The Problem with Black Marriage Day

Getting married is easy. Staying married is hard.

That opening is catchy, but it isn’t true–unless you are white, heterosexual and middle class. The rest of us (even some folks with privilege) are having a hard time at both.

Black Marriage Day is Sunday, March 28. It was created by Nisa I. Muhammad to strengthen black families. Black Marriage Day has been celebrated every fourth Sunday in March since 2002. I love black people. I love black families. I support black marriage, but they’re going about it all wrong.

The online promotional push for Black Marriage Day glosses over the history of black marriage, disregards the economic impediments to marriage and ignores black gay marriage.

Celebrating Black Marriage Day without talking about slavery is a gloss-over of epic proportion. After the slave trade ended, African slave descendents were workers and breeders. Because plantation owners could not import new black bodies, they birthed them stateside. These babies were not people; they were property. There was no institutionalized black marriage because black families weren’t recognized.

After slavery, black folks set out to put their families back together, but the models for marriage were poor. Patriarch slave owners were not exactly exemplars of fidelity. Many of them regularly snuck out on their wives to rape female slaves. Too many black men modeled themselves after what they saw on the plantation. What they saw was a system that subordinated women to men.

Fast-forward–through migration and black nationalism–to today. Patriarchy still interferes with loving black marriages, and money does too. Throughout black history, men often left home to provide for the families. By racist murder, misfortune or choice they sometimes never returned home. Welfare bed checks meant the government only provided public assistance if there was no man in the home. Public outcry eventually stopped this paternalistic policy, but economic unattractiveness still lingers as a deterrent to marriage.

As a result of the racism that stemmed from slavery, black people remain on average more economically disadvantaged than white people. In 2009, researchers Anthony E. O. King and Terrence T. Allen discovered that both black women and men want a partner who earns more money than they do. But economically viable partners are hard to find because racist and sexist social constraints interfere with black fiscal mobility.

Black people have always had a tenuous relationship to marriage. Historical memories remind us that the only reason our society needs a Black Marriage Day is to acknowledge how far African Americans have come and how much further African Americans must go to secure and sustain healthy marriages. And the final problem? The Black Marriage Day silence surrounding same-sex marriage is deafening.

To really celebrate black marriage, let’s be honest about it. The 12-year-old who declared in Joy Jones’ now-infamous 2006 Washington Post article that “marriage is for white people” was talking about not just race but also class. Yet Black Marriage Day promotions present a rosy view of class. The holiday is officially partnered with Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too, premiering nationwide on April 2, which depicts an upper-middle-class ethos that is entirely foreign to Perry’s target working-class audience.

If black children think that marriage is not for them, it’s because the initiatives that support black marriage make it clear that it only supports a certain type of black marriage—heterosexual and middle class, absent any racial histories. This Black Marriage Day, I propose that the proponents of black marriage commit themselves to discussing the social realities black people must struggle with to get and stay married.

Photo from http://bridaloccasion.com/afacollections.htm.

Comments

  1. Another thoughtful must read! Thank you.

  2. Courtney Young says:

    Thanks for this Ebony! Your prose and message are once again spot on. I was especially captured by your statement, “Celebrating Black Marriage Day without talking about slavery is a gloss-over of epic proportion.” So often are blanket statistics and comments thrown into the public sphere without any context attached and I think you do a good job of giving this issue the backdrop it needs. I myself have been thinking very much about this topic and the plethora of statistics that continue to surface in the media saying that most Black women have never been married. Keep up the good work!

  3. Reynaldo says:

    Good Job Ebony, too many people gloss over some important issues…

  4. Concise analysis again. I have been married for nearly 15 years. It is a challenge and one definitely reinforced by middle class ideals. I also think the power of choice available to Black folk now in relation to the choice denied in slavery is a strong parallel to draw to the rights denied Black gay folk today. Also Black folk who don’t want to be tied to a failed Western institution such as the”nuclear” family. Thanks again.

  5. you are one smart cookie!!! enjoying the blogs will debrief Monday!

  6. Diane Harriford says:

    Great job Ebony!

    I think our desire to be fit in with the norm is another reason marriage becomes so important. We are not rich or white, but we can get married. Unfortunately, this pre-occupation with heterosexual marriage allows us to overlook the many creative ways that people in the black community have arranged their emotional lives.

