Single Black Women: The Miner’s Canary

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem?, they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town – W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk

How does it feel to be a problem? The question famously articulated by W.E.B. DuBois is well suited for single black women in 2010. There’s been a lot of chatter this year about the seeming crisis of singlehood among African American women, especially well-educated, middle class African American women. The issue has been the focus of an ABC Nightline special, a Washington Post story, and countless blogs.

The latest entrant into the conversation is CNN’s coverage of a debate sparked by author and relationship columnist, Deborah Cooper. Cooper recently wrote a post arguing that the black church is responsible for the low marriage rates among African American women. The crux of her argument is that the black church teaches women that the only suitable marriage partners are men who are “equally yoked,” in other words, fellow Bible thumpers and avid churchgoers. Cooper thinks this is problematic since there are many more black men who do not attend church than those who do. Her solution: black women need to skip Sunday services and head instead to the local sports bar in their best go get ’em outfits.

On the face of it, it might seem like a decent argument. After all, Cooper is saying that women need to expand their notions of appropriate romantic partners. I’m not one to quibble over that point, given that most women’s lists of desired attributes in a romantic partner are based more upon fantasy than reality – Disney movies, romantic comedies, and Harlequin romances.

Cooper overlooks the fact that religious identity and involvement are not arbitrary characteristics but are central to many people’s sense of self. They form the core values and beliefs about who we are and how we related to other people. And while all forms of religious practice, including the beliefs and practices of black churches, have some problematic aspects, Cooper’s criticism of patriarchy within the black church overlooks the ways in which black women find sustenance to cope with racism, sexism, and classism within the walls of the church. So admonishing women to loosen their religious ideals for the sake of marriage is short-sighted and irresponsible.

Still, that’s not my main contention with Cooper’s argument. I have the same issue with her column that I have with every article and television report on this topic: they are trite, specious, and unrevelatory.

Most of these discussions are based on a single, faulty assumption: black women’s singleness is an abnormality. Often there’s a second assumption: this abnormality is the result of some deficiency, most of which resides in black women themselves.

Maybe. But there’s another phenomenon occurring that is repeatedly overlooked in these discussions: there is a pervasive cultural shift underway in America with respect to beliefs about and practices of marriage. The high rates of singleness among African American women are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. They are not an abnormality but rather a prediction of the direction in which the rest of the country is heading.

In societies stratified by systems such as race, class, and gender, those groups on the lowest rungs of the sociopolitical ladder are particularly vulnerable to social shifts. Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres say it well in their book, The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy:

“Those who are racially marginalized are like the miner’s canary: their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all. It is easy enough to think that when we sacrifice this canary, the only harm is to communities of color. Yet others ignore problems that converge around racial minorities at their own peril, for these problems are symptoms warning us that we are all at risk.”

When it comes to marriage in the United States, African Americans have been the miner’s canary for a long time. According to Census reports, there has been a consistent decline in marriage across race and gender since 1950. While the decline has been more pronounced among African Americans, it is not unique.


Notice that rates of marriage among black Americans have always been lower than rates among white Americans. Also notice that rates of marriage among white Americans in 2009 were similar to the levels for black Americans in 1950. Perhaps in another sixty years, the percentage of white Americans who are married will be akin to the 2010 rates for black Americans.

There is, however, something interesting happening with African American women. Between 1950 and 1960, the percentage of women who never married were similar (and low) for blacks and whites. Likewise, black and white men had a similar likelihood of never being married. Since 1950, the chances of never marrying have increased for blacks and whites. However, the rates for blacks increased at a faster rate. And the percentage of black women who never married have risen so dramatically that they now approach the rates for black men.
Again though, notice that the chances of never marrying for white men and women in 2009 are actually slightly higher than black men and women’s chances of doing likewise in 1950.

Marriage, in general, is on the decline in America. So if being single is a problem, it is the nation’s problem.

So, how does it feel to be a problem?

Note: I have constructed these charts based upon a very brief (and not very scientific) analysis of Census data.

Rethinking the StrongBlackMan

About 2 years into my (now seemingly endless) project on the StrongBlackWoman, I realized that she had a male counterpart: the StrongBlackMan. Because I don’t presume to be an expert on men’s issues, I figured I’d leave writing about the StrongBlackMan to folks who were much better equipped – folks like Mark Anthony Neal (who takes on the subject quite well in New Black Man) and Kevin Powell (who doesn’t use the term explicitly but is certainly evoking the concept in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?). But after passing the buck for a few years, I’ve decided to enter the fray, especially since, as far as I can tell, the fates of the StrongBlackWoman and StrongBlackMan are bound together. Be gentle – it’s my first time.

If I were in the classroom right now, I’d begin this story on the west coast of Africa, talking about how the circumstances of the European encounter with the African set the foundation for centuries of racist depictions of Black men. Then, crossing the Atlantic into the American slaveocracy, I’d narrate how these depictions were further codified into the Tom (the obsequious servant) and the Buck (the violent, aggressive brute). Next, I’d take a leap to the nineteenth century, when newly freed Blacks began crafting the archetype of the StrongBlackMan as an ideological response to these negative depictions, using as raw material the inherently flawed icons of the Self-Made Man and the cult of Black genius. But I’m not in the classroom so I won’t start there.

