If racism results in thwarted opportunities, then I've felt its reach most in my relationships with black men.
By and large, I've entered any place I had a mind to, attended the schools of my choice, landed the jobs of my ambitions. Sure, I've encountered peoples' funky attitudes: teachers who ranked my test scores as outstanding, "for a minority"; or employers who've hired me under EEOC guidelines and then appear surprised that I am indeed articulate, accomplished, and skilled. And getting stalked in stores under the suspicion of shoplifting seems to be the gantlet run by black girls everywhere. But the sense that my choices are fewer, chances dimmer, comes mainly because I am a black woman trying to love a black man.
Defining yet another aspect of the black experience in terms of lack is a bourgeois pastime that I hate to indulge. It's an age of guarded love for everybody, with reciprocity an elusive goal for many. But throw race into the mix, and frankly, all the social, economic and political hardships that come with it make receiving and giving love that much harder.
According to sociologist Donna Franklin in "What's Love Got To Do With It?," there were 65 "marriageable" (read: skilled and employed) black men for every 100 black women of similar position in 1990. Rising rates of incarceration, declining rates of education and employment, and a steady stream of homicides are behind the shrinking pool of black male mates, lifelong or otherwise.
Given the stats, many men escaping this holocaust have developed what Franklin describes as a sense of inflated value. I'm forever amazed to hear brothers -- friends, relatives, good guys -- pimping themselves as commodities in short supply, as if black-male genocide in prisons and on city streets can be construed as having any kind of bright side. "Settle," my stockbroker neighbor boasts of telling the mother of his 6-year-old son; he's black, paid, supposedly every black woman's dream. She'll just have to wait until he's finished playing the field. "Settle," I've heard the sprinkling of brothers at parties coax the ocean of sisters, only half teasing about exploiting the skewed gender ratios to the sexual advantage. "Settle," was what a former lover (so to speak) predicted I would do, when I was 40, still single, and hard-up.
The callousness often wounds me. I find myself wondering, "Where is the love?" like black feminist June Jordan asked in a classic essay. With characteristic optimism and unflinching faith, she answered herself: "It is here, between us, and growing stronger and growing stronger." That was in 1978, around the same time as the gender wars ignited by Michele Wallace's "Black Macho" and Ntozake Shange's "for colored girls," but pre-"The Color Purple" -- when the rancor between black men and women hadn't yet reached today's fever pitch. In her essay, Jordan argued that the viability of any community is measured by the degree to which it works to change, rather than exploit, inequality. But today, when the real crisis seems to me to be one of love, not of numbers, my postnationalist soul wonders how to keep, as Jordan says, "the union of black men and black women, as a people, intact."
Isn't it ironic that after the Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, Black Power, feminism, and so-called free love, gender relations between black men and women are worse than ever? Our language reflects the low regard we have for one another. We are no longer husbands and wives, lovers, partners, significant others, or even friends, but bitches and niggas, chickenheads and scrubs, babymammas, babydaddies, and boos. That we had a segregated Million Man March and then a Million Woman March reveals that our community agendas are steadily diverging along the gender line.
In "Salvation: Black People and Love," bell hooks argues that these split visions, which are at mutually destructive cross-purposes, stem from the fact that 60s and 70s social movements never put black love on a social justice agenda. In striving for the beloved community, we made "loving our enemies" a political priority, while neglecting each other. We championed patriarchy in the name of nation-building while our families crumbled. That lethal combination created a toxic politic in which "community uplift" strategies came at sisters' expense. That counter-revolutionary legacy is still with us.
An activist with whom I've been organizing a grassroots campaign builds a case for polygamy while giving me a lift home. The subject slides from injustice to the black-relationship crisis and what to do about both, arguably because the two are linked, but mainly because he's hitting on me. On this weekly ride to Brooklyn, the conversation always resumes right where we left it because I'm toying with his offer; there's a chemistry between us that has me curious. It's a safe flirtation, I tell myself. Conventional wisdom and my gut advise that the polygamy proposition usually comes from men who have yet to love one woman well but want to service all. But more than flattery fools me into hearing him out. He makes his points:
Monogamy's been a joke. True.
Feminism's at a crossroads, as women struggle to integrate their liberated lives into viable relationships with men, who themselves are floundering for purpose.
Black men are increasingly jailed, strung out, or dead, with black women, if not joining those ranks, increasingly alone. Amen.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Hmmm.
Every man needs a little dog in him.
His rap screeches in my brain like a cassette played backward, making the ugly message plain. What he has in mind, his vision, as it were, requires that I compromise. For the cause, he's offering sex. He's offering company, though strictly late night. Suddenly, an affair feels very lonely, akin to masturbation but without the satisfaction guarantee. I pass. Yet the exchange leaves me hot and bothered, which is to say pissed going on sad.
