By Courtland Milloy
Monday, March 29, 2004; Page B01
The second annual Black Marriage Day on Saturday included workshops and the renewal of wedding vows in about 70 cities throughout the United States.
One elementary school class in Atlantic City marked the occasion by staging a wedding, according to Nisa Muhammad, president of the Wedding Bliss Foundation and founder of Black Marriage Day.
"The teacher had asked her students to raise their hands if they'd ever been to a wedding," Muhammad told me. "No one raised their hand. Then she asked if they knew anybody who was married. And they all said no."
So while the students took on such roles as bride, groom, bridesmaids and best men, the teacher became the preacher and explained how being married requires a moral center made up of trust, commitment and fidelity -- that's what separates husbands and wives from playas and girlfriends, she said.
"We have not shared with this generation what it takes to have a healthy marriage," Muhammad said. "It takes an understanding of the sweetness of surrender and the joy in giving up the 'I' for the 'we.' "
At the Everlasting Life Complex in Largo, dozens of singles and couples showed up for workshops that had such titles as "Breathing New Life Into Your Relationship" and "Finding Your Soul Mate."
The bottom line: Appreciate your mate for the flawed human being that you both are, not as a consumer product to be discarded at the first signs of imperfection; learn to forgive and how to seek forgiveness.
"We treat our cars better than we do our spouses," Muhammad said. "We work harder on that treadmill at the gym than we do on our relationships."
To help promote Black Marriage Day activities, Muhammad teamed with Diann Dawson, director of the African American healthy marriage initiative at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The initiative is part of a plan by the Bush administration to spend $1.5 billion to promote "healthy marriages." Dawson, a career public servant who has worked for several administrations, agrees with those who question the role of government in promoting marriage -- but says such intervention is necessary just the same.
"This ought not be an issue for the government," she said. "Our strongest institution is the church, and if the church had been doing its job. . ." The implication was clear.
According to the 2000 Census and 2003 National Center for Health Statistics: African Americans still have the lowest marriage rates and the highest divorce rates of any group in the United States; the highest rate of households headed by single mothers; and the highest rate of births to unmarried mothers, who constitute the majority of childbearing black women.
"What we have now is an opportunity to find out what makes marriage so problematic for us," Dawson said. "Why is this phenomenon occurring, whether the black woman is educated or not?"
How to create healthy marriages may strike some as too personal and complex to be addressed at some public Black Marriage Day workshop. But such concerns also might reflect too narrow a view of what marriage is really about.
"The notion of having a healthy marriage starts with how we see ourselves as human beings," Dawson said. "You can't talk about healthy marriages without talking about healthy people, and we aren't very good at taking care of ourselves."
Forget the obvious physical maladies; Dawson was referring to disease of the mind and spirit.
"The self image of young black women has fallen to the point where they greet each other with the 'b' word and say, 'Yeah, you my dawg,' " Dawson said. "My mother used to say, 'It's not the name they call you, it's the name you answer to.' Our children are answering to the worst of calls."
More education and training are necessary to teach the importance of marriage, and also -- in the absence of role models -- how to build foundations for healthy ones.
"A marriage belongs to a community, and healthy marriages make communities stronger," Muhammad said. "Communities assume the role of caretakers for our marriages. The community knows who's cheating; the church knows who's cheating. The community and the church take responsibility and become true friends to marriage."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company