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.

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Another Look at Tyler Perry


Yesterday I went to see Tyler Perry’s new film, Why Did I Get Married Too?. Of course, I didn’t go to see it purely for entertainment’s sake. Since he debuted on the major film circuit a few years ago, Perry has tended to elicit one of two responses from black viewers: rabid loyalty or seething hatred. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. To date, I have seen nearly all of Perry’s films, one of his stage plays, and even a few of his filmed stage productions. Granted, Perry’s work is not likely to garner an Oscar nod anytime soon, but it’s always entertaining. The play that I saw, What Goes On In the Dark, was the best laugh I’ve had at a live show since Cedric the Entertainer’s set during The Kings of Comedy performance in Miami over ten years ago.


I’ll pass on the television shows though. I tried to watch The House of Payne, but its oversimplified story lines, clichés, and overacting (reminiscent of the SNL skit, “The Overacting Negro Ensemble”) became painful.


Why Did I Get Married Too? is vintage Perry. Once again, he uses his “everything but the kitchen sink” approach – mixing slapstick, romantic comedy, and drama with a few gratuitous hot body shots (even Janet Jackson’s cleavage, which was uncharacteristically demure in the original, makes quite a few appearances). The film’s many plot lines include divorce, domestic violence, adultery, grief, financial hardship – in sum, nearly every possible catastrophe that could happen. With this film, Perry seems to be taking himself a little too seriously; he went to an epic length of 2-1/2 hours, a good 45 minutes too long.


The overall verdict? It was…entertaining. I laughed, sometimes in spite of myself. And as I walked out of the theatre, I thought, “Maybe I should just leave Tyler Perry alone and not write about this one.” Did I mention that Perry inspires a sort of rabid loyalty? Writing anything negative about him causes a knee-jerk reaction among his fans, who immediately accuse the critic of being an intellectual elitist snob who clearly doesn’t understand his work and therefore has no business writing about it.


The irony is that I often receive the opposite reaction when I ask students in my undergraduate classes to watch and write about one of his films. More than one student has responded, “You want us to do what?! What are we supposed to learn from that? His movies are stupid.” Even those students who secretly enjoy Perry’s movies question the idea that there could be anything worth intellectual engagement within them.


The last time that I wrote about Tyler Perry, I critiqued his treatment of women’s roles, which have a pretty heavy patriarchal lens. Perry’s films are usually part-entertainment and part-morality play. Why Did I Get Married Too? doesn’t have the preachiness of his earlier work and it’s easy to assume that the film has no message. But it does. And it’s an important one.


The essence of both Why Did I Get Married? films remains the same: Black romantic relationships are screwed up because: (1) there are a lot of no-count black men out there (i.e., the abusers, cheaters, etc.); and (2) black women are ball-busting bitches who don’t know how to appreciate a good thing when they find it. Now, here’s where you need to read carefully before you press the comment link: Perry does not paint all black men and women in this light. In this series, Mike (played by Richard T. Jones) clearly represents the former, while the rest of the men portray the latter. Even Marcus (played by Michael Jai White) seems to have reformed his philandering ways in this one.


The women, on the other hand, almost universally fall in the category of too strong for their own good. Angela, Marcus’ wife as played by Tasha Smith, is still a twenty-first century depiction of the Sapphire stereotype – the loud, abrasive black woman who loves to belittle black men. Patricia (portrayed by Jackson) is classic Strong Black Woman – a repressed psychotherapist who spends all of her time fixing other people while her own life is in shambles. As for Diane and Sheila, the characters played by Sharon Leal and Jill Scott, respectively…well, I don’t want to give the movie away.


Whether it’s the Why Did I Get Married? or Madea films, Tyler Perry’s works are a form of social commentary. The question is, what kind of comment is he making? Is Perry simply depicting what is? Or is he pointing to what ought to be? Those of us who critique Perry usually assume that he’s doing one or the other, oftentimes both. But I think there’s another way to look at Perry. His art (and yes, I believe it is artistic) exposes what many people believe to be true about the state of African American relationships. Simply put, he’s just depicting what many African American men and women believe to be true about black relationships – that black men are dogs and black women have too much baggage.


