black men

How do Black men feel about being single?

Balancing patriarchy, racism and poverty – it’s a lot

Not long ago, I watched a two-part report that Sonya Masingale did for Louisiana Public Broadcasting on the shortage of Black single men. The first part looked at how the shortage affected single Black women in their 30s. The second part focused on men, featuring a conversation with three of Baton Rouge’s most eligible bachelors over 30.

It was done in 1986. A year after I was born. Now, it’s 36 years later and I’m single. What I’m trying to say is that I was born into this struggle. Recently, I wrote a piece for Andscape about single Black women and the lies others tell about our love lives. Black women endure multiple stigmas around our singleness. Yet the structural factors and shifts in cultural norms have been almost entirely overlooked.

Thousands of Black women – relieved to finally see the truth of their singlehood accurately represented – retweeted, reposted and shared the piece in their group chats. And while many people were aware that 62% of Black women are single, few knew that 55% of Black men in the United States are unpartnered. This may be because unwanted singleness is almost exclusively presented as an issue for women to solve, so the spotlight shines brightest on our singlehood. A Google search about single Black men will pull up multiple links related to what Black men think about unmarried Black women and articles on what women should do to appeal to Black men. But few ask Black men how they feel about being single.

Armon Perry, a professor at the University of Louisville and author of Black Love Matters: Authentic Men’s Voices on Marriages and Romantic Relationships, is one of the few people who has sought to answer this question. Perry said most of the research on single Black men has focused on their ability to be a provider in the context of public assistance for their children and families. This interest, according to Perry, began when the federal government created the Office of Child Support Enforcement in 1974 to go “after non-resident fathers.” Perry makes clear that the office was not created to target Black men, but they were affected by its mission. While the federal government may not have much interest in single Black men beyond their provider status, Perry has found that “laypeople are really, really interested.”

So, like Masingale did more than three decades ago, I decided I needed to come through with a part two focused on single Black men. The fact that I wrote an entire piece inspired by my own singleness may lead you to believe I don’t know many single Black men. And you would be correct. The Black men Masingale spoke to in the ’80s seemed to think the grocery store was a hot spot to meet people. And based on the number of men complimenting me in the Whole Foods self-checkout while I’m sloppily dressed and just trying to get home with my oat milk, this is probably still true — you’re welcome for the hot tip. My avoidance of men at the supermarket is probably why I’m still single and had to search for Black men to interview. So, I did what I’ve never done in service of my own love life and asked friends to introduce me to the eligible bachelors in their lives.

When Corey Michael, 30, of Jackson, Mississippi, asks me if I’ve heard of the manosphere, I chuckle hesitantly, “Yes, yes, I have,” wary of where our conversation might be headed. Michael, a machine operator at a steel fabricator, apologizes for the noise in the background of our midday call. Many of the men in his sphere ask what a woman can do for them before considering dating her, but Michael said this Red Pill dating ideology isn’t just about what a woman has to offer. “Most of those guys say before you should date as a man, you should have a high-value skill.” And Michael said, “That’s a hard thing because, of course, most Americans are broke. Most people don’t got a thousand dollars in their savings account.”

Michael was married at 25, divorced at 29, and is confident he will marry again. He said Black men do want to be providers. But alongside these aspirations to be “the man,” they’re also “dealing with inflation, how high stuff is and how hard it is to find a good-paying job.” When he was married, “I was paying for everything, taking care of everything, so I’m used to being the head of the household,” he said. “But now in the dating scene, you really want to date a woman that’s financially stable.”

Jamie Coe

He said he’s into traditional values, but how he defines “traditional” doesn’t conflict with his desire for a woman who’s got her own. He points toward an aunt and uncle of his. “They were married like 40 years, and they both worked the whole time. But he paid for everything, and she was able to put all her money back. They invested all of that, and now they were rich.” Although this is his ideal, he said he hasn’t been able to make it his reality yet. But when the time comes, he’ll have no issue relinquishing the control that comes with head-of-household status. He’s more interested in someone he can make decisions with. “You didn’t marry a person to be your pet, you married a person to be your partner.”

Perry has found in his research that this shift in thinking about roles within a marriage is part of the relationship paradox for many Black men. “What I find is that men still put pressure on themselves to be providers, while simultaneously rejecting the idea that that should be their sole role, and they should be the sole provider, but also wanting to hold on and maintain a disproportionate amount of the decision-making power,” he said.

Just as the fact that most Black women have always worked outside of the home disrupts the (white) notion of the wife as the “angel in the house,” the ability of Black men to be the sole provider was almost never an achievable standard for marriage “because of systemic racism and oppression and things of that nature,” Perry said. It’s like Black men are trapped doing the hokey pokey: one foot in on the pressures, societal norms and privileges promised as providers, and one foot out in the reality of what relationships actually look — and feel — like, meaning less pressure, but also less power.

