A Queer Black Feminist on the Black Marriage Debate

It was good for my soul to re-read this Racialicious post by Taja Lindley from December:

The question that keeps getting raised is: “Why can’t a Black woman understand, find and keep a man?”

Fundamentally I don’t have a problem with conversations about love and relationships. I have them all the time. What’s unfair about this question, and the conversation that follows, is what’s at stake because when single white women search for love, they get an HBO series (Sex and the City). But when unmarried Black women are approaching, at, or over the age of 30: it’s a crisis, it’s a catastrophe with severe consequences for the ENTIRE Black community, warranting late night specials on major television networks and talk shows dedicating entire segments to finding us a man.

The conversation always becomes “what’s wrong with Black women? “ and we get demonized as: unlovable, broken, undesirable, domineering, angry, aggressive, incompatible, uncompromising, too compromising, (in the words of Tyrese) too independent, possessing unrealistic expectations…and the list goes on.

Then here come Black-male-entertainers-turned-experts on their horses with shining armor to save the Black woman from herself! To save her from her own pathological destruction so she can do a better job of successfully creating and preserving the Black family. (Damn, that must be a lot of responsibility.)

It just feels good to know there are other people out there who see through the nonsense. Racialicious is a great place for that online, by the way. I probably spend too much time thinking about this, but Lindley gets to the heart of the matter really well:

Newsflash to all of the so-called experts: just because you have a platform through the entertainment industry doesn’t mean you’re an expert; it means you have an audience. And just because you have an audience doesn’t mean that everything that comes out of your mouth is right. And just because you have a dick doesn’t make you an expert on manhood. And even if you were an expert on manhood, it doesn’t make you an expert in relationships because not every woman is having (or interested in) a relationship with a man.

*GASP*

That’s right. I said it! And quite frankly, I’m one of them.

These conversations are frustratingly heteronormative. When you ask why Black women aren’t marrying men, it might be because I don’t want to. So let me queer this conversation right quick because this is the elephant in the room…

Women are having sex, and relationships, with other women, and as a queer woman of color, I know. So when I hear statistics of unmarried Black women I have to ask: Are these Black women even marrying age? Are they in relationships already? Did they just get their heart broken? Are they single by choice? And are they even heterosexual?!

Several years ago, when the editor of an anthology about black relationships and I had lunch, I mentioned to her that I liked her book, but I thought that maybe it was leaving out some folks. This was around 2004. It was a well-done book with a beautiful cover, a couple of friends and writers I admired had been included. But there were a number of essays about the tensions and frustrations of black people in relationships with one another, and they were all largely heterosexual with the exception of maybe one queer man.

I believe she chuckled and changed the subject. This happens all the time in the black community, so it makes sense that it happens in the world at large — the dismissal of queer lives and relationships because they fall outside of socially acceptable paradigms.

But black people having non-heteronormative relationships is not likely to go away anytime soon. The question is whether our culture will learn to open up the “dialogue” to incorporate the many different narratives and relationship scenarios available to women, especially black women. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because Viola Davis is soon to play Barbara Jordan in a biopic. I do wonder how the movie will treat the late, admired senator’s longtime relationship with Nancy Earl? Jordan is like at least half a dozen women of color in public life who kept her sexuality out of the public eye — probably for good reason. But I wonder what the long term cost will be for not including LGBT people in this discussion of relationships, the single life and dating. My guess is that it’s not good for anybody.

Single Lady Books: Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough

Maybe I dislike this book because I laughed out loud during all of Tina Fey’s Bossypants (which you should absolutely read if you haven’t) and I only grimace while reading this one. Maybe I have publication envy: I pitched a book with better journalistic merit than this one and I was told it wouldn’t be marketable and I that I should choose between memoir and reporting — just not both (this one’s got both!)

Something else about Lori Gottlieb’s book, “Marry Him, The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” also troubles me, though. It’s more than the fact that she interviews her friends as sources. I think it might be this idea that what happens to white women in the dating world is somehow a universal experience and therefore, marketable, but when it happens to women of color, it’s worthy of a magazine piece or two, or a minor mention during slow news seasons, but not book-length works.

