Joan Steinau Lester got my attention with the title of her memoir.
What attracts us to another person? Their smile, their intelligence, or that mysterious connection you feel when you first see them. Most likely marriage isn’t the first thing on your mind; yet when the relationship leads to that, what would you do if it was illegal? Until June 12, 1967, it was for some people in many states. The Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924 criminalized biracial marriage. Richard and Mildred Loving were a devoted couple who were arrested in 1958, fought the discrimination, and won. Loving v. Virginia was a landmark civil rights decision of the US Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that laws banning interracial marriage violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. This legal decision of the civil rights era ended prohibitions on interracial marriage and dealt a major blow to segregation. We need laws to protect our civil rights, but laws don’t change people’s opinions, people do. Joan Lester is one who changed opinions by example and commitment to her beliefs.
Dr. Lester’s memoir relates her personal history as what is now referred to as an ally. Her allyship began before she met her husband, Julius Lester, and many other civil rights leaders you will recognize. She describes her proactive, ongoing practice of unlearning and re-evaluating her privilege as a white woman and her role as a mother of two biracial children, a son and a daughter. This re-evaluation continued long after she was publicly regarded as a leader of anti-racist efforts.
She reveals a haunting memory from 1982 when she was visiting with her college-age son. After a leisurely lunch and a bookstore visit, she offered to drive him back to school. He challenged her to race to the car. She handed him her large handbag to “equalize the race with this young athlete.” But two white men witnessed an African American male running off with a purse, chased by a white woman. They started yelling. When Joan and her son reached the car laughing and out of breath, the men apologized. When she realized they didn’t see a family, she was surprised and grateful that they didn’t have guns. Today everyone has a cell phone camera, and some do carry weapons. It would be on social media before they got to the car. The lesson for anyone who considers herself an ally is how difficult this work is, even for experts. And how important it is to keep on changing one culture, one institution at a time.
Readers will feel like they’re reading the archived front page newspaper stories from the view of an insider because the author was there. Loving Before Loving reveals the quest for equality in love, but in this story the intention is more dominant, more public, and riskier. This loving story brings the reader directly from yesterday to today’s reality in biracial relationships, in marriage, as parents, as grandparents, and as friends from threatening words of judgment to bodily injury and death.
I highly recommend it. Dr. Lester is a storyteller who weaves notable civil rights leaders, historical events, and personal memories that will keep you turning pages and will serve as a model for the challenge of the diversity, equity and inclusion work that continues to this day.