Even for Black men who’ve found some degree of financial comfort, there’s still pressure to keep up. When Justin Briscoe, 38, a financial adviser in Long Beach, California, and I chat, he tells me he’s in the process of finalizing his divorce. One conflict he cited from his marriage was how their relationship compared to what other couples’ lives looked like on social media. “We were aspiring to do great things and moving in the right direction,” he said, “but it wasn’t at a pace that was felt was the best.”

Jamie Coe

After being married for three years and in his relationship nine years total, Briscoe’s biggest concern around his newly established singlehood is fatherhood – “I don’t want to be old dad.” Yes, the time and effort it takes getting to know someone new are points of worry. But Briscoe said, “I think it’d be easier to process and go about life being single if I had kids because that’s really what I want and what I need. I want to be a family man.

“I at least wanted three kids. But right now, I’d take one, and go from there.”

I ask him, if like some of the single women I know, would he consider solo parenting if he hits a certain age and is not in a committed relationship? While he believes his views could change, he’d rather be part of a parenting duo, even if that partnership doesn’t necessarily include marriage.

The importance of children came up a few times in my conversations. Michael, who is a father of two, sees a potential partner’s compatibility with his children as one more layer of vetting. Joe Tolbert, 34, of Knoxville, Tennessee, absolutely wants children. “And you know, that’s a hard sticking point with some queer men.” Like Briscoe, Tolbert is more flexible about the marriage part. “I’m open to it, but not required. I’m not so rigid in what I believe should happen. If I’m really committed, and the person’s committed to me, that would be nice.”

Tolbert, who is the founder of the consultancy Art at the Intersections, received his earliest relationship scripts from church. “It was a very traditional church, very heteronormative church. I feel like all of my kind of socialization and thinking about relationships were from that frame,” he said. “And like, all of the talk was about relationships between men and women and from that very biblical, monogamous, blah, blah, blah, kind of talk.”

He intends to raise his children within the church but will curate a more expansive spiritual experience for them. “I naturally was just more open theologically than the ways that I was raised.”

Aside from his disinterest in being “65 when my kids graduate high school” and his mother’s desire for grandbabies, Tolbert doesn’t feel much pressure to hop into a relationship. But he is dating with intention. “I do feel more pressure around finding real commitment and building it for the long term and not serial dating,” he said. “But it can happen when it happens.”

He views his singleness as a choice and not a “constant hardship,” because, like many of the Black women I spoke to, he’s got great friends. “I’ve been able to cultivate a really strong friend system. They definitely make singleness bearable. Because a lot of us are single. We are each other’s brunch dates on the weekend, we meet up for hangouts and stuff.”

But his desire for partnership is still present. “I’m in a moment in life now where things are clicking in my life. And you want to have someone to share the good things with in a more intimate, close way. And those are the moments when I find it to be really challenging.”

Lequez Spearman, 35, an assistant professor of sports management in New York City, tells me he feels his single status most around the holidays. “When you see those pictures of people posting their partners to their Instagram,” and “when I’m around other family members, and they ask, ‘Are we going to meet that special person?’ It’s like, ‘Sorry, nothing this year.’ ”

For Spearman, the issues of finances and fatherhood dovetail. He’s focused on his debt so he can give his children the financial cushion he grew up without. “I grew up working-class, and I had to finance my education. I want my kids to be able to go wherever they want to go to school, and not have to feel like, ‘If I don’t get so many student loans, or a scholarship, I can’t go to college.’ Or I don’t want them to be saddled with debt.”

But despite what we’ve heard repeatedly, there’s a strong chance the single Black man across from us on a dinner date is more stressed about how he’s going to make a marriage out of 15 cents than he is about our value as a woman.

This has contributed to Spearman’s hesitation in fully entering the marriage market. And he’s reluctant to marry into debt as well. Like Michael, he’s found there’s a gap between his romantic ideal and his reality. “I’m wondering, am I fooling myself by thinking that my partner will not have any debt? Because it takes debt to get a degree, especially if I’m pursuing a Black woman, she might have even more debt, because Black women are the most educated, right?”

When I ask what traits would be most important in a partner if debt wasn’t a factor, he said, “Worldview, as far as, are you left of center. Far left of center? Are you down-to-earth? Do you support Black causes? Are you a voter? Things that make a person a good partner. Do we click, is there chemistry?”

One thing I’m interested in exploring is the intersection of romance and racialized trauma. So, I ask Spearman what that has meant for him. “Because of the presidency of Donald Trump, I’ve doubled down on I need someone who’s down for the cause. Like they say, ‘All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,’ ” he said. “Some Black people believe in the colorblind rhetoric of America. They believe if you just work hard, if you pull your pants up, if you delay gratification, you should get through life unscathed. Well, we’ve seen moment after moment of that being untrue, right? And so, trauma to me is I need to know what you think about race in America.”

While for Spearman racialized trauma manifests in his standards for a partner, for other Black men it can stand in the way of connecting with a partner at all. Steven D. Kniffley Jr., coordinator of the Collective Care Center, a racial trauma clinic, at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, said men “are already socialized to be disconnected from their emotional experiences,” including in their romantic relationships.

