Single Black women and the lies about our love lives
Yes, 62% of us aren’t married. That’s not a ‘problem’ that has to be fixed.
In December, in my half-lit bedroom, I watched the series finale of Insecure on my laptop. There was Molly in her designer wedding dress, husband on her arm. Of the besties at the center of the show following the lives of Black women in LA, I’m more of a Molly than an Issa: My career accelerated throughout my 20s and 30s while my love life mostly stagnated.
For the last five years, I’ve felt affirmed by the character’s dating struggles that so often mirrored my own. Were we being elitist? Molly and I tried dating men who made less money than we did. Did we need to be more open-minded? Molly and I went back and forth about only dating Black men. Did we need to work on ourselves? Molly and I went to therapy. For Molly, it was the last of these that made her relationship-ready when a suitable partner (an actual partner at her law firm) arrived.
At the end of the episode, I switched off my lamp, closed my laptop, and shoved it to the side of my bed with the mess of books I’m always in the middle of reading. In the quiet of the night, I wondered when my reality would mirror Molly’s fiction. I was soon to be 37 and still single. I’m among the 62% of Black women who are unpartnered.
But wistfulness for a husband looks different in the light of day. Rather than a constant companion, it’s a fleeting feeling like other unmet desires – I want long-term financial security; I want to travel more; I want to own a home – an absence that can be acknowledged without jeopardizing my day-to-day satisfaction. Melancholy about a life thus far unlived doesn’t displace the joy found in the life I currently lead. My life might not look like the one American women have been taught to strive for – a husband, a house and two kids – but it is a happy one. So why do I flinch each time I see that statistic?
As a Black woman, I was brought up to undermine stereotypes, to defy the odds. Statistics like that 62% were barriers to overcome. (The number for all American women is 32%.) Yet I’m solidly stuck on the “wrong” side of that number. And finding acceptance in my singlehood almost feels like I’ve given up on myself, like I’m releasing my agency over my love life or giving power to the insistent false narrative that Black women are undesirable. No matter how plainly it’s presented, there’s nothing neutral about that stat. It’s read as a problem Black women must fix, or worse, that Black women are a problem that must be fixed.
The pandemic has only deepened my ambivalence about the supposed connection between matrimony and happiness. The surge in divorces these past few years made me question what these married women I’d often envied learned during the months they were shut-in with a spouse? Yes, the pandemic has been lonely for singles. But unlike many partnered women, I had not needed to drop out of the workforce to be the primary caregiver for children, nor had I found myself grumbling over being laden with an unfair portion of the household management. Often, when discussing singleness, there is a focus on what is lacking from a life unpartnered. Rarely do we consider what must be exchanged for a life lived with someone else.
In a recent essay for The New York Times, Kaitlyn Greenidge asked, What Does Marriage Ask Us to Give Up? Greenidge tells me over the phone that the Black women in her life do not share in “the panic that is coming from the larger culture” about our singlehood. “It could be a source of pain, but it’s also, a source of power. It’s a place to do the things that you actually want to do when nobody is looking, or people are assuming you’re not able to do them.”
Greenidge believes one of the reasons these panic narratives exist is because Black women’s singlehood is “viewed as a threat because if you’re able to make a life like that, then maybe other lives are possible.”
Brianna Meeks learned firsthand that other lives were possible. Raised Black, Baptist, and in the South, she got married at 23. “I changed my name and that was something I was always surprised at and something that felt wrong the entire time. It felt like a really weird identity crisis.”
By 25, Meeks was over her marriage. “I felt like he was holding me back. He wasn’t fully supportive of my dreams or it was all about him and what he was doing or what he wasn’t doing and how he felt about it. And once I took my energy off him and looked at myself, it was like, ‘Oh! I’m actually dope!’ Let me go do all this s—.”
Now 31, Meeks says that once she became single “the whole world opened up” because her dreams were no longer secondary. “Being single isn’t the worst thing that could happen to you, which is another thing we’ve been led to believe, that that’s your worst-case scenario. And it is not. Don’t discount what you have achieved. I have a master’s degree. I have my own apartment. I’ve doubled my salary … That’s not to say I don’t want children or partnership some time down the road. But it’s got to be right. People make it seem like our standards are too high, which kind of leads to the idea that you should just settle because it’s better to settle than to be alone. But let me tell you something, it is not.”
Meeks has dated women exclusively since moving to Washington, which, for her, has shifted the conversation about what it means to be a single Black woman. “It’s a little bit of a relief, I would say. In the queer community there are so many different kinds of ways to be a person, that there are many different kinds of relationships, so the possibilities are endless.”