  7. Ebony,
    You are smart, concise and accurate. I think we need to teach our daughters and sons that being married is more than having a husband or wife or partner and that being committed is more than just abstaining from sexual relations with others. Committment is a word that is hard to teach unfortunately until you are in the midst of doing it or failing miserably. I appreciate your perspective as always.

    Dr. P

  8. I must admit, I had never heard of Black Marriage Day. You are an excellent writer. Thank you for bringing this to our attention and for making us think about the complexities of it.

  9. I appreciate your analysis but don’t think that the celebration of Black Marriage at all ignores the historical impact of slavery, Black male emasculation, destruction of family. It does something our community so desperately needs highlights and acknowledges those who have conquered all of those negative impacts or are works in progress in their efforts.

  10. Interesting analysis. This analysis explains the present based on the past, but doesn’t reposition the present to change the future. I tend to think that the Black Marriage day is at least an attempt to reposition the present to change the future.

    Given that the black experience isn’t monolithic, I can’t quite identify with some of the connections to slavery (I can acknowledge them, but not identify). I’ve got examples of family members from 2 generations ago that married and stayed married and some divorced due to relationship issues (not slavery/black issues). In all instances, they at least attempted marriage; whereas today – black folks don’t attempt marriage (statistical generalization).

    Futhermore, the marriage created a more economically stable environment where the offspring could focus on education. The household needs were met because the husband and wife worked, instead of the mother and child. Marriage/family enabled education, which enabled folks to get out of poverty. Again, this is simply my personal experience – but based on many friends, I’d say that previous generations did a much better job understanding the financial benefits of marriage.

    I acknowledge that blacks are disproportionately disadvantaged due to slavery. Now studies show that married people have a higher net worth than single people. So perhaps one way to climb into different socioeconomic status is to get married. Black marriage day offers a solution, not an explanation for the past. I’ve always had a loose perception that white people view marriage as an economically advantageous institution rather than them truly being more loving than their black counterparts. How annoyed would I be if a guy I were dating said he didn’t want to marry me because of the after effects of slavery? He could come up with many reasons as to why he didn’t want to marry me, but slavery is not one I would take seriously.

    Lastly, I don’t think it should be in the scope of Black Marrige day to include same-sex marriage. I’m for same-sex marriage; however, I think that is a completely separate battle. Black people have the right to marry but don’t marry by choice. Same-sex couples don’t even have the legal right to marry. Apples & Oranges. Law vs. Culture.

    • Our personal lives are affected by the circumstances in which we find ourselves (circumstances produced by history). Yes, people have agency to make choices within those circumstances, but it is not as if the circumstances disappear. It may be a stretch to say that chattel slavery *itself* is the cause of people's choices today, but I think we must acknowledge that ever since the demise of that institution, there have been new schemes to get the formerly enslaved (and others, too) to work for free. It's not a coincidence that both Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement saw an explosion in the number of jails, where forced labor is still allowed.

      As for same-sex couples, it only takes a moment of thought to realize that some black people are in same-sex couples. Therefore, to encompass all black people, a black marriage day would have to address the issue… or call itself black traditional marriage day, or black hetero marriage day.

      Or are you suggesting that black people who are in same-sex relationships aren't who you mean when you say black people? Being gay negates one's blackness?

      • I meant to add that you may have the chicken before the egg… It may not be that marriage increases income but that people with higher incomes are more likely to marry. Therefore it is not so much that black people are poor because they choose not to marry but that circumstances of poverty interfere with those who wish to marry.

        By the way, did it ever occur to anyone that one should be able to sustain life whether one chooses to marry or not?

  11. Nicely written article, Ebony. I do agree with your assessment that there needs to be more historical value added to this “day,”–especially to our youth. However, I think that marriage in this country is a collective issue. With a divorce rate that is over 50% it is imperative that we find a way to mitigate this issue for ALL people.

    Frankly, if/when I have a son, I would rather his teachers not focus so much on the past, but the opportunity of the sacred bond between a two people. Everyone, can learn from this, not just black people.

    Regardless of what we teach our youth, they will still have access to some of the most egregious images and acts that you can find in social media these days. Albeit, a very complicated issue to tackle, my opinion is that adults need to tap into the minds of youth through the mediums they are addicted to, because history is just that–history.

    There must be forward thinking if we wish to improve the perception of marriage in this country.

  12. We have to think about that Marriage as a concept is changing. The couple were the mas was the only provider is already changed. Maybe what black marriages need to be seen from that optic too.

