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.

About

Ebony A. Utley, Ph.D. is an expert in popular culture, race, and love relationships. Dr. Utley’s research explores the tension between power and pleasure in popular culture, examines how Americans talk about race and racism, asks probing questions about marriage and infidelity, and explores hip hop’s relationship to love and religion. She is the author of Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God. In addition to national radio, print, and online appearances, Dr. Utley lectures at universities across the country and is an assistant professor of communication studies at California State University Long Beach. She resides on the web at theutleyexperience.com.