Jumping That Broom

Yesterday was National Black Marriage Day, a day that celebrates and promotes marriage within the Black community.

According to many opinion article writers, a forthcoming book by one of my professors, a “movement” championed (and also derided) by many in the black blogging community, and a recent report on the state of Black children, the issue of marriage among Black people is cited as the #1 reason – and also #1 solution – for why Black people are in the situation in which we find ourselves today. The breakdown of the “family unit,” as many call it, is hurting black children. From what I can see, most of these reports/opinions/etc. take the approach of the Moynihan report and cite that the issue is black single mothers raising children without black fathers. Something about the lack of a father in the home – and hence the breakdown of the family unit – has caused such damage that only the revival of marriage can fix.

I think this is… how can I say in the most polite way…misguided.

My issue with this whole propaganda machine is this: marriage and the multitude of support needed for black children to succeed and thrive are two totally different things. While they need not be mutually exclusive, one can exist without the other.

I am black, and I am married with black children. So I am not anti-marriage. I love my husband, and plan to be with him until death do us part. For real. I think that children can benefit from having both of their parents in their lives as much as possible, given that both of those people are available and willing to do the job. But it doesn’t necessarily work that the converse is true: that children must suffer if they don’t have both parents – a man and a woman – in their lives as much as possible. There is just very little evidence for this.

Research is showing that children who grow up in same sex coupled households do just as well as children who grow up in opposite sex households. Census data shows that children raised in same sex households do as well in school as children raised in opposite sex households. Children of lesbian co-parents do as well, and perhaps even better than children of heterosexual married couples. There is little evidence that children need both a man and a woman in the household to succeed.

That many call the fact that over 70% of black children are born “out-of-wedlock” a crisis is a crisis. The statistic is that black women are choosing to have children with men to whom they are not married. The crisis, to those who call it that, is that some moral value has been violated – obviously these women had sex before marriage. I suppose a second value violation, although it’s hardly moral, was the failure to use birth control. But are these two facts really of crisis proportions? What is the real problem?

I was pregnant with Big A before we got married. I was also college educated, had my own place to live, with my own job, and was about to go to graduate school. I had had sex before marriage, and failed to properly use birth control. An issue that I was pregnant? Of course. A crisis? No.

People often point at the 1950s and 1960s as the hey-day for marriage in the black community. Blacks supposedly had the highest rates of marriage among any racial group in the country. Since that time, however, the rate of marriage has been on the decline, not just for Blacks, but for everyone. But to me, it’s not just a coincidence that the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement and the decline of marriage occurred around the same time (and don’t forget about the womens movement.)

Just like many things were fractured in age of integration, so was the black community. I think that what is a crisis is not the decline of marriage, but the decline of community. Marriage is not supported only by those two people who stand at the altar and profess their love; family and friends are invited to serve as witnesses and to pledge their support to that union. In the 1950s and 1960s, new marriages began in the comfort of a community where people loved that couple, counseled that couple, saw that couple in church every Sunday. They likely lived around the corner from their Mamas and Daddies, sisters and brothers. When they had their first child, the grandmother came and stayed for weeks helping out; the entire family brought over food. Black women married and worked and raised their children, but also helped raise other people’s children too. Children were supported by more of the village concept, where my mama know your mama and if your mama sees me doing something wrong, your mama will punish me just like my mama would. Before integration, children saw businesses run by their own people, people whose name they knew and who knew their name. School teachers lived on the block, and knew every child’s family because they also went to church together. So children were not only supported by the institution of marriage, they were supported by a strong community that knew each other and did for each other.

Integration changed that. Integration, as it’s played out, has created huge rifts in the black community along class lines as some have moved on up to the big time, getting their piece of the pie while others are holding on to the promises but have been left looking up from the bottom of the well. The same fractures that were created among slave negroes and house negroes have been recreated for the 21st century. And now, someone is feeding to us that marriage is the ticket to our salvation? Naw, son.

What has always been the backbone of the black community is exactly that – community. If black people want to get married – that’s great. More power to them. But our children don’t need marriage; they need community. They need the support of any and all loving adults who can care for them, married parents or not. There was a time, which is still true now in many areas, where grandparents, aunties and uncles, where considered essential parts of black children’s’ lives, in both married and non-married families. But not as much anymore. When I read the reports that bash parents for failure to parent, I wonder from where these survey takers think the current parents learned to parent? And where did their parents learn to parent? There was a time that even if your parent was not doing all that you needed, your best friend’s mother was, and you were learning right along with him. Now, you have to set up playdates. The natural community fluidity and trust is gone. Parenting is often happening in a vacuum. What happened to the community that nurtured and mentored young parents on the way to go?

