As the day of Independence draws near, I realize it’s high time to look closely at a truly egalitarian relationship that is symbiotic, nurturing, and successful in the face of the great American obstacles regularly and historically hurdled by Ernest & Louie Clay-Crew. The story these two share touches on the traditions this country still battles and thrives on. Regardless of your race, class, orientation, geographic locale, or gender, you’ll find that Ernest and Louie have something to teach us all about dependence and independence.
A few excerpts follow below from their story, though it really ought to be read in entirety, and additionally, Louie maintains an elaborate list of poetry publishers that accepts electronic submissions for all of you poets out there. Thanks Ernest and Louie — “Oh while I live, to be the ruler of life, not a slave, to meet life as a powerful conqueror, and nothing exterior to me will ever take command of me.” — Walt Whitman
And Happy July Fourth to every citizen — “I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best.” –Walt Whitman.
“Our marriage [2/2/74], like our courtship, has been conventional. It was love at first sight when we met at the elevator just outside the sixth- floor tearoom of the Atlanta YMCA [9/2/73]. Ernest was a fashion coordinator for a local department store, I a state college professor from 100 miles way, deep in the peach and pecan orchards. One of us black, the other white; both native Southerners. We commuted every weekend for five months. Our friends were not surprised when we decided to marry.
One could be too quick to sentimentalize a few details, such as our bed, a two-hundred-year-old four-poster built by the slave ancestors of one of us for the free ancestors of the other. Perhaps we were fulfilling their dream? Or Dr. King’s dream…? We find day-to- day living too difficult for us to negotiate other people’s dreams: we work at living our own dream, a dream no different from the dream of many other couples, a dream of a home with much love to bridge our separateness.
Our friends here for a long time wondered why we do not at least keep a lower profile by not mentioning our relationship. It is important to Ernest and me that our relationship is public. We are not in merely a sexual union, but in a complex coupling that integrates all our life together. Whether we are entertaining or being entertained, even when we are just shopping at the local Piggly Wiggly, it is important for us to know that we know that they know. We can even sometimes get into enjoying their games with knowing, as when the employees all dash behind the butchers’ one-way mirror to watch us wink at them when we pass. As Ernest puts it, ‘Honey, you may gloat, but we’re the stars!’
One of the lowest points in our marriage was an occasion when I asked Ernest, ‘If you get that job with the cosmetics firm in NYC, can I live off your earnings so I won’t have to stay here in Georgia the rest of this year?’ He did not answer. I waited out the long silence almost half a day, and then he said, ‘Did I ask you could I `live off your earnings’ when I moved here from Atlanta without a job first?’ I had momentarily lapsed from the more pervasive economy that our marriage effects. Were we autonomous, at each trysting we would come at each other unequally. I would be the wealthier, Ernest the younger; I the more experienced, Ernest the more spontaneous…. In marriage everything is given once and for all. For us marriage ended trading and introduced sharing. The money is ours. The youth is ours. The spontaneity is ours. And whatever is exhausted or whatever is incremented is ours.
My own neurotic compulsions with these middleclass perceptions have frequently inhibited my full enjoyment of our marriage. While I enjoy cooking, sewing, and more limitedly, keeping house, more and more my writing and my organizing activities have preempted the major portions of my energy. Ernest is a better cook, a much more efficient housekeeper, and an expert shopper. Once I came home late on a rainy night to find all the washed wet clothes in the refrigerator. ‘What on earth!’ I exclaimed. ‘Lord, chile, you sure be white tonight,’ he laughed; ‘I can tell your mama never took in washing. It’s the way to avert the mildew.’
My learning to enjoy my man’s househusbandliness as much as I enjoy my own is in many ways parallel to our enjoying all parts of each other’s anatomy. The first question most gay friends ask us is, ‘Which of you is the husband? Which the wife?’ We honestly have no way to answer respecting this dichotomy. We are not thus differentiated. We both like gentle perfumes, and we both like poignant funkiness; we both enjoy our gracefulness as well as our toughness.
We are not mirror images, however. Our careers are different and we do not compete. We make no special demands about productivity, but we are both aware that a marriage is dead when either fails to want to contribute. Ernest respects the summers I spend not making a dime but writing away as if I’ll not have another such season. I respect his taking off a year to go to school or his taking off time to do hair of women in the state mental hospital.
At the risk of being still more invidious, I suspect that of the many nongay couples who break up, many break up because society’s alleged supports of heterosexual relationships are falsely advertised and hypocritical. After the honeymoon is over, once the careers pull at each other, once Jan and John realize that their parents might even expect them to divorce, that their priest has divorced, that their friends and neighbors are too busy with their own relationships to care (except possibly for the value of self-congratulation that attends efforts to seem to care), non-gays choose to walk away from each other in bewilderment, or to remain together only by law. Gay relationships may be paradoxically blessed by not having the chance even to expect such support systems.
Ernest and I wrote our divorce contract at the outset: each would take half. We made our wills to structure property guarantees. We both own together all that each makes. We have had to make our own structures, knowing that major efforts would be exerted to deny even those plans. We have instructions about funerals, burials, etc.
We have had some few but very significant resources in our community, namely, in our friends. We are both gregarious and affable, and we are invited to many parties. Often he is the only black person or I the only white present, so segregated are the others in our community. We are avid dancers, and always do courtesies of dancing with our hosts’ spouses. Maybe some index of our integration is the fact that only one couple has ever said that we should feel comfortable to dance together at their parties, and even there the other guests do not have an ambience about them that would make us feel comfortable doing so. Also, our gay friends would be much too vulnerable for us to invite to gay parties any of our nongay friends.
In many ways we did not even anticipate, our coupling is itself our career, so much does it alter our professional expectations, our job security, our work climate, etc. Everyone knows that gay folks are reasonably harmless if we remain at the baths, the bars, the adult movie houses, the tearooms, and other such restricted areas. Ernest could have met a new Louie and I a new Ernest every night at the Atlanta YMCA for decades, and no one much would have bothered. Possibly a Tennessee Williams might have celebrated our waste, or maybe even a Proust. Certainly my priest would not have shouted, as he did recently, that we are ‘making a mockery of Christian marriage and the home.’ Then my bishop would never have written, as he did this week, ‘I am weary of almost constant pressure applied on this office by a movement which I do not fully understand, but which I wish to grow in understanding’–this while virtually telling me, probably his only regular gay correspondent, that I persecute him merely by calling attention to my needs and the needs of my people. Were Ernest and I still just tricking furtively at the YMCA, my students would see me as they used to, as the linguist, the rhetorician, the literary critic, the poet, the jogger–and not, as so often now, merely as ‘that smart sissy.’ It is only when we couple openly that the heterosexist culture marshals its forces against us.”
–From Two Grooms by Louie Crew
–Photos of the Renewal of Vows, 1999.
“The poet judges not as a judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing.” — Walt Whitman
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Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.