Breaking the Silence
Black people are big on keeping race secrets. It's as if the bond of our skin color demands that we keep at least a façade of monolithic solidarity, even when doing so cripples and disenfranchises us....The men are always more important than the women, and, when it comes to issues particular to women, there's not much difference between a black or white patriarch.
Jill Nelson, Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown-up Black Woman
Relationships between black men and women in America are in crisis. Black women and men know this well, for they experience it in their attempts to date, to forge relationships, to marry, and to stay together. More often than ever before, their attempts end in mutual misunderstandings and mutual recriminations.
Although forming satisfying and lasting bonds in today's society is a challenge for men and women of every racial background, the challenge is greatest for African Americans. Perhaps no group feels the problem more acutely than young, educated black women. A public school administrator with the District of Columbia has expressed the frustrations and disappointments shared by many black women:
Have you met this woman? She has a good job, works hard, earns a good salary. She went to college, got her master's degree; she is intelligent. She is personable, articulate, well read, interested in everybody and everything. Yet, she's single.
Or perhaps you recognize the community activist. She's a black lady -- or, as she prefers, an African-American woman -- on the move. She sports a short natural, sometimes cornrow braids, or even dreadlocks. She's an organizer, a motivator, a dynamo. Her work for her people speaks for itself -- organizing women for a self-help collective, raising funds for a community cause, educating others around a new issue in South Africa. Black folks look up to her, and white folks know she's a force to be reckoned with. Yet once again, the men leave her alone. What do these women have in common? They have so much; what is it they lack? Why is it they may be able to hook a man but can't hold him?
The women puzzle over this quandary themselves. They gather at professional clubs, at sorority meetings, or at the office over coffee and wonder what's wrong with black men. They hold special prayer vigils and fast and pray and beg Jesus to send the men back to church. They find the brothers attending political strategy sessions or participating in protests, but when it comes time to go home, the brothers go home to someone else. I know these women because I am all of these women.
The problem that black women like this one confront in finding black men to date and marry is exacerbated by the shrinking pool of available candidates. The ratio of black women to men is highly imbalanced and has been for generations. Although the gender ratios in the African-American community were balanced at the turn of the century, the ratios of men to women fell continuously and sharply until 1990 when the marital opportunities index fell below 65 -- meaning that there would be less than 65 men available to marry for every 100 women. For professional black women, the pool of eligible black men shrinks even further because so many black men face uncertain economic futures.
But attention to these demographic factors can obscure the deeper problem of the distressed state of gender relations in the African-American community. The data on relational patterns among African Americans are nothing short of alarming:
* The current divorce rate for blacks is four times the 1960 level and double that of the general population.
* Interracial marriages have risen from a reported 51,000 in 1960 to 311,000 in 1997. Even though marriageable black females out-number black males, twice as many black men as women marry outside the race. Among sexually active African Americans, 23 percent of the black men had had white partners, compared with only 6 percent of black women.
* Both black men and women are significantly less desirous of marriage than their white counterparts. Of all these groups, black men are the least desirous of marriage.
* The rates of violence between black men and women are higher than those for other races. Not only are black wives more likely to kill their husbands than wives of other races, but the majority of the women killed by husbands or boyfriends are also black. Paradoxically, white women have been more likely to push for tougher laws against domestic violence and for shelters for battered women.
* For couples in long-term marriages, 72 percent of the African-American husbands reported using a confrontational style of dealing with marital conflict, compared with 25 percent of Mexican-American husbands and 18 percent of white husbands.
* Forty-four percent of married black men admit to having been unfaithful to their wives, almost double the percentage for whites. In contrast, the differences between black women and white women were minuscule -- 18 percent and 15 percent respectively.
* If these patterns of infidelity are multigenerational, they could be one explanation for the findings of a nationwide survey of black women. This survey found that 77.1 percent of black mothers gave negative messages to their daughters about black men.
Why do the marriage and relationship experiences of African Americans differ so markedly from those of other Americans? How are we to explain the high levels of tension and conflict between black men and women? What are the root causes of their turbulent relationships?
