Essence, August, 2005 by Robin D. Stone
Black love has always been under siege, but our men and women came together anyway. When White folks denied us marriage, we jumped the broom. We survived generations of enslavement and dreams deferred, men prevented from earning fair wages and women doing double duty to carry the load. But survival has come at a price: Blackcs are now the most unpartnered people in America. Only 34 percent of us are married (versus 57 percent of Whites), and nearly half of our unions end by the tenth year. Black women are less likely to marry than Whites, Hispanics and even Black men. So why aren't we tying the knot? And when we do, why can't we keep it tight? This report on African-American marriage reminds us of how strongly we have loved each other and how hard we still have to fight for that love.
We want to love each other, but often the weight of our history, social forces and even government policy puts stress on our relationships. For instance, our marriage rates dropped sharply in the 1960's when the welfare system discouraged many poor women from finding husbands. Then drug infestations in the 1970's and 1980's shredded the fabric of far too many of our communities. Given slavery, racism, injustice and any unhealthy relationship habits we may have picked up from our parents, it's easy to see why so many of us struggle to get together and stay together.
Imagine what slavery did to our relationships when wives and daughters were raped in front of their men, and our men were forced to breed with other women to produce more "inventory." Brenda Wade, Ph.D., a San Francisco psychologist and relationship expert, says the slave owners' divide-and-conquer strategy became our way of being: "Never let a Black woman think she can count on a Black man, and never let a Black man think he can take care of his woman." That attitude has a disturbing legacy. Today sisterfriends often dish that brothers are no good, and far too many of our men are physically or emotionally unavailable, frustrated by daily assaults on their character, intelligence and manhood.
Racism today causes tension that can undermine the best of relationships. And our brothers bear the sting of racism far more than we will ever know. "There are many ways to castrate a Black man," says psychiatrist Carl Bell, M.D., president and cofounder of Community Mental Health Council in Chicago. "Kick him out of school. Charge him with a felony so he can't vote or find a job. Make him feel he has no future. This is what they're up against."
And without support, we are likely to repeat any unhealthy patterns we saw as children. "Many of us grew up in homes where parents didn't treat each other with love and respect," says Wade. "Each of us needs to ask ourselves if we have brought baggage to the relationship that we need to eliminate. What did my mother teach me? Why was my father gone?"
Because of our history and its fallout, we may have to adopt attitudes and behaviors that will help us get together and stay together:
* BE CLEAR ABOUT ROLE EXPECTATIONS. Orlando Patterson, Ph.D., a Harvard sociologist, says Black women have always worked outside the home, but "Our men still have male-dominant attitudes toward their spouses." Have an honest discussion with your mate about what he expects and what you can offer.
* CONSIDER NOT LIVING TOGETHER BEFORE MARRIAGE. Sixty-two percent of those of us who live together do not make it to the altar (compared with 39 percent of White women). "You can't practice marriage," says Diane Sollee, director and cofounder of SmartMarriages.com. "It's a state of mind."
* SUPPORT EACH OTHER. "Sisters need to recognize that brothers are targets," says Michael Eric Dyson, a University of Pennsylvania humanities professor and author of Why I Love Black Women (Basic Civitas Books). "Lovingly encourage your man to seek relief--the therapeutic kind, not just the bar or the basketball court--for the invisible injuries he endures every day." And, Dyson says, men must see their women as partners, not competitors. "Brothers should aim to cooperate, not dominate."
Our marriages are more likely to last if: * "we have a religious affiliation or think religion is very important * we wait to have a baby more than seven months after marriage * he is five or more years older * we live in the suburbs of a major city
we believe in commitment
African-Americans arent the only group to put marriage on the back burner. The institution has declined across all racial and ethnic populations in the United States, as more couples move in together or opt for career and higher earnings first. But in pockets of persistence throughout our communities, we still believe in the promise of "I do." And research shows that marriage contributes to healthier lifestyles, stable families and more prosperous communities.
Lorraine Blackman, Ph.D. a trainer at the African American Family Life Program at Indiana University's School of Social Work, notes that despite the odds against us, Black people are committed to the idea of marriage. She cites the growing popularity of couples education, especially in our places of worship, "Wherever people are talking about marriage," Blackman says, "they re talking about how to make it better."