Our little family, the four of us, live 3000 miles from our biological family. But we’ve created, as many transplant Black families do, our fictive kin right here in the Bay Area that serve as our “family” of aunties and uncles and cousins. In the black community, nuclear families have never had to go it alone. But now, it’s not natural. We have to work to make a family seem real.

With integration, the black community adopted the American mantra of “every man for themselves.” And that has been what has destroyed the black community. The decline of marriage has been a collateral consequence.

So when these groups, movements, days, etc., claim to want to celebrate Black marriage, I have to take a *pause.* Because while I feel that their hearts are in the right place, I think their energy is totally misdirected. Instead of “promoting” marriage, how about community building, i.e. creating spaces where marriages can thrive? In those same spaces, not only will marriage thrive, but also other forms of families and ultimately, supports for children.

Whether a child succeeds should not depend on whether their parents are married or not. By putting our feather in that hat we are walking a very narrow path indeed, and deflecting energy and resources from where they could best used.

7 thoughts on “Jumping That Broom

  1. Thank you for saying so. This brings to my mind Crystal from “For Colored Girls”, who had refused to marry Beau, although they’d had 2 children together. Those few lines in the movie highlighted for me that marriage is so much more complex than American society will admit. Sometimes, there are sound reasons not to get married to someone, and instead of applying pressure for more marriage, the emphasis should be on providing safe, healthy, supportive and loving households without regard to structure.

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  2. This is a great post, for many reasons. I agree with quite a bit that you’ve said, and disagree with other parts.

    First of, you’re right–what we deem a “crisis” is certainly subjective, and not immune to bias regarding race and class. Like so many other social phenomenon, the way we characterize it reflects our collective thought about the group identified with that phenomenon, and marriage–or a lack thereof–in the black community is no exception. In that light, I disagree with your suggestion that the crisis is about the immorality of sex before marriage. I think it’s the immorality of children without marriage–both a failure to intend to get married when conceiving, and a failure to insist upon marriage after the arrival of a child. That black people are doing this–sometimes quite intentionally–in disproportionate numbers allows people to characterize it as immoral, in keeping with the cultural deficit model ascribed to Blacks.

    Two other things that strike me in your post is the implicit characterization of community as “black community,” as well as an implicit conclusion that because integration led to class fractures in the black community, that integration was bad. If that is not what you’re intending, let me know! If so, I think both implications are problematic. As you said, children need any and all loving and supporting adults to care for them; although black role models are important, all those loving adults need not be black for a child to be in a supportive community. As for integration, yes–there was good things about having our community together, but there were also bad things. Just as we have to be careful not to idealize marriage, we have to be careful not to idealize segregation. To wish to segregate oneself by race is a social illness that should not be encouraged or tolerated, even if there are other costs. The solution is not segregation; it’s to find ways to create support for children and families, whether or not they live among people of the same race and class.

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  3. @ORJ: You are right, integration as a concept, is not a bad thing. Nothing wrong, per se, about different racial groups living together. Same as segregation, in my opinion. Except that there is evidence, I think by Derrick Bell, that integration was something pushed by lawyers, and not their clients. I think that integration, as it played out, and as racial dynamics in this country and abroad throughout the world’s history, was not a successful project, and perhaps instead of fighting for integration, we should have fought for equality. To me, those are two different concepts. Equality may have lead to integration. But obviously integration has not led to equality.

    I think that the integration ideal meant more to accept and normalize a culture. There was very little integration, but a lot of assimilation. I know I am now stepping into more controversial waters, but bear with me. In the broadest sense, whereas black culture was about community, the more mainstream culture was about individualism and competition. With integration came a valorization of those values. Whereas enslaved Africans came to America with true values of “taking a village to raise a child” we now have values that blame parents for everything, instead of looking at the wider community and environment and asking what responsibility it has for the influence on children. This is why I think “community” is so important. We all need to feel responsible for all of our children.

    I don’t think segregation is the solution either. The problem is too far gone from segregation, the issue too complex. Furthermore, it’s not practical. (Although we are starting to do it. The 2010 Census shows that Blacks are leaving the Northeast and coming back to the South in droves. We are starting to move back to be with each other, starting, I think, to see the wisdom in having Black communities. We don’t live in a post-racial America. I don’t think we ever will, and it doesn’t bother me.) I was simply pointing out that marriage was strongest in the black community when we were segregated. But again, I don’t think that marriage is the answer either. I think social support is the answer. So I do agree that now the solution is to find ways to support families of all different structures, as Khareen said.

