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Love Across the Color Line: Remembering Alan Kaplan

Alan and Erin Kaplan, 2006

Fourteen years ago I wrote an article for Salon.com published for Valentine's Day about how I met my husband, Alan Kaplan. I ended the article on a cautionary note: our hugely improbable, racially romantic story did not mean that we'd solved the problems of the color line. Far from it. Strip away the circumstances that I was a reporter and he was the reluctant subject of an interview for a story I was writing at the time, and we were merely a black woman and a Jewish man from different parts of L.A. who shared the same politics and bottomless outrage about the historic effects of that color line. He taught about it--for 33 years at Hamilton High School's humanities magnet--I wrote about it. That was the most obvious thing we shared in common, but there were other things too, ordinary couple things like a complicated love of the Dodgers, eating out (neither of one us cooked), movies, sifting through stories in the latest issue of the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly. A few years into the marriage we discovered that we both loved dogs, and rescuing dogs; we adopted one post-Hurricane Katrina and eventually accumulated a whole houseful.

And yet matters of the color line suffused all the small and wonderful--and not so wonderful--things that make a relationship. I don't mean it smothered our marriage or tempered the joy. I mean that race was always present, like any other condition you might marry into. I know people prefer to think that intimacy is colorblind by definition; they assume that to be racially conscious of someone you love, especially your own spouse, must be the very antithesis of happiness. But that view is based on an ancient American fear of difference, not on reality. Alan and I knew that.

Alan and Erin Kaplan, 2012
Alan and Erin Kaplan, 2012

Early on we accepted the fact that whether we were getting along splendidly or getting on each other's case, he would never stop being white and I would never stop being black. Love would never negate the truth of our respective experiences of being black and white that were painstakingly designed over hundreds of years to be oppressive and hierarchal, not equal. So it was no surprise that at charged moments I called Alan on exercising white privilege, for being thoughtlessly self-centered in a way I was never allowed to be, and he shot back that that I was blaming privilege for some of my own problems of self-definition. Sometimes we were both right. Sometimes one of us conceded the other had a point. In our lightest moments, when we enjoyed each other's company with ease and affection--say, walking on a beach in Maui--we reveled silently in the fact that we were indeed beating the odds. Not in the sense of being an interracial couple, which is hardly revolutionary, but in the sense that we were on the same plane. In those moments we were perfectly aligned, if not exactly equal--equal is a big idea that, racially speaking, is always in process. We were not there yet. Negotiating that process was part of the journey of our particular marriage, and though the journey was often rocky and unclear it was never, ever dull. It was in every sense an adventure. In good times and not, I was always eager to see where we would go, what we would we become.

Alan died two weeks ago. He had just turned sixty. He was sick, and had spent much of the sickness in an induced coma, but his death was still unexpected. It was outrageous, completely out of character for him. It came much too soon for the hundreds of former students of all colors and circumstances who absorbed his hard, vibrant, compassionate, singular lessons about the nature of race and American inequality and built their own lives and sensibilities with those lessons in mind. I was not one of those students, but I was very much a part of those lessons.

Alan Kaplan Teaching AP English at Hamilton High School
Alan Kaplan Teaching AP English at Hamilton High School

Alan and I both had a lot left to teach and to learn. Our city will be different without him, but it's been changed because of him. It will change more. He saw to that. He was, for 33 years, an unqualified good moment in our civic life and in the unfolding history of ourselves. For almost 15 years I was lucky to have that to myself.

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