I can't shake the feeling that sixties community uplift came at black women's expense. Emmett Till's slaying for recklessly eyeballing a white woman is widely regarded as a major flame to the fire of the civil rights movement. Consequently, Donna Franklin observes, besides integration and voting rights, the most tangible outcome of the movement was the repeal of anti-miscegenation laws. Ever since slavery, legislation, social policy, and cultural attitudes have conspired against the black family. Why haven't we made it just as much of a political priority? It's odd using an institution as historically oppressive as marriage to measure strides in social justice. But as a barometer of the affection, or lack thereof, between black men and women, it indicates whether black families and communities thrive. Of all Americans, black people are the least inclined to marry. Black women get divorced at a rate that is double the current national average. And while black women considerably outnumber black men -- if you don't count all the men in prison -- twice as many available black men marry someone other than a black woman.
It's an old lament that interracial marriages, especially between black men and white women, shrink the pool even further. But the reality is that the majority of black people marry other black people. Maybe it's that we choose to be with each other or maybe it's because so few others choose to be with us, a fact that would explain the obsession with interracial dating. Last November, when the Alabama state legislature finally erased a constitutional provision barring interracial marriage -- a provision that the Supreme Court struck down in 1967, mind you -- 40 percent of the electorate voted against rescinding the century-old rule.
It's because of this resistance that interracial relationships are held up as signs of "racial harmony and progress," although I've grown weary of the trend. It's gotten so that if you make healthy relationships between black men and women a priority, you're deemed narrow and racist. Last year, on the tv show ER, Eriq La Salle, who plays a black surgeon, refused to continue an interracial story line. Before then, his character -- an abusive jerk with issues -- dated black women whom he mistreated. In the interracial relationship, however, he was shown finally discovering empathy, and becoming a better person because of it. La Salle protested that portrayal of black love; in popular culture, it seems love sees no color except when it's black, and then it's anything but. To my girls, he was our hero, that rare breed of black male celebrity who goes out of his way to stand up for, rather than demonize, black women. We were baffled to hear friends lament what a shame it was that La Salle couldn't transcend race, as if he'd shown some moral failing rather than fortitude.
Holding up interracial relationships as sign of racial progress also ignores the intraracial animosity between black men and women, complicating blithe notions of sisterhood. I resist the water-cooler bonding with white female colleagues who want to share their latest jungle-fever escapade while vacationing in the Caribbean or their lusty crushes on the new, rare, black-male hire. I resent the ones who sneak triumphant glances at me as they writhe at the side of some dreadlocked brother. (Truthfully, this happened only once, but it was not just my imagination.) Recently a white woman recruiting me for a job in Austin, Texas, sought to reassure me that the racial climate is waxing tolerant by offering that, in the neighborhood she's gentrifying, a black man has been allowed to live with his white wife in peace. I respond more quickly, sharply, than intended: "The thing is, his racial progress is some black woman's setback."
I am dating a black man now. But even he, as pro-black love as they come, shares with me an Esquire profile of a black trainer who remembers the "Birth of a Nation" furor over boxer Jack Johnson's brazen parading of white paramours during the World War I era. The trainer marvels that, in his lifetime, the world has so changed that he can now live with his Swedish wife worry-free. My lover, a literary guy with an appreciation for the ironic twist, wants me to see the poetic justice. And I do. It's just that, in my lifetime, I'd like to marvel that black men and women made love work.
Holding love hostage to Afro-utopian fantasies under the banner of radical politics does no one any favors, of course. The Black Is Beautiful sixties made that clear as self-appointed arbiters of authenticity squelched individual expression. I believe people should embrace love wherever, and with whomever, they may find it and I have a shameless double standard when it comes to black women dating white. I dated a golden-haired white boy my entire senior year of high school, and to this day he ranks as one of the nicest men to have ever graced my little black book (figuratively speaking). As my best girlfriend says, if a man has nine out of the ten qualities you're looking for, and the only thing lacking is black skin, he's a better choice than the man who has only two, one of them being that he's black.
I raise a silent "you go" cheer when I see sisters escaping the numbers crunch by dating or marrying interracially. I refrain from open applause because my love hates this: to him, a black man living with his white wife in Sweden is a giant step for the race, while a sister marrying across the color line is a betrayal. "What kind of psychological dissonance is involved in dating white for a black woman aware of our history?" some brothers ask. No more than that which comes from wondering if the black man you're dating sees you or T & A a la BET music videos. And let's not forget, all those race men -- Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright -- got over the "psychological dissonance" of marrying interracially.
