New Poll: The Looks of Strangers

“You have a beautiful family,” the young girl told me quietly as we watched Hubby wrangle Baby in his arms. We were visiting the Pleasant Valley Lavender farm in New Jersey, when our visit had crossed over into her naptime. Hubby and Baby had been running—him chasing her, mostly—through the farm’s lush and sprawling front yard as she succumbed to the frenzy that precedes delicious sleep in kids her age. I thanked my hostess/lavender farmer, hoping that my heretofore playful toddler wouldn’t collapse into insanity and shatter the image of that dimpled, charming cherub that we had arrived with.

Reader, you have probably guessed correctly that the young lady was Caucasian. We didn’t have the kind of friendly history or time to start talking about modern family life in New Jersey. She just gave me a compliment about my family, and I took it, gratefully. When I say gratefully, I am consciously laying aside that fiercely independent Jersey attitude that doesn’t care who approves or disapproves of my personal choices. It is nice to be able do that, honestly. I don’t like to dwell on the angst of being different. Of being a Black woman whose schoolmates scorned her for ‘acting white,’ whatever that means. Blogs that wring their hands over the complexities of identity and belonging—and pick through the minutiae over matters like having servants—make my eyes glaze over with the same disenchantment that some bring to learning about mutual funds. I understand and respect why a blog that thoroughly explores such feelings might appeal to a certain market, but I do not always have the time or patience for such musings.

Just an hour before that young lady spoke to me, the women who ran the operation made Baby and I feel completely comfortable as Hubby went scouting for lunch further into town. They let us into their house to use their bathroom. They freely offered to let Baby play on the swing set in the back yard, and Baby got acquainted with the koi fish (I believe) that glubbed and glided through the  pond out back. When Hubby got back, we felt completely free to sit at the table on the far end of their yard and eat our food—all before we even bought anything. There must be many other great people, white people, in the world who hold nothing but benevolent curiosity about mixed families. It could stem from anything: a great-grandfather who worked as a missionary or in an oil field in Africa; an interest in family genealogy; an interfaith marriage that carries the same emotional stakes as an interracial one. It was a truly relaxing afternoon and was a credit to the open, friendly ways that you can still find amidst the sharp-elbowed striving so acquainted with living in the Northeast.

New Jersey, and the Northern part of the state, particularly, is a colorful jumble of cultures, languages, cuisines, fashions and creeds from many parts of the world. Differences ought to be celebrated, especially when they don’t cross over into dysfunctional. These days, when onlookers rest their eyes on Hubby, Baby and me for longer than a few seconds, I don’t reflexively feel uneasy about it. One day we will come across some oddball jerk who wants to make us feel strange and “unusual.” And when that day comes, believe me, I will spread on that special Jersey sauce. Thick.

Right now we’re moving through life like a kayak on a glass-smooth lake. No one bothers us, and if anyone glares at us as we make our way, I rarely notice.

Interracial PDA: Take Our Poll

Warm weather has finally settled onto the New York City area, which means it’s time to break out the strollers and get some exercise with your little ones!  Or, if you are in a couple with no young kids, its time to be outdoors for some quality hand holding.

Don't worry. I sprang into action and shook that twig out of her hand.

Last year, a day after this photo was taken—around early Spring—Hubby, Little Sister, Baby and I went to Liberty State Park in Jersey City to enjoy a relaxing afternoon before dinner. We tossed a frisbee, snacked on nachos and took in the sights on the harbor promenade.

We also saw at least a couple of other Latte Cafe types of couples, which is not unusual. We’ve got loads of nationalities and ethnic groups represented here, so it wasn’t surprising to see more couples like mine and Hubby’s. I was on a business lunch less than a year earlier in one of the hotels in downtown Jersey City, and spied a Latte Cafe type family having breakfast, probably before heading into Manhattan to soak up the atmosphere and take in the sights for the day.

