Didn’t You Forget Me? A Queer Black Feminist’s Analysis of the Black Marriage Debate

by Guest Contributor Taja Lindley, originally published at Nicole Clark’s Blog

By now we are all too familiar with the preoccupation with the unmarried Black woman in the media. The question that keeps getting raised is: “Why can’t a Black woman understand, find and keep a man?”
Fundamentally I don’t have a problem with conversations about love and relationships. I have them all the time. What’s unfair about this question, and the conversation that follows, is what’s at stake because when single white women search for love, they get an HBO series (Sex and the City). But when unmarried Black women are approaching, at, or over the age of 30: it’s a crisis, it’s a catastrophe with severe consequences for the ENTIRE Black community, warranting late night specials on major television networks and talk shows dedicating entire segments to finding us a man.The conversation always becomes “what’s wrong with Black women? “ and we get demonized as: unlovable, broken, undesirable, domineering, angry, aggressive, incompatible, uncompromising, too compromising, (in the words of Tyrese) too independent, possessing unrealistic expectations…and the list goes on.Then here come Black-male-entertainers-turned-experts on their horses with shining armor to save the Black woman from herself! To save her from her own pathological destruction so she can do a better job of successfully creating and preserving the Black family. (Damn, that must be a lot of responsibility.)

Conversations like these put Black women on the defensive where now we need to explain what we think, how we act, and for what reasons so that these so-called experts can give us paternalistic and patriarchal prescriptions for solving the so-called crisis of the unmarried Black woman.

Academic professor and researcher Ralph Richard Banks, recent author of Is Marriage for White People?, administers the latest advice for us. He enters the conversation on the assumption that has gone unchecked: that all Black women are successful, and all Black men are victims of America…as if heterosexual Black women seeking marriage aren’t in poverty with a net wealth of $5, suffering from wage discrimination, or also dealing with escalating rates of incarceration. But setting those facts aside, he advises that Black women consider interracial marriage for the purposes of bolstering the Black family and better serving our race. (No, I’m not making this up, see for yourself.)

So clearly what’s at stake here is the Black family. Not Black women’s happiness, not our ability to learn and grow as lovers and partners in a relationship or in marriage. What’s at stake is the responsibility that consistently gets laid on our back about the success or failure of the ENTIRE Black community. As if single parent families headed by women are the root cause for disparities and inequality. (Sound familiar? Yup, kind of like the Moynihan Report.)

My question is: why do people get to collectively comment on my body, my sex, my family, my choices, and my life circumstances? It’s just not fair. The answer: the preoccupation with the unmarried Black woman is part of a larger history and tradition of the hypervisibility of the Black female body. Our bodies, lives, love and labor are always on display as a spectacle for public debate, open for public inspection and consumption (you better believe that people are getting paid for the publication, distribution and sale of these books in addition to “expert” appearances on television).

Black women can’t seem to catch a break! Everywhere we turn we are being judged and diagnosed as stereotypes masked as pervasive problems with Black women. From the billboards that shame and blame Black women for having abortions, and the accusations that our abortions are racial genocide; to the demonization of young mothers and single mothers; to the stereotypes of gold-diggers, welfare queens, and the emasculating over-achieving successful Black woman; to the current preoccupation with the unmarried Black female…We can’t catch a break!

Black women are not a problem. The American public does not always have to be concerned with a solution. We are not broken or lacking, and we are not unfulfilled and incapable of living (or loving) without men. We are whole. So this fear mongering of  “you are not complete without marriage!” has got to stop.

The other problem with this conversation is who’s having it…

Newsflash to all of the so-called experts: just because you have a platform through the entertainment industry doesn’t mean you’re an expert; it means you have an audience. And just because you have an audience doesn’t mean that everything that comes out of your mouth is right. And just because you have a dick doesn’t make you an expert on manhood. And even if you were an expert on manhood, it doesn’t make you an expert in relationships because not every woman is having (or interested in) a relationship with a man.

*GASP*

That’s right. I said it! And quite frankly, I’m one of them.