The writing itself is engrossing and entertaining. Presumably, she found women who were not her friends to interview extensively about being too much like her. Gottlieb is a 40-something single mom living in Los Angeles. She wrote a popular 2008 article in The Atlantic (before Kate Bolick, which, for the purposes of writing about single people should now be referred to as B.K.B.) about why women should settle.

Her premise, in the article and in the book, is that women need to stop being so picky before it’s too late and their chances to mate shrink. Essentially: If someone — a dating coach, a married couple, anybody — had told her when she was 29 that ruling a guy out because he ate his toe jam was too much to ask, she would have found other things to like about him. No hair, so what? Is he intelligent?

Is she kidding?

Certainly, I know women who expect way too much, especially considering the baggage we all bring to the table. But I also know women who have only ever settled for good enough, which, naturally, is subjective depending on where you are in your life. That’s no walk in the park, either. It doesn’t usually lead to marriage, I’ve found.

I’m halfway through the book at the moment, slogging through it because I am hoping that there is something more than the projecting here that I am missing. I know some women (just like I know some men) who are single because they are holding out for Mr. Perfect. But I am instantly defensive and annoyed with the cultural judgment that comes with whatever people’s non-negotiable lists are. Love is connected to dreams, and we are a culture that dreams big. So should you make an edited vision board for relationships or not?

Maybe it’s because I don’t like people telling me what to do, which is ironic, considering how much self-help literature I’ve consumed in my life. Anyway, have any of you read this book? Books like it? Do you think you are single because you haven’t found someone good enough?Is it possible that you have impossible standards?

Mancession or He-Covery?

I really did intend to get to this sooner, but it’s the kind of news that doesn’t get old.

I wonder what other people make of the words we make up to describe economic trends: Mancession. The End of Men. He-Covery.

This Jezebel blog had me cracking up:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, 2/3 of new hires by American companies were men. A total of 1.6 million dudes joined the workforce compared to just 600,000 women, re-widening the gap between men and women in the workforce, which means that everyone lamenting the death of the American man can just go right on ahead and shut up.
In October 2009, women comprised 49.99% of the workforce, a breath of a hair of an itty bitty thread away from being half of Americans in the workforce. Part of this illusory equality was brought on by the gendered nature of the industries overwhelmingly affected by the recession in the first place. As the recession plodded along, the jobs in traditionally male industries like construction didn’t return, and unemployment benefits started to run out. And we now appear to be moving away from gender parity once again; threatened with impending expiration of any form of aid or income, some men did the unthinkable— debase themselves enough to work women’s jobs like- gasp!- retail.

What I find fascinating about discussions around masculinity now, seriously, is that there are few stories focusing on older men and women — past well into their 40s and 50s, but not yet old enough to qualify for retirement benefits — who have to take any kind of job to make ends meet.

The way we’ve talked about the economy up to this point has been focused on the way work has become more feminine or woman-focused, despite the fact that men still make more money and hold more of the decision-making positions in society. I feel like that has to fuel some of the resentment that men have about single women. The only thing I really have to go on is the snowballing number of articles about women as breadwinners and men as stay-at-home dads or irritated jobless jerks.

I wonder if the War on Women here in Texas and across the country is related to women’s success during America’s economic downturn. Something about women being free to make decisions about their own bodies, whether they actually have money or not, tends to really piss off wealthy white dudes, I’ve noticed. “Those broads have too much independence, while the bros are struggling,” I can hear one of these guys muttering.

Living with Mentally Ill Parents: An essay for The Feminist Wire

A piece I wrote about both my mother and father was published today at The Feminist Wire, since they’re doing a series on mental health/illness. Here’s the beginning:

Walking with my mom, Maggie, as a kid, I heard someone call her crazy. She wore her black wigs until, with wear, they turned into frayed, layered gray clouds. Her thick nails were caked with layers of chipped maroon nail polish. She stuttered when she spoke, unless she was angry. Her black purse was thick as a mail carrier’s with letters, rosaries, but no wallet. We usually didn’t have money, so missing a wallet was no big deal.

“I am protected by the Lord Jesus Christ, my savior,” she started. And then, all that Cherokee blood that made her cheekbones so high rose to her face. She knew Jesus, yes, but she also knew how to go off. Curses and spittle followed until the accuser backed down.