This year, I expect to see lots of mixed families like ours, because well, I work in Manhattan and live in the New York area. The hordes of European visitors never really ebbs, with their generous vacation benefits that make me green with envy! And I’d safely say that I see about the same the percentages of European mixed couples as American ones I think that says Europeans are far less hung up on interracial dating than their American peers, but it also says that I do lot of people watching, doesn’t it. 🙂 Don’t worry I don’t stalk them!

But Spring weather does get me to wondering: How many mixed couples and families and I going to share a sidewalk with this year?  Will there be more than last year, as Americans keep warming up to this idea of looking past racial and ethnic difference to form relationships? Am I going to hear more mixed couples talk to each other with Southern and Midwestern accents? Are people from other parts of the country becoming as comfortable with interracial dating as the folks in the coastal cities already seem to be?

I’ve decided to really pull readers into that discussion with a quick poll. I’d love to hear stories from other American cities, especially ones that are not as foreign tourist-attractive as New York? It’s a first for The Latte Cafe, so share it with your friends. Enjoy!

The Other M-Word

Traveling about the North Jersey/New York polyglot is not for the faint of heart, whether one is driving or using mass transit. I consider myself pretty thick-skinned about human foibles that unfold during rush hour, but something I heard on the train the other day impacted me like a slap in the face. A couple of friends were catching up after apparently not seeing each other in a while. Both seemed like well-educated professionals. The man was white and married, but his wife was not on the train with him. Judging by his comments about his wife, there is a good chance she was of Caribbean descent. Thanks to my marriage, I’ve almost developed a canine ear for giveaway phrases, like the ones he was using: “patois” and “dialect” and “sometimes can’t understand her aunts” and “all her cousins.” Come on, now! I think it is a safe bet that his in-laws are from one island or another.

The woman was clearly of Indian descent, with shoulder-length jet-back hair, a bejeweled bindi dot and a kameez top over jeans, instead of the more traditional salwar-kameez combination. Her mannerisms almost came across like a performance, with affected patrician inflections and the bawdy laughter at flat, nerdy jokes. I suppose that’s why their conversation pulled my attention away from my reading that morning.

The two were catching up about their children, and it became clear that the husband had a baby daughter. The woman asked: “Is she at daycare, or do you have a nanny for her—some warm kindly island mama?”

Did she really just say that? What was that supposed to mean? Obviously, it was no big deal to her, because she made a smooth transition into the next comment. She even threw in a remark about his daughter being his “little Barack Obama.” Apparently, her friendship and familiarity with the man bred contempt for his wife’s cultural background. Her remark trivialized the experiences and hardships, of an entire class of domestic workers. That educated-sounding woman overlooked the obvious: The family hiring the nanny might project some cozy gauzy image of a “mama” onto her, because she is caring for young children in a home setting. But don’t forget that these Caribbean nannies often have their own kids. The house is a job site, and the family is an employer. This is a business arrangement in a dog-eat-dog world, where she is trying to support herself and probably sent remittances back to her own children in her native country—on tiny wages. Some of these nannies work for women who spend more money decorating their childrens’ rooms than they do on their annual salaries. For generations, black Caribbean and American women have toiled away, rearing the children of upper middle class women, some who worked and others who did not. They are not rotund cartoons from an antebellum picture book whose greatest calling in life is to run after other people’s broods for less money per year than one of the family cars. I doubt any of these workers would go along with a woman in a more privileged position making verbal sport of her situation. Painting her like some mammy. EcoSoul, a guest blogger at The Intersection|Madness & Reality, wonderfully articulated these sentiments, and more,  in this post last year.

Let’s assume that the male passenger and his wife actually preferred to hire a Caribbean nanny, as a way for the wife to anchor her child in her heritage. Certainly there is nothing wrong with them doing that. Nor would there be any particular shame for the nanny to work under those conditions, assuming they pay and treat her well. But I don’t get why women like the one on the train can’t find less pugnacious ways of expressing themselves. Certainly I don’t talk about any domestic workers that way, especially because my mother and aunts held those types of jobs. Their experiences are not ancient history or playthings for the upper middle class. The feelings and the memories are still fresh. It doesn’t matter if they happened years ago. Does that silly woman know just how far into American culture her friend’s wife is steeped? What if she speaks patois among family and friends after work? Cooks the food and still vacations on her native island sometimes? To others, it might seem like a joke, a light slip of the tongue, but I wonder if this woman would be just as candid were she at a dinner party at the wife’s house, and the aunts and cousins were present.

