In this introduction to The Wedding Plan: A Collection of Short Stories, I explain the reason I was moved to create these stories. My hope is that the discussion will continue with the voice of more women, of all colors and creeds, weighing in. — Joy Simone, author, The Wedding Plan
The numbers are in. Statistically speaking, African American women who are “educated,” meaning have some college and/or post-graduate education, are least likely to be married with children. The numbers say 46 percent, in fact. According to the U.S. Census, 46 percent of African American adults have never married, compared with 26 percent of all American adults. By their early forties, 31 percent of African American women have never married, versus 9 percent of Caucasian women, 11 percent of Asian women and 12 percent of Latino women in the same age group.
They have posted articles about it, discussion boards too numerous to count have explored the topic, and books have been written on the subject, advising black women how to “get a man,” or simply starting the “conversation” about the state of black relationships in America. The underlying message behind much of the commentary is that something is wrong with black women. If you want to go for hyperbole, the statistics could read, “Black women are the least desirable women on the planet.” How about that?
Say what you will, and bravado aside, that is a lot to swallow. In the midst of all the pressures to live a good life, to survive financially and emotionally, it doesn’t bode well. And if you happen to be a black woman, a single black woman, the sentiment can eat at you.
It manifests in cravings for salt and vinegar chips, triple caramel Frappucinos and molten lava chocolate dessert. It’s weekly nail and hair appointments, overpriced cars and celebrity-sized closets. It’s a lot of work proving that you’re worthy, that you’re wonderful, only to find that you are still alone.
In some instances of black women remaining unmarried, it’s not about loneliness; it’s about lack of commitment. Simply put, some black men in relationships won’t marry. Some say they aren’t ready to settle down (even though they’ve been in a relationship with the same woman for many years), they don’t know if they’ll ever get married, they’re not sure she’s “the one.” In his book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, Steve Harvey gives insight into the reasons men won’t commit, and he offers advice on how to foster a committed relationship.
The debate about the marriage statistics among black men and women began with reviews of Ralph Richard Banks’ book, Is Marriage for White People? How the African-American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone. When the commentary began, people were angry, judgmental, called black women “angry and bitter,” accused black women of not being feminine enough, submissive enough. There were accusations that black women were not realistic in the type of men they were “waiting for.” Black women were too choosy, too domineering. You name it, people had a lot to say about black women. Mr. Banks in his NY Daily News article suggested that black women should begin to date outside of the race. Even this, a tangible solution, was met with varying degrees of disdain. Somehow, it turned into an attack on black women. This, despite the fact that Banks pointed out the outlook was gloomy even when interracial dating was entertained. TheRoot.com’s book reviewer also took issue with Banks assertions.
“When selecting a mate,” Banks said, “[African heritage isn’t as valued as European or Asian heritage.]” Factors such as money, smarts, looks, family background, etc., were listed as determinants for how/why a man will select a mate. And once again, according to statistics, black women made the cut less often than women of other races.
In her New York Times opinion piece, Angela Stanley, a researcher at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Ohio State University, had this to say:
Proposing interracial dating as a solution requires more than just black women acquiescing. Understanding the numbers and the realities of single black women takes more than just a lopsided glance. Despite the visibility of people like Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Condoleezza Rice, black women as a group are still largely negatively stereotyped in movies, television, music and other forms of popular culture. However, because black men have been disproportionately affected by social inequities, black women have been implicitly conditioned not to add to that burden. Being critical of black men, instead of being supportive and sympathetic, is often viewed as adding to the problems of black men.
Stanley also cited a 2008 University of California, Irvine, study, which found that while women of color were more likely to include white men in their dating pools, white men were more likely to exclude black women.
One of the things that moved me to write this was a desire to shed light on black women as three-dimensional beings. There’s so much criticism along with the often touted “angry black woman” stereotype that I think people forget that we are people… with feelings and who need and deserve love as much as any other race or individual.
In an MSN.com article, author Brian Alexander sites Yale sociologist Averil Clarke and her then soon to be published book, Love Inequality: Black Women, College Degrees, and the Family We Can’t Have. “[Clarke] sees the impact of this demographic trend in a slightly different, and more romantic, light. It’s not about passing on economic and educational advantages, though these concerns are valid, she said. It’s about love.”
I’ve lost track of the number of conversations I’ve had with professional women all over the country who have it going on and still can’t find a mate. Actually, many can’t even find a date. In the ‘90s, the wish list was popular. Common theory was that you had to be specific about what you wanted in a mate in order to find the right one. Well, the lists grew and the years did, too. I will say it seems as if the younger generations of women seem to understand that being “independent” does not have to be at the exclusion of family life and/or a mate. Norms change. Over the past 10 years, I’ve traveled from coast to coast; the stories don’t change. Sisters with great jobs, great homes, great attitudes, great bodies… single.
When Hill Harper’s book, The Conversation, debuted and discussions hit the airwaves, I was hopeful that we were going in the direction toward change. I even discovered that we had a day dedicated to “black love.” Black Love Day, founded in 1993, is another alternative to a mainstream holiday, in this case, Valentine’s Day. I thought the idea was good, but the discussions about relationships among African American men and women often ended with more frustration than when they began. I was hopeful that black men and women would rid themselves of the marketed ideals of love and beauty, and pay attention to the ideals that have helped make our families successful throughout the years. I didn’t understand why so many black male peers either found marriage undesirable or could not find a comparable mate among the two-to-one and higher ratios of black women to men reported in major cities.