Increasingly, sisters are getting over it, too. There's this cell-phone commercial where a white boy flirts with a cute chocolate sister whose Afro is reined in by a psychedelic scarf. The din of the party drowns out his rap, so he sends her a message via cell phone. By commercial's end, she's charmed, and so am I. It's rare that I see a black woman -- unmistakably of African descent -- portrayed as someone whose affections should be courted rather than ravaged. I tease my boyfriend that it's probably only as white men start to find black women attractive that brothers will give us the correct time of day.
But even if the black men and women currently living on the planet became healthy, whole human beings ready to give and receive love to each other, the disparate ratios means that somebody still ends up alone.
The odds are it will be a professional black woman. It's common knowledge, making me feel that my personal business is in the streets, pitied and pitiable. During that same job interview in Texas, with almost embarrassing candor I worried aloud about dating options in Austin, where blacks are a fraction of the populace, and a black middle class almost nonexistent. The middle-aged white woman who was my host said drolly, "Well, you know dating is a problem for professional black women, wherever you go." Even my nephew, a hardhead-turned-prison philosopher who's experiencing the genocide first hand, writes a letter congratulating me on my relationship: "I know that in this day and age things could go either way."
This class dynamic doesn't exist in a vacuum. Some cultural catch 22s are at the heart of the imbalance. Traditionally it's been said that black families "raise their daughters and love their sons." Girls are taught to be fiercely independent, so that we never have to depend on a man who may leave. Boys are pampered as the "most victimized" by racism and so that, maybe, if there are no responsibilities, they'll stick around. In either case, the lopsided rearing makes for lopsided couples.
But rather than encourage brothers to step up, our culture demands that sisters be less, blaming us for succeeding like we were raised to do. A whole slew of films -- from "Boyz 'n the Hood" (Angela Bassett's character) to "Soul Food" (Vanessa Williams's character) to "The Best Man" (Nia Long's character) depict professional black women as ambitious and alone no matter how attractive, because we are somehow too driven, too smart, too successful, too independent, too damn much.
"Date down" is a common suggestion. Considering the underemployment of many brothers, a sister needs to forego the notion of a baller in a Benz to rescue her from the single life, goes the line. I hear that. The economic reality for everyone is that few men, of any race, can do more than pull their weight. No one can afford to be the mythical sole provider today. In an effort to broaden my horizons, I dated a hat maker, a construction worker, a correction officer (talk about psychological dissonance), a detective, a firefighter, a twenty-something slacker. And I enjoyed the strolls on the Promenade, home-cooked meals over a video, rollerblading on Randall's Island. I didn't enjoy the digs about my "gainful employment" making me the breadwinner -- like a man. The catch is, brothers have their knight-in-shining-armor fantasies too.
Debunking the man-as-breadwinner myth is key in easing these class tensions. The gendered racism of the corporate world is such that it's difficult to even meet middle-class, straight black men in the workplace; they seem to threaten the white men who dominate. Consequently, many opt for gigs that are better for the soul than for solvency. This economic reality is forcing black men and women to address long-held notions about gender roles that were of dubious merit anyway. But it seems that none of us are adjusting very well.
Since Sojourner Truth's "Aint I a Woman?" speech (or the one attributed to her), black women have created their own definitions of womanhood, even if they were ignored by the mainstream. I've often asked my black male friends to write an "Aint I a Man?" essay describing a black manhood independent of patriarchy. My love says that would be easier if his black women friends -- even the feminists, including me -- weren't secretly yearning for patriarchs, a man who admires a woman who can pay her own way but would never let her. Who plans the dates; drives the car; pays the tab, if not the bills. Who takes charge.
Sometimes. But rather than a patriarch, I'm looking for a better half, a man who steps up and in. Like many black women, I find myself with nets only as wide as I can stitch them, while others turn to me for back-up. I'd like to look to someone else for a change, even if it's just to decide which section of the movie theater to sit in. Too often, though, no matter what else a man brings to a relationship, his contributions are measured in dollars.
The last time my love and I went at it was over another couple's money problems, which of course got me thinking we might have some of our own. The scenario: She wants to buy a house, have some babies, and is wishing that her husband, a creative soul with a freelance hustle, would get something more secure to complement her steady 9 to 5.
I say to my man that I can understand where she's coming from.
He says I wouldn't be saying that if it were the other way around, if the man were the breadwinner with her freelance income supplementing his.
I clear my throat and say, "Yes, I would," waxing egalitarian about couples doing what ever it takes to pursue their dreams together. And in theory, I really mean that. It's like my philosopher nephew wrote: "If there is love, there should also be understanding. It really shouldn't matter who makes more or who makes what."