I made my way out of the station and onto Broadway, into the sunshine of another clear and mild fall day. Downtown Manhattan, with its historic churches, cobblestone streets and the New York Stock Exchange, looks majestic on days like that. Lots of Caribbean nannies were well into their workdays already, pushing their charges along in high-end strollers that glided along the sidewalks and park paths. Those women are majestic, too. When they do their jobs well, it gives their employers the peace of mind to function well as bankers, attorneys, real estate developers or whatever kind of Manhattan titan they happen to be.

It struck me that the Indian woman never asked her friend about his wife, and when he volunteered information about his wife, she deftly ignored it and changed the subject. To take such an interest in a child while overlooking the mother is weird to me. I don’t think it means she is racist. At the very least, she is careless, silly and out of touch with people who walk a different path in life her. I’m sure that makes dinner parties at the wife’s house interesting places to be, for all of them.

Underground in Memphis

This year’s Broadway season blew past me and left me coughing in a plume of smoke. It was only after the Tony Awards, the New York City theater community’s highest honor, had been handed out in June that I noticed a vibrant new production that I should share with you all. The show, Memphis, is about an ambitious young black singer who makes her way through underground clubs in Memphis in the 1950s, and who falls for a white DJ. Here is a preview clip from the show’s own Web site.

I only realized what a big impact this musical was having on Broadway after I read a business article in The New York Times about how productions with black casts, producers and investors were helping prop up ticket sales in the district. I went to a fine and performing arts high school, a magnet school, so I’m used to visiting major and minor artistic venues, and I knew Phylicia Rashad was a seasoned a regal stage actress way before the all black revival “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” for the 2008-2009 season. Hubby and I (and Baby in the womb, kicking) had the pleasure of watching Ms. Rashad, James Earl Jones and Terrence Howard in that production. Anika Noni Rose, who played Maggie, did not perform the night we saw it. I was disappointed, because the critics said she pretty much ran the show whenever she took the stage. Marja Harmon, her understudy, performed instead. Harmon was amazing in her Broadway debut and more than held up her part of the stage considering who her cast mates were!

Maybe Hubby and I will check out Memphis, because I love a musical as much as a play. And if you all ever find yourselves on vacation in New York City, pop in and see what the fuss is about.

And Through the Woods

You might say that I was living a little vicariously through Baby two weeks ago when I suggested we bring out her L.L. Bean sled and head out to a local park for a couple of trips across the packed powder.  I had always wanted to try sledding when I was little, but things never came together for it, despite plenty of white Northeast winters punctuated with “snow days” off from school. For various reasons, there were no invigorating runs down hills in the park, or treks across snow-covered fields.

Until Baby came along, I had forgotten all about that. I left it in the past and figured, ‘So what if I missed out on a little fun. Sledding is no real sacrifice, in the grand scheme of things.’ But I realized that I want Baby to have a rich life, beginning with a childhood full of fond memories (even if she sometimes sees things that aren’t so good). I think that a series of small joys like sledding, combined with responsible parenting on our part should help her become a well-adjusted, poised and amiable when she grows up.

It turns out that Baby loved the experience. She smiled and waved at me as she rode by and I snapped her picture or took videos. After seeing her laugh and wave, I didn’t feel so bad about giving her one of my unfulfilled childhood “dreams”. As long as I don’t try to force her to become a renowned concert pianist or neurosurgeon, I think it is alright.