BRINGING LITTLE ISAIAH AND IMANI into the world is one of life's greatest joys, but raising those darlings can challenge a relationship. Children, with their 24-7 needs, change everything--from the length of time couples have together, to the kinds of roles women and men assume at home, to the need for more money (thus increasing time spent on the job).
According to family experts at the University of Washington in Seattle who run a "Love Lab" that can predict with 90 percent accuracy whether a husband and wife will divorce, 40 percent to 70 percent of couples experience stress, major conflict and declines in marital happiness after children enter the picture.
And not surprisingly, women report greater dissatisfaction than men, because traditionally the bulk of child rearing and household responsibilities fall on us. Research shows that when couples think each person is carrying a fair share of family duties, they're more likely to be satisfied with their relationship.
and baby makes ... the fourth time around
Sure, only 32 percent of us are likely to remarry after divorce (compared with 44 percent of Hispanic women and 58 percent of White women), and our chances decrease as we age. But it's often when you least expect it that love will find a way. Consider JoAnna Moore, a 46-year-old Californian who found that the fourth time was the charm.
Moore runs a computer-technology firm in Rancho Cordova. She says the problems in her first marriage were twofold: her age--she was 19--and her husband wasn't ready for the responsibility. During her second, when she was 28, "we both agreed it wasn't working." In the third, at 35, "I said I could learn to love him. But I realized that love already has to be there," she recalls with a sigh, noting that the first and second produced beautiful and talented daughters.
She married number four, Norris Moore, then a 42-year-old divorced father of four, just eight weeks after she met him. JoAnna marvels at how love found her, even though she wasn't looking. "I never really dated lots of people," she explains. "I never exposed my girls to anyone unless I was going to marry him." Nor did she pay any mind to those who sucked their teeth at her multiple trips down the aisle. "I don't need anybody's opinion or approval; it's not how many times you marry but marrying the right one." She and Norris are celebrating their sixth anniversary this year. And this time? "This is it! This time it's easy, it's natural she says. Never say never.
THE DIAPERS, THE DRAMA, THE DAY-TO-DAY
Three couples share the trials and triumphs of marriage:
EBON'NAE, 21, and SHADRICK PIGGEE, 24, DeSoto, Texas Married since: December 15, 2004 Occupations; She's a customer-service rep at Wal-Mart; he's an independent personal trainer When they met: Four months before they married Children: His son, from a previous relationship She says: "Initially I had excluded men who had kids, but the love he showed his son was captivating. It demonstrated his character and what he valued." He says: "Before we met I was basically a womanizing dog. That all changed when she walked into my life. Our biggest issue is time. I can't stand being away from my wife." They're working toward: "Our spiritual foundation. We don't want it to seem as if we're perfect, but we're doing okay."
OSEI DAVID, 37, and ANITA ANDREWS-HUTCHINSON, 32, Chicago Married since: September 28, 2002 Occupations: He's an information-systems manager at a suburban high school; she's the executive director of their jointly run nonprofit, Pipeline Community Development Organization, which focuses on educational enrichment When they met: Fifteen years ago at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Children: A 2-year-old son and another on the way She says: "I've given up trying to accomplish everything. Sometimes relaxing is more important than the dishes or the laundry." He says: "We've had some situations in which one of us didn't inform the other about a conversation or a commitment, and the one who was not informed felt disrespected. Tell your spouse everything. It's not an issue of 'getting permission,' but of being well informed." They're working toward: "Learning when one of us needs to be 'left alone' or listened to more intently."
MARSHA and FRANK WILLIAMS, both 34, Atlanta Married since: October 9, 1993 Occupations: She's a customer-service rep for a Christian broadcast ministry; he's a schoolteacher When they met: At a teachers' training program about a year before marriage; he proposed six months after they met Childre: A 2-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son She says: "I didn't plan to get married in my early twenties, but when Frank proposed to me, I felt an absolute peace in my spirit." He says: "I knew she was the one, because I felt safe being myself around her. We spent the first nine years of our marriage--by design--without children. The kids made us much more organized and disciplined. And better." They're working toward: "Being more responsive to each other's needs. Having two children under age 3 is a big challenge, but it strengthens our marriage."
What Makes a Marriage Fail
The inability to manage conflict is at the root of most marital problems. "Wedding vows should be changed to include, 'I agree to disagree with you for the rest of my life,'" Sollee says. Unmanaged conflict leads to frustration. Frustration leads to disengagement, and disengagement is a sure route to infidelity, "probably the biggest source of disruption among middle-class marriages," says Patterson, the Harvard sociologist.
