Last week, more hoopla around unmarried black women dominated the media — again. The Associated Press reported that according to government statistics, in 2008 72 percent of African-American children were born to unwed black mothers. Even though the author, Jesse Washington, mentioned that racism, disproportionate poverty and high rates of incarceration factor into this statistic by taking black men out of the community, the article is devoid of any voices and perspectives from single black fathers. Instead it unfairly focuses on women's decisions. It sends the message that not being married and not "wanting" to be married is wrong for them, their children and the black community.
To further push this notion, the article opened and closed in the office of Dr. Natalie Carroll, an African-American ob-gyn in Houston, who has many single black female patients. Carroll repeatedly expressed her disappointment with the women, saying, "The girls don't think they have to get married. I tell them children deserve a mama and a daddy. They really do."
And in true Moynihan Report fashion, this type of framing clearly tells us that the issue is not the role that men play in conceiving and providing for children, or their lack of desire for marriage. This is solely the single woman's fault, and ultimately she has two choices: Either forgo motherhood altogether for the greater good, or be more willing to adapt to what men want in order to become viable marriage material.
Yes, it's that same old story: matrimonial Darwinism.
And no, I am not overlooking the negative outcomes of what happens to black children who grow up without fathers and are encased in poverty. But marriage isn't necessarily going to "fix" the lives of low-income black women and their children. Clearly, something else is at play.
What I am merely asking is that we put these messages into context with the way the public debate about declining marriage rates in the black community has been playing out. Last month we were subjected to the viral cartoon "Black Marriage Negotiations." Borrowing from Tyler Perry's playbook of racial and gender stereotyping, its creator, Darroll Lawson, turns black women into overbearing, self-contradictory and shallow caricatures who claim that they want a good man but prefer a thug; who have their own careers but need to be taken care of financially; and who want their men to be faithful but refuse to "stick that nasty thing in their mouth."
Some call this "satire" ingenious; I call it annoying as hell, as is our obsession with single black women.
What's interesting is that every five years, this topic dusts itself off and re-emerges with a trendy news hook. This time around, we have Perry's exhaustive body of work and our infatuation with the Obamas' marriage to blame for why this topic just won't die. You know it's bad when the subject has infiltrated spaces like the Economist magazine.
My issue isn't with the fact that we are talking about straight black romantic relationships; it's with how we are talking about them. These conversations are not nuanced, eye-opening or constructive. Instead they are dominated by malicious finger-pointing, and cloaked in sexist and classist undertones that do nothing but insinuate that we as black people are pathological. A lot of the fingers point toward black women in particular.
Clearly, we have internalized some of this bias.
Even Halle Berry, arguably one of the most beautiful women in the world, couldn't escape the blame game. When her last, four-year relationship — with her child's father, model Gabriel Aubrey — ended, folks just couldn't understand why all of her relationships ended so badly and conveniently labeled Berry "crazy." Bitch Is the New Black author Helena Andrews was on point in her essay on The Root, "On Halle and Her Men." She writes, "It's time to rewrite the narrative of Halle Berry's love life. We're asking the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking, 'Why can't a man keep Halle Berry?' "
Blogger Damon Young, aka Champ, who heads the black relationship blog Very Smart Brothas, points out that black men don't walk away completely unscathed, either, when it comes to unfair scrutiny. "The latent message isn't that black women are undatable. It's saying that black men are not worthy of these women, or they are incarcerated and not around, or they are not doing their job to keep a woman," he says.
Fair enough. I can see how the stereotypes that black men are shiftless inherent criminals or triflin' playas who can't commit arise in these conversations and further stigmatize black men. Still, I would argue that the media and our own personal chatter — overtly and subliminally — consistently send the message that black women are undatable, unwanted, unattractive and too feminist.
These attacks seem to overshadow the male bashing to which Young refers. Just consider the following: rapper Young Berg's claims that he doesn't want any "dark butts"; Slim Thug's comments that black women need to channel their inner submissive "white girl" in order to please "commodities" like him; and Nelly's video claiming that black women are single because they are constantly looking for perfection. And let's not forget Jimi Izrael's bitter ode to his ex-wife, The Denzel Principle.