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  4. Hey ladies. I think the problem here is that we have several problems that can and should be addressed seperatedly. However,marriage needs its own day. MY GOD do we need one. Maybe even a marriage month just so that we as a community can learn how to both grow and benefit from a committed partnership.

    See, the issue is (and I speak because I coach women in thier marriage-bound relationships) that we generally are okay — although not great —with connecting in our communities OUTSIDE the home. We have enough social grace to maintain friendships, network, socialize, and start great Mommy blogs like the one here.

    But when it comes to situations INSIDE the home, things fall apart. When our inimate lives are affected by the decisions of a spouse, that’s where the tension, bickering and exhaustion take place.

    Behind closed doors, people are going through HELL! I mean it. Husbands and wives don’t know how to get along, work together, or decide together. And that ripples into so many things in our lives. Whatever the climate of the home determines what we are able to accomplish.

    It’s why I believe singlehood as a lifestyle is on the rise. People would rather go it alone than suffer in a union. But then those people, although they can survive and thrive, don’t get the benefits partnership gives just because of lack of knowledge on how to obtain them.

    So, no matter the reasons why people want to champion marriage, it needs to be championed. Yes, we need stronger ties in the families around us. Yes, our children need the benefit of parents who are not worn out from taking care of them alone. (A WAHM can testify to that). Yes, we need to be closer as a people. But if we don’t know how to get along with people we live with, we won’t be able to do it outside those doors. It truly starts at home.

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    1. @Christine: I think you make a great point. I think you are absolutely correct in saying that people don’t know how to sustain lasting intimate relationships, that no one ever told us that sustaining such a relationship, and being happy in it, actually took work. I think divorce rates are high partly because one or the other person doesn’t work in their marriage, either by choice or because they don’t know how to. But I also think that the divorce rate is high because we no longer have communities in which marriages, or other types of intimate relationships, can thrive. (Just watch the Housewives series on Bravo – women can’t even really be friends anymore!)

      So my issue is not necessarily in celebrating marriage as a family structure; my issue is in propping it up as the only solution to the issues facing black people and black children in particular. Unmarried parents are blamed for almost all of black children’s woes. But I don’t think that marriage per se is doing the work that ultimately supports black children. I think my marriage, for example, is strong not just because we have learned to tough out the rough patches together, but also because we have a solid support system around us that allows for a marriage to thrive. Without the support system, the marriage has little hope.

      When I had to travel to Philly this past week for a funeral, I didn’t have to have my husband take off of work for three days in a row to care for the children. That may have caused strain in my marriage because he would have been super-stressed, and perhaps somewhat resentful. Instead, I had a cadre of great friends – other mothers – who were able to pick up my slack and care for my children; feed them, play with them. Before I had this support when we moved out here, my marriage struggled. And, going back to what ORJ stated earlier, this cadre of friends was multi-racial – black and white. My community came through to support my family.

      But Christine I ultimately agree with you. Resources should be put toward strengthening families. I just think focusing solely on marriages is a mistake. I think if you focus on families, no matter what they look like, you may find that marriages become stronger and a more likely outcome simply because they are the normative cultural unit. That’s not really what I want, people to do things just because it’s normative, but I think the pro-marriage people would get what they want in a more realistic way.

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  5. I think the “breakdown the black family” negatively affects black children because it typically puts them in a lower socio-economic class. Single mothers and grandparents can do a great job raising children, but when you are living in a poor community, there are various ills that will affect your children such as inadequate schools and proximity to crime and drugs. Not to mention the fact that it is easier to accumulate wealth, purchase a home, and pass down wealth to the next generation when you have two incomes. To me, a large part of the problem is lack of financial freedom and education.

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  6. Very interesting and thoughtful dialogue. Thanks.

    Yesterday a Japanese friend who is married to a caucsian FB-posted an article that surprised her: 95% of whites marry whites, 85% of blacks marry blacks (a WGBH article re: over 1/2 of Native Americans marry non-natives).

    I’m re-married to a non-white again, and the dynamics you speak of seem to be universal, although applied specifically according to your subjects in varying degrees. Life in this world is tough, but it’s tougher to move to another. So I’m thankful for splendid people who never stop making it better. —
    Sincerely,
    a blended-dad.

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