Dianne M. Stewart
Black Women, Black Love: America’s War on African American Marriage
Seal Press, 2020
Reviewed by Lily Kunda
In recent years we have seen an influx of discourse about the importance of Black relationships to the overall well-being of Black people, whether it is #couplegoals under a picture of Beyoncé and Jay-Z on Instagram, the plethora of dating “experts” cropping up as podcasters and YouTubers, or the multitude of Black relationships being depicted on shows like OWN’s Black Love. Black romantic relationships are on the agenda, and scholar Dianne Stewart hones in on this moment by examining the marginalizations embedded within Black women’s quest for loving romantic relationships.
In Black Women, Black Love: America’s War on African American Marriage, Stewart deploys the concept of “forbidden Black love” to trace the ways Black women have been systemically precluded, delayed, and even punished from experiencing heterosexual relationships. Starting with a statistic from the 2010 US census stating that 71 percent of Black women in America were unmarried (in comparison to only 43 percent of non-Hispanic white women), Stewart exposes the connections between systemic racism and the disparate conditions of Black marriage in America. Utilizing archival research, storytelling, statistics, and some of her own experiences, she traces the ways Black women have been forced to be “single by circumstance, not by choice” through chattel slavery, the Reconstruction, the Great Migration, contemporary mass incarceration, and the present with each chapter focusing on a different time period. Stewart argues that “Black romantic love is deeply entangled with structural power” by illustrating how white hegemonic patriarchal ideologies have been set as the standard for successful relationships in America and explaining how Black men and women have been structurally denied access to this part of the “American Dream.”
In Chapter One: Jumping the Broom, Stewart elucidates how the legacy of chattel slavery is still relevant to the contemporary crisis of low marriage rates among Black Americans. She posits that through the bondage of slavery, Black people were unable to select their spouses, be with their spouses when they wished, keep biological families together, care for their spouses in the emotional ways partners need to, or protect their spouses from the horrors of slavery. She does this by retelling several stories collected through letters, diaries, and interviews of Black women slaves who were separated from their husbands, and even one woman, Margaret, went as far as killing her children to prevent them from experiencing life under chattel slavery. Stewart expounds the inhumane treatment Black people were subjected to in great detail that made romantic relationships impossible. Moreover, Stewart draws attention to the fact that Black women slaves were positioned as the antithesis of what it meant to be respectably feminine and womanly due to how they were made to dress and the labor they were forced to perform— including forced sexual acts. These beliefs about Black women being unfeminine that began in slavery have been made permanent in the American imagination through stereotypes Black women continue to bear.
In Chapter Two: “Slow Violence and White America’s Reign of Terror,” Stewart continues a historic recount of Black people’s treatment by retelling the difficulties Black people faced during Emancipation and the Great Migration. Though during this period, Black people were technically “free” and experienced more rights than during enslavement, Stewart brings up the multitude of ways Black people were subjected to terroristic acts that made relationships difficult. One example is forcing Black people to “register” their marriages but creating rules and policies (like domesticity) that Black folks could not always meet and penalizing them if they did not register. Others include telling Black men they needed to be financially responsible for their families but making gainful employment difficult; this is on top of segregation, lynchings, destitution, and poverty—slow violence. Stewart poignantly harkens upon Henry Louise Gates and asks, “How could [Black people] survive every day and have hope, build a family, and fall in love?” And of course, many did still find love and partnership, but this was despite the continued racism they were forced to live through.
Chapter Three: Love and Welfare, examines more contemporary issues facing Black women’s desire for love by addressing the systematic way welfare programs forced many Black women into single motherhood. As discussed in the previous chapter, gainful employment was difficult for both Black men and women, and according to Stewart, in the 1950s, Black women began seeking assistance from state welfare programs to take care of their children. However, the major caveat being to receive those benefits, there could be no man in the house. Stewart recants several stories from welfare recipients and children of welfare recipients who tell about how social services workers would perform surprise visits to inspect the homes of recipients to assure no traces of any man were present—because if there is a man present, then patriarchal standards assert that he should be financially responsible. This surveillance faced by Black women made dating, let alone marriage, challenging.
In Chapter Four: Black Love in Captivity, Stewart builds off Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to explicate the ways the prison industrial complex has become “a mechanism of subjugation that impedes Black love and marriage with unmatched methodical precision.” Moving beyond the statistical reality that mass incarceration reduces the eligible dating pool available to Black women seeking romantic relationships with Black men, Stewart tends to Black relationships that have taken place while one spouse is incarcerated. Stewart details the financial and emotional strain that issues like high-level surveillance, collect phone call fees, and prison relocation can cause on those in relationships with the incarcerated. And though this chapter focuses on situations where the men are incarcerated, it is worth noting that mass incarceration is an issue affecting both Black men and Black women. Indeed, this chapter does an excellent job illustrating how mass incarceration functions as the new Jim Crow. It makes seeking romantic relationships between Black people both difficult to attain by reducing the dating pool significantly and difficult to maintain for those in relationships with the incarcerated.
Finally, in Chapter Five: Will Black Women Ever Have It All? Stewart departs from the format of previous chapters and does not focus on one single issue in a time period rather, she addresses a variety of obstacles facing Black women looking for love in the present day. Using former First Lady Michelle Obama as an example of modern-day women having both love and career success, Stewart addresses colorism as a barrier, navigating gender roles, the statistics on marriage rates based on class, and even the taboos surrounding interracial dating. Stewart interrogates how the church as an institution has aided in the perpetuation of a patriarchal family structure that calls for men to be the heads of a household. She then suggests, instead, that Black families “should consider privileging opportunities to nurture the health and wellness of the entire kinship structure through the sharing of adult responsibilities and prerogatives.”
Throughout Black Women, Black Love, Stewart does an excellent job tracing the multiple interconnected systems that have placed Black women at a disadvantage in searching for and maintaining romantic relationships. What is unique about this work is that she addresses many of the issues that have been discussed in seminal feminist works by scholars like bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and others connecting all these issues in one place to the particular problem of low marriage rates among Black women. Her primary call to action is for greater financial support of Black love through state and federal programs. She suggests this can be done through the forms of reparations, financial gifts to every baby born in America that is granted on an income-based scale, and structural interventions that can help dismantle systemic racism. To Stewart, supporting Black love is a key intervention in liberating Black people as research shows that married families generate greater wealth through their lifetimes and, as a result, have better outcomes.