Sunday, April 20, 2014

My Parents' Radical Marriage


On September 15, 1983, surrounded by my maternal grandparents and my Uncle Junior, my parents were married at city hall in Flint. My mother wore a modest, lavender dress, my grandmother's favorite color, and my father wore what I wager was one of the few suits he had at the time. My mother would later tell me that the reason why they married at city hall and that she wore a regular dress was because she knew her father was poor and she did not want to burden him with an expensive wedding, or any wedding at all, apparently.

However, it was also convenient, in the marriage of a Muslim woman to a Christian man, that their ceremony was not at all religious. There was no broom jumping, there was no palm wine. My grandfather did not give his youngest daughter away and my Uncles Donald and Temple were not there to see their youngest brother take a wife. And that's the way my parents wanted it. They often cite my brother's autism for the reason they keep to themselves but I have a feeling they've always been low-key.

And characteristic of the rest of their marriage, my mother's family ignored her requests for little fanfare and threw them a surprise reception after they married. My parents, who sounded very much like hipsters of their time, were gracious and excepted the reception as my father accepted his new family.

My father would travel back to Nigeria the next month and return in April of 1984, just in time to conceive me. He would not travel back to Nigeria in my lifetime.

Pictures from this day are in the front of my favorite photo album in my parents' house. It was my favorite as a child because it was the one where I saw the realization of my birth. It began with pictures of my parents marriage, the reception, my parents in their first apartment and soon transitioned to my mother, several weeks pregnant, her baby shower, and then my newborn pictures. As a child, I loved looking at baby pictures of myself. I was a really cute baby. But I always looked at the album in chronological order, including the three or four pictures in city hall of my parents, exchanging vows, my father accidentally placing the ring on the incorrect finger and my mother laughing, and the kiss with my grandparents clasping their hands and smiling in the background.

Already, their marriage was not typical. It was not in a religious sanctuary, a term my mother would use to describe one of the reasons she and my father chose each other. They didn't need a religious sanctuary to practice their respective faiths, she maintained. She remains un-mosqued as she has been my entire life, praying five times a day alone in the house's prayer room. My father is several years returned to church after never having set foot during all the time I lived at home and through my college years.

It was not surrounded by family and closest friends. It was surrounded by just enough of my mother's family to serve as witnesses--and my Uncle Junior, who, as my senior uncle on my mother's side, has attended nearly every major event in my life, from my birth to my graduation from college.

It was not traditional. My father, who was not raised in Nigerian traditions and couldn't explain them to me if I asked, did not dress in traditional Nigerian clothes on his big day and would not dress that way in the United States for another 30 years. My mother did not wear white. There were no bridesmaids or groomsmen. My mother had no engagement ring when she donned her wedding band. And that was it. Married.

But it was also radical. The Muslim daughter of Muslim parents married a Christian man, with the open approval of her parents, though she never asked for it. A Christian man who grew up sitting at his father's feet during sermons married a Muslim woman in spite of all of the things he believed about the Muslims of the north that were responsible for killing his people before the war. He also didn't seek the approval of his family.

When my mother tells it, she never balked at what my grandparents would think of her marrying a Christian man. She did not ask their permission to travel to Nigeria to visit my father in 1981. She told them, then she went. A woman previously sheltered by the strictest parents I've ever heard of in the name of the Nation of Islam traveled outside of the country for the first time to Nigeria, by herself. She has never asked them what they thought of the whole thing and it hasn't mattered.

My father doesn't tell stories about these things, but I imagine he didn't ask or tell very much. Not only did my mother not meet his family when she traveled to Nigeria (tell me more about that month long trip, Ma), but his family just found out that she is Muslim...two years ago? Over the phone? This tells me that my father did not consult his elder brothers, as my grandparents on that side had already passed.

That the children of two families who were essentially religious entities in their community could pull of an accepted interfaith marriage was pretty remarkable. That neither of these adults were hindered by what their family thought was fantastic. Their marriage exemplifies everything a love marriage can be for a Muslim woman, for an immigrant man.

And unlike various in each set of their co-religionists, they do not wonder if their marriage is valid. And they do not doubt that it is recognized by God.

Besides this very radical aspect of my parents' marriage, the interfaith without asking permission part, it is also otherwise unconventional. It was my mother who proposed to my father. And I believe it went a little something like this:

"Hey! Why don't we get married?"

And three years later, after spending most of that time with the Atlantic between them, they did just that. Prior to their marriage, their courtship face-to-face was 10 months total - 9 months in the United States, 1 month in Nigeria. They succeeded in having the longest long distance courtship I've personally known of.

They were set up on a blind date by a mutual friend they hadn't talked to in years. My mother was instantly taken at how my father was so friendly and outgoing that he talked to the DJ at the party as if he'd known him for years, yet he just met him. I don't know what my father was thinking, but I know that he's always adored my mother, and probably felt some semblance of that then.

They were set up but they had met before. My mother was a secretary at University of Michigan, Flint in the offices of Afro-American and Chicano Studies, where my father's cousin, head of the department, worked. My father would visit his cousin and bow his head toward my mother as he entered the office.

And somehow, this was totally unrelated to them being set up.

I don't know if my father dated previously, but I assume he did. I know my mother did. Her first foray into dating non-black men was another Nigerian who happened to be Chinua Achebe's cousin. The date ended, and Mr. Achebe seemed enthusiastic but I guess that was the last date.

(And to think, I may have been an Achebe...more than happy to be who I am!)

And of course, as goes without saying, their union was intercultural.

For all the ways my parents' marriage was radical, unconventional, special, it was also largely ordinary. It's an ordinary story of two people who loved each other and decided to spend the rest of their lives together. It's all about love, as Maurice White sings.

"Bound to fall in love one day. Surely, and you need it!"

They liked each other, then they loved each other, they married, they formed a family.

I don't know what it was about my dad, but he saw my mother transform from being a professional-minded woman who never aspired to have children to a mother who adored and nurtured us without interruption from the days we were born while still developing professionally. And I don't know what it is about my mother, but she anchored my father to a land in which he never intended to stay.

And the rest is history.

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