I grew up in a time when two-parent families were still the norm, in both black and white America. Then, as an adult, I saw divorce become more commonplace, then almost a rite of passage. Today it would appear that many – particularly in the black community — have dispensed with marriage altogether.
But as a black woman, I have witnessed the outrage of girlfriends when the ex failed to show up for his weekend with the kids, and I’ve seen the disappointment of children who missed having a dad around. Having enjoyed a close relationship with my own father, I made a conscious decision that I wanted a husband, not a live-in boyfriend, and not a “baby’s daddy,” when it came my time to mate and marry. My time never came.
For years, I wondered why not. And then some 12-year-olds enlightened me. “marriage is for white people.” That’s what one of my students told me some years back when I taught a career exploration class for sixth-graders at an elementary school in Southeast Washington. I was pleasantly surprised when the boys in the class stated that being a good father was a very important goal to them, more meaningful than making money or having a fancy title. “That’s wonderful!” I told my class. “I think I’ll invite some couples in to talk about being married and rearing children.” “Oh, no,” objected one student. “We’re not interested in the part about marriage. Only about how to be good fathers.” And that’s when the other boy chimed in, speaking as if the words left a nasty taste in his mouth: “marriage is for white people.”
He’s right. At least, statistically. The marriage rate for African Americans has been dropping since the 1960s, and today, we have the lowest marriage rate of any racial group in the United States. In 2001, according to the U.S. Census, 43.3 percent of black men and 41.9 percent of black women in America had never been married, in contrast to 27.4 percent and 20.7 percent respectively for whites. African American women are the least likely in our society to marry. In the period between 1970 and 2001, the overall marriage rate in the United States declined by 17 percent; but for blacks, it fell by 34 percent. Such statistics have caused Howard University relationship therapist Audrey Chapman to point out that African Americans are the most uncoupled people in the country.
How have we gotten here? What has shifted in African American customs, in our community, in our consciousness, that has made marriage seem unnecessary or unattainable? Although slavery was an atrocious social system, men and women back then nonetheless often succeeded in establishing working families. In his account of slave life and culture, “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” historian Eugene D. Genovese wrote: “A slave in Georgia prevailed on his master to sell him to Jamaica so that he could find his wife, despite warnings that his chances of finding her on so large an island were remote.
Another slave in Virginia chopped his left and off with a hatchet to prevent being sold away from his son.” I was stunned to learn that a black child was more likely to grow up living with both parents during slavery days than he or she is today, according to sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin.
Traditional notions of family, especially the extended family network, endure. But working mothers, unmarried couples living together, out-of-wedlock births, birth control, divorce and remarriage have transformed the social landscape. And no one seems to feel this more than African American women. One told me that with today’s changing mores, it’s hard to know “what normal looks like” when it comes to courtship, marriage and parenthood. Sex, love and childbearing have become a la carte choices rather than a package deal that comes with marriage. Moreover, in an era of brothers on the “down low,” the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and the decline of the stable blue-collar jobs that black men used to hold, linking one’s fate to a man makes marriage a risky business for a black woman.
“A woman who takes that step is bold and brave,” one young single mother told me. “Women don’t want to marry because they don’t want to lose their freedom.” Among African Americans, the desire for marriage seems to have a different trajectory for women and men. My observation is that black women in their twenties and early thirties want to marry and commit at a time when black men their age are more likely to enjoy playing the field. As the woman realizes that a good marriage may not be as possible or sustainable as she would like, her focus turns to having a baby, or possibly improving her job status, perhaps by returning to school or investing more energy in her career.
As men mature, and begin to recognize the benefits of having a roost and roots (and to feel the consequences of their risky bachelor behavior), they are more willing to marry and settle down. By this time, however, many of their female peers are satisfied with the lives they have constructed and are less likely to settle for marriage to a man who doesn’t bring much to the table. Indeed, he may bring too much to the table: children and their mothers from previous relationships, limited earning power, and the fallout from years of drug use, poor health care, sexual promiscuity. In other words, for the circumspect black woman, marriage may not be a business deal that offers sufficient return on investment.
