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.