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Produced by the island at WBAY Boston. From The New York Times and Boston, this is modern. Stories of love, loss and redemption. I'm your host, Meghna Chakrabarti. In this week's essay, Lillian Oben writes about how essential it is to be seen in relationships without being asked to change who we are. Her piece is read by Zawi Asheton. Zawi recently starred in Betrayal on Broadway and in the film Velvet Baza. Even before he spoke, I knew.
A woman I would meet years later describe the sensation as feeling it in the skin. I felt the words he was about to say. In my skin. In his. I can't do this anymore. I heard what he was really saying. Something flashed red before my eyes, I was shaking, holding the phone to one ear, screaming but unable to speak. I thought maybe the worst was over. But he went on to state the obvious. That I was black.
I'm not Jewish. He explained that he was not ready to handle the complexities of an interracial relationship in a country like this. As if it were the 1960s and we were Richard and Mildred Loving. Or as if I had fooled him by making a racial and religious switch midway through our relationship. My throat closed. My chest tightened, my eyes stung. I had myself call him a bigot. The Milverton. Even though what I really wanted to call him.
Was a racist. He said, I'm sorry you feel that way. We had been serious, tentatively exploring what our future might look like. I was in my 20s, he in his 30s, he didn't date casually. He told me at his age he was always considering long term potential. I hated myself for letting him off so easily. It just felt like too high a mountain to climb. As a black woman in America, I climbed that mountain every day.
To have to climb it again. Because of him. Was too much. Instead, I spent the days after our break up replaying his words in my head. I rehearsed for a retake of our conversation in this imaginary conversation. I was brave and strong. I spoke firmly and clearly.
I held a mirror up to his prejudice so he could not help but see himself for what he was and hear his words for what they were. My feelings were untidy. But I have no time to label. I tried to write, but everything was mush. I missed him, but resisted the urge to call. I reminded myself that I was black. And not Jewish. Over time, the details became fuzzy. Until he was just a blip on my dating screen, a story I told my friends, my black non Jewishness ceased being my problem and became hers alone.
I started dating again before him, I had dated only women, so I picked up where I had left off but ardently avoided anything interracial. I wondered what made me think I could be with a man at all, let alone a white one. With hindsight, I saw all the signs that should have tipped me off. Dropping my hand when he saw his friends, for example, and with the benevolence that comes from either forgiveness or amnesia, I let it go.
When our paths crossed a year and a half later, the hardest edges were gone, leaving only the pulp substance of shared history. Coffee became lunch, lunch became dinner, dinner became sex. Something in me raised a hand to object, but I ignored it. I knew what I was doing or thought I did. I wanted to prove something. That I was still desirable, that I didn't care. It was just my body, I told myself, my black non Jewish body.
For him, I imagine the complexities of interracial casual sex in America required a different kind of logic. A different kind of bigotry. During an inspired spell, I found myself transferring our relationship to paper. What came out was unexpected, fresh. The pain seemed gone. Our conversations now comical. I needed a story like bread, and it rose. Soon I felt ready to share it with someone, and I was aware I was going to send it to him even before I actually decided.
He responded to the email draft immediately and the affection and his greeting through me. He said my draft was good and humane and filled with conflict and so critiquing another couple's tale. But then admitted that he was embarrassed by the story. I again saw that flash of red from years before, but tried my hand at objectivity. Thank you for the feedback I began. You raised some good points. Yet something in me had been unleashed. And I knew there could be no backing away from the mountain this time.
I emailed him again, and this time I did not hold anything back, calling him out felt both frightening and liberating. I worried about reopening a wound, I didn't have the resilience to mend. I wondered if he would respond, but focused on how good it felt to finally say everything I had hauled around for so long.
It dawned on me then how much I had edited myself during our relationship. Afraid of scaring him off. Two months later, his name appeared in my inbox. I hesitated, wary but curious. His response was long, yet concise, deliberate and measured. I read it twice, unsure what I was searching for. Maybe I had simply hoped it would end with my letter. With me getting the last word. Months passed. And I saw him in every season.
