During a “go to bed” conversation some years ago, Adorable Child (AC) asked Polimom, “Mommy, would our lives be different if we were black?”
Overwhelmed by imponderables of societal changes and cultural differences, geography and education, my mind immediately shut down; how can one possibly explain such complexity to a five-year-old?
My rather weak response was, “Probably, but it’s hard to say what, exactly, would be different.”
In the years since, I’ve mentally returned to her question many times, because it didn’t come from thin air. Polimom has often told her about our ancestors, including those who were once slaves — and the choices they made over 200 years ago set our feet on the path we walk today.
I can’t unravel the knotted threads of seven generations or more; I could only look in the mirror at hand, and at the time of AC’s question, Polimom was a single mother who had just purchased a house — an achievement underpinned by many months of enormous sacrifice. The overriding feature of my life then was my (un)married status, and it was also the very last feature I was interested in changing.
Five years later, an opinion piece by Yolanda Young in USAToday has given me a way to answer, but it’s based on a different version of AC’s question: How would our lives be the same?
The plight of single black women has received widespread attention in recent years — cover stories in Essence and Newsweek magazines and countless newspaper articles. This year, the movie Something New even opened up the possibility of dating outside the race since some 42.4% of black women might never marry because of the dearth of marriageable black men. Nationally, there are 10 single black women for every seven single black men. The picture looks worse if you subtract those who are incarcerated and unemployed.
These statistics are grim, but they’re also enlightening, and what they illuminate is difficult to face. We are a country that refuses to acknowledge — or even discuss — the ramifications of failed drug “wars”, alcoholism, domestic violence, urban poverty, and related intercommunity crime, and our blinders are setting us up for a national crisis.
But when one removes the ethnicity from the marriage / divorce equation, there’s a common denominator that carries across all color lines: single parenthood is very often the best solution to an overwhelming, insurmountable problem that no amount of counseling or good intentions can overcome.
For years, social conservatives have been concerned about the breakdown in traditional families, and while I often object to the language and approach they take, I understand the concern. Children are far more likely to thrive in a stable, two-parent environment. However, these well-intentioned social architects are overlooking something crucial: two parents don’t necessarily equate to stability.
Single moms, regardless of ethnicity, don’t need to be told that their lives, and those of their children, have greater odds of success if they are married; they already know that. There’s no “new” information there.
And while some might find being a single black woman distressing, married women reported being in poorer health. This according to “The Consequences of Marriage for African Americans,” published last year by the pro-marriage Institute for American Values, a non-profit aimed at improving marriage.
Hopefully, the grants will help unlock the code to a healthy marriage. Until then, remaining single might be the key to wellness and contentment.
It isn’t because of some disdain for tradition that a woman divorces. Nobody takes the harder road because they’re interested in character-building; they do so because the alternative was worse, and this problem spans every color line. It is simply more pervasive, and thus more critical, in black communities.
The solution to broken families won’t be found in pushing marriage; alone, it solves nothing. Strengthening individuals, however, will. In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
Society is wasting its time promoting happiness or stability through marriage when the individual pillars cannot stand independently.
Instead of increasing the guilt and sense of failure divorced people already experience, we should focus on helping single mothers do what Polimom did, while simultaneously and separately recognizing and responding to the societal ills that led there.
Like AC, society is asking the wrong question: it isn’t about what is different, but what is the same, and if we shore up the pillars, the question will answer itself.