"This is not a new conversation, just a modernized version of stereotypes that render black women [as what I call] ‘anti-feminine,' " states Courtney Young (no relation to Damon Young), a feminist journalist and blogger for the Thirty Mile Woman. "Dating back for centuries, there has been an overt undercurrent of black women being [labeled as] undesirable partners, [for either being] too loud, too emasculating, too educated, too successful or too intimidating."
Ironically, this pressure doesn't come only from men. In the October issue of Essence, the supposed black women's bible, the cover's tagline reads, "How to Keep Black Men Happy and Faithful." I wasn't aware that a man's infidelity is directly linked to what I am and what I am not doing. This isn't Essence's first offense. Over the years, the magazine has repeatedly been accused of publishing disempowering, sexist relationship advice that scares women into believing that because there are not enough single and available black men, black women have to be submissive and accommodating in order to lock one down.
Sparring With Self-Loathing
To counter this, some black women have decided to strike back. Last month Madame Noire, sister site of the über-popular black gossip website Bossip, posted the infamous "Eight Reasons to Date a White Man." In this piece, LaShaun Williams encourages black women to date white men because she says they are more likely to not be "on the down low," less likely to want to be taken care of by a woman and won't have children out of wedlock. Claiming that white men don't glamorize ignorance, Williams wrote, "They may listen to rap music, but they are smart enough not to act it out. The 'thug life' is not something to be aspired. White men have a firmer grasp on what really defines manhood.' "
And sadly, this is what has become of black folks trying to engage in the conversation about love: battered and bruised, waiting in our respective corners for media outlets to ring the bell so that we can continue to go at each other, claiming that neither one of us is worth anything and that white people are superior.
While the media — both black and mainstream — fuel this fire, it would be too easy to solely blame them or to claim that it is a conspiracy. Yes, they perpetuate and create spaces for this nonsense, but realistically, the rest of us play a role too. We made comedian Steve Harvey's relationship-advice book Act Like A Lady, Think Like a Man a New York Times best-seller, we read online stories like "Eight Reasons" and e-mail them to everyone we know, and we use social media to publicly hash out these debates on a daily basis.
"I haven't heard a word about Slim Thug in four to five years, until he was interviewed for Vibe's blog," says Damon Young. "If no one paid attention, it might have been read by five or six thousand people, but we tweet it and [post] it on Facebook, and now this little nugget of information has been turned into a big deal."
If anything can be taken away from this conversation, it's that we play into all this and subsequently lash out, not because we are inherently bad or villainous, but because this is what we have been taught to do. Not to mention, a lot of us are also hurting.
Now is the time for the conversation to shift, before we do any further damage.
Time for a Baggage Check
Don't get me wrong; folks have some legitimate reasons to be upset, and we do need to continue to call each other out — in a more civil and dignified manner. But at some point, we also have to be willing to recognize when our complaints are based on sexist ridiculousness, reactionary bitterness and unrealistic expectations.
What's missing is a conversation about how jumpin' the broom might not make you complete if you were not complete to begin with. And how you shouldn't feel like a complete failure if you haven't or never will wed.
What's also missing is a constructive conversation about self-analysis and healing. Hey, life is hard, and we need to address the role that our own baggage — past experiences, upbringing and trauma — plays in how we view ourselves and relate to one another. And most important (channeling my inner bell hooks here), we need to be open to understanding how oppression — whether racism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia or classism — plays out in our everyday lives and affects our romantic relationships. More important, we need to understand how our internalization of all of those prejudices truly messes us up.
And while there are no easy solutions, the key to having more productive conversations about love has to start with our doing some serious introspection, checking our ignorance at the door and learning to love one another a hell of a lot more.
May those negotiations begin.
Kellee Terrell is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Terrell is also the news editor for TheBody.com, a website about HIV/AIDS.