He was gentle and cried with me when I explained that it would not be easy for me to let my guard down and totally give in to the passion. We were building a new relationship―different and better―planning adult things together. Bryan and I were an interracial couple. I’m not sure Bryan was prepared for the challenges we would face. There was an innocence in him―an innocence born of being white. “Black women have never been enslaved by any group of men other than white men, so we have that whole history right there that makes these relationships [between black women and white men] the most different, the most daring,” notes Cheryl Judice, a sociologist and adjunct faculty member in Northwestern University’s School of Education and Public Policy.
We would get reactions when we were together—stares, slights, and whispers. I’d fume with anger whenever a restaurant hostess asked, “Do you want separate checks?”
“Douchebag” was Bryan’s response to bystanders’ reactions.
One Saturday afternoon, we drove from Raleigh to the county where I was born in Eastern North Carolina―a small farming community near the town of Rocky Mount. Since North Carolina is famous for its distinct style of chopped pork barbecue, we stopped at Gardner’s Barbecue.
As he dove into his food, he looked at me. “This is good. Did you eat here when you were a kid?” he asked.
“No, when I was a child, most of these places did not allow my kind to eat in the dining room. We had to go around back and order our food from a window.”
“Oh!” he exclaimed, looking puzzled.
Someone asked me how I knew he loved me.
I have relapsing remitting Multiple Sclerosis. In 2001, I ended up in the VA hospital for three days. The first day, Bryan joined my family at the hospital. I remember what he said to his boss when he called to ask for the night off. “Hey man, this is Bryan. My girlfriend is in the hospital and I need to take some vacation days.” This was the first time I heard him call me his girlfriend, and in that moment I knew he loved me.
“Sharon, you make me a better man,” he once said. We were in the car driving to my baby brother’s wedding. My niece Jesse, who is seven years older than me, was sitting in the back seat. I remember she told him he was going to make her cry.
I read somewhere that you can tell how committed a guy is by whether he is willing to meet your family. The author noted that if a man avoids meeting your family, he is not really interested in you.
I close my eyes and remember one particular day after a major snowfall. The January 25, 2000 storm was preceded by a rather weak storm that dropped up to an inch of snow and some freezing rain across the North Carolina Piedmont on January 23. The largest snowfall amounts of fifteen or more inches were in Wake County and continuing into Virginia. Nothing was open. The schools were closed. Most of the businesses in the city were also closed. Bryan decided to brave it from his house to mine. After dinner, we decided to pile into his Ford Explorer and drive around town. My son Christopher, 28, gleefully laughed and giggled and teased his little sister Samantha, as they climbed into the back seat, and we headed out on the newly plowed streets.
Bryan gave me a warm smile. There was an eerie quiet. Capital Boulevard, even back then, was a prominent thoroughfare linking downtown Raleigh to the northeastern suburbs. On a side street, we saw a tractor-trailer driver sitting in the cab of a big rig. He had taken the wrong exit off the highway and ended up on a very narrow side street.
“Hey, look at that,” Bryan said. “That guy’s gonna freeze out here.”
We decided to stop and offer our help. I wasn’t sure what we could do. The man said he needed a ride to the nearest hotel. Without blinking, Bryan said, “Hop in, man. There is a motel right down the block.”
Bryan fit right in. In 2000, I took Bryan’s photo while he was on one knee beside my eighty-nine-year-old half-sister, Lucy, at our younger brother’s wedding. I don’t recall Lucy ever wanting to pose with any other boyfriends or my two husbands, but there she was—all five feet of her—beaming beside Bryan. There was something symbolic about the way these two people were posed. This was 2000, and the Black Lives Matter campaign had not yet begun. Still, the idea of a white man kneeling beside an elderly black woman suggested a lot about Bryan. He showed our family matriarch the respect she deserved, and she adored him. A few months later, when she celebrated her ninetieth birthday, she insisted Bryan was invited to the party in Washington, DC. Of course, Lucy was old-fashioned, and Bryan had to sleep in another room.
Our first summer together, Bryan invited me to accompany him to a family reunion in Arlington, Virginia. I did not know what to expect. I had briefly dated a guy from Alabama when I was in the Navy. When this guy told his parents about me, he was warned “not to bring that (expletive) home” with him. We didn’t last.
I wasn’t sure I was ready to meet Bryan’s family, so I called my friend Barbara for advice. “What are you afraid of?” she asked.
“What if his family doesn’t approve?”
“Oh Sharon, I don’t think he would have invited you if he didn’t think you would be welcome.”
And that was our first road trip.
“You see that you’re not the only minority here?” asked Bryan’s Japanese sister-in-law.
I fell in love with his family. Barbara was right. Bryan’s two natural brothers, three stepbrothers, his mother and stepfather, and a couple of aunts and uncles were all solicitous and engaging. His stepfather’s sister insisted I was in all the photographs.
I was always surprised at how much interest Bryan showed in my life, and in anything that was important to me. For example, I love to read.