Another alarming statistic revealed that African Americans who rated among the most educated and financially prosperous were not producing offspring. Why? Largely because they weren’t getting married. If the most educated and potentially the most intelligent among us are not having children, then we are missing out on the opportunity to see the long-term effect of desegregation and affirmative action.
MSN.com contributor Brian Alexander noted the following in his article, “Marriage Eludes High-Achieving Black Women”:
When educated black women remain childless] this defeats the goal of affirmative action, argue some demographers. The idea behind assuring that blacks had access to higher education and graduate school was that after a generation or so, African-Americans would reach a kind of achievement parity after generations of suffering educational and career restriction. But if black women, who comprise 71 percent of black graduate students, according to the census data, do not have children, the rate of achievement reaches a kind of familial dead end. (Alexander, Msn.com)
On the other hand, often it seems that those with less education have figured out that creating a family is not rocket science. Maybe these women are simply in environments with more black males, and therefore more easily able to meet and enter relationships with black men. But when you speak of marriage, statistically the numbers aren’t better for those in lower economic brackets. According to Banks, marriage has declined the most among poor people. “…the black poor are the most unmarried of all. But the racial gap in marriage is apparent even among the middle and upper middle class. College-educated black women in their thirties, say, are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be unmarried. And college educated black men are less likely to be married than college educated men of other races.” Banks raises an interesting point about black men and marriage. If black men are least likely to marry whether they are educated or not, entering a relationship with a less educated black man does not increase the likelihood of marriage for black women.
When I was coming up, I noticed, or maybe it’s more in hindsight now, but I recall moms who made it part of their job to foster relationships for their daughters. It was apparent that marriage was in the plan as early as high school. I’ve heard stories of “cheerleader” moms who tailored their girls for marriage from a very young age. By high school, they were already lining up prospects, whether the captain of the football team or the boy voted most likely to succeed. Among the black women I’ve encountered, this tactic was almost seen as taboo, as gold digging. Waiting until a later age for marriage certainly has its benefits, but having been involved in a long-term relationship in high school likely ensures a higher probability of marriage overall.
With so many single-parent households, it could be that the “modeling” just wasn’t available, and therefore, marriage was off the radar. Also, the main message reiterated by many single moms was independence… “You do not depend on a man to take care of you!”
No doubt this was good advice, especially coming from women who had seen and lived through the ramifications of being dependent upon a husband or father who walked out. Black, white or otherwise, the need for women’s empowerment and the message of independence remains relevant.
With regard to the black family and marriage, I don’t have the answer any more than the statistics proclaim the truth about what really goes on in households across the country. In his New York Times article, “Blacks Need to Reinvent Marriage,” sociologist Dalton Conley states:
There certainly is a dearth of “marriageable” black men in America today. But this account is ultimately unsatisfying: It assumes a rather inflexible notion of marital roles, and embedded within it is the unexamined (racist) assumption that blacks must marry their own kind.
Cultural institutions are enormously flexible, and we see that in the United States today: the number of marriages in which the woman is the breadwinner is on the rise; as are marriages between older women and younger men — and even between taller women and shorter husbands! But the group with the most traditionally marriageable men is the one leading these trends — that is, educated whites. Blacks maintain the most traditionalist ideologies with respect to family roles — despite the greatest apparent need to reinvent marriage.
A new perspective on what the family unit looks like is in order for the African American community. Black women, in particular, have already been forced to reexamine their view of the family. Some have adapted, many continue to wait it out or forego marriage altogether.
Each woman’s circumstance is unique to her. What I do know is that I’ve talked to too many women who are hurting, and brothers as well, and I think the dialogue needs to continue.
What must be reiterated is that many black women are in loving relationships and are married, 54 percent; as a culture, we have reached heights far beyond our circumstance. Being single is not a sentence or a punishment. Many choose to be single, some because they enjoy independence, others because they refuse to settle for less than they want or deserve.
As Stanley states in the conclusion of her article, “What has happened, though, is that black women have been silenced. When we are vocal, we are problems. The marriage debate highlights the need for black women to tell our own stories….”
The short stories I’ve written and assembled here provide some insight into the daily lives of women maneuvering through the obstacles presented in their lives and relationships. Do you stay? Do you leave? Do you marry him anyway? And at what cost? These are a few of the questions left for the reader to address.
Black women as a whole have a right to be angry, but most of us are not. We are many things. At times we are hurt, sad, disappointed, disenchanted, strong, resilient, resourceful, creative, forgiving, loving, assertive, independent, submissive… we are women who know how to make lemonade out of lemons.
My goal was to create stories that present a candid view of black women, of women in general, of the sacrifices we make silently, the compromises we endure. These characters and their stories are compilations of women I’ve encountered throughout my life, experiences I’ve had, and answers to my own questions.
Maybe through these stories you will see yourself; maybe you will see someone you know; at the least, may you be entertained and enlightened.
Do these statistics sit well with you? Do they have validity? What has been your experience?
(The Wedding Plan: A Collection of Short Stories is Joy Simone’s first published book. She has written and performed poetry for more than a decade, and she is also a journalist. )