Autumn is shedding leaves all over the place, and summer's caught in a senseless fight. Something about this particular seasonal tug of war has shifted my mind toward loving. Not loving as in loving spoonful -- the kind that heaps high and pours thin and fast. No, I've been thinking on a quiet and unassuming love, one that wanted little more than to go on about its everyday business without drawing undue attention to itself. A love that was personified by Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple from Central Point, Virginia, who, in 1958, dared to do the unthinkable: Step across the color line and marry outside of their respective races. Since Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws forbade intermarriage between blacks and whites, the Lovings eloped to Washington, D.C. and exchanged vows there. Then they returned home to the Virginia countryside as newlyweds, a white husband and his black wife, ready to live out the rest of their days among family and friends.
On these crisp fall mornings when my husband and I are hustling to get our kids to school on time, I catch sight of other families caught in a similar rush-hour shuffle. These parents and their children come in different sizes, shapes and colors, and make up interracial families like our own. A black father dashes across the street clutching his Asian daughter's hand, backpack swinging side to side as they make a last-ditch effort to beat the light. A white mother fumbles through a purse and comes up with a piece of tissue to dab her blonde-haired, blue-eyed, black son's nose. An Asian mother laces her daughter's bright pink Keds and then plants a kiss on her freckled forehead. A white dad on a shiny tagalong bike turns to ask his dark-skinned Hispanic daughter if she's pumped for school today? Two moms, rambunctious twins in-tow, backtrack in search of a lost snuggly while their twins babble in their secret language. The configurations are endless and become more nuanced when you figure in cultural, regional and national influences. Present-day Brooklyn is a world away from Central Point, Virginia, circa 1958, but in these moments I am struck by the ease with which most of us are able to live our lives. That's when I say a quiet thank you to Mildred and Richard Loving.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census Report, one in 10 American opposite-sex married couples is now multiracial. This percentage is even higher among opposite-sex unmarried couples and same-sex unmarried couples. Indeed, one need only stand on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope to see ample evidence that if people can mix, they will. Brooklyn often feels like the epicenter of multiculturalism, with more biracial families than many other places in the country, but in fact, marriage across lines that were once socially and legally enforced boundaries is now a nationwide phenomenon. But I'm going to press on the brakes here, lest I paint an overly rosy picture of contemporary interracial marriage and dating. Some couples still have a difficult go of it and may even find themselves shut out by co-workers, estranged from or disinherited by family and friends. And one can never rule out the look of momentary confusion, sometimes genuine and other times feigned, from the cocktail party guest, hotel clerk or maître'd who doesn't quite grasp that you're together, a couple, a pair. My husband and I have been fortunate. Ours is a small family, where the most often asked questions are: Are you happy, and are you well? Though, I must confess, on the eve of our wedding, my 87-year-old grandmother took to her bed in, what can only be described as, a fit of paralysis. She had lived through segregation and the South's anti-miscegenation laws and was wholly convinced that "night riders" were coming to disrupt our wedding. Now, if that isn't an example of post-traumatic stress syndrome, someone please tell me what is? Which brings us back to the anti-miscegenation laws of 1958 and the circumstances that led Richard and Mildred Loving to blaze a trail toward the U.S. Supreme Court.
Imagine, would you, a county sheriff and his deputies inviting themselves into your home in the wee hours of the morning, then ushering you and your partner out of bed for a potential yearlong stint in the county jail, only to have the local judge order both of you to leave town for 25 years -- a quarter of a century. The very idea that a couple's civil rights would be so egregiously infringed upon seems not only unconstitutional but borderline preposterous today -- except when we stop to consider that Virginia was one of 24 states to ban interracial marriage at the time. In fact, the anti-miscegenation laws of that commonwealth granted the sheriff and the judge discretion to wed their personal authority and ideologies in a way that justified forcing Mildred and Richard Loving to move to another state, essentially hijacking their lives and putting their entire family in a holding pattern for five years. (For the record, 35 states ban same-sex marriage today.)
Love. Family. Home. These are primal themes. The ones that always hit us where we live. By 1963, the wear and tear of life in Washington, D.C. was weighing mightily on Mildred and Richard Loving. They were also tired of hiding out like criminals every time they went home together to visit family and friends. Mildred penned a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy asking for help. He, in turn, put the family in contact with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, who rallied behind them to win the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case of Loving vs. Virginia, which rendered anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in the United States.
Theirs is a widely known story, with elegant black-and-white photos, numerous articles and a fine HBO documentary worthy of a family night, particularly for parents with older kids who are on the debate team or who have an interest in civil liberties. The Lovings even have a day named after them in June. And for those of you who are preparing for the autumn Parents' Night at your child's school, there's a good chance that, above a cubby or on a classroom wall, you'll come across your child's self-portrait as part of the multicultural curriculum on family and self. Perhaps, the self-portrait will be outlined in black-and-white or filled in with crayons or paint. And maybe you'll smile, knowing that though the image is completed, your child is evolving, an individual work-in-progress whose dreams and freedom you would never want to see stifled, compromised or stunted.
It is easy to look back now and say with certainty that the Lovings fought and won the good fight, though at what personal cost, only they could ever really say. (Richard died in a car accident in 1975, and Mildred died of pneumonia in 2008.). In Grey Villet's haunting LIFE magazine pictorial of 1966, the couple made it perfectly clear that they were regular people who would have preferred to avoid the spotlight, but then history came along and cleared a place for them at its table. How many of us would have sat down for that meal? How many us would have thrown in the towel (and the marriage) and walked away? It was old-fashioned principles and love that made them do it. We reap the benefits of their loving sacrifice every day.