Perry’s meteoric rise to success is evidence that he’s a genius as a businessman. He knows how to tap into the psyche of his audience and to give them what they want to see. So the question is not why he keeps playing the same tired old story, but why we as African Americans keep believing that story and what impact it has on our lives.

An Open Letter to Tyler Perry

Dear Mr. Perry,

Do you like women? Not “like” as in gay or straight, but “like” as in respect. I have seen a few of your films now – Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, and Why Did I Get Married? And increasingly, I find myself questioning whether you truly love, respect, and appreciate women in their own right.

Don’t get me wrong. I have found your films entertaining and thought-provoking, even if a little over the top. I have laughed, groaned, and mourned along with your characters. And I have truly appreciated your attempt to portray black women in roles that expand beyond the skimpily dressed, booty shaking figures that we see on MTV and BET. In your latest film, Why Did I Get Married?, you made a point of depicting professional, highly educated black women. And as woman with a few graduate degrees, I saw part of myself in your characters’ struggles to balance work, family, and self.

But at the end of every film, I was discomfited despite having had a good laugh. And when people asked me whether I liked the movie, I struggled to express the conflicting feelings within: I was entertained and glad I saw it but I’m not sure that I liked it and perhaps I could have waited for the DVD.

Leaving the theatre after viewing Why Did I Get Married?, my husband and I did our standard check in. “What’d you think?” he said. “It was entertaining but…” I paused before continuing, “I’m starting to wonder if Tyler Perry likes women.”

You see, Mr. Perry, I have noticed a disturbing pattern in how you resolve your films: the solution to the woman’s problems is always located in a man. You seem to think women incapable of standing on their own, being happy, whole, and successful outside of a relationship with a man.

Let me assure you that I am not one of those “I don’t need a man” sisters. I have been married for 10 years now and my husband’s unconditional love and support has helped me to become who I am. However, I have also learned that my ability to truly love my husband is only made possible because loving him is a choice which I freely make – over and over again. I am not with him because I am afraid of being alone. I am not with him because I think that life would be meaningless without him. I am not with him because I feel otherwise incomplete. I am certain that I could live – and thrive – without my husband. But I choose to share life without him because he makes it richer. I’ve come to think of my marriage as the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae: the sundae is good by itself, but the cherry makes it different and better (and Mr. Perry – I really like cherries).

But your idea of “happily ever after” always involves a woman finding happiness in a new relationship or becoming a “better wife.” Your female characters transfer their emotional dependency from one man to another. (Really, couldn’t Helen have at least gotten an apartment of her own before investing her happiness in Orlando? Couldn’t Sheila have done the same before marrying Sheriff Troy, less than a year after her divorce from Mike?) Professional women sacrifice their career aspirations in order to accommodate their husband’s desire for more children. (Dianne’s concern about pregnancy jeopardizing her career was a valid one held by many women. Rather than trivializing it as “selfish,” perhaps she and Terry could have had a discussion about how to accommodate her professional aspirations as they raised their family, instead of her “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you” speech. I’m not saying that marriage should not involve compromise. I’m just asking for a little reciprocity). And sisters who seem to have it together, including supportive husbands, turn out to be emotionally repressed. (Why couldn’t you at least let Patricia be emotionally balanced, given the fact that you portrayed three seemingly healthy men? Do you really think we’re all screwed up?).

I’m worried because I’ve seen a lot of women like this – in my personal life and in my career as a psychologist. I’ve seen women who sacrificed their educational and occupational dreams because their husband’s job required frequent moves or forced them to take on a disproportionate share of family and household responsibilities (in addition to their jobs). I’ve seen women who have denied themselves to take care of the needs of everyone around them. These women have ended up in my office – depressed, anxious, overweight, and just plain stressed out. And all the while feeling like they had no right to complain because “at least I have a good man.”

I really appreciate your emphasis on forgiveness in your movies. But I wish you’d also emphasize the importance of reciprocity as well as individual health and fulfillment. I know that you’re trying to do something good, so I want to push you to do more. Because ultimately, I believe that you do like women, that you love women. You just don’t know how. So right now all you’re doing is replacing one stereotype – the sex-craved jezebel – with two others that are slightly better – the needy, victimized woman or the superstrong sister. You’re pulling the rug from beneath us even as you give us legs. And unfortunately, because many of us are so battle weary from the assault on our images, we don’t realize that we should expect better. But we deserve better. And I have faith that you can – and want to – do better.