These conversations are frustratingly heteronormative. When you ask why Black women aren’t marrying men, it might be because I don’t want to. So let me queer this conversation right quick because this is the elephant in the room…

Women are having sex, and relationships, with other women, and as a queer woman of color, I know. So when I hear statistics of unmarried Black women I have to ask: Are these Black women even marrying age? Are they in relationships already? Did they just get their heart broken? Are they single by choice? And are they even heterosexual?!

Some good research has already been done to reveal the absurdity of the statistics being used to paint catastrophic and inaccurate pictures of marriage in the Black community …so I won’t repeat that here.

But given all of this conversation on the topic, it makes me annoyed (to say the least) that the fact that some of us are dating women has not even entered into the conversation. People are reconfiguring love and companionship outside of the confines and institution of marriage and heterosexuality. Deal with it! Not every unmarried Black woman is looking for marriage, or for a man.

Now don’t get it twisted: me queering this conversation is not me offering lesbionic relationships as an alternative to the so-called marriage crisis (because that would be just as paternalistic as the advice administered by these so-called experts). What I’m suggesting is that marriage is not an institution that is available to all of us, and, consequently, is inherently a flawed measure of personal happiness and success. Creating healthy relationships and families without marriage is possible (heterosexual people do it all the time!). Marriage does not equal partnership, marriage is not everyone’s goal, and marriage should not define who we are (or are not).

This is not to diminish the fact that some states allow civil unions or marriage for same sex couples, or the desires of marriage that exist among queer people. The fight for equality in marriage is an important one, and there is significant material, economic and social reasons for why that fight continues. But what I’m offering is that many of us have found ways, out of choice or necessity, to create and sustain relationships and families without the institution of marriage, and that should not be overlooked.

And this is not to downplay the feelings of heterosexual Black women, or any woman, looking to get married and having a hard time finding a compatible mate. That struggle is real, but lets be clear: it does not represent all of us. And even if you are a Black woman struggling to find your perfect partner: the media and these Black male experts do not have your happiness in mind. The alarming and excessive coverage of the unmarried Black woman in the media is only meant to serve the agenda of the capitalistic Black male ego and is part of a history that unfairly blames us for the struggles of our community.

What’s more important is that we are having honest, healthy and fulfilling intimate relationships. And the fact of the matter is that we’re not going to get the best advice on how to accomplish this from mainstream media outlets.

Taja Lindley is a full-spectrum doula, performing and tactile visual artist, and reproductive justice activist addressing the challenges of women of color through creativity, personal transformation and entrepreneurship. She is the founder of Colored Girls Hustle, an initiative that uses art as a tool to create affirming and celebratory images, messages and adornment for, about and by women of color. You can find her on facebooktwittertumblr and Etsy.

  • Anonymous

    Love love love this article. I’m an aromantic black lesbian and let’s just say I often find myself left out of the conversation about marriage, romantic relationships, etc.
    Thank you so much for articulating so many of my thoughts.

  • Kare

    Oh sorry, I don’t know why I thought you meant the potential husbands, that makes sense when I re-read the article. Those guys are really obnoxious! I think I saw Steve Harvey, or 1 of them, on Dr Phil . Here to save women from a problem he made up by pandering to racist stereotypes on international tv! I read the roots article after I commented  too, I didn’t even think the different marriage rates could be a result of the different age of African-American and European-American populations, that’s so obvious I would expect even these fools to correct for that in the statistics. It is shocking the media didn’t bother to before launching this story, they just love prurient stories about Black people.

  • Kare

    Oh sorry, I don’t know why I thought you meant the potential husbands, that makes sense when I re-read the article. Those guys are really obnoxious! I think I saw Steve Harvey, or 1 of them, on Dr Phil . Here to save women from a problem he made up by pandering to racist stereotypes on international tv! I read the roots article after I commented  too, I didn’t even think the different marriage rates could be a result of the different age of African-American and European-American populations, that’s so obvious I would expect even these fools to correct for that in the statistics. It is shocking the media didn’t bother to before launching this story, they just love prurient stories about Black people.