Ultimately, Meeks has found confidence in knowing who she is and what she wants versus trying to follow a preconceived script of what a happy life should look like. “As Black women, generally, in the professional sphere, and every sphere we have to be in, we have to just be really sure of who we are, so much so that this is just another aspect of that. We know how to stand firm. And be like, ‘This is who I am’ – and it has to be that because people are like, ‘Are you going to get married? Are you going to do this? Are you going to do that?’ And I’ve finally gotten to place where I can say ‘I don’t know… I don’t know what life is going to do. I’m here for the ride.’ ”
Meeks told me that if she gets to her mid-30s and is still unpartnered, she’s going to take on parenting solo. The nuclear family is another script she doesn’t feel the need to abide by.
Asha French, a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University, chose to rip up the nuclear family script when she learned she was pregnant in her early 20s. She thought about most of the concerns young, unmarried mothers-to-be think about, but there was also joy and illumination. “I felt like I got lucky,” she said. “What it clarified for me was that what I wanted from marriage was the parenting part.”
Often when you add “mother” to “single Black woman,” not to mention queer, our society leaves joy out of the discussion, but it’s there. “I always wanted to be a mom. This is such a big part of my identity,” French said. “I love this work. I love the work that is mothering.”
French credits writers Alexis Pauline Gumbs with showing her how a Black mother can be revolutionary and Cathy J. Cohen for showing her how queerness subverts America’s racial narrative about the “acceptable” way to have kids. Although, she feels “ideologically empowered,” French said, “Practically, I would really like another person to take out the trash and help me bring stuff up.”
Having had to relocate for her academic career, French finds that what’s missing from her life isn’t necessarily a partnership, but a community. “I only think about marriage as something that could save me from my situation because I don’t have girl friends and I think if I had friends and they were community, I think I could date with a whole lot less weight.”
As French nears 40, she’s found, “The weight of the statistic is always there.” Like the beauty and weight loss industries that are fueled by keeping women insecure, French points out, “It’s more lucrative to tell the story that we’re not marriable for things we can fix by buying stuff.”
But she sees beyond the marketing when she looks at the women in her family. Black women’s choices have expanded from generation to generation and those additional choices have changed the imperative for partnership. “All the things that I can do on my own, my great-grandmother couldn’t do on her own because of legal reasons. I can make my own money. I can get a Ph.D. I can buy a house … It does not mean I want to be independent forever; everybody wants to belong to some sort of relationship.
“I can see that my singleness is a privilege, actually. There are so many privileges that the marriage narrative obscures.”
Saida Grundy, a feminist sociologist of race and ethnicity at Boston University, supports this notion. “Throughout history and humanity, when it comes to adult partnerships, form follows function.” In other words, unions are about keeping children alive to adulthood. “The issue at stake for Western culture is that the nuclear family served a function of capitalist production.”
This would explain why so much of the concern around the overall increasing singlehood in the United States seems to have an economic bent. In October, Time ran an article reporting on a Pew Research Center study, Men are Now More Likely to Be Single Than Women. It’s Not a Good Sign. Not a good sign for what … ? Apparently, the economy: “While the study is less about the effect of marriage and more about the effect that changing economic circumstances have had on marriage, it sheds light on some unexpected outcomes of shifts in the labor market.”
Look, I’m a writer. I’d love for my life to be subsidized by a partner. But, for me, a lack of marriage is symbolic of a lack of romantic love in my life. I rarely think about it in economic terms unless I’m fretting over retirement or bitter about how much easier it is for my partnered peers to buy a home. So what happens when we divorce love from marriage and marriage from capitalism? It could end a lot of the stigma around singlehood.
Jessica Moorman, an assistant professor at Wayne State University who has studied Black women and singlehood, asks that we, “Step back for a second and think about who marriage privileges, in terms of the economics. Marriage is a specific kind of relationship that privileges partnerships where one spouse is earning significantly more money than the other.” She notes that romantic love can exist outside of marriage in many different relationship contexts like polyamory and long-term unwed partnership.
Moorman’s research returns agency to Black women. Singlehood isn’t some purgatory between childhood and adulthood, a lost time before your life really begins. “Being single is a time to prepare, a time to become emotionally available, a time to identify with one’s goals, a time to pursue all of the different things you can have in order to have a rich full life,” she said. And if you choose, “Some of that is about readying for partnership.”
Instead of seeing statistics as evidence of some personal deficit, Moorman is clear: If you’re single, “There’s always somebody else. No one is late. No one is left out. No one is wrong. No one is bad. No one is unlovable because they are single. They are just doing life differently because Black Americans face unique, entrenched, structural problems that we have to navigate in ways that sometimes don’t allow us to marry on the timeline that peers of other races do.”