What Makes a Marriage Work
The goal is to start talking and keep talking. Read relationship books, talk with other couples, attend workshops and get therapy if you need it. Diane Sollee's SmartMarriages.com offers these five keys to communicating:
SHOW APPRECIATION: Show and tell your mate what you like about him. It could be how he remembered to call your mom on her birthday or the perfect way he kisses you.
GIVE APPROPRIATE CRITICISM. Always include a constructive request for change. "Say what you want instead of what you don't want," Sollee says.
SHARE NEW INFORMATION. You may race to phone your girlfriend, but don't forget to keep him up to speed on changes in your life. "Daily updates keep you in touch," Sollee notes.
SOLVE PUZZLES. Don't let little mysteries grow into huge misunderstandings, Sollee says. "Ask and never assume."
SHARE WISHES. For example, ask your husband to tell you his hopes for his family's holiday visit. He may say he wants to spend time alone with his dad. If you don't ask, you'll never know.
WHERE THE MEN ARE
Nationally there are 86 unmarried men for every 100 unmarried women. Among Blacks that ratio is 73 to 100. We wanted to know where to find the highest concentrations of single brothers. To do that, we compared single Black populations in the nation's top 100 major metropolitan areas--from Miami to Seattle (for the complete list, visit essence.com). Killeen, Texas, anyone?
This army town (pop. 96,159) sits next to Fort Hood, home of the largest active-duty armored post in the United States. Killeen boasts affordable housing, shopping and recreation centers and restaurants.
Looking Beyond the Numbers
No, you're not crazy--there really aren't enough brothers to go around: 115 Black women in the United States for every 100 Black men 18 and over. Think back to when the numbers of Black boys in your class started to dwindle because the school system gave up on them and fast money beckoned. The streets led to lockup (586,300 Black men in federal and state prisons, compared with 35,050 Black women), fewer college graduates (38,103 Black men in 2001 versus 73,204 Black women) and unemployment (nearly 50 percent of Black men in New York City, for instance). That leaves many of us going solo unless we're willing to step outside our comfort zones of education level, race, ethnicity and, especially, social status. "I know guys who are educated, hardworking and ambitious," says William July II, a relationship expert and author, "but many women would look right past them because they don't pass the status test."
Number of Single Black Men
City for Every 100 Black Women
1. Killeen, TX 104
2. San Diego 102
3. Seattle 99
4. Phoenix 96
5. San Francisco 91
96. Flint, MI 69
97. Baltimore/Chicago/Dallas/Gary, IN 68
Philadelphia/St. Louis 67
99. Albany, GA/Mobile, AL 66
100. Pittsburgh/New York City 65
THE GOOD NEWS
WE'RE LEARNING TO LOVE
Couples can find support from a growing number of marriage-education programs. Several states and local governments now encourage couples to take a premarital course by sweetening the deal with discounts on marriage licenses. Some prominent groups and initiatives:
WEDDED BLISS FOUNDATION organizes annual Black Marriage Day; 236 Massachusetts Ave., N.E., Ste. 610, Washington DC 20002; weddedblissinc.com.
AFRICAN AMERICAN FAMILY LIFE EDUCATION INSTITUTE offers couples-enrichment and parenting-education programs; Indiana University, 902 W. New York St., Indianapolis IN 46262; (317) 274-6713; aafle.org.
SMART MARRIAGES sponsors an annual Smart Marriages/Happy Families Conference; 5310 Belt Rd., N.W., Washington DC 20015; (202) 362-3332; smartmarriages.com.
NATIONAL COUNCIL ON FAMILY RELATIONS was created by the federal government's Administration for Children and Families; 3989 Central Ave., N.E., No. 550, Minneapolis MN 55421; (763) 781-9331; ncfr.com.
If you remarry, you are more likely to break up if your community has a high concentration of never-married women.
52% probability that a Black woman will be married by age 30 (compared with 77 percent of Hispanic women and 81 percent of White women)
76% of American families are headed by married couples.
48% of African-American families are headed by married couples.
Robin D. Stone, an ESSENCE contributor, celebrated nine years of marriage in June. Additional reporting by ESSENCE editorial assistant Nazenet Habtezghi.
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