Maggie had both borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder, triggered by the death of my 12-year-old brother Jose in 1976, but I wouldn’t learn about her diagnosis until I was older. Jose was the youngest of her five children. I was born in 1978, named for Jose and a childhood friend of hers.

Maggie never married my father, Victor. She had been working as a secretary at the time, after a lifetime in Philadelphia via South Carolina. He was a tall, handsome ex-military man who worked in civil engineering. He liked to drink, maybe too much. He had endearing brown eyes that seemed to smile even when he was frowning.

Maggie followed the invisible trajectory of most people who don’t trust therapists, don’t want help and still manage, somehow, to make lives and babies and homes. She unraveled over decades, spinning through communities that believed God alone could cure her. She attended Mass daily before her health declined and it would be hard to prove God hadn’t saved her, since there were no other real reasons that she should have still been alive.

Her mother, Edna, died when she was young. She went to live with an aunt, but she never felt like one of them. She was lighter and quirky, beautiful and thin. She loved chasing men her whole life, even though she once considered becoming a nun.

It’s not exactly light reading, but you can read the rest here. Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you.

Troubled Hearts and Silent Pain: A Guest Post at the Good Men Project

One of my favorite writer friends sent me a link to The Good Men Project over a year ago, and I’ve been wanting to blog there for some time. I was recently included in a series on mental health in a personal piece about black men and mental health:

Before my father, Victor, hung himself in his garage in April 2010, it meant very little to me that 7 percent of black men struggle with depression during their lifetimes. When the suicide rate for African-American male youth rose 146 percent between 1980 and 1995, it seemed like another sad statistic to add to many others.

In an abstract way, I knew it was difficult to be a black man and to be beyond sad. I could hear it in all of Donny Hathaway’s music, even before I knew he had been depressed and learned his story. I felt a wave of compassion for Don Cornelius when he killed himself earlier this year.

As someone who tried to commit suicide when I was younger, I understand the despair. There comes a point in the blues when one feels beyond any kind of redemption or reach. Recognizing that darkness and isolation has given me a well of empathy for how hard it must be for black men to reveal their pain.

Black men like my father, like Hathaway and Cornelius, carry the weight of an intricate layer of stressors on their heads. Racism. Indignities. Bills. Police. Prison. All these are factors before a man even grows up and possibly even after he graduates from college.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

A Spring Break Hiatus

Perfect image by Dee Stewart, as shared on Facebook. Thanks, Dee!

I love blogging about the single life, but in addition to the #SXSW tsunami of tech nerds, long lost friends and films I hope I can see (this is not even counting day parties!) I intend to have a blog-free Spring Break to catch up on writing, reading and studying for the GRE.

See y’all in a couple of weeks.

Nerve: Marriage is now culturally optional

This is from Nerve:

According to a new study, only fifty-one percent of adults over the age of eighteen are married in the U.S. That figure represents an all-time low and a seven-percent drop from a survey taken in 2000. How can we decipher these chilling new numbers? Is everyone going to die alone? Is Western Civilization finally coming to its oft-predicted end? Is this somehow related to the Kardashians?

Probably not. Mostly, according to researchers, people are broke, scared of divorce, and not as pressured as they used to be to officially lock things down. “In the 1950s, if you weren’t married, people thought you were mentally ill,” said one researcher. “Marriage was mandatory. Now it’s culturally optional.” Millions of couples are now opting to just live together, a demographic that saw a thirteen percent jump in the past year alone.
Researchers also point to the fact that more twenty-somethings today come from divorced families, and thus are way more skittish about jumping into marriage. But college graduates are still much more likely to get married than adults with just a high-school education. “They’re pulling in two incomes, marrying and doing pretty well,” said the researcher. “People without college educations are having a harder time finding jobs, and they’re reluctant to marry.”
So in spite of everything, is the takeaway here that an “MRS Degree” is still kind of a real thing?

I don’t know about you guys, but I think people still think I’m mentally ill because I’m single, and it’s 2012. What gets lost in a lot of discussions about how marriage used to be is that marriage was and has been mandatory as part of the norm for white couples. I’m not saying black people haven’t been getting married for a long time (or that other people of color haven’t been getting married for a long time) but the cultural value of marriage is simply different in different communities. And as people from a multitude of ethnic and cultural backgrounds continue to grow in the U.S., it’s worth noting that their cultural mores affect the fabric of the nation’s cultural attitudes.

