Part Two: The Black Marriage – Power, Media, the Black Church, and Solutions

The elite groups with the power to control definitions of marriage were, it may seem to go without saying, not just men, but White men. The “authority to define societal values” associated with marriage “is a major expression of upper class white male power” (Collins, 1990, p. 76). Thus, the roles of husband and wife that were created, and the values and laws that propped them up, were predicated on whiteness, and, to some extent, a middle- or upper-class social position. Whiteness was such a powerful organizing force that working-class Whites sought to emulate their middle-and upper-class counterparts, often at great sacrifice, in their search to
affirm their racial position. Landry (2000) shows, for example, that White
immigrant women would send their children away or take in borders, so that
they could remain in the home. – Johnson and Loscocco


Power is something that has always been a defining conclusion in war for centuries.  Power gets things done and the more power you have the more power you seem to want.  Before the current ways of marriage, women (white women) were seen as property…not even as a person!  If a man raped another man’s wife, it was considered “destruction of property.”  So the laws of husband and wife and its history wasn’t always pleasant and solely focused on “two individuals coming together in life and love, with the required relationship skills to manage their household.”  There was a power structure with the white male patriarch as the head of everything, including his wife, his property.  Fast forward to 2016, and statistics show that American marriages fail at over 50% and more.  Women are at a higher rate of infidelity within their marriage (over 60% last time I read).

One woman interviewed for the African American Voices Project said, “In relationships I am forced to be much more submissive and appear less capable to keep the peace”. Another woman, divorced, found that “it was painful to give myself up” during marriage. These women know that lifting up their men is perceived as lifting up their larger community, but it is an awful lot ask of them. – Johnson and Loscocco

I had a discussion with a few girlfriends and one mentioned that her man gets into these moods that are draining to her even though she is very supportive.  One gfriend said, “that’s what we are here for; to build him, support him, be that shoulder and rock.  that’s love.”  My take and a few others agreed is that, “a woman’s health matters too.  That support is not at the expense of your happiness or if it drains you.”  That as black women we are still being told to support him at the expense of our feelings, thoughts, emotions and such to make sure he is happy, he is well…..leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  Sometimes I really think that our men do not understand the complexities of being a woman and being black.  Our struggles were covered up and “whitewashed” because we made our black men a protected class that needed extra….but what about black woman?  When we experience pain, injustice, exhaustion, and abuse….who fights for our significance?  The answer….other women!  That’s who we are told to go to when in crisis.  We are told to not give black men undue pressure, but the pressure we feel is something we are told to manage.

A Black wife’s strength can be co-opted by husbands, children, and kin, and she may even be a willing participant in this gendered and racialized performance. After all, many Black women have been socialized to live up to this stereotyped image from the time they are young (Bell, 2004; S. A. Hill, 2001, 2004). Indeed, 31 of 44 Black women—from both the middle and working classes—define strength in terms of cultural prescription (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2007). – Johnson and Loscocco

Cultural prescriptions and expectations of black women don’t allow us to show weakness.  We are taught to show strength at the expense of ourselves and be independent, but our use of independence is harshly criticized by our men.  So they assume we don’t need them and sometimes we do say it and as more women say it, we are generalized as the “women who want to be independent and don’t need men” population.  How do we tell our men that we are/were survivors too?  That we are not white women and our story does not follow their story.  We were never given the chance to function as we saw fit because of our history.  That we as a group, as a community needed to develop a black system of marriage, relationships, and family life that mimics a strong tradition of Blackness that can become a legacy.

The Black Church’s pivotal and ubiquitous institution of support and resistance is also
very patriarchal. – Cole, Guy-Sheftall, Collins

Here is the other half of the peer-reviewed and scholarly data that came from this journal that widens my eyes to marriage, black women, and our role in America.