As the Decade Turns

It’s holiday party time. Black cocktail dress? Check. Strappy heels? Got ’em. Stylishly warm coat? You bet!  Engaging conversation topics?  Well …

That’s not always so easy. I think these festivities can get trite and tiresome pretty quickly, unless you think on your feet, or you are a very quirky person and are prone to say things that turn people’s heads. Before you head out for this year’s holiday party circuit, let’s take a look back at some of the major stories that caught my attention while tending the Latte Cafe. Not all of these stories highlight intermarriage and cross-cultural dating involving black women. But they are worth noting, because they touch on race and black culture, and ought to be discussed among black women. While holding an egg nog or a mock-tail, depending on your taste.

1. November 2008—Change Has Come! The election of Illinois Senator Barack Obama, a black (and biracial) man as U.S. president was a moment that an entire generation of black Americans never thought would come. Their viewpoint is legitimate, considering all of the racial prejudice and attendant injustices that their generation had to endure. Jim Crow laws, segregation, cronyism, fraternalism in trade unions and a host of other factors conspired against blacks to render them unable to reach their potential either individually or collectively. Thankfully this man teamed up with his advisors and close friends to be a game changer of political campaigns. He played the rules differently and figured out a way to get around all the wily little tricks that would otherwise have ended his candidacy.

2. October 2009—Keith Bardwell, a former justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, made headlines when he refused to grant an interracial couple a marriage license. The couple was made up of a black man and a white woman, but it could have easily been the other way around. That a siting judge in these modern times was willing to go on the record with his views about why interracial marriages should not happen was incredible enough, but he topped that by saying he opposed those unions for the sake of the offspring. Yep. He eventually resigned from the bench.

3. October 2009 — “Good Hair,” the documentary film by Chris Rock opened in theaters nationwide. Everyone knows what this was about. Just walk into a party attended by sisters from a range of backgrounds, walk up to one of them and say something like: ‘Wow, you have really good hair!’ That should get things going. We discussed the movie briefly in a related post.

4. July 2009 — Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested outside his own home in Cambridge, Mass. For all his trouble, he got a beer at the White House with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. If I get pulled over and harassed outside my house, can I go shoe shopping with First Lady Michelle Obama?

5. February 2009 — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the U.S. remains a nation of cowards when it comes to openly discussing issues of race. I heartily agree with him on this point. Even within my interracial marriage, Hubby and I rarely delve into the topic of race. There are several reasons for that, not the least of which is that Hubby has often taken political and social discussions way too seriously and has gone off the deep end with the things that have come out of his mouth. (At some point in our courtship, I put an end to political discussions full stop. Now he inflicts his curmudgeonly populist, anti-corporate America rants on his conservative Republican brothers and parents.) And I’ve noticed that even so-called enlightened, progressive left-leaning white Americans will sometimes bury their heads in the sand on this issue.  They’ll shrug and say things like ‘race doesn’t matter any more’, or ‘we’ve come a long way.’ Ha! Not far enough. (And you can ask Mr. Gates about how ‘far’ we’ve come on that issue.) No matter how sophisticated and superficially integrated our society becomes, we cannot outrun our basic human nature, which compels us to group ourselves into tribes and ascribe superiority or inferiority to others, depending on how much like us they are. Holder was right: we need to discuss race in open and healthy ways. If we don’t acknowledge the subject of race head on and maintain well-adjusted attitudes about our differences, then little slights and minor situations will compound and escalate until they explode. We try to man up on the subject of race round here, and I thank Mr. Holder for challenging all other Americans to do the same.