“Whatcha reading?” he asked one day.
It was a book written by a white news reporter married to a black woman. The couple had two sons. After overhearing a racist joke from someone in the reporter’s dentist office, the reporter realized that this person was talking about the reporter’s sons. He decided to travel around the country to learn more about the black experience.
“Can I read it when you finish?” Bryan asked.
That’s when I knew he cared about me. He took the book with him to work and never returned it. Try as I may, I can’t remember the title or the author. I did a Google search, went to the Washington Post website, and searched the staff bios but I have not been able to find the name of the book. I first learned about it from a book review in Essence Magazine.
He was interested in my life.
“I just watched a movie about a lynching,” he said.
“I didn’t know they did that,” he replied.
“It still happens.” What planet is he from? I thought.
I was surprised that he really did not know about lynchings. Looking back on that conversation and now grasping the concept of white privilege, I understand. He grew up in a working-class conservative community in Ohio. I doubt Black history was taught in his school. He was not exposed to movies and documentaries about the middle passage, or the real impact of holding fellow humans against their will. He had a lot to learn.
In 2001, I had a fire in my kitchen and had to move out because of the repairs. We moved into his house for what was supposed to be a month, but since contractors never deliver on time, we were there for six months. My daughter had a cat, which Bryan, who had allergies, struggled to accommodate until we found someone to care for it while we waited to get back into our home.
Whatever I wanted to do, he did it with me. I loved ballet. I knew Bryan did not enjoy going with me, but he accompanied me. “The maestro, the maestro,” he would yell whenever the orchestra tuned up and the maestro stepped onto the podium. When I completed my Master’s degree program and took a job in a county-run homeless shelter, he said, “I don’t want you working there.” I reminded him that I had served in the Navy; I could deal with homeless men.
One day he showed up at the shelter with a bouquet of flowers. “I want everyone to know you have a man,” he said.
Not every struggle is about race. We both brought baggage to our relationship that led to conflicts and struggles that we could not overcome.
The honeymoon period lasted two years. We didn’t have our first argument until a year into the relationship. I don’t remember what the argument was about, but I started crying and left. I went to visit Susie, one of my sisters.
When I came back, he was sitting in the living room. “I’m so sorry, Sharon. I don’t know what to do when a woman cries.” At that moment, the fight did not matter. That was the first night he asked me to marry him. Four months later, 9/11 happened. His company laid off seven hundred Raleigh employees, including Bryan. He was unemployed again. Soon after we first met, he had lost his job. He searched for work for months before a position opened at Alcatel. Bryan’s company offered to transfer him to its Texas facility, so Dallas seemed like the only choice we had. I panicked and insisted he take the transfer. I promised I would join him as soon as Samantha graduated from high school.
We tried to make our long-distance relationship work for three years. I would fly to Dallas whenever I had time off. Bryan would fly to Raleigh for holidays. I did not like Texas and started sending him job announcements. Looking back on my actions, I did not realize what I was asking of him. He did not want to move to Texas, but I insisted he take the transfer and as soon as he left I reneged on my promise.
On telephone calls, he would lament, “Sharon, I’m so lonely here. You don’t know what I’m going through,” with desperation in his voice.
I admit sometimes I would avoid his calls because I couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with his pain. Years later, I would regret not being more sympathetic.
“Sharon, let’s set a date,” he said during one call.
“How about Christmas Eve?”
“Great, December 24, 2004, it is.”
I began working on wedding plans and told my family and friends, including Barbara.
“Would you like to get married on a cruise?” I asked during another call.
“Is that what you want?”
I said yes.
I started working on a dress and invited my family to take a Caribbean cruise with us.
When his family got together in Columbus, Ohio, for his mother’s birthday, he drove from Dallas. I flew to Atlanta and met him. On the way to Columbus, we stopped in Cincinnati.
“Do you like baseball?” he asked.
“Not really, why?”
“Because we’re going to see the Cincinnati Reds.”
It was chilly at the stadium, and the Reds lost.
We spent three days in Columbus, Ohio. I expected him to share our news with his family, but he did not.
We stopped at a Cracker Barrel restaurant when we left Columbus. When Bryan got up to go to the restroom, a black man who was cleaning the tables leaned over my shoulder and asked, “What are you doing with that white man?” I turned around, but he had walked away. I didn’t tell Bryan until we got back on the road.
“Sharon, why did you wait until now to tell me?” he asked.
“I didn’t want a confrontation,” I replied, my voice sharper than I intended.
The stares and the comments made behind our backs did not surprise me. Nor did the reactions of some of Bryan’s friends.
We went on a double date to a Billy Joel concert. I sat beside the woman, but she never looked at me. Try as I might, all I got were one-word answers. He asked another friend to come to my house to do some repairs. The friend seemed surprised when I opened the door. Bryan’s friend said he needed to come back to make the repairs but never did. Bryan was hurt because the friend did not return Bryan’s calls after that.