In reflecting on her own experiences, the public school administrator points a finger squarely at herself and other black women:
After asking over and over again, "What's wrong with these men?" it finally dawned on me to ask the question, "What's wrong with us women?" What I have found, and what many of these women have yet to discover, is that the skills that make one successful in the church, community or workplace are not the skills that make one successful in a relationship.
Being acknowledged as the head of the household is an especially important thing for many black men, since their manhood is so often actively challenged everywhere else. Many modern women are so independent, so self-sufficient, so committed to the cause, to the church, to career -- or their narrow concepts of same -- that their entire personalities project an "I don't need a man" message. So they end up without one. An interested man may be attracted, but he soon discovers that this sister makes very little space for him in her life.
Going to graduate school is a good goal and an option that previous generations of blacks have not had. But sometimes the achieving woman will place her boyfriend so low on her list of priorities that his interest wanes. Between work, school and homework, she's seldom "there" for him, for the preliminaries that might develop a commitment to a woman. She's too busy to prepare him a home-cooked meal or to be a listening ear for his concerns because she is so occupied with her own.
Like many discussions of the dating challenges facing black women, this administrator's remarks place most of the responsibility on black women themselves. They echo the common idea that black women are simply too strong, too independent, and too self-sufficient for their own good or for the good of their relationships. As with male and female relationships, little attention is given to the attributes of black men that are problematic in relationships. When black men are discussed, it is usually within the context of how their manhood is constantly being challenged or how much more difficult life is for them than it is for black women. If a black woman is to have a harmonious relationship with a black man, she will have to learn to provide more nurturance by preparing home-cooked meals and offering a listening ear in an effort to offset his pain. Rarely is anything mentioned about the importance of her mate providing her with reciprocal care.
In part, this common way of thinking is an outgrowth not just of the black experience in America but of attitudes about gender roles in society at large. Despite the efforts of the women's movement and the entry of most women into the workforce, the images of men as providers and women as nurturing partners continue to persist. Genuine equality and mutuality in relationships remain an elusive goal for many men and women, not just African Americans. But for black Americans, these issues are compounded by the distinctive character of the black experience in America.
The perceptions black women have of themselves mirror societal perceptions and are not always aligned with the facts. For example, shortly after Daniel Patrick Moynihan characterized the black family as "matriarchal," asserting that black women fared better interpersonally and economically than black men, a study found that black women were the least likely of all race/gender groups to be employed in male-dominated professions. During this same time frame, an analysis of trends in higher education among blacks found that although a greater proportion of black women were enrolled in colleges and universities, black men were more likely than black women to obtain graduate degrees beyond the master's level. Moreover, 91 percent of the professional degrees granted in the combined fields of medicine, dentistry, law, veterinary medicine, and theology went to black men. Specifically, 85.6 percent of the M.D.s conferred on blacks went to black men and 90.4 percent of the law degrees went to black men. In addition, two analyses of blacks with doctorates in all fields from all institutions in 1969 and 1970 found that black women held roughly 21 percent of the advanced degrees. By the mid-1980s, for the first time, black women received more than half of all doctorates, including science and engineering. Only 6 percent of all science degrees awarded to black women were in the higher paying and more prestigious areas of engineering, mathematics, and physical science. Black men were predominant in these areas. Black women, on the other hand, were dominant in the less lucrative social/behavioral sciences. In short, the major oversight in the Moynihan Report was that he misread the absence or marginalization of black fathers in poor families as the black woman's economic and interpersonal dominance in the black community at large -- and this misperception persists to this day.
Although both sexes have been shaped and scarred by prejudice and discrimination, the damage inflicted on the black male psyche is perceived as penetrating more deeply than the injustice inflicted on black women. This perception is due in part to the fact that being a man in American society means having a stable job and being able to provide adequately for oneself and one's family. In view of this, being unemployed or being employed in jobs that are demeaning, neither of which offers a sense of accomplishment or provides a living wage, may be especially damaging for black men.