  13. While I can appreciate your perspective Ebony….I must say I truly disagree. I am a Marriage Educator and work with Nisa Muhammad in her organization the Wedded Bliss Foundation. I also do the much needed work of exploring and reviving Black Marriage through my organization, B Intentional, LLC. (www.bintentional.com) Your analysis reveals your limited knowledge of all that Nisa Muhammad and Black Marriage Day represents. Not only did Nisa Muhammad create Black Marriage Day. She is the creator (along with Rozario Slack) of Basic Training For Couples–a Marriage Education curriculum that specifically takes into account and speaks to the history and experiences of black people in this country.

    I was introduced to Black Marriage Day through taking her class and much of the curriculum focuses on our unique experience and perspective as African Americans. In addition, in every corner of the curriculum real life dialogue and tools are being shared about not how to just get married but how to STAY married. Many couples use the class as a refresher for their marriage and just as many come in at their wits end and as a last resort before divorce. So, there are no rosy delusions going on here, We deal with real folk who have real issues and by coming to the classes have the opportunity for real change.

    In terms of the “gay marriage” issue, I agree with K.I.M. This is apples and oranges. Just because there is focus on one issue doesn’t mean that focus has to negate or “knock” another issue. Again, I appreciate your voice on this but I truly feel you are either misinformed, under-informed or both.

  14. I am reading this again, now as a psychologist who has studied Black psychology issues for nearly 20 years. It is a hard sell to discuss "slavery's impact" with folks who value modern-middle class notions. However, we do not even need to go back as far as slavery. Try post World War 2. Most often, big daddy and big mama, who were born around that time are still alive. If you parents were from the South and/or migrated to the North as well as the West, injustice and discrimination were a way of life. Respect for Black men and Black women has been hard fought. My father fought in Vietnam yet still felt until he retired as a 30 year school administrator that he had to fight for respect as a man. In that fight, pain arose and families, felt they should not tell their children about "the struggle". A counteraction to that struggle in the 1970's and by the 1980's with the repeal of welfare, affirmative action, and an increase in prison rates for Black men and now Black women, and war on "drugs" that disproportionality impacted Black folk, have all led to our current state of affiars. We can not deny the economic, psychological, and sociological (e.g. types of marriage partners available) impact of legal discrimination post WW2 thru the end of the 1960's. In that void when fathers were lost in Vietnam, heroin/crack wars, and COINTELPRO vs. Black Panthers, came the CRIPS, Bloods, and imitators making a new kind of twisted notion of family. Also, Buppies leaving the inner-citery. After that, any one who wanted to build a family was making it up as they go along.

    I appreciate, folk, same-gender-loving, straight, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Hebrew-Isrealite etc who take time to affirm and re-learn what Black folk have known about marriage to stay married for the long term. However, because of even recent history (last 50 years), we must be definite and honest about how we teach our children about sex, relationships, long-term commitments, and marriage in a way that we have not heretofore been able to do. Also, definitely in a way white folk don't have to worry about and that can not be compared to white people's notion of marriage.

  15. Amber Johnson says:

    Thanks for the analysis, and as a fellow colleague, I understand your points and agree with some. However, we must remember that blackness is not singular. While historical social circumstances do pose challenges for our modern-day constructions of marriage, it doesn't negate the celebration of black marriage. I have been married now for four years and my husband and I have a very strong relationship. We had our rough times in the beginning, but realized our foundation has to be decided between us and what works for us specifically. We never allowed white or black, middle class to dictate our marriage. I know other couples who are able to do the same. Celebrating black marriage day is a good thing. educating black folk about issues specific to our community is also a good thing. and not every organization has to tackle both heterosexual and homosexual marriage problems, however, I will say that from reading the website, there are things that a homosexual couple could apply to their marriage just as there are things that I cannot apply to mine… just my two cents. ;)

  16. Big Black Bilal says:

    This article is more of a “a gloss-over of epic proportion” than you accuse Black Marriage Day to be. It’s an outline of all the bad things that have happened to Blacks concerning marriage (including homosexuality). The truth is that we all are programmed to highlight NEGATIVES instead of building on the POSITIVES. I think Black Marriage Day attempts to do this without dragging us through the trail of tears that people make our history in America to be. We all should try it some time.