Advice for a Newly Engaged Family Member

After our wedding ten years ago, my husband and I received all sorts of unsolicited advice from people about how to remain married. Quite ironically, some of that advice came from those who had divorced. I never understood whether their admonitions reflected what they had done or had not done in their own marriages. Regardless, given that a much loved family member has recently gotten engaged, I feel compelled to offer some unasked-for advice as well, especially since I’m supposed to be something of an “expert” in this area.

1. Make your wedding an event that reflects and celebrates the values that you and your beloved hold most dear. Perhaps what has gone wrong in many American marriages is that most weddings are showpieces of capitalist and consumerist culture. Many engaged couples spend more time thinking about decorations than about their vows and choose their guests based on who will give the best gifts rather than who will most support their life together as a couple. Unless you’re really bound to the idea of increasing the profits of the bridal industry, I’d suggest keeping the wedding party small and foregoing the guest book and cake cutter (you’ll never use them again), expensive invitations (they just get thrown away), and the decorations (really – who needs three candelabras and $1000 worth of flowers?).

2. Be intentional about nurturing your marriage. No one would hold onto a job for long if all they did was to show up. Every now and again, a furniture store near my house holds a big sale and has someone stand on the shoulder of a busy highway, holding a sign advertising the sale. Most of the time, it seems clear that the person holding the sign is not a permanent employee of the store but is rather someone that the owner or manager found on the street and invited to come make a few bucks for the day. Granted, it’s not the hardest work – it mainly involves holding a large poster and occasionally walking back and forth. But still, it requires some intentional effort. The person can’t just stand there and hope that the sign will hold itself. Marriage is no less. Simply having a wedding ceremony and living in the same house does not make or maintain a marriage. The wedding ceremony is not a magic trick that binds you irrevocably together for life. You’ve got to nurture a marriage as if it is a living, breathing organism. Like any living thing, if you don’t feed it – or you feed it the wrong type of food – it will die. And by the way, watch out for pests – jealous friends, intrusive family members, jobs that sap your joy and energy, disagreements over money.

3. Learn the art of forgiveness. When I first got married, I couldn’t understand when long-married couples warned me that there are times in marriage when you won’t like your spouse. But it’s true. Over time, what you now consider quirky idiosyncracies – or perhaps slightly annoying habits – will become the bane of your existence. Even worse, through the eyes of your beloved you will discover things about yourself that you never wanted to know. As a friend once told me, being married is like having a mirror held up that reflects your negative attributes. So you’ll need to learn to forgive not only your beloved, but also yourself. By the way, the mirror’s not all bad. When held rightly, it also helps you to recognize strengths about which you were unaware and it affirms the best parts of you.

4. Value the wisdom of others but discover the path that is best for you and your beloved. Several years ago, a colleague came to me and asked for some advice on marriage. Like my husband and I, he and his fiancée were young, black, educated, and had highly demanding careers. And neither of them was interested in being the type of couple where one is subordinate to the other. Yet so far, everyone had given them – actually, her – the same advice: “Remember, he’s the head of the household so your job is to support him.” Perhaps in desperation, he had turned to me, a person with only five years of marriage experience. There wasn’t much I could tell him other than this: “Ultimately, you and your fiancée together will have to decide what kind of marriage you want. If it’s a marriage that looks different from those of your elders, then they may not be able to tell you how to achieve it. So you’ll have to figure out which of their advice suits the two of you. And you just might have to improvise.”

5. Most of all, consider your marriage a journey. Even as someone who studies, counsels, and teaches about marriage, I find that my so-called “expertise” goes out the door when I get home. I’m not sure that anyone ever gets this thing really figured out. Even we professional experts are always personal novices. Life is always changing and new challenges are always just around the corner. What seems stable one minute can be topsy-turvy the next. At times you may have no clue where you are or how you got there. But as long as you consider such things to be ordinary bumps in the journey, you’ll have a much greater chance of adapting and making it to the next bit of straight road.

Many blessings on your engagement.