Although the objective economic position of black women is more tenuous than that of white men, white women, or black men, it is the black man who is placed in the hapless position of proving his "manhood" while being systematically denied access to the tools with which to do so. Ben, a forty-two-year-old city government employee, reports, "I have had to work hard 'cause as a black man in white society, I have coped with more obstacles than the average white man 'cause opportunities are still marked for whites only." Jim, a forty-year-old auto mechanic, explains, "As a black man, most whites viewed me as a threat. Thus my job has never gone smooth and my chances for advancement have not been great, but I've worked hard, like two and three jobs for years. I've relied on my own strength to survive in American society." Robert, a forty-three-year-old bus driver, states, "As a black man, I was foolish to think that my marriage would be a fair relationship because society makes black men feel like second-class citizens. I've had to depend only on my own abilities and worked overtime with a part-time job to make it in American society. Indeed, I've had to make a way out of no way."
The difficulties faced by black men in a white-dominated society are real, and they have been amply documented. In fact, so much attention has been paid to the challenges facing the black man that he has become the symbolic representation of the victims of racial injustice. By comparison, the black woman is lost in shadow. Yet she, too, faces profound challenges -- challenges that are further complicated by her gender. Moreover, she, too, has been shaped by her history. The image of black women as strong to the point of overbearing is no less a legacy of the African-American experience than the image of the "emasculated" black man. Given these images of the two sexes, it is little wonder that even black women may conclude that they bear the responsibility of going more than halfway in making their relationships work. Yet such a "solution" only perpetuates the dysfunctional patterns that are the common legacy of slavery and its aftermath for black men and women alike.
When black men and women try to relate to one another today, their starting point is fixed by experiences of injustice and oppression that have affected them in ways that are both similar and profoundly different. These experiences have interacted in complex ways with larger trends in society to shape their self-concepts, their images of each other, the values and expectations they bring to their relationships, and their views of what it means to be a man or woman -- let alone a black man or a black woman. To understand the tensions and turmoil in the relationships of black men and women today, we must come to grips with the distinctive relational patterns whose roots extend deep into the history of blacks in America.
In so doing we must acknowledge that the "problem" of black relationships is not a new development. Black men and women have faced distinctive challenges in their relationships ever since slavery. These challenges have taken different forms over time, but they are unique in being created in a vortex resulting from racial discrimination and injustice.
We must be willing to bring these issues into the light of open and candid discussion. Although the turbulence in gender relations in the African-American community is common knowledge, the popular media have given it little attention. One of the primary reasons for this silence is that African Americans, especially African-American women, have been unwilling to expose any internal conflict that might reflect negatively on the black community. Historian Darlene Clark Hine describes the defense mechanism black women have had to create as a "culture of dissemblance." In Hine's view, this culture is maintained by the "behavior and attitudes of black women that created the appearance of openness and disclosure but actually shielded the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppressors."
The reticence of black women (and men) in discussing the "truth of their inner lives" is understandable. But we cannot hope to resolve the dilemmas that beset our relationships until we are willing to speak about them frankly. The problems are there. The crisis is palpable. We cannot afford to ignore the toll it is taking on us and the toll it will take on our children. It is time to break the silence.
This book is intended to be a contribution to a much-needed dialogue about the issues in gender relations in the African-American community. It traces these issues to their roots in slavery and the efforts of generations of black men and women to find their way in a free but manifestly unequal society. It is written from the perspective of a social scientist and a black woman. As such, it emphasizes the interplay of social, economic, and cultural factors, and it departs from prior discussions in focusing equal attention on the injuries that have been imposed on African-American women. Doing so is one step toward achieving a more comprehensive understanding of the issues black men and women face in their relationships today.
Taking a comprehensive view of gender relations among African Americans will lead us well beyond such simplistic analyses as those which suggest that black men need to get on their feet and black women need to be more pliant and deferential to their men. By the same token, it will take us beyond pointing fingers at each other for causing the failures in our relationships. Before the healing begins, black males and females must stop the blame game -- and the victim game, too. Both must take full responsibility for the current state of their relationships. Both must be willing to examine their relational patterns as well as their role in perpetuating them. Both must be willing to change.
The challenge is formidable, but it will be made easier if we understand how we came to be where we are. Understanding is the first step on the path to healing.
Copyright © 2000 by Donna L. Franklin