Springtime crossing the street, summer walking through the park, fall in the frozen food aisle at an organic food store.
He looked unkempt and seemed startled to see me, so he filled the silence with nervous chatter. He had a son now. Today was his briss. Stumped for a reply. I said that my car loan was paid off. Over coffee with a friend, his name came up. Whatever happened with it, by the way, she asked. And suddenly, words I didn't recognize as my own tumbled out. I told her about the heaviness I couldn't quite place, I missed him sometimes, yes, still felt cheated.
Yes, owed. Yes. But there is something else I struggled to articulate as she watched me. Patient open. Listening. Parsing emotions that had existed only as masses in my chest was like trying to suppress a gag reflex with a mouth crammed full of marbles all this time it had been easier to be angry with him, to blame him. His wrongs were obvious and easy to label the vernacular for him and those like him already existed. It was nothing new.
But in the end. It was my own feelings of shame. That were hardest to unload. The disingenuousness was not, in fact, his all along, he had been only exactly who and what he was. I was the one who shrank myself. I had tried to whitewash my blackness, polished myself to a colorless sheen, held myself up for his inspection, searching for the best light in which to stand to make him forget.
I had so desperately wanted him to find me worthy. To have failed in that at the expense of my integrity shamed me more than any rejection of my black non Jewishness ever could. My friend Misformed. As if she were hearing a secret she had long suspected but never mentioned, and I loved her for it. She grabbed my shoulder as I cried, ask the right questions, listen to all of my answers. When she told me. You didn't do anything but love, honey.
Her words fill the void at. Apparently, as every self-help book purports, love really does start with the self. And over the next two years, I went back to basics, it was not smooth and there were countless false starts, but with each one I learned new lessons while keeping that mantra front and center. I felt like a toddler learning to walk first, sit, then crawl, bandstand and fall, stand and fall. It felt simultaneously like the hardest and easiest thing.
And gratitude started to replace the heaviness that had weighed me down. When I met a woman who seemed the answer to everything I was ready for, I was eager to test out my self love, sea legs and all seemed rosy for a time.
Soon, however, I realized she was less an answer than a test. And the fact that I could see that so clearly seemed like further proof of my growth. We parted as friends and I continued learning, standing, falling. Waiting at a crosswalk one spring. I saw him in a car stop to the light. He was in the passenger seat, a woman at the wheel. The years have not changed, and I recognized him before he saw me.
When our eyes met, they held and I heard in his gaze all the words I had wished for an hour and I'm sorry. You were right, I wish. If only I didn't know what my own I said to him, but as the two restless children in the back bobbed up and down in their car seats, their mother oblivious to her distracted husband. The children waved and I smiled back somewhere on my shoulders, the loss of something rose.
And sent me away. That's Zawi Ashton reading Lillian Obinze essay, Confronting Race, Religion and Her Heart. More from Lilyan in a minute. Modern Love is sponsored by policy genius. Deep down, we all like to get scared around Halloween, but policy genius thinks one thing should not be scary shopping for home and auto insurance. Go to policy genius Dotcom and see how easy it is to shop over 30 top insurers in one place. They do all the work comparing quotes, and they even have licensed experts that help find more savings.
And if they find a better deal than what you have now, they can switch you for free. So if you're a homeowner, had the policy genius dotcom right now to get started, they've saved their home and auto insurance customers an average of 1127 dollars a year policy genius when it comes to insurance. It's nice to get it right. Lillian Obinze essay was published in 2017, but the relationship she writes about happened well before that in 2003. She says it was a memory that lingered.
It felt like the messiest ending ever. And also, I remember dating a woman once and she knew about the relationship with the man that I wrote about. And I remember once she flung in my face in the middle of an argument, something to the effect of how could I date this? A man who treated me this way. And I remember that that stuck. And I think it kept me thinking, why did I wait? You know, why did I how could I have did I stay in that?
