A SYTYCB Entry
“Get out your card, honey, we’re splitting this.”
“Oh…we are? I thought this was your treat tonight.”
“Nope. I already spent $300 on this trip…”
“Yeah, and I bought breakfast this morning, the cab ride, we split dinner last night, I paid for our bags…
…And on and on it goes. If you can’t tell, I’m in a relationship. A newly married one. With a man. It’s lovely. No, really, it is. I love him…so much it overwhelms me sometimes. Even when he absolutely pisses me off, embarrasses me, disappoints me. Still love the guy. Workin’ it out as best we can even when our equity agreements (as above) get confusing.
He’s a New Yorker by way of Jamaica. He’s a feminist. A radical. An anti-intellectual. A pragmatist. A stubborn man with a West Indian work ethic. Don’t ask him how many jobs he’s got. You’ll get tired listening. But in none of these jobs is he working in an explicitly social justice framework, as I do.
So, that’s him. Me? I’m knee-deep in the movement. And here in the social justice world of Oakland, California, we detest the label “politically correct” (and I really do), but then we have elaborate and ever-changing language that gets so insider-y and wonky that I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore and I’m not sure anyone using it does either. That said, my colleagues and I do pretty amazing work. We write and pass legislation to benefit women and families, we raise hell about anti-abortion billboards, racist rhetoric, and oppressive policies. We fight hard for the rights and recognition of people of color. We get shit done and we’re pretty bad ass.
From the time we became engaged last year, I’ve gotten all types of questions from my bad ass colleagues. First, the sincere albeit obligatory congratulations, but then the litany of questions: Really? You’re getting married? Was I going to change my name? Do I want children? Do I know I can have children without getting married? (Clearly, hadn’t thought of that.) Why did I need a piece of paper and government recognition of my love?
I’d thought about all these questions and discussed them with my partner, but hadn’t yet come up with the perfect social justice-y, San Francisco Bay Area appropriate, of-the-moment answer. It’s complicated. You see, in the Bay Area social justice realm, there are a few things that are unequivocally acceptable: Black women with natural hair, underground Hip Hop, Queer-friendly language, sex positivity, and any movement ending in “justice” populated by mostly people of color. But mainstream stuff – marriage, church-going, deliberate wealth accumulation – results in immediate eyebrow raising. To many in this movement, marriage is unnatural. To me, it just felt right: the partner, the commitment, the monogamy, the ceremony, and yes, the signing of papers to hold it down. I’m a straight Black woman with, yes, the privilege to marry, but also the experience of living the consequences of not having the ring and the paper. Amidst all the questions, all my own doubts, all my childlike excitement and nerves, I’ve had to come to my own conclusions about what marriage means for me.
There is the complicated history: for many cultures the origin of marriage centers on ownership of a woman and a stake in her family’s wealth. Marriage in the context of the United States has been an oppressive institution for women who participate and for those who have been denied access throughout history.
Then, the unfortunate reality of racism and privilege: as a Black woman, society sees me as either promiscuous and immoral or strong and stubborn*. Either way, not the ideal candidate for a “legitimate” relationship, let alone marriage and child rearing. Society sees Black motherhood as irresponsible and typically outside the context of committed relationship and marriage (ie the welfare queen stereotype). For Black women, having a child as a single woman is greeted with stereotypical dismissal. Politicians, pundits, public health professionals, psychologists, and the like constantly reference statistics that the majority of African American children are born to unmarried parents and question if marriage is for white people.
Regardless of the norm of single motherhood and “promiscuity” for white women, the quintessential definition of “single mother” or “ho” conjures a Black image, not a white one. For many women, marriage can provide legitimacy and projects maturity in the work realm. But for Black women, the legitimacy that marriage provides extends beyond the board room.
This is the context I am considering when stepping into marriage: The stereotype that Black people don’t value it, the expectation that we’re incapable of making it work, and the assumptions about why I’m doing it at all. I do not live my life to fulfill or defy a stereotype, but I have to admit, it feels good doing exactly what society says I am neither fit for nor capable of doing.
Like most people blessed with consciousness and a little opportunity, I want to do what makes me happy. I got married because I love the person I’m with and want to commit to a life in partnership. I want to have babies and raise them in an environment of mutual love and respect between their consciously Black parents and community. I’ve always wanted to raise my children seeing healthy Black love – a testament to our capacity for deep love and commitment – in direct contrast to the images this society produces and consumes.
I pass no judgment on others and how they have children or don’t, how they do relationships or don’t; I just know what I wanted for me and I was lucky enough and diligent enough to find and maintain a relationship with someone who wanted the same. Just as a queer couple’s marriage doesn’t threaten a hetero one, so my choice to marry doesn’t impact or say anything about anyone else’s. It’s simply my choice.
I do not expect everyone to jump for joy at this milestone in my life (but if you know me, it’d be nice). There are millions of others whose relationships are not adequately recognized, protected, or celebrated. I am aware of the privilege that comes with my straight marriedness.
And ultimately I’m happy with my decision. I’m in a healthy relationship built on trust. We’re in it for the long haul and plan to raise confident, conscious, self-and-community-loving Black children. We made a radical decision to love ourselves enough to do what made us happy…politically correct or not.
*Carolyn West, bell hooks, Mellissa Harris Perry, among many others have written extensively on the historical and ongoing depictions of Black women in society.