Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the War Between the States — the Civil War. Union soldiers fired cannons during the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the first shots of the war, on April 12, 1861.
The war has great resonance for all Americans, of course, but it has special meaning for my family. My father’s grandmother, Ollie James, was born into slavery in Mississippi. He was just 5 years old when she died, but his life and worldview were forever affected by the knowledge of her beginnings in bondage.
My mother’s people were slaveholders, white Anglo-Saxons from Missouri and, later Texas. When the issue of slavery became a source of contention between the Anglo-American settlers (called that because they spoke English) and Spanish governors in Texas, let’s just say my mother’s granddaddy was not on the right side of the issue.
Fast forward to 1954. My parents (who had met abroad) decided to marry. It was illegal, however, in a majority of U.S. states for them to marry because my father is black and my mother is white.
That is going to seem so nuts to anyone born after 1970. But that’s how important skin color was in those days. There were actually laws criminalizing interracial marriage (and sometimes sex) between members of two different races.
No match was more reviled than the match between a white woman and a black man. This was the greatest offense of all. And there were pecuniary considerations for my parents: My mother was reminded by her family that she would be far better off financially if she married a wealthy white Texas boy and stayed close to her Texas relatives (who by this time had given over cotton farming for oil). Now she would see none of that.
And then, of course, there were the children. Think of the children!
But my parents had considered all of that, and had their minds made up. They traveled to three states, all told, until they got to Illinois, where they found a doctor willing to give them the requisite blood test and a justice of the peace courageous enough to sign the marriage certificate.
In the early years, they faced horrible discrimination in employment and housing. Think about it. The Civil War had been fought less than 100 years before. Jim Crow was still alive and well. And they were married for 13 years before the landmark Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which overturned the anti-miscegenation laws.
Loving came down in 1967, which means that, for the first three years of my life, I was not entirely legitimate in the eyes of most state governments. Even here in New York City, I suffered untold abuse. But that is another blog for another day.
Except that it all colored my view of the world (pun intended). One hundred fifty years after the Civil War started, I believe America is still defined, at least in significant part, by its race problem.
Race remains one of the most persistent problems in the United States precisely because we have refused for a century and a half to speak to one another openly and honestly about the subject. The topic is so emotionally charged that it is almost impossible to talk sensibly about race relations, even among friends, let alone in the public discourse.
I have found this in my own work as a legal and political analyst. I can talk about almost anything else on radio or television: the economy, sports, Glenn Beck, feminism, the death penalty, abortion, the Tea Party, you name it. But when it comes to race, the comments I receive on the web, Twitter, my Facebook page, or from callers during a show are often made in anger.
Still, I hope for a reasoned dialogue over the subject, free from charged emotion and the polemic, but I often find disappointment. There is something about race. I believe it is rooted in slavery and the unfinished business of the Civil War.
There is also something that gives me hope, however.
Next month, on June 20, my parents will celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary. And marriages like theirs have become less the exception. (I’m not talking about the length. That is exceptional. I’m talking about interracial marriages.) People don’t stare anymore when an interracial couple, even a black man and a white woman, walk down the street.
The social byproduct of all that coupling: the demographic of America is changing. This suggests that we can talk to each other in ways that are both mundane and meaningful, as my parents have done for more than half a century.