Time to Unplug

Two weeks ago I discovered a writer’s haven – an internet café at a public library. It’s got tables, plenty of power outlets, restrooms, vending machines, and even a microwave. Walled off from the rest of the library by glass doors, it opens into a private courtyard, with benches, picnic tables, and yes, more power outlets! It’s been a great spot to work. Armed with a thermos full of coffee, a lunchbox, and a laptop, I can work there all day – without spending any money!


This morning, though, my haven keeps getting interrupted. Every few minutes, a young man dressed in a sports store uniform, pops in with his cell phone to his ear. A longtime lover of library silence, I’m impressed that he is respectful enough of the patrons in the main space to take his phone conversations elsewhere. I just wish that “elsewhere” was somewhere else. Doesn’t he see me working?!


Cell phone conversations are loud, even when people think they’re speaking quietly. So it didn’t take long for me to get a sense of what was going on. He was being called repeatedly by his job. More than three hours before his shift was supposed to start (like I said, cell phone conversations are loud), his co-workers were tracking him down, asking him when he was coming to the store. By the fifth call, he walked straight through the café to the courtyard. Even with the doors closed, I could hear him giving instructions to someone. By that point, my frustration with the noise had turned into sympathy for this man, who couldn’t enjoy his morning off without constant interruptions.


I couldn’t help but think of a few of my friends in ministry. I have been to a few ministry retreats and conferences this year where I’ve watched colleagues who could not get away from issues back home. Every few minutes, they got a call, text, or email from someone who ostensibly needed their help. And every few minutes, they were responding. It was nearly impossible to have conversations with them without them pausing to take a call or answer a text. “Hold on, I need to respond to this” was the frequent refrain. Their busyness took on a manic element as they rushed from task to task.


If it were just conversations with me that were being interrupted, I wouldn’t be bothered. But I knew that their addiction to busyness was all-encompassing. It impacted their health and their relationships. Is it ironic that it happened most, actually always, with African American men and women? Probably not. My guess is that it’s the StrongBlackWoman/StrongBlackMan thing rearing its head. Layer that with Christianity’s emphasis upon “bearing the cross” and you’ve got a full-scale case of ministry overload and eventual burnout.


A few months ago, my husband and I imposed a blackout period on electronic devices in our household, a two-hour evening time slot in which we would not utilize our cell phones or computers. Miraculously, it was doable. The world didn’t come to an end. Our lives did not turn upside down. Instead, we had two hours each evening when we read, talked, or played games rather than checking Facebook and playing Angry Birds. Over the past few weeks, though, there’s been a gradual erosion in our observance of the blackout. It probably began around the time of a deadline when I “just had” to work on something for a few hours. It’s a slippery slope. I better scramble back up before I fall too far. I encourage you to do the same. Make a commitment to “unplug” for part of your day – even if it’s only one hour. And for that hour, be present to the world in other ways. Spend time with your partner. Play with your kids. Read a book. Take a long, hot soak in the tub. And trust that God is in control of everything else.

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.

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.

Self-Love

Do you know what the basic building block for a healthy relationship is? Communication? Ability to compromise? Having enough money? It is neither of those. The key to having a healthy relationship –whether it is a romantic relationship, parenthood, friendship, or family relationships – is being healthy yourself. It is being emotionally balanced, mentally sound, and spiritually whole. A healthy relationship begins with a healthy you.

Here is an example. I know a woman who constantly complains of being lonely. She can not understand why she can not find a man. When she meets men, they are typically more interested in her friends than they are in her. If she manages to go out on a date, there is usually no second date. And the men who do stick around take advantage of her. This woman often wonders what she is doing wrong, why she cannot seem to find the happiness that other women enjoy. After all, she says, she knows how to cook and clean, dresses well, keeps her hair groomed and nails manicured, and is not interested in men for their money.

Like many men and women, she mistakenly believes that the key to a happy romantic relationship is what one does. So she focuses upon improving her household maintenance skills and keeping up her outward appearance, not realizing that it is her very desperation for a relationship that repels good men and instead attracts men who will mistreat her. Caught up in unresolved pain from her childhood and young adulthood, she is unhappy at her very core. And she wears her misery like a finely tailored suit. She starts every conversation with a complaint and frequently makes self-denigrating comments. She is jealous of other women whom she perceives as having greater success and happiness. Her conversations tend to be one-sided as she has little interest in genuinely listening to the stories of others and primarily uses others for her own emotional catharsis. Her anguish exudes itself in every interaction and in her deportment. Unwilling to accept responsibility for her situation, she blames God and men for her unhappiness.

Now granted, not every single woman is in the same predicament. There are plenty of intelligent, personable, successful, attractive, “got my stuff together” brothers and sisters out there who just haven’t found a good match yet. And there are many others who prefer the single life. Yet, unfortunately, there are far too many women and men like my friend – people who remain depressed by their continued inability to be in a healthy relationship and who do not realize that they do not display the qualities that attract healthy mates.

Moreover, this situation is also not limited to romantic relationships. Many people experience problems in their relationships with the children for the same reason. Plagued by loneliness, they rely upon their children, and in some cases even have children, to fill the void in their lives. Desperate to be liked, they behave more like friends than parents and attempt to buy their children’s loyalty through excessive materialism. They become overinvolved in their children’s activities yet underactive in providing structure and discipline. Youth raised in such homes almost inevitably begin to display behavior problems, causing these parents to feel betrayed by having children who do not respect them and who take advantage of their overindulgence.

Alternatively, there are those parents whose internal pain and depression manifests itself through excessive criticism, lack of affection, and harsh punishment for their children. These parents use their children as verbal punching bags to express the hurt of old resentments. Often, these individuals grew up in unloving and abusive households, often marrying and having children early as a source of escape, consequently ending up in another unsatisfying relationship. Their children subsequently become the psychological stand-ins for abusive parents or romantic partners or unfulfilled dreams.

The connection between all of these cases is the absence of a good understanding of love. Many people view relationships and love as a mechanism for filling a void. However, truly loving relationships are only possible when we love ourselves, when we commit ourselves to nurturing our development as beings created in the image of the Divine. It is no coincidence that when asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus Christ answered “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Matthew 22:37-29, NIV). Jesus assumed that we would love ourselves!

Genuine health in relationships, then, comes when we are so happy in and of ourselves that, while we would like to experience the sharing of life that is unique to relationships, we also relish our experience of life without them. It comes when we view relationships as an enhancement to happiness, not a requirement. When we love ourselves, we model for others how they should treat us in relationships. We establish a standard of care and attract those who will uphold this standard.