  • Anonymous

    I have to say I love your response b/c I notice how the idea that you must be “perfect” to get a man is one that is thrown at black woman a LOT.  
    It’s as if all of the flaws that are possible in a human exist ONLY in black women and they must eliminate them all just to be in the game.

    I’m a bit disturbed by the level of hubris that it takes to tell the author of an article that she has no right to be part of the discussion that she’s attempting to promote.

  • Anonymous

    I have to say I love your response b/c I notice how the idea that you must be “perfect” to get a man is one that is thrown at black woman a LOT.  
    It’s as if all of the flaws that are possible in a human exist ONLY in black women and they must eliminate them all just to be in the game.

    I’m a bit disturbed by the level of hubris that it takes to tell the author of an article that she has no right to be part of the discussion that she’s attempting to promote.

  • Stephanie Alvarado

    pure brilliance. thank you for your analysis and insight!!

  • Stephanie Alvarado

    pure brilliance. thank you for your analysis and insight!!

  • Anonymous

    I’m going to push back on that, from my own experience.

    Now, I’m a straight, cis black woman who has been in a long term partnership for the last 6 years, that is heading toward marriage. I’m not single. And I’m not the type of professional they generally talk about, since I’m a college drop out.

    But.

    On three sep occasions, two being media related, I was asked how it feels “to be a single black woman,” asked to write about my dating experiences (because you know how bad things are for you single black women!), and asked directly a dating version of “how does it feel to be a problem?” It isn’t just about who the conversation is targeting – it strikes those of us who don’t fit any parts of this developing archetype. Being ignored would be one thing…but this is slightly different. I’m being expected to consistently respond to an experience I’m not having on macro and microlevels. Other friends have other stories that would give a much better insight into more complicated sexualities and how this conversation impacts them (so women who were engaged in hetero relationships but are no longer, but may not identify as bisexual…) but those aren’t my stories.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, well all these conversations do confuse not being married with being unlinked romantically. That is the problem with the term “single.” It technically means not married, but many “single” people have boyfriends or girlfriends.

      Either way, saying that lesbian women are being dragged into the conversation is still disingenuous. I think many people realize black LGBTs exist. Articles about the topic just don’t want to bother being so specific as to say why are “cis-gender heterosexual black american women unmarried.” 

  • Medusa

    Latoya and SakuraPassion have already detailed so much of what is wrong about your response. I just want to address my issue with one part of what you wrote.

    “Marriage is actually more than “just” that.  It is also fundamentally
    about creating a new family unit, with children or without.  There is a
    reason why people give more societal status to marriage vs. “my boo”.
    Family units and the corresponding obligations and connections are the
    underpining of society…”

    No. Marriage is a social construction. Social constructs exist solely to control people. It’s why gender exists. It’s why race exists. It’s why religion exists. It’s why the socially constructed institution of marriage exists. Most people don’t give a second thought to the way we live, and just accept it as “that’s how things are supposed to be.” When people don’t conform to these constructs, they are, to varying degrees, disrespected, belittled, ridiculed, and ostracized. Marriage is one of these constructs that exist to control us. That is the reason people give more societal status to married partners than cohabiting partners. Not because it’s about creating a new family unit. Because it’s a social construct designed for control, and most people are completely willing to conform to and believe in whatever bullshit society tells them.

  • Medusa

    Latoya and SakuraPassion have already detailed so much of what is wrong about your response. I just want to address my issue with one part of what you wrote.

    “Marriage is actually more than “just” that.  It is also fundamentally
    about creating a new family unit, with children or without.  There is a
    reason why people give more societal status to marriage vs. “my boo”.
    Family units and the corresponding obligations and connections are the
    underpining of society…”

    No. Marriage is a social construction. Social constructs exist solely to control people. It’s why gender exists. It’s why race exists. It’s why religion exists. It’s why the socially constructed institution of marriage exists. Most people don’t give a second thought to the way we live, and just accept it as “that’s how things are supposed to be.” When people don’t conform to these constructs, they are, to varying degrees, disrespected, belittled, ridiculed, and ostracized. Marriage is one of these constructs that exist to control us. That is the reason people give more societal status to married partners than cohabiting partners. Not because it’s about creating a new family unit. Because it’s a social construct designed for control, and most people are completely willing to conform to and believe in whatever bullshit society tells them.

