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Strictly American Fare

"So, wanna get married?" He drops this on me over broiled chicken and stringbeans, which we are eating at the coffee table, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I have a bean in my mouth, so I swallow -- hard -- then politely request clarification. "Are you asking me to marry you?" He is. I say yes. In an exchange of precisely four sentences, our future has been decided.

The actual matter of the wedding, however, is still up in the air. And in the days that follow, as I mull over the plans that have yet to be made, I find myself obsessing over one detail to the exclusion of all others. More than when we will have our wedding, or where, or how in the world we will pay for it, I am worrying about the food. His family and friends will expect the traditional soul food spread -- barbequed chicken and ribs, collard greens, macaroni and cheese. Many of the people I plan to invite are Vegans.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I should say at this point that my fiancé is black and I am white. Less obvious, but no less glaring, are the differences in our backgrounds. He is from a working-class urban community and was the first in his family to go to college. I am of solidly middle-class stock and the latest in long line of family members with graduate degrees. He remembers eating sandwiches made with "welfare cheese." My mother was partial to restaurants. When I mention Dr. Seuss, he gives me a blank stare and explains that "only hinkty [that is to say, upperclass] Negroes had children's books."

All of this matters a whole lot less than you might think. Certainly, where we come from informs who we are now. But in the five years since we first met at a mutual friend's party, we have discovered a seemingly infinite expanse of common ground. We both love movies and vanilla ice cream. We want the same things from our lives. We laugh at each other's jokes. Inside the quiet cocoon of our relationship, we are two people like any other, and our differences are just part of what makes being together interesting.

Navigating the world outside is another story. There, we are both a curiosity and an affront, something either to be stared at or rudely ignored. Quite often at parties, he is the only black person -- the only raisin in the rice pudding, as he likes to say -- or I am the only white one, and we can't help but be aware that as a couple we provoke speculation, and quite possibly a little judgement, even from some of the people closest to us.

When we first started seeing each other, friends of mine -- college-educated, politically liberal friends -- came right out and asked me if black men really were well-endowed. My maternal grandmother worried so much over spending Thanksgiving with my boyfriend that she ended up in the hospital and dodged eating turkey with a black person all together. "Life is hard enough," she said to me again and again, "without trying to overcome a difference like that."

For the most part, we manage to take this sort of thing in stride. We note the scowls and the smirks and the limp handshakes, laugh about them together, and carry on. We know we can't change people's minds about us, and since we think they're wrong for disapproving in the first place, we actually get a little charge out of provoking them. We embrace our shock value, and that goes a long way toward helping us carve out space for ourselves in this narrow-minded world.

At the end of the day, it comes down to him and me and who we are to each other -- not so much black or white, working class or middle class, but two individuals whose differences only enhance the experience of coming together. Take our wedding dinner. We started out thinking we would acknowledge our divergent backgrounds and put both his black heritage and my Italian one on the same banquet table. Ultimately, however, neither of us wanted our wedding to seem like a pot luck, and the idea of presenting ourselves as ambassadors for our respective cultures struck us as something of a conceit.

Finally, after a great deal of discussion, we have decided to find a caterer who can approximate the food in our favorite restaurant -- a small, friendly, elegant place in lower Manhattan that serves what could only be described as strictly American fare. When all is said and done, we want our wedding to reflect our relationship, which has always been less about upholding the differences and more about finding the common ground.





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