I did. But yeah, I think I was just I was fascinated because it was the one relationship that left me constantly discomfited and feeling messy. And I was curious to know why.
After the essay was published, Lillian didn't see or hear from her ex again, but she did hear from a lot of other people, including a former colleague she ran into on her way to work.
She goes, Hey, Lillian, I read your piece in The New York Times. And in my head, what it sounded like, he said, is like, Hey, Lillian, I see you walking around there naked. I did go through a period of extreme social anxiety, thinking, holy crap, everybody knows my life. What did you do? But then when I steeled myself enough to really read the comments, I was really overwhelmed by them.
So many people wrote about how vindicated they felt, how they'd experienced the same thing. Some people that it hurt to read because it was so truthful and spoke to such a truth that they themselves knew but hadn't been able hadn't been had found the courage enough to articulate feedback like that. Comments like that. Just that made me think, you know what, for all the nakedness and vulnerability and social anxiety that I feel right now, the exposure that I feel is worth it.
Lillian says that one reason she was so nervous about publishing the piece and even writing it in the first place was because of how explicitly she writes about race. Race was an integral part of this relationship, I was aware of that when I was in it and afterwards and, you know, I was aware that Messina's had to do with that. Just in general, race was just one of the topics that I never felt comfortable discussing for any number of reasons.
I think being a black woman in a country like America, racism is a thing. It's a mountain that we are constantly carrying on our backs almost every day. Sometimes you just don't want to climb it, you know. But I also knew that I took to get to what I needed to get to. I needed to climb the mountain. I can go around, I can go through it. I needed to confront the ways in which we shrink ourselves and how that impacts your self-worth and and ultimately how it impacts how you view yourself, your your level of self-love and self acceptance.
And we asked Lillian, does the moment we are living in now change the way she thinks about her essay?
I am glad that I wrote the piece when I did. I'm glad it was published when it was and proud to have leaned into that fear of discussing this huge topic when I did, because it's empowered me to continue to try to act on that fearlessness, my feeling toward, you know, OK, where are we now? And as a black woman, I think my first thing was to do an inventory of have I where I can have I used my voice in protest.
Right. I feel like that's an inventory that every human should be doing, especially every human who claims to be antiracism. What have I been doing to use my voice in protest? So when I look at that piece, it feels empowering to know that I have Liliana's single.
Now she's looking forward to dating again after the pandemic. And she told us that even though the relationship she writes about was difficult, it shaped her approach to love. So we asked her what changed? Oh, my God. Everything my whole self.
I think I was always aware that prior to that relationship, I was always kind of giving bits of myself, just bits as a result of that relationship and introspection in the writing of this piece. It's just really emboldened me to just keep trying as much as possible to work in total fearlessness and to lean into vulnerability. And it all came down to just self-love. I needed to love myself unapologetically and know that I was also deserving of of that we all are.
That's Lilian Oben. She's an actor and writer living in New York City to find out more about her work, go to Lillian Oben Dotcom. That's Lynelle, IANAL OBM dot com. We've got more after the break. This is Sam Dolnick, I'm an assistant managing editor at The New York Times, our newsroom has been empty since March, but we've been busier than ever before. The pandemic has changed how we work, but it hasn't changed what we do.
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Subscribe and thanks. Here's Zawi Ashton. I'm a huge fan of Modern Love, the podcast, and so choosing between the stories is extremely hard.
And when you find one that resonates with you, it just cuts to the absolute core because the person who's writing it is writing from such an incredible place of truth. And this particular story went straight to the heart because two reasons, I suppose, as a biracial woman who is a product of interracial love, I have such an awareness and a sort of retroactive admiration and gratitude for my parents who got together and formed a loving union in order to make me and my brother and my sister.
But at a time that was completely different at the time that I live in now. And there were more there were more taboos. There were their presence was even more political than than than it might be now. And and I suppose secondly, we are at a moment in time where we are witnessing a wave of revolution with regards to race and our awareness of systemic oppression and violence. That is unlike anything many people have seen in their lifetimes. And certainly I haven't.
