The death of love, marriage, & community, in Black America‏: Requiem for a heavyweight

“Love’s in need of love today.”
—Stevie Wonder

On July 11, I received the following email from my good friend Mr. Paul Carrick Brunson, as I’m a subscriber to his newsletter:

Hi There,

I wanted to share with you briefly my thoughts on a subject that has me impassioned.

It’s inspired by an interview I did earlier this week. I was asked to appear on Good Morning America to discuss my thoughts on the latest reality show, Married at First Sight. It’s an extreme, so-called social experiment where total strangers meet and marry blindly. The couples must then live together for a month before deciding whether they’ll stay married or get a divorce. The creators of the show claim it’s an experiment to determine which people make the best romantic partners.

Needless to say, it’s a controversial project that has many people talking. But to me, the show is just as far-fetched as it sounds. I’d even dare to say it’s dangerous.

Now, I’m all for blind dates. I think they have the potential to expand one’s network and social circle, allowing you to meet and interact with interesting people you may have never had the chance to before. If the date doesn’t work out, there’s nothing “lost.” Only experience gained.

But Married at First Sight toys with a union that I—and so many others—hold sacred. This reality show dilutes the gravity of marriage by combining two people unstrategically with no shared values or compatibility.

And what if the blind marriage between the participants doesn’t work out?

Perhaps the worst part of this show is that it makes a mockery of marriage further by offering what appears to be a clear-cut solution to an unsuccessful union—divorce.

Social experiments typically contribute to the greater good of society. But this one? I simply don’t see how it will be beneficial to furthering our understanding of love and marriage. What I do see, though, is how it would benefit show creators, producers and the television network’s bottom line financially. Nothing makes more money than reality television drama and disasters. This will be no different.

It’s yet another great example of TV (and the profit motive) attempting to destroy a sacred union.

One week later, I got the following local story in my daily news feed:

PHILADELPHIA (CBS)—Authorities are investigating the cause of death of an elderly couple whose bodies were discovered inside their Strawberry Mansion home early Thursday morning.

Police say the only daughter of the couple found them dead in the living room of their row home in the 2500 block of North Spangler Street shortly before 1 a.m. Neighbors who heard her screams called 9-1-1.

Firefighters also responding to the call vented the home, suspecting carbon monoxide, but instruments detected no levels of the deadly gas.

Investigators say they were no signs of forced entry into the home and no visible injuries to either the man or the woman.

Family members identified the couple as Rufus and Algladys Perry.

What does Brunson’s freely admitted rant of righteous indignation and the death of an elderly couple in one of Philly’s historically Black neighborhoods have in common, you ask?

Well, I think that what they have in common is not just the degree to which marriage (and by extension, relationships) has been cheapened overall in American life but also the extent to which its cheapening, death even, has profoundly impacted Black American life—in ways that even now we are barely able to fully understand.

For those who may be other than Black (read: in the main, White), let me say this: Without question, the themes that I’ll be writing about in this article have had a profound impact on the whole of American society, not just the Black part of it; hardly anyone reading this will be able to say, with a straight face, that they’ve been untouched by it, either directly or indirectly. But it can also be said that no part of the American family has been so directly hit as hard on these fronts as the African-American section—and it has also been proven that Black America is a kind of bellwether as to what is to come from the rest of the country as a whole. So, stick around—even though the article may not be talking about you directly, it is definitely something that concerns you.

While “PCB,” as I refer to Brunson, may be in a position that precludes him from “cutting loose,” I’m a bit more fortunate in that regard, so let’s keep it 100: the major cultural, social, political, and economic changes that have come down the pike over roughly the past half a century, along the lines that are being discussed in this article, have done a job on Black America that several centuries of slavery, and another century of Jim Crow, couldn’t do to Black America—which was not only to break it apart spatially, economically, and politically but also to break its spirit.

Let me repeat that: What PCB is talking about above is the culmination of a multi-decades assault on the very foundations of what makes a family, a community, a nation, who and what it is. And that when it comes to Black America in particular, that multi-decades assault has achieved something that slavery, Jim Crow, and the Ku Klux Klan combined—over the course of three and half centuries(!)—couldn’t do—which was not only to break us apart physically but also to break our spirit.

By now, you don’t even have to be an American to know the most basic of facts and history on this score, but for the record it’s good to go over them for the sake of the argument being made in this piece. According to the excellent research of Harvard African American historian Professor Louis “Skip” Gates, Blacks, immediately coming out from under slavery, got married in droves and were eager to build families and communities. In fact, marriage was such a norm in Black America that by 1950 MORE Black Women were married than White Women—this at the height of the Jim Crow era.