Where to Soak Up the (Diverse) Culture

Life is definitely more savory when you live in a relatively progressive state like New Jersey. Having lived in north New Jersey my whole life almost, I’ve met people from many different ethnic and social backgrounds. You’ll find many different combinations of interracial marriages here. It’s so common that Hubby and I barely turn heads anymore. Or maybe I’ve stopped noticing. Either way, I like having access to places with a rich cultural mix. That brings me to the Ironbound, a thriving neighborhood in the east section of Newark. Traditionally, the Ironbound is known as a Portuguese and Brazilian neighborhood. It’s one of my favorite places to hang out, with its blend of cosmopolitan bistros and old-fashioned European-style dessert shops. In this video clip, you’ll see a shot of Mompou (1:29), where my friends and I gathered for my 35th birthday dinner. The main artery of the neighborhood, Ferry Street, is loaded with beautiful stores, including a chic European baby’s clothing boutique where I spent a lot of money on Baby’s christening gown. Hubby loves the place. There is a great fish store, Mexican restaurant and wine shop. He says the vibe in the Ironbound reminds him of some of the little European towns he remembers from the part of his childhood that his family spent in Italy. His family lived in Milan, I think, for seven years, so they saw a lot of Spain and other parts of Europe.

And while it seems like the handful of Portuguese families that dominate the business landscape there are still pillars of the community, the central American is steadily increasing. It suggests the neighborhood is about to undergo a substantial cultural change. I do hope the Portuguese maintain their stronghold, to be honest. Much of the Ironbound is well-kept, the bigger families and business owners bring in a lot of money, maintain a cohesive business community and they do a lot to promote the Ironbound brand, making the neighborhood a great place to kick back and enjoy a night out. During the sultry days of summer the merchants put on a week long cultural celebration called Portugal Day. One Christmas season, the local business association piped Christmas carols through outdoor sound systems, creating a fantastic atmosphere for strolling and shopping.

Another great thing about the Ironbound: the people there are used to being in diverse surroundings, especially the Brazilians, whose native country really is a cultural melting pot. Hubby and I never got lingering stares or glares while having dinner or shopping in that district, and nowadays we barely register a glance from passersby.

Goodbye to Summer

As far as I’m concerned, Summer 2009 never really happened. This odd solstice that we just experienced, with its soggy June and a few hot spots that interrupted the mildness of July and August, was an impostor. Phony baloney. I don’t feel like I had an authentic summer experience. I didn’t eat gallons of rum raisin ice cream, nor did I bolt out of the house in the mornings to walk or to garden. Not once did I go to the beach, and we didn’t even see any memorable July 4th fireworks.

And yet, we are told, we had a summer this year. As if to try to find some grain of truth in this scandalous falsehood, find some trace of authenticity of summer, I spent a little bit of time looking around the city (mainly during my commute to and from work) to get a few snapshots of everyday life that typified the seasonal experience in the New York area. Here is what I came up with. You all can tell me if, judging by the goings down that I saw, summer was actually here or not.

Shameless!!

WallStreetBull

1. People groping the Wall Street Bull. This was almost sad. Day after day, as long as the weather was clear, this sculpture was surrounded by clumps of tourists or local yahoos, who thought it was funny to basically molest it in broad daylight. Now, I understand that the artist created an atomically correct statue, and people have probably been doing this since the bull was unveiled, but does that make it right? I don’t think so. Every day the scene repeated itself: yahoos like the ones pictured here, and even demure-looking young Asian women who probably lead otherwise respectable lives back home, would stop and cop a feel while grinning for the camera. Is this summer?

LivingArt

2. Performance artists. Okay, in New York City, serious artists come out on the street all year round, especially if the ground is clean and dry. Case in point: The well-dressed tin man pictured here. This guy was in the Bowling Green area a few times during the “summer” and blended in seamlessly with the metal pedestal he sat on, until I stared, realized he was performing and got a snapshot. He caught me snapping his picture on my phone and moments later, he returned the favor. LOL! Another encouraging sign of summer. We’re getting there.

3. Sweethearts walking hand in hand. I meant to catch this couple, tap them on the shoulder and ask them to say cheese for the camera. Really. I’ve done that before. But I couldn’t do that with this couple. They were moving too fast, and there was no way for me to catch up with them and pay them the complement of asking them, as an attractive couple, to say cheese for me and my little blog. So I snapped ’em like this. It’s a pity though, because they are a Latte Cafe kind of couple. Yes, a couple of sweethearts walking down the street hand in hand counts for summer. OrangeSkirt