Instead, I’ll start by echoing a caveat made by others: being a StrongBlackMan (no spaces) is not the same as being strong, being Black and being a man. The StrongBlackMan, like the StrongBlackWoman, refers to a specific way of being in the world – a particular set of psychosocial characteristics that are strongly rooted in racism and sexism. These are not people; they are costumes. Whereas the StrongBlackWoman is characterized by the triumvirate of emotional strength (specifically expressed as the capacity for silent suffering), caregiving, and independence, the StrongBlackMan revolves around the three core features of dominance, self-control, and pride. These three features are interconnected, but I’ll try to parse them out as much as possible.

As a core feature, dominance might be portrayed in terms of three sets of dichotomies: the StrongBlackMan wants to be seen as a master, not a slave; as a leader, and not a follower; as a producer, and not a hired hand. He is not to be owned, ruled, controlled, or influenced by any outside force. He must maintain the appearance of being powerful, tough, and right at all times and at all costs He is competitive, aggressive, and in charge of the resources that he has at his disposal, no matter how meager they may be.

The second core feature, self-control, has to do with the StrongBlackMan’s need to be in charge of his self – his emotional, moral, financial, and physical self. Within the constraints of racism and classism, he tries to embody the American masculine ideal of rugged individualism. He is a master of his own fate, allowing no outside person or institution to influence his choices, behaviors, feelings, beliefs, or values. He is an achiever, a doer, a producer, a performer. He is active, not passive; a giver and not a receiver. He can never allow anyone or anything to get the better of him, especially in matters of the heart. Above all else, he must never be punked.

The third core feature, pride, concerns the StrongBlackMan’s need to always be seen as responsible, self-confident, successful, and persevering. He takes pride in living up to the mantle of Black manhood and shuns anything that might make him appear weak, vulnerable, or unsure. He takes pride in his accomplishments, his family, and his racial heritage. In his dealings with persons of other races, he strives to be seen as a “credit to the race.” One of his greatest fears is embarrassment. He can never appear weak, vulnerable, or unsure.

The three core features of the StrongBlackMan – dominance, self-control, and pride – are bound by an underlying theme of defensiveness. Ultimately, the StrongBlackMan is not a real persona. It does not reflect the authentic nature – the true thoughts, feelings, personalities – of the men who wear its garb. Rather, it is a defense against a society that deems Black men to be unfit as anything other than entertainers, athletes, and criminals.

The StrongBlackMan is Black men’s best effort to stand up straight against the enormous weight pressing down upon them – racism, classism, heterosexism – and to say, “I am a man. I am not a boy, a clown, a body to be exploited for profit. I am not a problem to be solved, re-solved, or locked away. I am capable of greatness that you cannot begin to fathom. And I am part of the same species as you so take me off that endangered species list.”i-am-man-img

At least that’s my (very preliminary) analysis. I’d like to say that I get it, that I understand the plight of the StrongBlackMan. But of course, that’s not true. Black men and Black women both have issues, but as the saying goes, “Your blues ain’t quite like mine.” Yet the more that I learn about Black men and women – about me – the more I realize just how similar our struggles are.

As a Black woman, I know a little something about wearing a mask, especially one called “strong.” The problem with that mask is that if you wear it enough, you forget that it’s not really you. It becomes fused onto your being, twisting your appearance into some exaggerated form of what you were trying to be, just like Jim Carrey’s character in the 1990s film, The Mask. No one can get inside the real you, not even your loved ones. And worst yet, you can’t get out. Your joy, your pain, your love – it’s all tucked deep behind the mask, inaccessible even to you.

This is not to say that being strong is bad. It has its place. Dominance, pride, and self-control each have their place. But so, too, do vulnerability, intimacy, openness, receptivity, silliness, and tears. Being whole means having all these things in balance. StrongBlackMen and StrongBlackWomen are way off-balance. We are far from whole. And two half-lives do not make a life.

Five years into this project and I still have no clue what the resolution is. But I have come to the place where I understand that the healing of the StrongBlackWoman is dependent upon that of the StrongBlackMan. Perhaps the best way to start is for all of us StrongBlackWomen and StrongBlackMen to show one another our pain, without judgmenet, without criticism, and without trying to prove whose pain is worse. And then maybe…just maybe…we can really get this revolution going.

The Week in Review (09-26-09)

In my daily wanderings around the internet, I usually run across some pretty interesting articles, blogs, and essays that are related to issues of race, gender, relationships, sexuality, and parenting. Some of these are certainly worthy of sharing to like-minds. So from time to time, I’ll post them here as a sort of “week in review.”

