Even in Columbia, Problems Of Heart


February 21, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

"What does it mean to be an interracial couple in America?" write Mark and Gail Mathabane in the preface of their new book, "Love in Black and White."

"For many years, decades, it has meant being analyzed, studied, categorized, labeled, and collected into statistics and theories -- some bizarre and others downright ridiculous -- aimed at answering a question at once simple and complex: Why do human beings fall in love?"

And so the Mathabanes, he a black South African and she a white woman from the Midwest, set out to explain the complexities -- and simplicities -- they've found in their own relationship as an interracial couple.

In the process, they tell a great love story, which pits them in a struggle not only against a tide of racial intolerance that rose in the 1980s, but also against their own insecurities and biases.

How fitting it is that the Mathabanes, who are currently on a book-selling tour, stopped last Tuesday in Columbia.

Here, after all, is the virtual citadel of interracial couples. Here, the ideals of social equality were part of the founding principles.

And here, as in the rest of the nation, those ideals have eroded.

Perhaps more than any group, interracial couples have felt, with deep remorse, the impact of that erosion. I know this because, as I've written before, my wife and I are an interracial couple.

Like the Mathabanes, we understand the dual lives we live as mixed couples. One life is private and very normal. The other is spent in a fishbowl, subject to society's stares and condemnation.

"In a small way, some interracial couples -- though we haven't set out to do it -- in a small way, we seek to build bridges between people," said Mr. Mathabane at the Cover to Cover Bookstore in Owen Brown. "The more that society gives up on the idea of integration, the more work that needs to be done."

Mr. Mathabane has an aura of authority on these subjects. Perhaps it is because he speaks in such soft and philosophical tones.

Or perhaps it is because his first book, the critically acclaimed best seller, "Kaffir Boy," gives him such obvious authority. In the book, he writes about his life growing up under apartheid in South Africa. And in riveting and heart-rending detail, he reveals the fear and hatred he felt for whites in his homeland.

If anything, the new book is about how he overcame those prejudices in America as he confronted a friendship he could not ignore.

"I think that in the end that's what it's all about," he said. "It's a choice that you make between yourself and someone else. You have only your conscience to guide you.

"When you find a friend who truly embodies the things you care about, do you tell your friend you cannot have a friendship because of the color of their skin?"

And yet, that is precisely what far too many of us do in America, Mr. Mathabane said.

SC "I have never been to a country where people were as free as in America, but also as ignorant of each other," he added.

We surround ourselves with "walls of fear and guilt . . . But until you know another person, you will never connect."

Never connect? One would think that connecting with others is such a basic human instinct, we should all be masters by now. And yet, even here in Columbia, the connection between races can be faulty.

Better than most places, for sure. But too often high school students here still segregate themselves in the lunch room, hate-filled people pass out Ku Klux Klan leaflets in neighborhoods and children hurl racial epithets at one another.

As delighted as I am that the school system has a new human relations director, there is something strange, sad and telling about having a facilitator for racial harmony. Our society is broken, so we search for someone to teach us how not to hate.

Meanwhile, the county's Human Relations Committee is locked in a pitched battle over gays and intolerance, and we wonder whether it will ever end.

Some of the answers are in the book by Mark and Gail Mathabane. The other answers lie within all of our hearts.

The Mathabanes say in their epilogue: "Racism is essentially a problem of the heart. Pervert the human heart, which was made to feel and to love and to care, and you get cancers like racism and injustice. If in our hearts we truly accept one another as fellow human beings, many of our intractable problems have solutions, and there would be no limit to the good we could do in making our world a better place for all."

A better place? How simple and yet complex.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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