And it's also June and it's Pride Month. And we are talking about the way that marginalized people are wanting to be seen and acknowledged. And I feel like this is a story about a woman who wanted to be seen and acknowledged and wasn't and instead made herself a small. And we're at a time where we are saying, no, we will not make ourselves smaller. We will not shrink our experiences. We will not whitewash ourselves. We will not bend to the majority.
We will love and be vivid and in color in every way. And so that this story feels extremely pertinent against this backdrop. Thank you to Zawi for recording herself at home. She recently starred in Betrayal on Broadway. And here's Daniel Jones, editor of the Modern Love column for The New York Times.
I often tell writers that the more interesting story is not a story of blame. That's not to say that blame is equal in a breakup or any other kind of conflict or that one person is more deserving of blame than the other.
But the more interesting story is the one where we examine our own culpability and our own involvement in decisions and in denial and all of those sort of complicated emotions that in examining them are what lead us to grow.
And Lilian's essay is really remarkable in that blame was the impulse and blame was justified, but that the growth had to come from the self-examination and the sense of complication of of who she was trying to be and whose approval she was trying to gain, and that to truly reckon with what had happened and to get past it.
She had to come back to her own sense of value.
And that was the point where she could begin to free herself and to feel a sense of grace about what had transpired.
Well, this is usually the part where I read the credits. You know how that part goes. It starts. Modern Love is a production of The New York Times and WB.
You are Boston's NPR station, but the credits are going to be a little bit different this time because it's also the last time I will be reading these credits to you.
WB You are is bringing its relationship with the podcast to a close. Don't worry, there will still be a modern love podcast. It'll be back in your feed from the New York Times and it'll be as wonderful and as moving as ever since it'll be in the hands of Daniel Jones, modern love editor for The New York Times, and Julia Simon on News Stream in and merely at The Times, too, and Lisa Tobin as well, who conceived of the Modern Love podcast.
But since this is my last time together with you, just bear with me for a few extra moments because there's stuff I want to say, like singing the extra praises of producer, director and editor Caitlin O'Keefe and of sound designer Matt Reid.
They are truly the heart and soul of this podcast and executive producer Iris Adler and editor Catherine Brewer and also all the technical help we receive from Michael Garthe. We are all still here at WB. You are.
But we're saying goodbye together to the podcast. And finally, most importantly, I want to thank you.
We've been together across millions of downloads and hundreds of incredible stories.
Thank you so much for listening, for sharing and for reflecting with us. People have really led us into their lives in the most remarkable ways, and so in thinking about saying goodbye, I started thinking this week of one of my favorite movie scenes. It's this tiny little moment in Saving Private Ryan.
It's the scene where Miller and Ryan. Yep, Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, they're sharing memories of home. Remember, they're in a battlefield in World War Two.
And when they're sharing their memories, Miller simply says, well, when I think of home, I think of something specific.
I think of my hammock in the backyard or my wife pruning the rose bushes in a pair of my old work clothes.
And then Private Ryan, that's Matt Damon. Again, Private Ryan talks for a long time, a really long time about his brother's antics. He goes on and on and on and on.
And finally he stops and he remembers how Miller had basically said nothing. So he turns back to Miller and he says, hey, tell me more about your wife and those rose bushes. And then Miller replies, No, that one I save just for me.
Well, I have always thought that Miller was exactly right. It's the reason why I love that scene so much.
He's basically saying our stories are so precious, so private, that it makes perfect sense that we'd want to keep the most tender, the most meaningful ones secure in our own hearts, that we'd want to protect them.
So for people to be willing to share those stories with a world wide audience, well, that's one of the reasons why it has been such a privilege to be alongside all of you for this podcast.
There is so much beauty and bravery here. The everyday people we featured have led us into their lives first with their essays and then with the follow ups. So thank you so much for trusting us with your stories twice. Well, that's it for me. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. I'll see you around.