Mara Gay: A Detroit love story

BY MARA GAY

Published April 9, 2007

My parents' decision to love one another is the greatest act of political courage I have ever known. I recognize, of course, that it might have begun as a political statement. Young and na've, it is possible they were trying to prove something to the world and to themselves. Maybe they were, dare I say it, curious. But somehow, right here in nearby Detroit, the most segregated city in the country, my white mother met my black father. They fell in love.

I cannot imagine a more unlikely backdrop for their relationship than 1970s Detroit. It is, after all, the city where my maternal grandmother - a single mother of three in the 1950s - fed her children by redlining along with the rest of her colleagues in the real estate business. Refusing to show homes in certain predominately white neighborhoods to black families, she could not have dreamt she would one day have a grandchild who would be "one of them."

Detroit is also the city where my father's father worked his way through Wayne State University Law School. My grandfather ripped the pages out of his law books and pasted them on the inside of his jacket so he could study on Ford's assembly line. One of only two black students, he graduated first in his class.

My grandmother explicitly asked that my mother not marry a black man. I have white cousins who live in suburban Detroit suburbs whom I've rarely ever seen. And in the almost 30 years that my parents have been married, they've been denied housing, service in restaurants and even acknowledgement from friends and family. As soon as their paychecks could take them there, they fled for New York City, where I was born and raised. Sheltered from Detroit's tensions, I arrived at the University 17 years old and oblivious to Detroit's problems.

My freshman year - which began less than 12 months after the University confirmed its commitment to diversity in the Supreme Court - was a rude awakening.

However I had chosen to define myself in New York- - biracial, black and white or simply Mara - was no longer relevant. I was "Black at Michigan," and there were days when little else seemed to matter.

The fact of our separateness is undeniable. At a university that trumpets the value of diversity, we sense that magnitude of our segregation - from our residence halls to our majors to our parties - is embarrassing. But now, even those of us who claim to support diversity are tired of talking about it.

After a Supreme Court battle and a two-year fight over Proposal 2, the conversation seems as exhausted as we are. It has become easier to believe that such segregation is inevitable or even natural than it is to challenge it. The University is, after all, simply a microcosm of our divided society. The vast majority of us - black, white and others - were robbed of the experience of diversity in our upbringing and were raised alongside people who look exactly like we do.

For most students on this campus, diversity is meaningless. Immersed within our own small worlds, we leave the University without ever understanding the beauty of our differences at all.

But when I think of my parents, I don't think of difference. My mind pours over all the things that run deeper than race. I think of all that unites us. And I wonder what and who we're missing out on.

Twenty-seven years later, my parents' marriage is legal is all 50 states. My grandmother doesn't like to talk about the day she asked my mother not to marry a black man. But it isn't the difficulty of their circumstances that inspires me. It is the depth of their courage, their decision to make a commitment to one another and challenge the world.

I walk around campus and wonder what it will look like in the years to come. I want to believe that we can make that same commitment to one another, that we can be as courageous.

It's a unique opportunity we've been given. We can dare to know one another and be more educated, interesting people for it. But we will have to fight to make diversity a reality. The choice is ours. We do not have to retreat from one another and live exactly as the world expects us to. We do not have to repeat life exactly as our parents lived it or do what is easy instead of what is better or what is right.

My parents could have saved themselves from a life that required a thousand acts of courage. Instead they did what was scarier, braver and far more incredible. They chose to invest in one another, to bet on one another and to question the world as it was by daring to love one another.

Maybe it's optimistic. Maybe it's fantastically na've. But it is still the only way I know.

Mara Gay can be reached at maracl@umich.edu.