  17. Ebony Utley’s article is well written. Some of the comments are eloquently presented. There are pronounced insights that must acknowledged in all of the postings that I read. The discussion stream points to why there is a need for more opportunities to elevate and strengthened that which has been suppressed and weakened; Black Relationships. As an Afrikan-Centered Psychologist who has spent an inordinate amount of time researching Black/Afrikan marriage systems I must say that Black Marriages in American are a testimony to the power of Black Love. We can ill-afford to downplay the role that Afrikan enslavement has played and plays on/within our current day relationships. (No successful group will engage is such activities. Look at the number of memorials and images on US currency to see that powerful people recognize the power of their past.)The ideological core that made the enslavement of Afrikan people possible has never been addressed. The effects of such is what I call Persistent Enslavement Systemic Trauma (PEST). These and other issues were presented at the first Black Marriage Day Observance in Washington, DC with Nisa Muhammad. I know this because I presented them.

    While we must not dwell on the experience of enslavement, we must acknowledge it as a current influence in how we conceptualize marital relationships. Afrikan people brought with them a strong sense of marriage and family. This was evident when during and following legalized Afrikan enslavement Afrikans/Blacks were married and fought to remain in their marriages. Divorce rates were almost non-existent for a variety of reasons even when it was easy to disavow a marriage. (Jumping the Broom was more of a social commitment than a legally bind process.) The illusion of economic advancement or upward mobility may be a major culprit in the high levels of marital dissatisfaction within our marriages. (There are many other factors that could be mentioned.) Although we are earning more in numbers, the dollar is weaker in its impact or purchasing power. Couple that with the inequitable distribution of wages to various racial ethnic groups while concomitantly charging non- Whites higher prices and interest rates for larger dollar items and you have the conditions of Afrikan enslavement operating under the veil of progress. Thus increased frustration.

    Ways of working through these socio-cultural issues while remaining connected to Divine purpose within the context of marriage have been a central part of Black Marriage Day from it’s inception. Honoring the Spirit of our Creator while recognizing the power of our ancestors are highlighted during Black Marriage Day celebration. We are forced to look at how spiritually enriching relationships are to us and how we can move beyond the material elements that entrap us into an empty vortex of marital dissatisfaction. Black Marriage Day is about learning from our past, strengthening our present so that we may experience an unlimited future in whatever manner that evolves into. Black Marriage Day is about strengthening ourselves so that we may have a powerful presence in our marital relationships. Continue to honor the spirit within with love and peace.

  18. This article sounds like the crab in the barrel syndrome. Just because the author experienced a hard life in respect to men and their commitment to a woman that gives no reason to throw that cloak over the rest of society. The day is to give celebration to marriages in the black community because we need to celebrate such valor. If we can get some folks to stop digging up slavery every time issues illegal this come up, we will move forward as a people. When you keep dwelling in the days of slaves you will continue to eat the worms from the past. Marriage has been a gift to society from God through the church. Why now does the same entity have to change it’s approach for a sect of society that wants to press it’s preference onto those who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. It is time to stop trying to pull others back down into the barrel and put a lid on it. Black marriage should be celebrated like other nationalities getting married

  19. I’m not from the US or black but it seems capitalism and class structure are the real impediments towards black marriage, rather than it being a hangover from slavery.

  20. Too many people, of all races, see marriage as some ticket to be punched to enter into the land of social respectability. It’s such a major FU mentality “look at me I got a MAN and youuuuu don’t”…you see it on those ridiculous reality TV shows all the time. It’s insane how in the past few years black single women have come to be so demonized, and the only way they can redeem themselves is to get married? Please. There is two reasons and two reasons ONLY that is legitimate for marriage: LOVE and you want to spend the rest of your life with that person. Any other reason, particularly the socioeconomic ones BMD promotes, is not the right reason. It’s better to get your own job, and learn to take care of yourself instead of waiting for a man to rescue you.

  21. Thank you for this article. A few years have passed since it was written and it still relevant and encourages many great discussion points. This year will be my first real experience with BMD, attending an event in Canada. I think that this initiative can’t even begin to address many of the issues that you raised, and it probably never will. BMD can’t be all things to all people. There are dialogues that we need to have ALL the time, even though some people will find it uncomfortable and other will think that it is unnecessary! BMD is just one vehicle but we also have to develop many opportunities and formats for these discussions to happen. All the same, I am looking forward to raising some of these points with whoever is sitting next to me at the BMD event this weekend. Sometimes that’s just where we have to start. You’re doing great work, thanks again!

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