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The New American Obsession: Why Black Women Can’t Get Married

2010 April 29

What I want to know is: why does America suddenly care that Black Women can’t get married?  What is it about black women that we can’t just leave them be for a couple of decades to do as they please?  Are we all, collectively, their mommas?  Why are we always up in their business?  Listen, I apologize for the socratic opening, but this thing really has me perplexed!  Ok, not SO perplexed but, I have to admit, its maddening.  Seems like every couple of weeks there’s a news segment, an op-ed article, a “panel discussion”, or a new book about why black women can’t find a man.

I feel it necessary to state a few things at the outset.  Firstly, I’m not a woman. That is, I’m writing this article about black women, so to speak, without being one.  So anything I say that pertains to being female should be taken with a healthy dose of salt.  Secondly, while I am a black man — I’m not married.  In my 27 years on this planet, I have never been married.  And so, to a certain extent, anything I say about marriage should be colored in light of that fact.  Thirdly, I am NOT a scholar of African American Studies, Sociology, or Gender.  I went to college, I got a liberal arts education (you know, the kind where you’re supposed to know kind of a good solid amount about everything and THEN specialize in something in particular — I was a music major), and I read a lot.  That’s me in a nutshell.

And still, when I hear that successful black women can’t find a man I have to stop and consider all the elements wrapped up in that question.  Every time it is addressed in the media, it’s because someone claims to have a simple answer.  Either it is because black women haven’t considered dating white men, or because black women have unrealistic expectations of black men, or  — indeed — because black women simply need to act more like men! If you’ve been paying attention, it would appear that the the problem with black women is — gasp! — black women!!!  Yes, in nearly every public dialogue you can find on the matter its the women who have the problem.  Its even somewhat insistent in the language: Why can’t they find a good man?

Well, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all hogwash.  The fact that, according to statistics, 45% of black women have never been married could be attributed to a whole host of reasons —  all of them acting with and against each other to bring about that statistic.  Of course, if pressed, I’m sure I could come up with some cockamamie theory about it, dress it up in humorous but emotive language, and speak with sincerity and gravitas on command.  You know — if I were on TV or something.  But, like I said about, I’m no expert, so it’s unlikely you’d get me to do it.

Why, then, the conspicuous dearth of scholars and professionals on Nightline’s Face-Off?! I’m not saying that we can only talk about these kinds of issues (where race meets gender meets tradition meets confusion) with institutionally-backed experts, but having this conversation with NOT ONE such person on stage?  That is simply reckless entertainment.  I noticed that March’s Face-Off (on the tension between God and science) had a strong contingent of experts and scholars.  If this is such a scourge ravaging the black community — where are our great minds, ABC?  And the great female minds, at that?  If this is a question of what successful black women are feeling/doing/thinking wouldn’t some of the black women who’ve been successful in studying just these sorts of issues be a perfect fit?!

And yet, what we have is a stage full of entertainers, basically.  Two of whom — Steve Harvey and Jimi Izreal —  are directly responsible for the kind of dreck being sold to black women in book stores across the nation.  [An aside: The Daily Beast tallied up book sales in several prominent American cities and among the top-seller in MOST of them was Steve Harvey’s instructional tome to women.]  Hill Harper, actor and author of “Notes To A Young Brother”, rounded out the men’s group.  Representing the women were television personalities Sherri Shepherd and Jacque Reid.


Not to diminish the accomplishment of Shepherd and Reid, but are they really the best people for the job here?  Leaving alone for a minute the buffoonery of the three male contributors, why are black women being so under-represented? First all, this is a discussion ABOUT black women so I’m not sure why we need SO many brothers up on the stage to begin with.  Secondly, it seems to me that if you aren’t going to get some black women with special perspectives who work in the this field, then you simply aren’t taking the questions seriously.

Was the goal — as most television is — to get asses in the seats?  If so, then by all means, make light of the supposed predicament of black women in this country.  But if the goal was to reach some sort of consensus about what should be done as a community going forward… you’ve got to give us more than this.

Back to that later.  On to the buffoonery.

I don’t care what anybody says, if a man starts telling a woman what she needs to do to get a man — he is out of his god dammed mind.  Pragmatically, I’m fine with entertainment purporting to be a source of wisdom (see: Tyler Perry) as long as we adults can agree that it’s really JUST entertainment.  Movies, television programs, music videos — they can all be places where the topic is brought in to the light.  They can all be fodder for starting the discussion.  BUT once the discussion has begun, it’s time to deal with this on a higher level.  Izreal sitting up there telling black women that they can’t find a man because they’re all out pursuing some version of Denzel Washington is not only demeaning to women as an assertion, but betrays something even fouler underneath.  Either it is a deliberate attempt to sensationalize, simplify, and marginalize the female perspective in such things or it is a criminal neglect of the topic altogether. Either way, if there were a prison for committing intellectual crimes against humanity, I’d throw Izreal in it without a second thought.

Same goes for Steve Harvey.  He used to be funny, and no one would deny that the role of the comedian is to provide social commentary to the masses.  To hold up a mirror to society and, humorously, show us the ugliness we possess.  Fine.  But when you write one book on the matter and decide that makes you the James Baldwin of this generation — you are sadly mistaken, my friend.

As for Hill Harper, on stage with Harvey and Izreal he seems like the male voice of reason.  However, he is still responsible for over-simplifying what is a much more complicated issue.  Saying that what’s at stake is the black family?  Well what is that suppose to mean?  What kind of conservative, backwards, chauvinistic nonsense is that?

