I used to devour Newsweek like the latest issue was a Butterscotch Krimpet Tastykake, the addiction of my sweet-toothed childhood. At the end of February 2003, a year after I started working as a features reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, I was struck by a cover with familiar black faces like Beyoncé and Star Jones with the title: “From Schools to Jobs, Black Women are Rising Much Faster Than Black Men. What it Means for Work, Family and Race Relations.” It included the first modern-day reporting of dismal statistics for black love and marriage for black women seeking black men. It included the sentiments of a black woman business mogul who was so desperate that she joked about finding it perfectly acceptable to go into prison to find a man, since that’s where all the black men were.
This was five years before Beyoncé’s hit song made the phrases “Single Ladies” and “Put A Ring On It” global. It’s still one of my favorite songs of all time. Beyoncé Knowles, as far as I know, didn’t say anything groundbreaking or earth-shattering. But I was worried that the educational and financial inequalities among black women and black men had made the cover of Newsweek. Dirty laundry was officially on America’s front street. In the March 2, 2003 issue of Newsweek, Ellis Cose wrote eloquently on the Black Gender Gap:
College-educated black women already earn more than the median for all black working men–or, for that matter, for all women. And as women in general move up the corporate pyramid, black women, increasingly, are part of the parade. In 1995 women held less than 9 percent of corporate-officer positions in Fortune 500 companies, according to Catalyst, a New York-based organization that promotes the interests of women in business. Last year they held close to 16 percent, a significant step up. Of those 2,140 women, 163 were black–a minuscule proportion, but one that is certain to grow…
Is this new black woman finally crashing through the double ceiling of race and gender? Or is she leaping into treacherous waters that will leave her stranded, unfulfilled, childless and alone? Can she thrive if her brother does not, if the black man succumbs, as hundreds of thousands already have, to the hopelessness of prison and the streets? Can she–dare she–thrive without the black man, finding happiness across the racial aisle? Or will she, out of compassion, loneliness or racial loyalty “settle” for men who–educationally, economically, professionally–are several steps beneath her?
Cose mentioned several books that explored this question, including Veronica Chambers’ “Having It All?” “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” and several others, some penned by the women in the article. He ends his piece with both sides of the story – the future looks like one of isolation for black women who would prefer to marry a black man who is their financial and intellectual equal, but black women have always managed to survive things in the past.
I mention these stories because they are evidence that the topic of single black women has been positioned as a fraught conundrum now for nearly nine years, which most stories about single ladies don’t contextualize. For better or worse, these stories also follow what has become a formula for writing about unmarried black women and single ladies in general: gather the statistics, find bodies to reflect the trend, admit that no one knows for sure how all of this will pan out and end with a bleak or rarely hopeful non-ending. Finally, these stories almost never find women who have decided not to settle for relationships just for the sake of not being single but instead infer that being successful and unmarried probably equates to loneliness instead of adventure and freedom (which are apparently the sole provinces of unmarried men.)