Marriage Still Matters for Many Black Women and That's Okay

By Yolanda Young for The Guardian
Two years ago I sold everything I owned except for my most valued possessions, which now fit comfortably in a 5 x 5 storage unit. I was left with some books, art I bought in Australia and Louisiana, and my wedding dress, still wrapped in plastic.

I’m 46 and have never received a proper marriage proposal – but there was a time, exactly one decade ago, when I hoped to.

I met “Greg” in 1997 at a Christmas party but was recovering from a recent break-up at the time, and I hardly noticed the way his big, brown eyes followed me all night.

He was shy, so it was his sister who arranged our first date. It was a dud. When he asked for a do-over, I suggested we just be friends.

Over the years I discovered how quirky and interesting he was: a techie who loved literary authors; a sports enthusiast able to recite the lines of romantic comedies. He has shown more support for my writing than any other friend or family member. He admires the things about me that I like about myself. It was years before we ever made out, but I have been on my knees since our first kiss.

One night 10 years ago, we retired to my apartment after eating lamb masala at a dimly lit Indian restaurant. He pressed me against the refrigerator, and the magnetic collage of my girlfriends in their wedding dresses fell to the floor. Up to that point, I had escaped the marriage mania that strikes women in their 30s, but shortly thereafter I did something crazy: I bought a wedding dress.

My grandmother had planted the seed a few years earlier, after a childhood friend was left at the altar. “Londa”, I recalled her saying as I spotted a $75 taffeta A-Line on clearance at J Crew, “If a man ever wants to marry you, be ready. Don’t worry about trying to get back to Louisiana for a wedding.”

Contrary to what recent trends may suggest, marriage has always been an aspiration of black people. In 1950, the percentage of married black women was about the same as white women – 64% and 67%. By 1965, a drastic shift took place: divorce rates, women-headed households, and out-of-wedlock births increased at a faster pace than for white families.

In a report that year titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor under President Nixon, warned of dire consequences for black families if the federal government didn’t take swift action.

Political winds shifted swiftly in the wrong direction after the report’s release. White liberals, preoccupied with the Vietnam war and terrified by the Watts riot, begged off. Black leaders, infuriated by passages that focused on the black family’s “startling increase in welfare dependency”, denounced the report. As a consequence, the country never moved forward to remedy the past three centuries of incredible mistreatment toward African Americans.

As predicted, without redressing the “disaster levels” of black male job discrimination and unemployment, the number of black men with means to support a family plummeted.

In 1987, sociologist William Julius Wilson constructed a “black marriageable male index’’ and determined that the number of employed black men for every 100 black women nosed-dived from 1960, when there were nearly 70 employed black men aged 20 to 24 for every 100 black similarly aged women, to less than 50 by the early 1980s. These figures have been exacerbated by what late senator Moynihan believed to be “political choice(s)” – the war on drugs and mandatory prison sentences (there are 1.5 million black men currently incarcerated in the US).

Further eroding the numbers is the fact that black men are nearly twice as likely as black women to marry someone outside their race - 25% to 12%, according to Pew research.

Statistics be what they may, I have never had a problem cultivating romantic relationships. I have certain attributes black men tend to appreciate – I’m inviting, affectionate, and what The Commodores coined a “brick house”. Even though generally “meh” about marriage, I always appreciated the love black men gave me and understood intuitively that the men I tended to date – well-educated, employed, and unlike me, from two-parent homes – were rare.
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