“It’s an honest story about a relationship, and I think of it as a sociological study… It really is about the influence of culture,” author Nancy Poling said of her newest book, “Before It Was Legal: A Black-White Marriage (1945-1987).”

Released earlier this year, “Before It Was Legal” is equal parts biography and memoir, a work of creative nonfiction that merges history with Poling’s own understanding of past events. In the book, Poling chronicles the lives of Anna Harley and Daniel Winters, a white woman and black man who found love in a most unlikely and unfriendly time. Indiana natives, the couple faced the reemergence of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s and a midwestern racism that rivaled its southern iteration. In 1945, the couple journeyed to Chicago to marry—interracial marriage would not be legalized in Indiana until 1965. 

In a final attempt to escape the American racism that had plagued their relationship from its inception, the couple moved abroad, where they encountered a different set of challenges entirely. Anna Harley and Daniel Winters’ relationship takes place against a backdrop of resurfacing racist activity and religious turmoil. Poling doesn’t shy away from these issues, but rather uses them to tell a story of the time—a story in which the Klan finds its stronghold within the Protestant Church and dwindling jobs intensify racist sentiment. 

And although “Before It Was Legal” is Poling’s third book, all of her works speak in some way to a similar idea. 

“I’m a feminist,” Poling said. “I think that is what draws [my novels] all together. … The common thread is my concern about women.” 

Her two previous books, “Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman” and “Out of the Pumpkin Shell,” are perhaps more obviously feminist in their content—the former a rewriting of Biblical stories in which the hero is a woman and the latter a comment on domestic violence and the power of strong female friendships. Still, Poling finds threads of feminist ideas in her newest book as well. 

“[Being a white woman was] one of the things that made it difficult to write ‘Before It Was Legal,’” Poling mentioned. “I began to see that the only way I could tell this story is from the standpoint of the white woman, and to make every effort I can to be fair and sympathetic and let the black man have his voice. The one issue that it raises in the end is a feminist question about [Anna’s] choices as a white woman.”

Poling doesn’t promise her book is an uplifting one. In fact, she describes it as quite the opposite. If you’re interested in a feel-good book about a resilient love, this is likely not the novel for you. 

“It’s not a happily-ever-after story like I thought it was going to be when I went into it,” Poling stressed.

Still, “Before It Was Legal” has valuable insights. It sheds light on the ways culture influences not just individuals but longstanding institutions. It provides a personal account of the struggles of interracial couples, and it raises feminist questions about a woman’s choice. Poling assured that “for anyone interested in a sociological understanding of marriage and relationships and the impact of culture on that, it’s a valuable read.” 

Poling will be presenting excerpts of her book at the Regulator Bookshop, a popular Ninth Street hangout for Duke students and faculty alike. Poling’s talk comes at a fitting time, as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case. This landmark civil rights case deemed unconstitutional all laws prohibiting marriage due to race. 

Tom Campbell, co-owner of the Regulator, said the shop is excited to host Poling because her book touches on an issue that has become more and more common.

“It still, to some people, maybe to a lot of people, creates a reaction,” Campbell said. “This is a book about [interracial relationships]. It should have some relevance to a lot of people right now.” 

As issues regarding race and culture continue to brew in our supposedly “post-racial” society, Poling’s book highlights just how far, and perhaps how little, we’ve come in the last 50 years.  

Nancy W. Poling will present excerpts of her newest book, “Before It Was Legal: A Black-White Marriage (1945-1987)” Sept. 14 at 7:00 p.m. at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham.