All the single ladies: Thoughts on the black marriage dilemma

Featured, Women — By Dr.Brittney on January 12, 2010 at 5:38 am

The secret is officially out: the marriage prospects of single, professional African American women are dismal. For the proliferating numbers of single Black women, this is surely no secret, but since ABC’s Nightline aired the latest siren call at the end of last year about the increasing numbers of single Black women and the disproportionate number of marriageable Black men, the latest battle in the war of the sexes has taken place both in the blogosphere and on social networks like Facebook.

The affected parties are weighing in from every possible angle about what we allegedly distraught black women ought to do to solve our “problem.” Everybody from new millennium relationship guru Steve Harvey to Hill Harper, Tyler Perry to Beyonce,  have capitalized on Black women’s misery, banking millions of dollars  for their sincere but mostly unhelpful efforts.

The Nightline segment raised the ire of Black  women so much that even Essence Magazine was compelled to respond. According to Essence writer Demetria Lucas, “51% of American women are living without a husband” and  “this is the first time in American history that more women are single than married. Fifty-one percent of Latina women are unmarried, so are 45% of non-Hispanic White women, and 41% of Asian women.”  So this crisis, if it should be called that, is not unique to black women; but it definitely feels unique and in fact is unique for at least one reason: although this may be the first time in history for all the other aforementioned groups to deal with these problems, it has been a multi-generational dilemma for Black women in particular.

As early as 1947, feminist scholar Pauli Murray waxed eloquent in the pages of Negro Digest about “Why Negro Girls Stay Single.” Decreasing rates of marriage were “felt most keenly among Negro college-trained and professional women” who struggled to “find a mate with whom she can share all the richness of her life in addition to its functional aspects.” Murray located the problem within a patriarchal system, which compelled Black men to perform traditional gender roles, while systematically preventing them from doing so. These men would have a tough time being with a professional woman, primarily becuase it required that they rethink traditional gender roles and ideologies. Murray’s analysis proved prescient in more ways than one.

Consider the ludicrous solution offered by the otherwise bright, up-and-coming public intellectual Dr. Boyce Watkins. Watkins has announced a plan to work with venerable Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to have a new march on Washington, this time focused on tackling problems of education, incarceration and employment among Black men. This would increase the rates of eligible Black bachelors by at least 50%, pontificates Watkins.

Besides the fact that marches constitute old generation solutions to next generation problems, it is always a misstep to cast the dilemmas facing Black women solely or primarily in terms of the admittedly legitimate social issues facing Black men.  It is even more disturbing to see Black men like Steve Harvey, Hill Harper, and Tyler Perry profiting from Black women’s misery, and since I eagerly purchased Harvey’s and Harper’s books, I remain partially culpable.  Even so, the dearth of solutions offered about how to rectify the lackluster love lives of single straight professional Black women has left me vacillating somewhere between severe disillusionment and a kind of studied indifference.

What, then, are some potentially useful solutions?  First, we need to rethink our investments in the traditional nuclear family, since we have historically never really had the mom, dad, 2.5 kids and a dog model in African American communities anyway. That’s the fault of slavery, not Black pathology. But our investments in the nuclear family structure leave us frustrated and confined to the realm of the ideal. The reality is that for many of us to find the love we want, a blended family will be in our future.

Second, let’s quit blaming Black women for the problems we are facing. I say that both to Black women and Black men, because I have observed a very disturbing trend in the many conversations that I have engaged in around this topic. Many African American men have become hypersensitive to any level of critique about Black relationships because of the social and political assault on the Black male body and image. This has created a tendency among some Black men to refuse to acknowledge the validity of Black women’s point-of-view.

These brothers condescendingly and dismissively respond that Black women are superficial golddiggers, who cannot or will not appreciate a good man. These same men are apt conversely to proclaim, that Black women who do not want men for their money and creature comforts are “too independent,” or to paraphrase Boyce Watkins ineloquent assessment that “feminism has made women into men with vaginas.” At the same time, those Black women who make a concerted effort not to male bash, ever-attendant to the social plight of black men, begin the harsh internal dialogue about dealing with our daddy issues, confronting our self-esteem problems, conquering debt, accepting the fact that our stock might be lower because we have children, making sure we have the qualities of good submissive Biblical helpmeets. And the list goes on.

Rarely have I heard anyone say to Black men that they need to deal with their daddy issues, which they most assuredly have if the statistics on absentee fatherhood are even nominally true, or that they should confront their self-esteem problems, which plays out for them often through a range of unproductive, casual relationships. In both scenarios, Black women erroneously accept personal responsibility for what is ultimately a social problem, generations in the making.

Frankly, it is intellectually irresponsible to keep pretending that Black women’s declining marriage rates are the result of individual problems that will be rectified once we have confronted all our “issues.” And my critics would not want to make that argument unless they were prepared to vigorously defend the proposition that women in other ethnic groups have less personal issues than Black women do.

Third, let’s seriously rethink our investments in a patriarchal gender role system that harms black families in multiple ways. Patriarchy makes women feel guilty for prioritizing careers alongside parenting and men feel less masculine for taking an active role in the home. It makes men feel insecure when women earn more money and causes women to overlook brothers who are good providers, perhaps not financially, but emotionally and as parentally.

Patriarchy causes men to devalue the importance of being an emotional partner and companion, which is often what women who are financially and professionally secure desire in relationships.  Patriarchy causes women to succumb to the dog-eat-dog – or sister-eat-sister – mentality of the relational marketplace, making risky decisions in the name of securing a life partner, while simultaneously reinforcing a market logic in which men can treat women as if they are a dime a dozen, because in statistical terms, things indeed seem that way.

A shift in thinking will lead to a shift in expectations. And a new angle of vision will allow us to envision new possibilities for relationships.  And I’m a firm believer in new visions, because however bleak things may look, and however bleak they may actually be, I’m still a romantic at heart.

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Author: Dr.Brittney (4 Articles)


Brittney Cooper Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her Ph.D. at Emory and her undergraduate at Howard.


  • deepone79 says:

    I think this is an ideal solution and truly accurate for a problem that is so much more systemic for us than many other cultures. Unfortunately, proposing a paradigm shift is far easier than getting 10 or 10 million to adopt it.

  • Dr.Brittney Dr.Brittney says:

    I agree. But hopefully because the web makes information more available to masses of people, enough folks can read my piece and other pieces like it and begin to change their thinking. We often think revolutions only happen on a large scale, when really revolutions are composed of many smaller shifts in thinking that come together at a fortuitous moment to create upheaval. Here’s to living out our revolutionary paradigms one day at a time.

  • Angela Stanley Angela Stanley says:

    I completely agree that we need a paradigm shift which is more productive than suggesting what many have, like Essence Magazine, that Black women simply lower our standards or be doomed. And even though this experience certainly feels unique to Black women, it’s not a phenomenon that Black women have created and maintained on our own without any other factors involved. So I appreciate the effort in not blaming Black women like many who discuss this issue have and continue to do. That’s neither a productive nor honest way to look at this very real issue.

  • StephG says:

    I have a really big problem with the whole ‘black women can’t find good black men’ ‘debate.’

    Why does it have to be about finding a good black man? Why can’t it be about finding a good man period? There are plenty of non-black men out there who are good guys and know how to love a woman of any color. I think the real question is why so many African-American women are so against dating outside of their race. Black men don’t seem to have the same ‘phobia’ about interracial coupling that black women do and I have never seen this addressed in the black media at all.

  • Mike Barber Mike Barber says:

    @StephG You’re resting blame on the shoulders of Black women, which is not where it belongs. Also, characterizing it as a “phobia” is a bit glib.

    I recommend reading this blog post by Sister Toldja for some additional insight into the issue:

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