 

Dating Dispatches: Richard, the white rapper

When I was traveling between Houston and Beaumont, I covered this hip hop conference in Houston called The Third Coast conference. Yeah, I know.

The story never ran because my editor at the time didn’t like hip hop. But I had just bought my own car, and I was feeling free. A friend and I hung out after the conference with this rap group from Pittsburgh. The quietest among them was Richard, and we hung out separate from the group.

The Hip Hop Dalmatians, Rin & Tin, From Brown Sugar

When I tell you I can’t remember a single conversation I had with Richard, I’m not exaggerating. The conversations we had were about Biggie, Pennsylvania and the fact that his mother thought I looked like Erykah Badu — probably because he had never brought another black woman into her kitchen before. I don’t think I was even wearing a headwrap at the time.

(Note to self: Even some of the coolest white men have families that are a little bit dismissive of black people and sometimes they all think we look alike. That scene felt like it happened a century before Simon Baker and Sanaa Lathan got down in “Something New.”)

He was the first of several men I dated who had a love affair with the glorified gangster life, which included smoking more weed than seemed humanly possible or even necessary for blacking out the entirety of his existence. This didn’t make him a big talker. That made our three-month long-distance relationship pretty challenging.

I tried, though. I flew to Pittsburgh. I hung out with him for a weekend. Soon after that, he decided he was going to the Marines.

One day I will write more about my love of military dudes. Something about the willingness to die for what you believe in, the structure and discipline military life requires. Oh — and yeah — my dad was in the military.
Our romance ended abruptly when he said he bought a ticket to come visit me in Beaumont and instead, I called him in Pittsburgh that morning and his mother said that he’d missed his plane so he had just decided to stay home. I think he sent a card, but I was so heartbroken that I dismissed it. He called and said he signed up for the Marines I think, and at some point, I got a card from him saying when he was going to Camp LeJeune and then I never heard from him again.

I spent the next four months chatting with men on BlackPlanet before I drove across country to Seattle.

Reads for the Weekend: February’s over? Women at War & Queering Black Herstory

So, yeah, we got an extra day. But March still snuck up on me. February was crazy!

Lovely Guest Post from WomenWellLoved: You deserve your love & affection

Planned Parenthood Saved Me (aka, Kiss It, Komen.)

I loved Nippy, crack quotes and all. My love note to Whitney.

Speaking of fantastic women, Rest in peace, Marie Colvin. I read this 2002 Vanity Fair piece about war reporters who happen to be women and it did my heart good. “Boys get fascinated by toys about age two, and that never changes,” Colvin says. “That’s not what I think is important about covering a war. I think the story is the people.”

I haven’t written a lot about the LGBTQ community here yet, but I intend to get there. In the meantime, this was a great piece about whether or not it is a disservice to women in black history to require that they present according to popular standards of gender norms.

In black relationship dynamics, incarceration has been a huge, tragic and ongoing factor. Michelle Alexander, an expert and scholar on The New Jim Crow, writes about the myth of desegregation in America.

Single Lady Quotes: Madonna

“I’m anal retentive. I’m a workaholic. I have insomnia. And I’m a control freak. That’s why I’m not married. Who could stand me?”

““I’ve been popular and unpopular successful and unsuccessful loved and loathed and I know how meaningless it all is. Therefore I feel free to take whatever risks I want.”

“If your joy is derived from what society thinks of you, you’re always going to be disappointed.”

So sayeth Madonna, who I have loved through all of her transformations. Yes, even when she had no business trying to rap.

This is also a plug. I wrote an essay that appears in the new Soft Skull Press anthology, Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop.  You can follow Laura Barcella, who edited the anthology, on Twitter.  If you get a chance to read it, let me know what you think.  It’s already gotten some good reviews, which is exciting.This one at For Books’ Sake says I have a different opinion of Madonna than bell hooks.  And I didn’t even know that bell hooks had called Madonna a plantation mistress. Guess I’ve got some (more) reading to do.

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