By the year 2000, however—only a half-century later—marital rates in Black America not only plummeted but also were at all-time low levels. Blacks, even when controlling for education and incomes, divorce and break up at a rate much higher than Whites of the same education and income levels. To be sure, and some would point out, not without reason, that racism would play a role in that. After all, another fellow Harvard academic, Professor Alvin Poussaint, has rightly noted the ways in which merely being Black can and does have an impact on just living in the United States day to day.

Still, one has to wonder how it was possible for so many Black Americans to forge families—and by extension communities—against what must have seemed to be intractable odds.

In 1950, at a time when out-of-wedlock births and “baby mamas” was something to be scandalized, the Black rate was less than 30%—the current figure of the White OOW birthrate. By the time the 21st century rolled around, that number was tipping 70% nationally; today, it is creeping towards 80%.

Something else that one must point out is the rates of infidelity, STD infection, and domestic violence—all three of which are easily a magnitude higher in Black America circa 2014 than they ever were in 1950. Not only that, but there’s enough blame to go around on both sides of the gender aisle: for example, Black women have a herpes infection rate to the tune of 50%, and Black women are just as likely to go upside their mate’s head and/or cheat on their mate as the other way around. Indeed, the term “Jumpoff” has become part of the Black American lexicon—which translated simply means “mistress.” Jumpoffs have now, as a result of the aforementioned changes, been elevated to the same level as wives, be that de jure or de facto (since common law arrangements were always a strong part of Black American life). Mate poaching—stealing someone else’s mate—is not just something Black men engage in; it’s something that Black women too have had way more than their fair share of involvement with. Speaking of “reality” TV shows and the like, much of what is on offer to Black American audiences in this regard very much centers on these themes—easily seen in highly popular “reality” shows like Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, Real Housewives of Atlanta, and Basketball Wives. What perhaps makes matters even worse is that quite a few of the ladies featured in these shows are not always married or would even be recognized as steady, long-term mates in previous eras. They seem opportunistic in their outlook and mindset, always ready to pounce on a better chance or to vanquish a perceived “threat” in the form of another lady.

As you might guess, all of the above makes it pretty hard to build, to say nothing of sustain, communities. In the past, Jim Crow and the Klan used intimidation, violence, mob rule, and illegal measures to keep Black Americans from participating in all of the franchises of American life that made life worth living. Though they had some early victories and inflicted real damage on us, they never broke our spirit because we still had strong communities, which came from strong families. Today, however, we have very little of that—and of those who have managed to do these things, the sad truth is that there simply is not enough of them to carry the load.

The eminent scholar and public intellectual Thomas Sowell once famously said that there are no solutions—only tradeoffs—and he was referring to the idea that we, as a society, can craft quick-fix and often times feel-good “solutions” to supposedly dire conditions—not taking into account that there are inherent tradeoffs to anything we do. No-fault divorce, abortion on demand, cheap and effective birth control, big daddy government, and a “Imma do me, you do you” ethos have pervaded our society over the past half century and have created as many “problems” as they sought to solve. Even a passing-through perusal of Black America is a testament to this fact—“communities” that are such in name only and barely at that; atomized individuals, not connected to each other in any meaningful sense; feral children and young people running amok, in fatherless, manless environments where baby mamas are the norm; where recrimination and acrimony are the order of the day instead of love, support, and mutual understanding; where Black men are truly the walking wounded; and where Black spaces and places that were proud examples of the best we could be are little more than graveyards today— literal war zones where a Hobbesian all-against-all bloodletting occurs at a frighteningly frenzied pace.

So, is it really any wonder or surprise that “reality” TV shows now cash in on the mockery that marriage in our time has truly become? Indeed, if anything, one has to stand in awe of the fact that it has taken TV execs this long to capitalize on the trend in such an overt, direct fashion.

And as for the unfortunate passing of the Black elderly couple in Strawberry Mansion: the real mourning is for the fact that there are precious few couples like that of any age there. “Black love” in our time really means “Black sex,” in chaotic, random hit-and-miss fashion, where you’re here today, gone tomorrow, a seemingly never-ending carousel of “lovers” in and out of each other’s lives, and that of others, kids from the various unions in the undertow. Again, as I’ve noted above, the numbers—STDs, infidelity, plummeting marital rates, sky-high out-of-wedlock birthrates, you name it—bear it out.

I think the TV show PCB discusses actually can and has done some real good—because it has forced all of us to take a good, long, hard look at not just what marriage has become but also what we have become—and to ask ourselves if we’re okay with what we see. Because if we are, great, the band plays on. But if we’re not—as I suspect many more of us than we’re willing to admit aren’t—then it opens the door to a long-overdue conversation as to where we go next.

If there is going to be a (re)building of “community,” it has to start with a (re)building of the relationships between men and women, and to reaffirm the truth of our existence, as propounded by people much wiser than any of us, down through the ages.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bit of work to do.

Editorial note: The original version of this essay appeared on Just Four Guys. —DE

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