It’s also a a generational trend, Moorman said. “In part because of debt, in part because the norms and values have changed. Women just don’t need men in the same way in order to establish themselves. And that’s not even a comment on men, that’s just a comment on the economy and a comment on the laws and policies of our land.”
But we do need to talk about men. Black men specifically. (Most Americans are still marrying within their race.) The Black women in my group chats aren’t popping off about economics after a disappointing date. It’s our stilted search for a partner who is our equal and views us their equal that we find most frustrating.
Moorman’s research reflects that. “Women are actually actively avoiding misogynistic partners. That misogyny, that gender inequity, that antagonism is actually a key driver for why many women actively choose to remain single.”
When Moorman’s findings were covered by Psychology Today, it brought forth the wrath of the Black manosphere – the Black equivalent of the white incel community.
Grundy and Moorman both commented that the high rate of singleness among Black men — the Pew Research Center reports that 55% of Black men are unpartnered — receives little attention. While Nicole Young’s recent piece in Elle, My Brush with the Black Manosphere, ignited a conversation around the intersection of toxic Black masculinity and dating, there’s still much left to be said – and heard – from the much larger percentage of Black men who are single and have not made a career profiting off misogynistic narratives about Black women.
We need their stories, too. (And their blog posts. And their YouTube/Twitter/Tik-Tok accounts. And for them to swipe right when they come across my online dating profile … ) Because as Moorman observes, Black men aren’t served by those narrow perspectives, either.
“Black men also suffer in these narratives,” she said. “Now they’re trapped in this one box of what masculinity is and what being a man is. Why do men want to box themselves in in these specific ways? Why is there a cultural imperative for sameness among men that is rooted in dominance, authority, and control? Not everybody wants to be in their relationship like that. A lot of men are looking for a partner to be emotionally vulnerable with.”
Inviting Black men into the singlehood conversation doesn’t mean disparaging them. It’s disturbing how often this discourse devolves into pitting straight Black men and women against each other (while leaving Black non-binary and queer folks on the sidelines). Dianne M. Stewart, author of Black Women, Black Love: America’s War on African American Marriage, believes this is because when we stop focusing on the individual and look instead at the structural issues that created a lack of a societal safety nets for the Black community, we’d have to admit “this is a civil rights issue. Marriage is a civil right.”
Even if some Black women have found contentment in our singlehood, it’s important that we address these issues for the generations to come. “If we put these issues at the center of our policy formation, we’re going to address a plethora of intersecting issues, we’re going to tackle educational disparities, we’re going to confront the prison industrial complex.”
Stewart also agrees with Moorman that many Black men want more – and are more – than the narratives being offered about them. “We need more Black men on the front lines openly talking about what it means to invest in an anti-patriarchal, anti-sexist project of relationship building. There are Black men I know personally who prefer the benefits of love and partnership over the perceived benefits of patriarchy. These men delight in the rewards of bonding with their spouses and children, but they need to speak openly about it. And I think that doing so will take a profound level of courage.”
Stewart says that telling our stories can grant Black women more freedom to just be. “The more Black women speak publicly about this, we are speaking for ourselves. That testimony, that story, that kind of witnessing, changes the public narrative.”
Just because there’s money to be made off the story that single Black women are flawed, it doesn’t mean that Black women aren’t telling ourselves different stories. Faith Lindsey, an 18-year-old freshman at Temple University, told me that in her friend group marriage is not an aspiration for most.
“We’re very cautious when it comes to getting married or just even trusting systems and institutions in general.” When I ask her about children, she responds, “Oh, no. Pretty much for the same reason, the systems are not set up well enough to bring kids into this world. … We can see that’s not working.”
Lindsey says her queerness has shaped her relationship values. “It’s not necessarily about safety or committing to one person, it’s not about the idea of ownership. So, it gives me, and I know so many other people, so much freedom.”
Abandoning the marriage script does not mean that Gen Z is an army of carefree Black girls. Rather, according to Lindsey, the pressure has shifted to other areas. “We still have a heavy load of societal pressures for Black women to have our s— together, even if marriage is not our top priority. At this point, it’s ‘So what are you doing in your career? What’s your lifestyle?’ ”
Lindsey and I share a hometown, and when we get off the phone, I consider reaching out to her mother to see how her perspective might differ from her daughter’s. I want to chat with a Black woman who has raised her children, who is no longer married, and appears to be thriving. Then, I think about Stewart saying how important it is for Black woman to tell our stories and all the stories not represented by the women I spoke to. Black transgender women. Asexual Black women. Stories centered in colorism, texturism, and featurism. Stories of Black women without degrees. Immigrant Black women. Black aunties. Black women happy in their marriages. So many Black women, so many stories to tell, so many stories that will continue to go unheard until we move beyond the statistics.