But on the real, I fear the sister's being used if she's the one footing the bill. It's conditioning. According to Donna Franklin, more than three-quarters of black women give negative messages to their daughters about black men. It seems that cultural catch-22 cuts both ways. Brothers may be pampered rather than raised, but then sisters talk bad about them when they don't measure up. My male friends have shared their anger at overhearing girlfriends in their "rap circles" -- wayward offshoots of 70s consciousness-raising sessions -- where women dog brothers in the presence of their young daughters, singing shrill litanies about how trifling, how broke, how unneeded black men are. My own mother never spoke ill of my absent father, though I sensed her silence was a damning case of "if you don't have anything good to say, then say nothing at all." A woman who endured two loveless marriages that spanned almost 40 years, she urges me to enjoy the single life.
I have, more than she'd care to know. In the process, I've learned that I can do bad -- and very well, too, thank you -- by myself. I'm also learning that, when a relationship is right, I do even better with a partner. Lately, I've noticed in myself, and among my peers, this growing desire, both primal and political, to protest the destruction of our families. We feel we've paid too high a price for an earlier generation's free love. "Family time" has become our mantra as we see that the Reverend Jesse "It's nation time!" Jackson is just somebody's babydaddy. Love is not all that matters. But as bell hooks writes in "Salvation," her book on black love, "Without an organized, mass-based, progressive, anti-racist political movement, which we also need, it is all the more crucial that our homes become sites of resistance."
Revolution begins at home.
One weekend my man and I spend hugged up, reading to each other, raiding the fridge, and talk-talk-talking until words are beside the point and sex an afterthought. As a benediction to our weekend, we share a shower and emerge late Sunday evening in search of food. For a hot minute we fret this whiling away of days has been stereotypically lazy, of the eat-and-sleep variety. It takes no time to realize that, in this era of black communities beset by so much self-hate, black love is rare and radical. Giddy as we are, we imagine Black Love Day -- a national holiday to celebrate black families. Instead of boycotts, marches, mass-transportation shutdowns so that white folks can see how much they need us, black people would stay home and make love, as a reminder of how much we need each other.
Those just "kicking it," just "messing," just "trying to hit it" could use the day to consider something more serious. The de facto polygamy that is so dangerously rampant (can we all say HIV? HPV? STD?) would be urged to become more honest, consensual, and safe; there are men and women who are down with open arrangements, and they should hook up. Singles still waiting for that prince or princess could practice self-care to develop the capacity to love -- and recognize its arrival. Everybody would read Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," the consummate black love novel of a man and a woman striving to live as equals, even as they sometimes falter in that quest.
So far, it's a private rather than a national agenda that we observe. During one impromptu celebration, the talk-talk-talking reveals that my love and I have the same wild fantasy: to share 50 years of marriage with one person. Both of us just past 30, we're getting kind of old for this to be a possibility, but it's not our age that makes us hesitant. With healthy living, modern medicine, and lots of luck, it could happen.
What holds us back is that the evidence all around suggests that the odds are against us. We fear that we've been so damaged by abandoning fathers, abrasive mothers, that it's naïve to try for something lasting. We don't want to mold our relationship to mirror traditions that don't serve our realities. We rack our brains to name couples whose unions we admire. The lack of viable paradigms and role models humbles us. Can we be so arrogant to think that we can make love between black men and women work when, besides Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, the couples around us largely have not? Will we look the fool for trying?
I guess time will tell.
It requires patience and undoing some damage. I don't want to be another bitter black woman haunted by my father's absence or that man who opened my heart only to leave scars. He doesn't want to be another bitter black man still smarting from his mother's shortcomings or that woman who used him. Nobly trying to be above it all means that the hostilities appear as stories of friends who are struggling with no-'count brothers and evil-ass sisters. The misogynist rap lyrics he shares supposedly so we can both concur that they're hateful feel like sly ways to vent anger toward women. When he winces at my rants about the boys in the park who follow me around, sharing unimaginative musings about the uses of my "fat black ass," I suspect I'm doing the same. We endure and embrace these eruptions of unresolved history like labor pains, knowing that we are creating something new, from scratch.
There are no set roles. We play to our strengths and pick up the slack. I cook the most, because it's relaxing and I enjoy feeding friends, but he burns in the kitchen most regularly. He also washes dishes, the chore I avoid like the plague, and takes the heavy lifting. At times what looks like tradition is more personal sensibility. Like, I have this drill that I bought myself and learned to use with passable skill, but I'd rather not, and so still feel like a good feminist as he installs the bookshelves. We say thanks a lot, which sounds kind of formal but is actually very nice because it's a reminder that we're choosing to love.
Nothing is certain except change. But if any one should have cause to ask, "Where is the love?" I feel, like June, that I can respond with faith: "It is here, between us, and growing stronger and growing stronger."
Angela Ards is a writer living and loving in Brooklyn.
Originally Published in Ms. Magazine Aug/Sept 2001