White Girls Don’t Get Married in Black Churches
“We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”—Skeeter Phelan in The Help
I love my hometown of Beaumont, Texas. I haven’t lived there since 1993, but I still feel a connection to it and I always will. Memories of stately oak trees heavy with Spanish moss, the crushing humidity, and the sweet/toxic mix of magnolia blossoms and oil refineries in the air are as fresh in my head as they were when I was young. The Hamby family has lived there since the Great Depression and no matter how long I’ve been gone or how much it changes, it will always be home, in a way.
When you truly love something, you are forced to acknowledge its negative aspects. And Beaumont has a big one.
I don’t know if I noticed the great divide between the races when I moved there with my parents in 1983. But a line was there. A line that divided the town according to the skin color of its residents. There were white parts of town and black parts of town. If black families began moving into a white neighborhood, that neighborhood was suddenly considered to be “going downhill.” There weren’t many black people in my church or school. I didn’t think about it much. It’s just the way things were.
One day in 9th grade, I overheard a classmate tell someone that the reason she was in our private school was because her parents didn’t want her being around black kids at a public school. I was surprised to hear this and later shared what she had said with a close friend of mine.
“Oh,” my friend said. “That’s why I’m here, too.”
That’s the problem with growing up in a place like Beaumont. There are things you don’t see; questions you don’t think to ask.
In high school, two of my friends transferred to a large public school. My school got out before theirs did, so some days I would drive over there and hang out with my friends after school. It didn’t take me long to notice how self-segregated this school was. There was a white parking lot and a black parking lot. My friends told me there was a white section and a black section in the cafeteria. Beaumont schools had desegregated years earlier, but that line was still in place.
I know other towns have lines. But when it’s in your own town, it becomes personal.
Beaumont also had a “whites only” country club. This wasn’t written anywhere, but everyone knew the only people with dark skin inside that building were wearing uniforms. There were black funeral homes and white funeral homes and black debutante balls and white debutante balls.
But what grew to bother me the most were the separate churches. This led to perhaps the most scandalous thing I’ve ever done. When I was planning my wedding in 1993, I wanted instrumental music in the ceremony. Having come from a family with deep Church of Christ roots, this was pretty nervy in itself. The leaders of my home congregation didn’t even have to think about it. Absolutely not, they said. Other congregations in town with whom my family was connected said the same thing.
Then I thought of 11th Street Church of Christ. They had a new church building that was much prettier than my own church, which carried an appalling theme of brown and burnt orange. The preacher there was an old friend of my dad’s. His name was Brother Randolph. I called him up.
I explained my predicament. I wanted instrumental music in my wedding and a church that would let me have it.
“Deana, I think the world of your dad and we would love for you to get married here,” he said. “And I don’t care what kind of music you have.”
So on Aug. 14, 1993, I packed that black church full of white people and blasted Handel’s “Music from the Royal Fireworks” out of the church P.A. system. It wasn’t without criticism. And not so much about the music. After the invitations had gone out, a few people pulled me aside and wanted to know why I was getting married there. I explained that I wanted instrumental music and a center aisle. And no burnt orange.
But it was more than that. I wanted, if for just a couple of hours on an August evening, to make that Beaumont line a little blurry. In Beaumont, white girls don’t get married in black churches. But I did. I’m sure it did nothing to improve race relations in that town, but I’d like to think it meant something. It meant something to me.
We had a beautiful wedding, and Brother Randolph didn’t even charge us to use the building. I’m sure comments about my getting married in a black church were whispered behind my back. I truly didn’t care.
I finished reading The Help on MLK Day last week. The Help is all about the line, just in a different town. The line that divides people in many communities, including the one I live in now. It’s amazing to me that something like the Berlin Wall, which hundreds of people died trying to cross, can crumble to pieces to unite a country while this invisible line between the races can still exist in schools and churches and communities across America.
I don’t know how to fix the line. I think no one does. But talking about it helps. That’s what The Help is about. Telling our stories leads to better understanding, and I think better understanding can blur the line. Maybe, eventually, the line could even disappear.
When Julia was in kindergarten, I walked into her school cafeteria the day after MLK day. She was sitting with her sweet friend Simeon, and the two of them were talking and laughing and having fun. It’s kind of a shame, I thought, that Martin Luther King and so many others fought and sacrificed for black and white children to go to the same schools, and now these kids don’t even know it. To Julia and Simeon, there was no line. They didn’t even know there was supposed to be one.
But on second thought, isn’t that how MLK would have wanted it? For the races to get along in a way that seemed like the most natural thing in the world? For the line to be not only gone, but forgotten as well?