The movie, “Guess who’s coming to Dinner”, starring Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier, premiered in 1968 and became a box office hit, even in the South. At the time, interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states. At the conclusion of the movie we are led to believe that the young couples passion and love for each other will carry them thru any difficulties they might experience. As we all know, real life is never so simple. I recently had the chance to sit down with a friend and discuss her own experiences with interracial marriage and parenting starting in the early 1970’s.
At that time, Minnesota was not a very diverse community, even in the urban areas. Many residents of rural Minnesota had only seen a person of color on the tv screen. Although my friend’s parents were accepting of the relationship, they also understood the lifelong complexities that a young couple would encounter. These complexities became obvious even while dating – many of the other students at their college, both black and white, were not accepting of their relationship and their social life was constrained. Her husband’s parents, living in Tennessee, were even more perplexed by the relationship. They had had few positive interactions with whites in their lifetime, and were concerned that their son would be treated in a similar fashion.
Shortly after the wedding, the couple moved to California for job opportunities. A son was born a few years later, and the issues now included parenting and raising children. Many of us feel that when we become mothers our parenting and the success of our children is put under a microscope for all to view and diagnose. This was much magnified in her situation, as many were trying to find fault with her parenting or child to justify their ideas about interracial marriage. Two daughters followed in subsequent years, as well as a move to Chicago. She and her husband always tried to make their yard the neatest in the neighborhood, their children the most well-behaved and properly dressed. The unspoken rule was that they and their children had to be “better than the rest” to be accepted.
Two of the most difficult lessons she faced as a new mom were learning the intricacies of styling black hair and the concept of “white privilege”. Never having faced racism growing up, she now encountered it with both her husband and children. She learned how black men are often treated differently by law enforcement. She realized how she was treated differently if she was out in public alone rather than being with her children or husband. And it was not only whites who were not accepting – many African-Americans could be equally as judgemental.
Now that her children are grown and have children of their own, she realizes that all the struggles and doubts were well worth it. Her biracial children have a distinct advantage in present day society. They feel comfortable in both cultures and are able to navigate easily between them. She credits this to their continued connection to two loving but very different extended families – one in Minnesota and the other in Tennessee. I hope that Sidney Poitier and his wife had as successful a life.