The crux of all is that several assumptions are made right off the bat that send this dialogue veering off in to incoherency.  The first assumption IS that black women WANT to get married, that a successful black women mustn’t consider herself successful unless she gets married.  To a man.  Which leads us to our second issue — the heteronormativity of it all is oppressively maintained.  Over and over again we hear about what a “real man” is like.  And how the black family must be saved.  All these things reinforce a lack of understanding of how successful black communities have been surviving in America all these centuries.  And the new models that have been coming to the fore recently.

It ignores that in the last 30 years black women have been able to climb higher and higher professionally.  To take jobs which were previously inconceivable for women.  Black women are now, more than ever, able to support themselves and live rich lives without depending on the assistance of a man.  Does it take a genius to see that, perhaps, men are not ALL THAT NECESSARY these days?  That women don’t graduate from college (or high school) and say to themselves, “Well, I better get married soon and raise a family.”

By none of the male participants was there ever even raised the notion that, perhaps, with this easing of gender rigidity, there might be new roles for men!  And this shouldn’t really come as a surprise to me, because men will hold on to those last nuggets of superiority just as long as they can.  Harvey repeatedly underscores the idea that in a balanced relationship the man is the bread-winner and the woman supports him.  He and Izreal make concessions that black men are often not at the same level of success as many women in their same age group, but they imply that perhaps it’s BECAUSE women are not supporting them any longer that they have yet to achieve great things.

For all the male posturing about how no “real man” is intimidated by a successful woman and that a woman must see a black man’s “potential” and support him in order for him to live up to said potential, it is never addressed that all these women who are “successful” are, for the most part, doing it WITHOUT the help of a man.  It is never addressed that, perhaps, these women might be happier that way.  What possible reason (aside from Harper’s romantic and rigid notions of the black family) does a woman have to bog herself down with a man who is not working as hard as she is, sacrificing as much as she is, or respecting her for the unprecedented success she has attained?  What reason does she have to say, “Well, he’s not much, but I see his potential.”?

The answer is — she may not.  That’s not to say that black women are, by and large, rejecting the notion of marriage, but brothers are going to have to come to terms with the fact that they don’t NEED to get married.  That’s not the first thing on the agenda. And so black men can’t simply sit around waiting to be found by these successful black women.

If I didn’t think it would make people’s heads spin, I might go in depth about how the form of the family is changing.  How marriage as an institution is becoming less and less popular as the years go on.  How people are choosing to find other ways of being in love, so to speak, than to “settle down.”  That, at some point, the African American community is going to have to deal with its loooooooooooooong-avoided issues with LGBT black people and how they are changing the modern concept of the family.  No, we can’t go there because we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface with the heteronormative stuff.  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Lastly, its embarrassing, as a black man, to see other black men making fools of themselves.  To see that the revolution of Civil Rights continues to alter reality, but that black men refuse to see it happening.  That said, I don’t want to make the Harvey/Harper/Izreal mistake and start lecturing to black women about marriage and what they should be looking for.  But I would be a coward if I didn’t at least risk it to say that there is so much more out there for black women.  At the risk of sounding condescending, please be careful of those who offer you the solution to your “loneliness.”  It is susceptibility to the old ways of things that is perhaps most potentially harmful to black women.  If you really self-actualize, you may discover that you are not lonely at all.  That you are perfectly fine without looking all over the place for a man.  Women, you are being targeted by the media, by the entertainment industry, by non-fiction writers, by some community leaders — you are being targeted for being too successful.  You are being discriminated against for being too independent.  But it doesn’t come in the form of vile epithets and bald denigrations, it comes in the form of advice.  In the form of concerned council: Why aren’t you married yet?  Why don’t you find a nice man and settle down?  Don’t set your standards so high, try to find the potential in a man. Far too many movies and televisions shows STILL emphasize marriage as the most important day in a woman’s life.  That’s so 20th century, ya’ll.

There are other things out there.  We men have been privileged so long, we don’t even know when we are demanding women to throw pieces of themselves away to keep us afloat.

I’ve done the best I could to express my feelings, as a black male, on the horrible nature of the media’s obsession with unwed black women.  But it is, at best, still several places removed from real wisdom.  For those interested, I strongly suggest reading the reactions and analysis Melissa Harris-Lacewell at The Nation and Faria Chideya at The Huffington Post.

It is quite likely they’ve said everything I said here and more — more succinctly, more intelligently, and more powerfully.

3 Responses
  1. smokey d. fontaine permalink
    May 1, 2010

    Poignant piece. Really hit me right in the chest.

  2. Pat Nelson permalink
    May 8, 2010

    Thank you for your article. Well done.

    The dilemma, and the opportunity, is this:

    When I was single, a dear friend (male) told me, “Girl, you need someone FIERCE!”

    Truer words were never spoken.

    Men need to match up to the fierceness in women. And women need to OWN THEIR FIERCENESS!

    I agree that there are new dynamics and paradigms going on about relationships of all stripes and types, and those need to be explored. Not just in finding your opposite (or same) gender partner. What are those 21st century modes?

    Just asking.

  3. JAMES permalink
    October 11, 2010

    As a white male the solution to this problem ,is quite simple ,get a male from Africa, May be, I am missing the bloody truth here, but how much cost is it to go to the motherland, or to put it another way fatherland.

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