This can be even more complicated for Black men, he said. “First, because of the difficulties fulfilling these stereotypical roles connected to Black masculinity, and just masculinity in general, then you have that layered with the experience of racial trauma.” Often, he said, men experience “depression, anxiety, anger, aggression and low self-esteem, coupled with the experience of alexithymia [difficulty recognizing feelings] — ‘I’m frustrated, I can’t communicate that frustration to you, so I’m just going to be emotionally unavailable.’ ”

Kniffley suggests Black men are often deserving of “an acknowledgment that the person that you’re talking to is facing seemingly insurmountable pressure to navigate a space that is not their own.” He continued, “Imagine the pressure that comes along with trying to navigate that, while having folks ask for this emotional availability from you, that you just may not have the capacity to do without some sort of support.”

It’s important to note, he said, that this support should come from therapy, not their romantic partners. “We’re not telling Black women that they need to heal Black men,” he said. “This is one of the reasons therapy is so important for our Black men to be taking part of. So they can have that safe space to know how to be vulnerable and to learn how to use those words, so they can be more emotionally available for their respective partners.”

Perry’s research showed that previous relationship trauma can cause straight Black men to be emotionally unavailable with future partners. He said Black men often don’t have spaces where they can have transparent “discussions and conversations and be accepted for being their true authentic and most vulnerable selves.” And sometimes, their relationships with women don’t provide those spaces either, as some have been ridiculed by women the way they were ridiculed in all-male spaces.

“They have experience that suggests to them that there’s nothing to be gained by doing that again. Later, down the road, maybe you get into a relationship with a person where you want to build something that is long-lasting and have a strong commitment, and then have [vulnerability] be an expectation of that person, and you’ve got absolutely … no experience and practice doing it,” he said. “That becomes one of, if not the biggest, challenges that ends up threatening the relationship.” It’s heartbreaking for everyone involved.

Most of the men I spoke to had either benefited from therapy or from a social circle that encouraged and protected their vulnerability. (There’s likely some overlap between the men willing to be quoted publicly about their views on relationships and those who are comfortable discussing their feelings privately.)

David Edwards, 34, is a human resources director for a communication firm in Oakland, California. He’s friends with Black men, both queer and straight, single and partnered, who’ve “always been very vulnerable with each other, there’s always been space, we’ve always been open in talking about therapy and all of those things.” He grew up surrounded by cousins who some would consider “stereotypically ’hood, but are also very vulnerable and in touch, and are very emotionally intelligent,” and their love was needed as a young Edwards navigated both anti-gay schools and churches.

Where the vulnerability disconnect has appeared in his life is in dating. He’s dated men who simply were not able to express themselves. “I’ve often dated men who weren’t always the most out, and that is another last level of a lack of vulnerability, a level of not being open to being your truest self in public. And when I made the shift to being like, ‘I’m not dating men who are not out,’ I experienced that a little bit less.”

Growing up in a small town, Edwards never saw Black gay men in partnerships. This narrowed the future he saw for himself. “As I think about what I knew I could be in adulthood, I always knew that I was going to college. I knew I was going to be successful. I knew I was going to achieve certain things. But I don’t think I ever saw being in a committed relationship in that because I never saw that represented amongst Black gay men. I think it’s always been something that I’ve wanted and longed for, but it’s never been anything that I thought could be achieved.”

As Edwards has shed more and more of the patriarchal messaging our society inundates us with, his possibilities of what could be have expanded. “Today, I am open, I’m really open to the idea of marriage, I do think I want to be in a partnership.”

For Edwards, therapy has been crucial. “I think who I am, how I show up in relationships, how I help, who I date, what I find attractive, what I am, what I tolerate, all of that has completely and totally changed as a result of being in therapy and doing the work.”

And the work isn’t just for him. “Growing up in a working-class house, of course, I was in a multigenerational household, and I was my grandmother’s knee baby. So, I heard about her parents’ marriage, her marriage. I observed my mother and my uncles, and everybody’s dating and, and I looked at my generation, and I was able, because of my relationship with my grandmother, to understand that my cousins and I were fourth-generation repeating particular patterns.” Therapy is how Edwards broke those cycles and lifted what he said “felt like a generational curse.”

And maybe this undoing – whether the generational curse is patriarchy, racism, poverty – is a must for Black folks, of any gender inviting romantic love into our lives. The Black women I spoke to in my previous piece were waiting on the right partners but were also engaging in experiences and ways of life that were not available to the generations of women who came before us. Exercising these freedoms has been an undoing, too.

As straight Black women burdened by the stigma of unworthiness, our directive is to look inward when dating rejection happens. But despite what we’ve heard repeatedly, there’s a strong chance the single Black man across from us on a dinner date is more stressed about how he’s going to make a marriage out of 15 cents than he is about our value as a woman. Emotional vulnerability isn’t easy and economic vulnerability isn’t any easier. And alongside growing and healing in a society that is actively harmful, many Black men want to figure out their feelings and their finances before they deem themselves relationship-ready.

Minda Honey is a Louisville, KY based writer and founder of TAUNT. She spends her free time living beyond her emotional means and hyping up her friends on social media.