Reid-Brinkley (2008) discusses the reappropriation of the White “cult of true womanhood” through the image of the Black “queen”: Although the “queen” is to be worshipped, her position is often rhetorically and materially behind that of the “king.” In other words, the “black queen” is judged by her commitment to the elevation of black manhood in the context of a racist society. She is worshipped for her ability to maintain her appropriate position within black culture. – Reid-Brinkley, S. (2008). The essence of res (ex)pectability: Black women’s negotiation of Black femininity in rap music and music video. Meridians 8, 236-60


Cult of Domesticity

  • Men are encouraged to stake their sense of self-worth on the ability to be in control, so that even when it is illusory or difficult to achieve, men will keep trying to get it. If men are denied the opportunity to fulfill it in the public sphere they will seek other spaces, and the marriage is a logical place to expect it, seek it, demand it—because this institution is predicated on men’s dominance and women’s subordination.
  • In an interesting class twist, the Black women who coexist with these men in poverty, like their White and Puerto Rican counterparts, understand their men’s limitations, and opt out of marriage largely because they have internalized the dominant cultural ideal that men should be good providers (Edin & Kefalas, 2005). This is then interpreted by the dominant culture as confirmation of the failed masculinities and femininities of poor Blacks, and often generalized to all Blacks.
  • The church’s key role in Black American lives has come partly at the expense of
    its devoted women (cf. Collins, 1990; Grant, 1982, 2004). Churches and the men who typically head them (Grant, 2004) emphasize the gender binary and patriarchal relationships. It is a response to the depiction of “black promiscuity and immorality” that “fueled racism.”



The Black Church

  • Black men have been thwarted in attempts to enact hegemonic masculinity by racist institutions, they seek out dominance over women in the spaces they do control. Churches have been a major source of Black men’s control (though also of women’s resistance).
  • The patriarchal message of the bible and men’s attempts to live up to dominant image of manhood as in control and having authority—lead to emphasis on marriage.

According to the ethnographic study of three progressive churches, The ideal family, according to the findings of both men and women in the research team, is one in which the man is the head of the household. The husband is “the authority” and the wife’s job is “to accept and respect that” (p. 35). Members of this progressive church are told that it is the responsibility of both women and men to “know their spiritually mandated, opposite, respective role and adhere to it so as to ensure that the family will remain together” (p. 35).  – Edgell and Docka, 2007

  • Some studies suggest that Black couples for whom religion is important have stronger marriages (Bryant et al., 2008; Wilcox & Wolfinger, 2007, 2008).  The religious beliefs and the social support associated with regular church attendance provide couples with better resources for resolving the stresses they experience in daily life.
  • 17 of the 24 men interviewed stated that the church should become even more aggressive in promoting marriage. One respondent said that relationship education should be an integral part of the church curriculum. He stated, “You know, teaching young men and women how to coexist in a relationship, be in love and how to treat
    each other” (p. 194). – Perry

What we do not know is whether those marriages survive because the couples adopted a patriarchal model of marriage or because they have somehow transcended it. – Johnson and Loscocco



The Media and Gender Binary

The depiction of the physically powerful and threatening hypermasculinity of Black men deviates far from the White standard of constrained, civilized, and socially powerful White masculinity. The forceful, angry Black woman also fails to perform the idealized, White version of femininity. – Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008; Ridgeway & Kricheli-Katz, 2013, Johnson, Loscocco

  • Tyler Perry has created an extremely successful franchise that blames women for difficulties in relationships.
  • Girls and women are targeted with messages about the desirability of a highly
    romanticized view of love and marriage through books, films, music, TV shows, and advice givers.
  • Black girlfriends and wives are often portrayed as keeping Black men from asserting their masculinity, and therefore in need of being controlled by their men.
  • The Media not just de-valued and demonized poor Black families who are depicted as having failed to learn the appropriate cultural scripts.
  • Movies such as The Brothers, Waiting to Exhale, and Two Can Play that Game depict highly flawed relationships between upper and middle class Black women and men (cf. S.A.Hill, 2004).
  • Though the conflicts can be traced to the racist institution of marriage, Black wives and husbands hurl the blame at each other (cf. S. A. Hill, 2004).
  • The most popular advice typically emphasizes the traditional gender ideology that women and men are complete opposites, so different, in fact, that they might be from different planets. These messages carry considerable cultural clout.
  • Steve Harvey, among many others, has created an industry out of the notion of a gender binary. Harvey’s (2009) promise is to spill men’s secrets, to interpret these alien creatures for the women who are in search of the fairy tale ending.  His advice is laced with admonitions for women to let their men feel like kings (Loscocco & Walzer, 2013). Although the advice is aimed at a general audience, it echoes the church and other institutions that ask Black women to adopt a traditional idealized femininity, so that their men can more fully enact hegemonic masculinity.
  • Hill Harper argues that women and men mostly want the same things from relationships and that differences in approach and expectations “may have more to do with the way men and women are socialized than what our true desires are.” He “gets” “black gender ideology” (Collins, 2005).
  • The role of Black wife contains unique challenges that come from trying to create intimate ties with men in the context of a racist society, and typically offers fewer benefits than White women get from marriage.