  • Lyonside

    Everything else in your seriously flawed response has been addressed, except this: “I know several people who have lost extreme amounts of weight (50 lbs+)
    who have said it was the best thing that they could have done for
    themselves and their families.”

    Yes, and I know several people who suddenly went from normal or slightly overweight to “obese” when the insurance companies and the health care industry realized they could charge “obese” people more for coverage and treatment and changed the BMI to benefit their pocketbooks.

    And I know many overweight/”obese” people who can walk/jog marathons, and many naturally skinny people who can’t. The fat-PHOBIA and prejudice (that everyone overweight is automatically lazy, stupid, and ignorant, for starters, and that everyone skinny is automatically healthy – really? you should see what some skinny teenagers I know eat for breakfast) is what is objectionable. People should strive to be healthy. Too bad entire sectors of our economy are dedicated to encouraging unhealthy behavior.

  • Kare

    Good article! The reproduction of Black women has always been a public concern since
    slavery when women were bred like livestock to increase the white
    slaveowners property. Or in the case of Indigenous women were forcibly
    “assimilated” to undermine claims to their land and culture and their
    rampant untamed sexuality was portrayed as a threat to the institution
    of white marriage and purity of white women. I think this coverage follows that
    tradition.
    But I can’t agree with this “The alarming and excessive coverage of the unmarried Black woman in the
    media is only meant to serve the agenda of the capitalistic Black male
    ego”
    as most of the coverage I’ve seen blames Black men for being in prison, on drugs violent criminal and unmarriageable, which doesn’t seem like a compliment to the male ego. Women are made responsible because men are written 0ff as a dead loss. Or in the case of rich Black men they sleep around because they’re as rare and hard to catch as unicorns,  but the coverage I’ve seen never mentions the structural reasons why most rich people are white (the reason is not because they’re more likely to get married).
    Even though reader says the focus is on rich Black women they are certainly not responsible for  the statistics, I  agree it is the usual conservative agenda of blaming poor people for the social problems caused by poverty. Middle class people are more likely to get married than working class people, Black people are less likely to be middle class than  white people, therefore if working class Black people just get married you will become middle class like married White people. It’s stupid but it doesn’t have to make sense the only point  is to deny class and race exist, they are just the personal failings of individuals.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

    Wow, what an amazing post!

    Although I share your frustration, as I am a African American woman and a lesbian, I am not upset that we are left out of these conversations about Black women in the media. Most of these conversations are so vapid that I can only imagine how bad they would be if the discussion was about African American lesbians.

    My hope is that our conversations will take place in environments like this one at Racialicious rather than the MSM. That way they can be more productive and inclusive. And also hopefully conversations in places like this will mean no celebrity faux experts will be a part of it.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • Anonymous

    Again, a marriage (or a partnership) is whatever people chose to make it. Just performing a ceremony doesn’t make people better citizens, doesn’t make them more financially responsible, doesn’t make them invested in their communities, doesn’t make them healthier people.

    Marriage should not be used as shorthand in this way.

    What most people talk about is the ideal marriage, where there are two people working together to provide a stable family structure, who are building wealth, who are anchored in their community…but that’s not everyone. Not by a long shot. So it’s important to decouple the idea of an ideal marriage from conversations about social policy. They are different things.

    And again, there are happily married people that write here, most recently in this roundtable:

    http://www.racialicious.com/2011/09/07/on-interracial-dating-the-beyond-marriage-panel-1-of-2/

    They will be the first to tell you it’s hard enough keeping their own marriage together, without thinking about the needs of the entire race.

    Feel how you want to feel about fat acceptance, but we don’t police bodies here. Even Erika, who runs the fabulous weight loss blog A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, talks about why she may be more on the size acceptance side but understands why the movement exists.

    And, again, if you want to talk about your search for a husband, go to Clutch.