In the past, marriage was primarily just such a business deal. Among wealthy families, it solidified political alliances or expanded land holdings. For poorer people, it was a means of managing the farm or operating a household. Today, people have become economically self-sufficient as individuals, no longer requiring a spouse for survival. African American women have always had a high rate of labor-force participation. “Why should well-salaried women marry?” asked black feminist and author Alice Dunbar Nelson as early as 1895. But now instead of access only to low-paying jobs, we can earn a breadwinner’s wage, which has changed what we want in a husband. “Expectations have changed dramatically while men’s have not changed much at all,” said one well-paid working wife and mother. “Women now say, ‘Providing is not enough. I need more partnership.’ “
The turning point in my own thinking about marriage came when a longtime friend proposed about five years ago. He and I had attended college together, dated briefly, then kept in touch through the years. We built a solid friendship, which I believe is a good foundation for a successful marriage. But — if we had married, I would have had to relocate to the Midwest. Been there, done that, didn’t like it. I would have had to become a stepmother and, although I felt an easy camaraderie with his son, step-motherhood is usually a bumpy ride. I wanted a house and couldn’t afford one alone. But I knew that if I was willing to make some changes, I eventually could. As I reviewed the situation, I realized that all the things I expected marriage to confer — male companionship, close family ties, a house — I already had, or were within reach, and with exponentially less drama. I can do bad by myself, I used to say as I exited a relationship. But the truth is, I can do pretty good by myself, too.
Most single black women over the age of 30 whom I know would not mind getting married, but acknowledge that the kind of man and the quality of marriage they would like to have may not be likely, and they are not desperate enough to simply accept any situation just to have a man. A number of my married friends complain that taking care of their husbands feels like having an additional child to raise. Then there’s the fact that marriage apparently can be hazardous to the health of black women. A recent study by the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan think tank in New York City, indicates that married African American women are less healthy than their single sisters. By design or by default, black women cultivate those skills that allow them to maintain themselves (or sometimes even to prosper) without a mate.”If Jesus Christ bought me an engagement ring, I wouldn’t take it,” a separated thirty-something friend told me. “I’d tell Jesus we could date, but we couldn’t marry.”
And here’s the new twist. African American women aren’t the only ones deciding that they can make do alone. Often what happens in black America is a sign of what the rest of America can eventually expect. In his 2003 book, “Mismatch: The Growing Gulf between Women and Men,” Andrew Hacker noted that the structure of white families is evolving in the direction of that of black families of the 1960s. In 1960, 67 percent of black families were headed by a husband and wife, compared to 90.9 percent for whites. By 2000, the figure for white families had dropped to 79.8 percent. Births to unwed white mothers were 22.5 percent in 2001, compared to 2.3 percent in 1960. So my student who thought marriage is for white people may have to rethink that in the future.
Still, does this mean that marriage is going the way of the phonograph and the typewriter ribbon?”I hope it isn’t,” said one friend who’s been married for seven years. “The divorce rate is 50 percent, but people remarry. People want to be married. I don’t think it’s going out of style.” A black male acquaintance had a different prediction. “I don’t believe marriage is going to be extinct, but I think you’ll see fewer people married,” he said. “It’s a bad thing. I believe it takes the traditional family — a man and a woman — to raise kids.” He has worked with troubled adolescents, and has observed that “the girls who are in the most trouble and who are abused the most — the father is absent. And the same is true for the boys, too.” He believes that his presence and example in the home is why both his sons decided to marry when their girlfriends became pregnant.
But human nature being what it is, if marriage is to flourish — in black or white America — it will have to offer an individual woman something more than a business alliance, a panacea for what ails the community, or an incubator for rearing children. As one woman said, “If it weren’t for the intangibles, the allure of the lovey-dovey stuff, I wouldn’t have gotten married. The benefits of marriage are his character and his caring. If not for that, why bother?”