans. Also, when Porgy and Bess first opened, the opera's libretto was littered with the N-word. This racial slur was excised from the piece by 1951. The then-producer Goddard Lieberson commented on this change: "Sometimes, happily, times change, and with the times, ethical values."

Although my primary curiosity in attending the show was to witness how this contemporary production offered a fuller treatment of the characters (according to The New Yorker), I began retrospectively to think differently about the production after Audra McDonald's post-performance announcement on behalf of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. McDonald invited an audience member who had made an especially generous online donation to join the cast onstage. The man brought his partner onstage, and, with the actors of Porgy and Bess as his backdrop and the audience as his witnesses, he proposed to him. The partner responded with a surprised, tear-filled, "Yes," and the theater filled with roaring approval. We had all witnessed a touching, intimate moment that was transformed into a socially and politically resonant act on the Broadway stage.

A month later, President Barack Obama made a historic announcement that he supports the rights of same-sex couples to marry. On the evening of the announcement, McDonald, a long-time supporter of same-sex marriage rights, heard the news during the Porgy and Bess intermission, and she shared on Terry Gross' Fresh Air this week that she wept with pride and then rushed to the intercom to share the news with the audience. Following the president's announcement, Freedom to Marry also released a video featuring McDonald hailing the president's announcement of support for the freedom to marry. In the video McDonald also reflects on the recent passage of an anti-gay constitutional amendment in North Carolina aimed at banning marriage for same-sex couples and their families.

What were, to me, initially anachronistic moments living on the fringes of Porgy and Bess became more central to my reflections on the show in the weeks following that performance and announcement. Before the night I attended the show, I had never before considered the ways in which marriage and freedom of relationship choice are significant issues in Porgy and Bess. The community I witnessed in Porgy and Bess, with each member making the most of his or her rugged life -- against poverty, the law, rape, natural disaster -- was making choices to love, to be in relationships, to marry, to create families. Most people in my generation were socialized around the belief that any man and woman can marry regardless of race or class.

If Porgy and Bess' history has functioned as a reflection of race relations in America, then we might also think of this show as one of those cultural spaces that invite us to reflect on marriage, as well. The songs "I Wants to Stay Here" and "Bess You Is My Woman Now," as performed in this iteration of Gershwin's folk opera, powerfully record that desire for freedom to marry in our cultural ear, in our American songbook.

President Obama's declaration of support of same-sex marriage extends the intertwining history between civil rights and marriage rights. In resonance with Obama's stance on gay marriage, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a giant in the civil rights movement who delivered the benediction at Obama's inauguration, said he agrees with Obama. "I believe in equal rights," Lowery said. "You can't believe in equal rights for some. That's an oxymoron." Obama's announcement joins the already rich and compelling calls for marriage equality and calls us to imagine more fully the humanity of all persons, to support realizing the fullness of that lived humanity under the law.