    Here are a few good articles they have written that seem right up your alley:

    http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2011/12/single-black-women-guess-what-were-not-doomed-after-all/

    http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2011/12/jim-jones-t-i-show-us-how-to-love/

    http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2011/11/the-case-for-marriage/

    http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2011/11/will-you-marry-me/

    http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2011/11/stop-holding-on-so-tight-to-your-type/

    http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2011/11/half-of-americans-think-women-should-be-legally-required-to-take-husbands-name-do-you-agree/

    http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2011/11/why-being-a-single-mother-is-not-always-enough/

    http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2011/11/seriously-what-do-black-women-really-think-about-love-and-marriage/

    http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2011/10/does-the-single-woman-meme-divide-women/

    But if you have a problem with listening to queer black women talk about the marriage debates, and you want to talk about personal solutions to structural problems, this is not the space for you. I’m not saying that to be mean – but there are many, many spaces on the internet you can go to have exactly the conversations you crave. Please respect this author and allow her to have the conversation she wants in this space.

  • thebibliophile

    I’m really excited to read this article – just as an FYI, it would be really helpful if Racialicious could post longer pieces in plain text as opposed to italics. It’s actually really hard on folks who have sight issues.

    • Anonymous

      If you hit refresh, the coding should be fixed. A tag wasn’t closed.

      • thebibliophile

        Thank you kindly, much obliged. :-)

  • Neurochick

    The problem with many of these conversations is that marriage is being
    touted as some kind of Holy Grail and it just isn’t.   Marriage doesn’t
    absolve you of problems, it comes with its own set of problems and
    challenges.  

  • Reader

    Um, nobody forgot about queer black women, but in conversations invovling marriage to MEN, why be surprised that you weren’t a part of that discussion?  No one has been framing this in terms of lesbian and gay rights.   The onslaught has been put on single black child-less professional women.   This is the same as all of the women who are poor that are upset about the fact that the “media” is really only discussing middle-class or higher black women’s prospects in the marriage market.  Most of the people screaming about this “media” hype are not the actual focus of said “media” hype.  And while it IS crazy and marginalizing, it is really only being done to marginalize black women who are NOT Crayshaun and Boniqua.  Crayshaun and Boniqua got left and denied respect by the mainstream after Reagan uttered the words “welfare queen”.  

    And why is this site so focused on the  black women who AREN’T looking for marriage?  Most of us ARE NOT gay, or sex workers, or porn stars, or gamer nerds.   Black women are like every other group of women, and the vast majority ARE looking for marriage and children, just like the vast majority of women on this planet.   We may not NEED husbands, but most women do WANT one.   And the black community in America is on massive FAIL mode (duh), and the absence of fathers and husbands DOES have a large part to do with that.  The frequency of these conversations in public spaces isn’t going to go away as long as we have a black president (ya’ll noticed no one talks about black MEN anymore right? lol), so a more honest viewpoint on “Black Women” would be appreciated.

    • Anonymous

      Seriously?

      Queer women are still women, so they get dragged into this conversation too – so they have every right to speak out. And as folks who are not legally permitted to access the benefits marriage provides, I would argue that their perspective is even more important, especially if marriage is being pushed as a cure all to every issue plaguing the black community. And the Crayshaun and Boniquas of the world…as well as the Latoyas (*ahem*) have a right to share their perspectives because harmful stereotypes don’t just harm the intended recipients, just like positive stereotypes still have negative blowback on the recipients.

      As to why this site is focused on black women who could give two fucks about marriage is very similar to fat acceptance – there is an entire internet that is dedicating itself to the handwringing over this issue. At this point, you have any choice of outlets to talk about wanting a husband, from Clutch (which I love) to Cosmo (which I hate) to CNN (which is puzzling) to the Washington Post. So this space is an alternate perspective. I don’t think we’ve made it a secret that marriage isn’t the cure-all for what ails – at its worse, marriage is just two people saying they are going to be together legally. Marriage is used as a shorthand for a lot of thing that isn’t fixable just by walking down the aisle.

      And we generally speak from experience – of the black women writing for this site, we have one former writer who is currently married; one current writer who is married and has written about that experience, one who is divorced and dating; and one who will probably be married in 2013. We aren’t interested in pretending marriage is something it isn’t.

