The State of Our Union: Black Love and Marriage, 2004

By Adam Bradley

This Sunday black men and women in over forty cities nationwide will celebrate the second annual Black Marriage Day. Established by the non-profit Wedded Bliss Foundation and sponsored by Black Enterprise magazine, Black Marriage Day promises to "highlight the benefits of married life and offer celebrations to strengthen and promote marriage in the nation's Black community." Let's hope it's not too late.

Yes, black love as we've come to know it is dying, but a new love is taking its place.
Black marriage is in undeniable crisis. Among black people between the ages of 25 and 35, the prime marrying age in the United States, fewer than 32% are married. When black people do wed, it isn't always for long. Shirley Hatchett, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, reported in 1998 that two out of three black marriages end in divorce, as compared to one out of two white marriages. The average black woman can expect to spend 22% of her lifetime with a spouse.

Outside of marriage, black love seems to fare little better. In his recently-revised Black and Single, social psychologist Larry Davis describes the "black romantic market." He estimates that, when we account for social factors like black male imprisonment and interracial relationships, black women outnumber available black men two to one. Davis' numbers are more conservative than those others come up with; therapist and Washington, DC radio personality Audrey B. Chapman estimates the proportion as closer to 4 to 1, or even 6 to 1, when one considers all the factors that make a black man a desirable partner. With the 2000 U.S. census reporting only 85 black men for every 100 black women, one can understand the desperation (or exasperation?) coming from sisters everywhere.

Could it be that black love has made it this far, through slavery and segregation, only to die here on this side of freedom? Could it be that young black folk have somehow forgotten how to love? I don't think so. Now is the time to speak candidly of black love. It's time to move beyond both the defensive racial chauvinism that would portray black love and marriage as unquestionably perfect, and the outright resignation that would prematurely declare their demise. It's time to dispel the greatest myths about black love, 2004.

Myth #1: "Black men and women are fighting a civil war."

Last December the reigning Miss Savannah, Sharron Nicole Redmond, a 22-year-old graduate of Spelman College, shot and killed her boyfriend when she discovered he was engaged to another woman. While the particulars of the case are still emerging, what little we know seems to illustrate vividly and painfully several widely-held assumptions about black people in what Alice Walker once called "love and trouble." Black men, the myth goes, are ravenous womanizers, only as faithful as their options. Black women are jealous lovers, capable of committing acts of violent retribution. This marriage of love and violence carries an outlaw appeal for some even as it underscores racist assumptions of black hyper-sexuality and criminality.

Nikki Redmond's case is an extreme example of something black men and women act out every day. More than 30 years ago black feminist writer Toni Cade Bambara noted that "it doesn't take any particular expertise to observe that one of the most characteristic features of our community is the antagonism between our men and our women." This tension manifests itself in a variety of ways: disproportionate rates of domestic violence in black homes, overt sexism within movements for racial justice, exploitation of women's bodies in popular entertainment.

But black men and women's battle is not primarily with one another. Together we face the mis-measure of black humanity brought on by the dehumanizing effects of the criminal justice system and economic disenfranchisement, not to mention the self-destructive tendencies within our own communities. In her most recent book, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, bell hooks argues compellingly that "by considering the possibility that many black males and females are in a state of arrested development, trapped by fantasy bonding and allegiance to false selves, we cannot only understand better the nature of conflict between us, we can begin to heal our wounds."

Healing black love wounds means nothing less than reconceiving our relation to one another as men and women, and our relation together to a blackness that encompasses rather than obscures our full selves. Why not begin by acknowledging and emulating the successful black relationships "” not just romantic, but parental and Platonic "” already among us?

Myth #2: "The Hip Hop Generation doesn't care about love."

When people talk about black love in crisis, they're invariably referring to young black Americans "” the Hip Hop Generation. Even an insightful critic like bell hooks seems to scapegoat young black people in general, and hip hop culture in particular, for the "crisis of lovelessness" we face. But while hip hop is undoubtedly conflicted when it comes to love, the story is more complex than our elders credit.

You'll find no greater example of this complexity than The Love Below, André 3000's contribution to OutKast's Grammy-winning Album of the Year. Dre is our hip hop Pablo Neruda, spitting love poems while singing the occasional song of despair. He describes black love from breakups to makeups, exploring with disarming honesty its gradations "” tenderness and longing, anger and lust. It's hard to imagine this album being suited for mass consumption, so far does it stray from the established conventions of commercial viability. It may, in fact, be the least likely cross-over hit of all time: a rap album with precious few raps; a pop album that, with the glaring exception the hyper-kinetic, retro-futuristic "Hey Ya!," contains no radio-friendly singles; a universal album that extols the particular promise of black people in love. At a time when rap music continues to objectify women in novel ways (witness BET Uncut) it is important to remember that this, too, is hip hop.

Far from disavowing love, rap artists are warming to it like never before. While progressive MCs like OutKast, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Black Eyed Peas, Lauryn Hill and Common have long made love a prominent theme in their lyrics, love has only recently made it mainstream. A cynic might see the prevalence of saccharine love songs by otherwise sugar-free rappers like Chingy and G-Unit as purely market-driven. After all, young women are the target consumers for the advertisers that keep both radio and music television stations on the air. And those who program radio seem to think that women have an insatiable appetite for hearing men rap and sing about love. A more generous view, however, may be that hip hop, like so many of its artists, is finally growing up "” and growing out "” to encompass the full measure of a complex black humanity that includes, above all else, love.

Myth #3: "Black love is dying."

Once upon a time not long ago black intellectuals engaged in a serious debate over whether black love could even exist. Some, like novelist Richard Wright, argued that the legacy of slavery and the continuing effects of white supremacy made it all but impossible for black people to love one another. Others, like Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, saw in black Americans a particular capacity to love forged in part as a result of suffering.

For all the foreboding statistics suggesting a crisis in the romantic lives of black Americans today, black love hasn't changed nearly as much as America. The 1960s witnessed the convergence of three social upheavals that would directly affect how black people love one another: the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle for women's liberation, and the sexual revolution. This perfect cultural storm brought about a measure of racial equality, at least in the letter of the law; a rising number of white women joining black and brown women in the workforce; and a growing public consciousness "” if not acceptance "” of sexual diversity, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock births. As post-Civil Rights babies, black Americans today must negotiate a newly-integrated, gender-recalibrated, sexually-liberated America.

Yes, black love as we've come to know it is dying, but a new love is taking its place. Twenty-first century black love will undoubtedly defy our parochial assumptions about race, gender and sexuality. Not only will the new century witness an increasing number of interracial births (though likely not the "beige-ing of America" predicted by some researchers a decade ago), but it will also bring an increasing awareness and legitimization of multiple categories for racial and sexual identity. Can black love contain love between multi-racial individuals, or between black and white or black and Latino, for that matter? Can it fully acknowledge the love of same-sex couples? Whatever our answers, the conventional image of a heterosexual, monoracial black couple is simply no longer the only black love we're living.

Black love matters in 2004 if only because in loving we exercise a freedom for which our forbearers had to fight, one that we still must actively claim. Near the end of Toni Morrison's Beloved, Paul D finally understands what love means to Sethe "” "to get to a place where you could love anything you chose "” not to need permission for desire "” well, now, that was freedom." May we all find the same.


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