The effort to explain why so many extraordinary Black women are involuntarily single has initiated one study after another, after another, and solicited the unflattering insights of many Black men who, just by default of being Black men, have been arbitrarily promoted to subject matter experts. What we’ve learned from that string of stumbles and missteps is that accurately writing about Black women and Black love requires an alchemy of rigorous scholarly research and thoughtful cultural analysis.
Dr. Dianne Stewart spent months excavating historical cases and firsthand accounts of Black women’s experiences for her new book, Black Women, Black Love: America’s War on African American Marriage. She taught her first “Black Love” course in 2004 at Emory University, where she’s an associate professor of religion and African-American Studies, to explore the historical presence and absence of love in Black folks’ lives through a range of contexts. At the time, she never imagined that her teaching and research would evolve into an in-depth and wide-reaching look at the history, economics, social science, and theology around being unpartnered.
Still, as both an academic and a formerly single sister, the intel she uncovered in her fact-finding was sometimes overwhelming, even to her. “I had physiological reactions to some of the material I was digging up. It wasn’t all new to me. Some of the stories were new, but the material wasn’t all new. So emotionally,” she said, “it was difficult to actually research and write the book, deal with the trauma and the terror, and figure out: how do I convey this? How do I narrate this to my readers?”
Stewart made what she says was “the difficult decision” to tackle Black Women, Black Love because there were no other books she could find that dissected the historic intentionality of making Black love and marriage difficult, delayed or impossible. She calls it “America’s unrecognized civil rights issue,” yet another consequence of the systemic and structural factors that began in the enslavement period, coursed through the Jim Crow era and, despite the achievements of education and enlightenment, followed us into the present.
“What troubles me most is when Black women who deeply desire romantic companionship or marriage begin to give up and adjust their expectations to the norm of singlehood or to the deficits that ensue from the absence of romantic love and affection in their lives. When we talk about the lack of partners for Black women, the books on the market and even programs on television tend to take up this issue at the individual level. It makes sense. We deal with matters of the heart in a very personal, intimate way,” said Stewart, who married her second husband when she was 47.
“After this, I promise, I can tell positive Black love stories forever. But I knew of no books that started in the cruelty and separation of slavery up to the present that either directly or indirectly make coupling and marriage challenging for millions of Black people.”
There’s a three-pronged source of what she calls “forbidden Black love:” laws that are racist and sexist or implemented in a racist and sexist way; a reproductive and sexual violation, evident in the enslavement-era practice of breeding and rape, and the sterilization of Black women in the early to the mid-20th century; and marital and family separation that scattered families, particularly husbands and wives, across far-flung distances.
Stewart wants her research to establish what happened, of course, but she also hopes it will turn readers’ gaze inward to figure out how to shift the outcomes. It’s not about forcing antiquated marriage politics onto women who desire and choose to be single. It’s about beginning to engage the difficult conversations and implementing the intentional healing of the imposing -isms that have contributed to Black women’s singleness. In her classes, Stewart—a womanist scholar trained by James Cone, the father of Black liberation theology—says she witnesses the power of education transform students’ consciousness and lives every day. She wants her book to do the same.
“Give me that opportunity with Black men. I can do something. I can make you a womanist man,” she said. If it seems like a plot twist in the journey to understand Black love and relationships, Stewart was just as surprised to arrive at it.
“I guess I just thought that I would have maybe engaged more of the kinds of conversations I’ve had with Black women, even with myself over the years about the limitations of patriarchal Black manhood. But I didn’t see room for that in this book, in this way,” said Stewart. Because the 1950s nuclear family is no longer the aspirational model of Black familyhood, we need to deconstruct other systems that no longer serve us or our love lives.
“I think we need willing and open participants who are able to hear, who are willing to grow and learn. Patriarchy and sexism has been codified and institutionalized in our societies and our families, but studies show that marital unions where people are sharing household tasks, have a more egalitarian relationship and negotiate their lives together are happier, and experience and express more forms of marital love. Who doesn’t want that?”
Stewart says when she pitched Black Women, Black Love, editors told her the subject matter had been hashed and rehashed. One even asked her for a solution and may have been surprised to learn that Steward does indeed have one. She proposes that building the kind of environment that cultivates and nurtures Black love will require time, patience and care, three luxuries many Black folks don’t have because they’re busy working to maintain the basics and squirrel away just a little extra. But if we build wealth and financial stability, Stewart says, we can then take the time to raise womanist sons and daughters, strengthen our family networks and reverse the damage done by generations of strategic oppression.
“I left the book with a conclusion I never thought I’d have—the most important obstacle to tackle is what I call ‘Black inherited poverty and wealthlessness.’ If we had wealth to fall back on, Black people wouldn’t have to work so hard, especially outside the home. To develop womanist boys, we need to be with them. We need to help them through their emotions. We don’t need to say, ‘Shut up and stop that crying. I don’t have time for that.’ It’s all of those intimate moments—cooking and having dinner with the family, having conversations with your children, asking them their opinions about whatever’s going on politically—that build from within.”
Black Women, Black Love was released in early October and Stewart said her conclusion gave her even more motivation to write the book and write it well, to expose the unique challenges of Black men and women under a different type of light. Now that her focus groups of Black women and Black couples are over, she hopes what she learned from them will help a nation of future lovers and spouses move forward even just a little more together, a little more compassionate, a little more collaborative than they were before.
“We need to workshop with one another and I don’t know that we’ve tried it. There probably are structural ways that we can do it—our religious institutions, our book clubs. I think our conversations have to start with a little dose of Womanism 101, really helping Black men understand how patriarchy actually harms them, how hypermasculinity and toxic masculinity actually hurt them. A great place to start would be bell hooks’ book, The Will to Change,” Stewart suggested.
“I think we sometimes enter these conversations as if we’re ready to place demands on one another, hear those demands and respond to them. We need to start the conversation literally educating and helping one another—especially our brothers—to understand what was actually done to us historically and what we’ve inherited as a result.”