Who’s Afraid of the Single Black Woman?

It was during one of those rainy Sunday afternoons–what I call my solitude time in the comfort of my home–that I discovered William Wyler’s 1949 movie The Heiress on TCM. I surf through my cable channels oh so delicately, lest I see another image berating my existence as a black woman. Movies of old rarely knew we existed, or thought we did so only as maids.

In this movie, there were no black characters–only a shy “plain Jane” heroine, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), who bears the condescension of her father and suffers heartbreak after her fiancé, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), deserts her when he learns that she will no longer inherit an immense fortune. Eventually, she does inherit this fortune, but when the lowlife Morris predictably returns, Catherine rejects him, much to the chagrin of her aunt, who thinks a loser husband is preferable to none at all.

Needless to say, as a single black woman in my 30s who is quite comfortable with her single status–and I am not the only one, despite what family, church, community, media and the rest of society has to say–I was exhilarated when Catherine bolted the door on Morris and nobly ascended the staircase, the lamp she held leading her to new found self-awareness and independence. We have yet to see duplicated in contemporary films women of any color making such bold choices in rejecting a man without replacing him first (gasp!). I was not that surprised, then, when I went online in search of commentary and criticism on this classic film, to discover present-day audiences lamenting that Catherine would forego marrying a man, no matter how worthless he was, for an unknown and perhaps unmarried future.

I would like to think that this is a sentiment shared only by a few members of our society who are invested in traditional notions of gender and marriage. Yet I find countless blog posts and commentaries lamenting the state of single women–black women in particular. Offline, this anxiety, or what Danielle Belton of The Black Snob blog calls “marriage panic,” reverberates in CNN special reports, in Essence magazine, from church pulpits, and at black public forums. Then there’s Helena Andrew’s recent memoir, Bitch is the New Black, which is being marketed as a black Sex and the City,” focusing on the endless woes of a single black woman.

Except we have been down this road before: Think Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale back in the 90s. While The Heiress is set in the nineteenth century, I can’t help but think our contemporary “marriage panic” is grounded in similar Victorian concerns; it’s all so nuclear-family-oriented, so pre-sexual revolution. In a time when queer communities are fighting for same-sex marriage rights, black heterosexuals are wringing their hands over the presumed inability to access basic heterosexual marriage rights.

Again, this is not surprising considering how, historically, one of the first things freed slaves did–having suffered the pain of being separated from partners, children and relatives–was to marry and establish themselves as legitimate citizens. That queer communities are fighting for the same “legitimacy” today means that we as feminists should scrutinize how all those marginalized in society are shut out from marriage and the social, political and economic benefits that come with it.

When a white wealthy woman like the fictional Catherine Sloper rejects marriage, she is rejecting the patriarchal exchange of her father’s wealth to her would-be husband. Black women, who have traditionally not served in these exchanges, have had to generate their own income or struggle alongside men who did not have their own wealth.  Our romantic notions of marriage overlook these hard realities of economics, but when it is reduced to an issue of whether or not a woman is deemed “desirable” enough to be “legitimate” and to have “legitimate children,” it is not so easy an institution to reject for women who have historically been excluded from it and who have looked to the romance of marriage as a refuge from a racist, misogynist society.

But I’m reminded of something historian Paula Giddings once stated in her essay, “The Last Taboo,” included in the Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power anthology: “Black women have not had a sexual revolution of our own.”

While class-privileged heterosexual white women were busy stepping down from pedestals that were off-limits to black women and reclaiming their sexuality with new found choices that came with birth control, black women were still battling stereotypes that undermined our status in the racialized beauty market–which still determines who is worth marrying, worth dating or simply worth humiliating through sexual acts of power. Despite “black is beautiful” rhetoric and Afro puffs from those liberation days, this was clearly not enough to dismantle the complex system of white capitalist and imperialist heteropatriarchy.

Fast forward to the new millennium, a time when more women and men in general are staying single for longer periods–some never marrying while others are divorcing or engaging in serial marriages. In fact, there are quite a number of single black men, too, but few media outlets have questioned the “problem of the single black man.” Is this because, unlike single women in general, single men can be viewed as having a fulfilling life outside of marriage?

Whether or not single black women represent the highest number of adult women outside of marriage, I can’t help but wonder why mainstream media conversations have turned the spotlight on us in particular. Black bloggers have weighed in: What About Our Daughters declares that it is mere media propaganda that promotes hatred of black women, while The Black Snob created a comical response: “How to Die Alone with all Fifteen of Your Cats,” to which some commentors have replied that they already started stocking up on their kitten supply.

Who knew that “spinster-shaming” would be back in vogue for the early 21st century?  Despite the stark statistics showing that black women have the poorest health care, the highest rates of STDs and HIV and have suffered harshly during the present economic crisis, most conversations about black women are focused on whether or not we are “desirable” and “pretty enough,” or if we are “too strong” for black men and other men outside our race. Worse, for those of us who have risen above the extreme racist misogyny that permeates our society to achieve educational and professional success, we are routinely chastised for daring to make these choices, for holding a job or buying that home on our own. How dare we show that we can make it on our own! How dare we have standards as to the kind of partner we wish to have!

So what does one do to a woman who refuses “her place” on the bottom of a racist misogynist society? Why, prey upon her insecurities as a woman! Tell her she’s not “pretty enough,” that she’s “too dark” or her hair “too kinky” or that her behind is too big!  Tell her she’s “too loud” and not “feminine” enough. But more than that: tell black women that we are essentially unmarriageable. And one doesn’t have to be single to hear these disparaging remarks. Even First Lady Michelle Obama isn’t spared such negative criticisms of her looks and behavior.