      So feel free to head elsewhere for those kinds of conversations. We’re going to continue to accept submissions exploring marriage, partnership, love, sex, intra- and inter-racial dating. But they are generally not going to be from that frame.

      • Neurochick

        I agree.  Marriage isn’t the cure all of all ills.  If a person believes that they will be very disappointed.  The relationship begins when the problems do.

      • thebibliophile

        Speak! Real talk. Thanks LaToya. 

        Reader’s comments do lead me to wonder: what do we do with our own internalized oppression around ideas of marriage and gender, amidst the media onslaught?  On the one hand, a womyn can be legitimately trying to think through what marriage means to her. On the other, working through that in the midst of all of this propaganda, just complicates things. And (silly me!) where are white womyn and feminist in calling out this anti-feminist narrative and attack on Black womyn?

        While I disagree with Reader on many points, the class privilege is important to consider. I’m hitting the delete button on most things about Black womyn and marriage, so perhaps I’ve missed the discussions of class in this debate. May in rest in peace in 2012 (please, oh, please oh please, let it rest in 2012!)

        • Anonymous

          thebibliophile: this topic is not gonna die in 2012, it’ll probably get more intense now that Steve Harvey’s book is becoming a movie, scheduled to hit theaters spring next year. I wish I were making this up smh.
          http://www.reelz.com/movie-news/12579/first-trailer-for-think-like-a-man/
          http://www.facebook.com/ThinkLikeAMan
          ~taja

          • thebibliophile

            Remember that time in Good Times when Florida got real upset. And then all of a sudden she said (gasp!) DAMN, DAMN, DAMN. That’s how I feel right about now. I’m so exhausted….

        • Anonymous

          thebibliophile: this topic is not gonna die in 2012, it’ll probably get more intense now that Steve Harvey’s book is becoming a movie, scheduled to hit theaters spring next year. I wish I were making this up smh.
          http://www.reelz.com/movie-news/12579/first-trailer-for-think-like-a-man/
          http://www.facebook.com/ThinkLikeAMan
          ~taja

        • http://twitter.com/laprofe63 Lisa Amor Petrov

          Good questions. As a white feminist married to a black man (who calls me “too feminist” sometimes!), I couldn’t resist sending in a letter to the editor on this article from Sept. in the Chicago Sun Times:

          http://www.suntimes.com/news/mitchell/7829627-452/profs-radical-advice-for-successful-black-women-marry-outside-race.html 

          My letter get edited alright! They cut out the part where I said that men need to shut up about what Black women “need to” do, though they did keep the “everyone needs to mind their own business” part!

          http://www.suntimes.com/opinions/letters/7862662-474/unneeded-advice-for-black-women.html 

          Granted, I didn’t even bring up queer women; and the author of this post is on point with her observations and interpretations regarding heteronormativity, etc. That is precisely why, to me, this is a feminist issue that all women should be concerned about. 

          Understandably, there are those women (Black and non-Black), who can’t find suitable men; and they are looking for answers and help. That’s fine, but frankly, no amount of book publishing, talk-show appearing, or advice-giving is going to introduce a man to any one of those women! So it’s all about selling crap, and patriarchal bullsh*t.

    • s. mandisa

      Please come again.

      Could your post be anymore dismissive and dehumanizing? From the way you completely miss the point of the wonderfully articulated article by devaluing welfare recipients (which also buys into the racialized myth that connect welfare and black women, although statistics show otherwise)  to the way you police what it means to  be a “single black child-less professional woman”-as if black LGBT women cant be single, child-less, and/or professional.

      As a black lesbian who wants to get married, you and I both know these “experts” are not talking about me and the many women like me. So why is there the need to act like the writer has done something wrong to mention LGBT women? By speaking in broad terms, as if all black women act, think alike, these “experts” are not only reinforcing every stereotype of black women since we were first trafficked as slaves, but is missing the complexities and richeness of black women’s actual lived experience. 

      Also, how do you know that the vast majority of women ARE looking for marriage and children?