Steve Harvey’s genre of books reinforces that women are responsible for nurturing and taking care of the relationship, in keeping with dominant cultural schema and the gender binary. – Collins, 2005


Conclusions and Solutions for Black Marriages

  • Harper suggests that women and men should engage in tough conversations with their partners or potential partners.
  • Myth: Much discussion of the “problems of black marriage” suggests that a major part of the solution lies in Black men moving out of subordinated masculinity.
  • The power of the gender binary leads to solutions that empower Black men at the
    expense of Black women. Discussion needs to focus on how “men’s problems”
    affect women in order to fully understand difficulties in Black relationships and communities (cf. Cole & Guy-Sheftall, 2003).
  • Imagine if, instead of ignoring sexism (Collins, 2005), more Black men were also buffering their wives against the harmful images and daily doses of racism they face.
  • Because slavery and racism shaped how gender was constructed among Black Americans, including the fact that Black men were denied the opportunity to fulfill the idealized role of husband, definitions of Black womanhood were far broader than those of Whites’ and included traits that were typically associated with men, such as independence and assertiveness (Collins, 1990; Landry, 2000).
  • The expansion of Black womanhood could only come at the cost of Black manhood (Dill, 1988; S. A. Hill, 2001) in a society that constructs women and men as opposites.
  • For “gender bias” still creeps into black couples’ relationships. And the white community’s centuries-old fear and subsequent devaluation of black manhood has
    contributed to the problem” (Jones & Shorter-Gooden, 2003, p. 210).
  • But rather than sanctioning other family forms, American society continues to hold everyone accountable to the norm of gender differentiated marriage.
  • It is ironic that poor mothers are the target of “marriage promotion policies” (S. A. Hill, 2004), which assume that husbands are needed to pull them out of poverty at the same time that gays and lesbians must fight for the chance to marry.
  • It is equally ironic that many lower income couples revere marriage to an extent
    unparalleled by those in the middle and upper classes, which makes them more hesitant to marry (Gibson-Davis, Edin, & McLanahan, 2005).
  • There are aspects of Black marriages that are egalitarian, empowering, and pioneering.
  • The role of Black wife contains unique challenges that come from trying to create intimate ties with men in the context of a racist society, and typically offers fewer benefits than White women get from marriage.
  • The role of Black wife reflects the intersection of gender and race, showing that it is different from that of a White wife, and that racism adds responsibilities and stresses to the role that is not shared by Black husbands.



Bell, E. L. (2004). Myths, stereotypes and realities of Black women: A personal reflection. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 40, 146-159.

Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman.

Collins, P. H. (1993). Toward a new vision: Race, class, and gender as categories of analysis and connection. Race, Sex & Class, 1(1), 25-45.

Collins, P. H. (2005). Black sexual politics: African Americans, gender and the new racism. New York, NY: Taylor & Frances.

Collins, P. H. (2009). Another kind of public education: Race, schools, the media and democratic possibilities. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Edgell, P., & Docka, D. (2007). Beyond the nuclear family? Familism and gender ideology in diverse religious communities. Sociological Forum, 22, 25-50.

Goodwin, P. (2003). African American and European American women’s marital well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 550-560.

Grant, J. (2004). Black theology and the Black woman. In J. Bobo, C. Hudley, & C. Michel (Eds.), The Black studies reader, (pp. 421-434) New York, NY: Routledge.

Hill, R. (1972). The strengths of Black families. New York, NY: Emerson Hall.

Hill, S. A. (2001). Class, race, and gender dimensions of child rearing in African American families. Journal of Black Studies, 31, 494-508.

Hill, S. A. (2002). Teaching and doing gender in African-American families. Sex Roles, 47, 493-506. Hill, S. A. (2004). Black intimacies: A gender perspective on families and relationships. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hooks, B. (1989). Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking Black. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Hooks, B. (1992). Black looks: Race and representation. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Hooks, B. (2004). We real cool: Black men and masculinity. New York, NY: Routledge


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