Here are a few that caught my attention this week:

“Good Luck Raising That Gender-Neutral Child” by Tracy Clark-Flory @ Salon.com

Many of us so-called progressives attempt to live out our commitment to gender equality in our parenting, trying to avoid gender stereotypes as we choose our children’s toys, friends, clothing, etc. But a common refrain heard among such parents is that once children enter the preschool years (around ages 3-4), they begin to exhibit traditionally gendered behaviors that may run counter to everything the parents have tried to instill. In other words, gender is not just a social construct (or performance). In this article, Lisa Eliot, a mother and neuroscience professor, discusses her recent book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Big Gaps – and What We Can Do About It, in which she reviews the research on gender differences and similarities. She also weighs in on preschoolers’ gender stereotypes, the “boy crisis,” and South African runner Caster Semenya.

“The New Generation of the Young, Gifted, and Black: What Are Their Responsibilities to the Black Community?” by Max Reddick @ soulbrother v.2

This is an older post that I just discovered this week. Max Reddick raises some really good questions. What responsibilities, if any, do the beneficiaries of the civil rights movement have to “the race” in our so-called “post-racial” age? And is it possible to feel any sense of responsibility to the race without also carrying the burden of representation?

Black Men and Boys Week @ soulbrother v.2

This week, blogger Max Reddick did a series on black men and boys, in which he examined the definition of black masculinity, the prison industrial complex, and whether single mothers can effectively raise black boys. He also provides several web resources for parents and educators of young black males.

Curing Manhood?

A few months ago, I attended a continuing education seminar for psychologists on men and grief. At one point in the discussion, the instructor commented, “If you think of manhood as a sickness that needs to be cured, you need to work on that.” With that one sentence, he gave voice to an uneasiness that I had been feeling in our discussions all day. Despite their biological sex or gender, those of us working as therapists tend to embody and value personality traits that are typically considered feminine. We like to listen, to process, and to talk about our feelings – about nearly everything. We place high esteem on intimacy, that is, feeling connected with others on a psychic level. And quite frankly, we think everyone should too.

Towards the midpoint of the seminar, I began to suspect that maybe we clinicians were on a mission to make men be more like us – to feel more, reflect more, relate more, and to talk more about all of it. More importantly, I recognized myself in the charge my by our instructor. In fact, I could easily imagine myself leading the campaign to have Hypermasculine Identity Syndrome (HIS) added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of psychiatric disorders. Gender identity is what I read, write, teach, and talk about. Thus, with one statement, I found myself charged, found guilty, and sentenced. So for the rest of the afternoon, I began thinking that maybe we…maybe I needed to accept gender differences as another example of “apples and oranges” and to let men be men.

But (you saw that coming, didn’t you?) there was just one problem with that: our traditional notions of masculinity in America (which, by the way, have only been traditional for about 200 years) aren’t working. Not for men, not for women, not for children.

Case in point: life expectancies. While the gender gap is decreasing, there’s been a stark gender disparity in life expectancies. On average, women in the United States live 81 years, men 76 years. The gender gap is even greater among African Americans, with African American women living an average of eight years longer than their male counterparts. The earlier deaths for men aren’t attributed to sex chromosomes or sex hormones. Rather, they’re more likely resultant from behaviors like the way men handle stress (bottling it up, not talking about it, not asking for help), take unnecessary risks, and behave violently and aggressively toward themselves and others. Okay, you won’t really find any of those factors on a mortality chart. But they are factors related to the diseases that account for some of the gender disparity. Anyway, I’m trying to make a point here, not write a research paper. The point is this – the fact that men die so much sooner that women indicates that maybe there’s something wrong with the way they live.

But perhaps more compelling are the data on how our ideas about masculinity impact relationships. In fact, this has convinced me, more than anything, of our need to rethink manhood. A major theme in that continuing education seminar was the father-son relationship, particularly the issues that many men (of all races) have with their fathers.

I see this in my undergraduate classes, especially among male students, who talk about fathers who have never told their sons that they love them. During his segment on the Tom Joyner Morning Show last week, D.L. Hughley talked about this very issue. He described once asking his father whether he loved him and getting the response, “You ate, didn’t you?” It was a tongue-in-cheek response, one which Hughley found funny at the time and one at which I chuckled even as I shook my head in sympathy when he told it on the show.

But as Hughley noted in his commentary, he later realized that the whole exchange wasn’t funny at all. He, like all children, needed to hear that his father loved him. He needed a father who did more than provide for his physical needs and comfort, a father who did more than provide rules, structure, and discipline. As he said:

I don’t know one black men who isn’t broken in some way. Broken either by the relationship he had with his father, or by the relationship he wished he had with his father…It’s a shame that you’re a casualty if you have a father, and you’re a casualty if you don’t. Finding the blend, the right way to be a father, the right groove, the right tempo to be a father, is an amazing thing…We can break a family with our presence as easily as we make them.

Our understanding of fatherhood is bound with our understanding of masculinity. And as I begin to hear more stories about men’s issues with their fathers – the ones who stayed and provided – I realize that there is some serious work to be done.

So no, we can’t just let men be men, any more than we can just let women be women. We are all deeply broken, our divine likeness obscured – hopefully not obliterated – by our conformity to societal norms and expectations about who we should be. This includes our gender identities.