Picks and Pans Review: Love in Black and White

UPDATED 02/17/1992 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/17/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

by Mark and Gail Mathabane

If someone had told me while I was growing up in a South African ghetto that I would someday end up marrying a white woman, I would have thought them insane," writes Mark Mathabane, best-selling author of the memoirs Kaffir Boy and Kaffir-Boy in America. Yet, in 1984, when he was a 24-year-old student at the Columbia School of Journalism, he fell in love with Gail Ernsberger, 22, a minister's blond daughter from Cincinnati. They married in 1987 and now live in North Carolina with their two children.

Mark was immediately impressed by Gail, a tomboy and a liberal who had graduated from Brown and worked in battered women's shelters in Harlem and the South Bronx. Her strength and what he calls her "earthy wisdom" reminded him of his mother. Gail, on the other hand, admits she was afraid of blacks. When she met Mark, she had a steady—a blue-eyed "preacher's kid"—whom she thought she should marry. But he was jealous of her friends and her work. In Mark, she found a "refined" and "highly educated" feminist and a friend who encouraged her writing. She fell in love with him but waged an "all-out war" with herself about marriage. The romance temporarily estranged Gail from her father, who was depressed over his own divorce and worried that Mark was using her to get a green card.

As an antiapartheid spokesperson, Mark also had doubts. Militants wanted him to reject all whites as racists. Black women, who outnumber black men in the U.S. by more than a million, in many cases felt Mark was embracing the "nubile blond, girl-woman" ideal, in the words of one letter writer, and betraying them.

Mark's and Gail's families finally proved surprisingly supportive. Mark's granny brought a tribal wedding dress, "a big bush of colorful yarn" that sat on Gail's hips "like an inner tube." Still, it isn't easy to be one of the 200,000 black-white couples in the U.S. They have had to contend with threats and abuse from people who call them "unbiblical" and "immoral."

Unlike Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, this is an idealistic, sometimes sentimental story. Mark and Gail denounce racism—by blacks no less than by whites—but are unable to describe their relationship in anything but greeting card language. Still, writing the book, they conclude, taught them "that we are not fugitives from the 'real' world or social out-casts, but living proof that blacks and whites do not have to hate each other." (HarperCollins, $20)

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