Fortunately, black women are resisting these representations and conversations. Nika Beamon’s I Didn’t Work This Hard Just to Get Married is one such work that dares to assert that some single black women have chosen this particular status rather than having it forced upon them. Writer and Feministing guest blogger Dani McClain suggests that this is an opportune time to challenge the exclusive socio-economic power of married heterosexual couples and to begin conversations with LGBTQ communities on redefining family and relationships.

We must reclaim our lives–single, married, heterosexual, queer–and resist narrow constructions of how we live that life and sustain love, family and community.  The late Audre Lorde said it best when she stated, “If we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others–for their use and to our detriment.”  If we rely on others to turn our lives into a “social pathology,” then we will miss the creative opportunity we now have to redefine our lives toward social possibility.

Photo from Flickr user jfinnirwin through Creative Commons License 2.0


  1. Erica L. Williams says:

    Congratulations, Janell, this is one of the smartest, most insightful commentaries I've read on this issue!

  2. Emily Knox says:

    Our romantic notions of marriage overlook these hard realities of economics, but when it is reduced to an issue of whether or not a woman is deemed “desirable” enough to be “legitimate” and to have “legitimate children,” it is not so easy an institution to reject for women who have historically been excluded from it and who have looked to the romance of marriage as a refuge from a racist, misogynist society.

    Thank you for this. Whenever I'm in a group of (usually white) women who start talking about how they don't want to/don't believe in marriage I just don't say anything but I never understood why. I always felt that they were actively rejecting something that just didn't apply to me. If I give you my stats (34, black, in a Ph.D. program) you would never expect me to be married anyway.

    It's one thing to reject marriage when both you and society affirm your worth and desirability as a woman. (Especially if you've actually turned down marriage proposals). It's another thing to reject it when you know that you have worth and are desirable but society disagrees.

    • Amen, Emily. I'm a black college educated woman who is approaching 50, and throughout most of my life all I've heard is nothing but negativity re: the idea of black women and marriage. Even when I married young at 19, I got criticized for it, told I had "settled" and was "acting white." Now I'm told that Black women are the least marriageable for a variety of factors. Never mind there are also fat, loud, rude white, latina and asian women out there…they all can seem to find husbands, but not US. I think some people simply just don't want black women to be married or happy, so they'll say anything and everything to hold us back. No I don't "need" a man, but I WANT one, dammit, and I'm tired of being made to feel guilty fo doing so 🙁

  3. It seems to me that society "teaches" black men to always be insincere playboys and they "teach" black women to not just like a lying insincere man but to LOVE him. This is why some find it so "shocking" that a woman can be smart enough to say, "Hey, I can do bad all by myself. A no good man is not worth my time". We are supposed to love a black man no matter what he does, how dishonest he is or how uneducated he is. He's STILL a black man and there are NO expectations in society for a black man… so they have no REAL expectations for themselves. Its ok to be a playboy with limited resources at 30 years old… everything is ok. While we are always taught that we are "on our own" and have to work HARD for whatever we acheive. Why would I be willing to marry any bum off the street when I've worked so hard for the things that I have… for some man who doesn't really think he should have to acheive much at all? I think for those of us independent and confident thinking black women, we understand this question and know that sometimes… single is the BEST way to be.

  4. Janell Hobson says:

    Thank you, everyone, for your comments to this blog.

  5. Stacey Peterson says:

    Thanks for this thought provoking piece. I agree with your point about redefining relationships. I think that we, as an American society, only see things in a linear fashion. So, when people make decisions outside of that, we don't think it could possibly be a person's conscious choice.
    I am a 44 year old African American female college professor. I'm single, never been married, have no children. I teach at a women's college in Baltimore and my students don't believe that I am as happy and satisfied as I appear or that my life is this way because I prefer it this way. You can see the "poor Dr. Peterson" in their eyes and hear it in their voices when we come to the coursework on relationships. To be honest, I've only seriously considered marriage once in my life and I attribute that more to youthful hormones and blind love than actually really wanting it. I'm dating a man right now who lives in another state, who is 14 years older than I am, and is of a different race. We say that we define our relationship on our terms and it doesn't have to fit any so-called societal norms…as long as we're both happy, then things are fine. I'd encourage us to step outside of the linear relationship box.

  6. Mary-AntoinetteSmith says:

    Loved this well-written and insightful commentary. Well done, Janell! (and thanks for endorsing to remaining a happily divorced and blissfully single fifty-something African-American university professor and Director or Women Studies).

  7. Ravenmoon says:

    Blessings, and thank you Janell:

    I am a young 64 year old retired single African American Tradeswoman, who loves life. I feel for our younger sistahs because they seem to think that being single is a fatal disease, thus take anything just to say they have a man. Black men(Some) have been showing very poorly, and as Alexis above says, seem to have no expectations for themselves. Being single is not fatal. Know your worth and don't settle, then be unhappy.
    I am so proud of the Black women today that are doing it for themselves. I hope that out of loneliness,
    they don't settle just to have someone. "I've been there and done that"

  8. Thanks for the great article. I'm getting tired of dating "experts" telling women of all races to lower our standards so that we can get married. They need to tell men to start living up to our standards.

  9. The whole thing is ridiculous. One has to wonder why is it wrong to be single? If marriage was so darn wonderful, why are so many people cheating on their spouses?

Speak Your Mind


Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!