Who Will They Marry? Black PhDs and the Marriage Market

There is a marriage crisis among Black students in graduate school. In all my classes Black women out-number Black men by a ratio of thirty to one. The women are on a reproductive cliff if they want to have children. They must do so soon, or Mother Nature will dump them over the edge.

Chronologically, the average life expectancy for women is 88 years in Canada. Reproductively it’s game over at age 35. Most of the women in my classes are about 30 years old – near the end of their reproductive lives. Mother Nature is not so decisive when it comes to men and reproduction. Male chronological and reproductive ages are in synch. As long as a man can get up and get it up, he is still able to seed children.

Marriage has never been a neutral act. It has always reaffirmed cultural norms in terms of who is acceptable or unacceptable as a marriage partner. It has always been a political act, reflecting patterns of racial and gender dynamics and hierarchies. Traditionally, women aim to marry up the social ladder or at least on the same rung. Cinderella wishes to marry a prince, not a stable boy.

Feminism has opened up education for women, giving them an alternative to hoping for a prince. Generally, more education leads to better marriage prospects, higher jobs and fewer children. This accepted truism is more complex for Black women. From media reports it seems that no one wants to date, never mind marry, educated Black women.

Black men don’t want us because we are seen as too demanding. White and men from other racialized ethnic groups, don’t want Black women because we are too Black.

Feminism can help Black men to unpack the toxic box of stereotypes about educated Black women, and examine its foundation on the capitalist bedrock of racism, sexism and class. In the process Black men can also learn how these same forces shape their own lives as men.

Capitalism, and its tentacles of racism and sexism, continues to mold the economic reality of Black lives. The intersection of these affect women and men differently. It created steady jobs for Black women as nannies, cleaners, and nursing assistants. These are physical, low-paying jobs based on caring for others, especially white people. Race and sex has also systematically kept Black men at the margins of the labour market. It is no accident that the unemployment rate for Black men is three times the average.

Getting an education is the quickest way out of unemployment or the dead end jobs. The strategy has worked successfully for the Black women in graduate school. It has not for our men due to their high drop-out rates. Black men are systematically pushed out of school so that they can continue to function as capitalism’s disposal source of labour. Hired when needed. Fired when not.

Yet, Black men too believe the patriarchal philosophy that their masculinity is tied to their roles as bread-winners and heads of the household. Due to systemic racism it has always been difficult for Black men to be the former. This has not stopped them from clinging to the latter.

Black feminism questions the patriarchal privilege of Black men. Rather than taking part in the debate, it is easier and more acceptable for Black men to lash out at the women. Economic gains made by Black women are seen as compromising the integrity of the race or cultural group. In extremis, successful Black women are seen as emasculating Black men. The same logic extends to marriage. Black women who marry outside the race are seen as sleeping with the enemy. While men who do the same are seen as making a personal choice. This falls hollow when one sees row after row of Black male celebrities with their white wives. Why is it so hard for Black men to confront their fetishizing of white female skin?

The Black women in my graduate class are grappling with complex issues while their biological clocks are in free fall. It is culturally acceptable for a male doctor to marry a women with elementary school education. The reverse is not true. So what are the women to do?

Each woman will have to choose how the intersections of race, gender and class plays out in her personal life. With or without children. For some that may mean being single. For others it might mean marrying a bus driver or outside of their racial or cultural group.

Whatever choice the women make it will be tough. It may mean letting go of some long held values, traditions and dreams. It is far better to make the choices with eyes wide open. Black men can help by respecting the choices of Black women. They don’t have to like it, but respect it. Black men also need to question how their male privilege and notions of masculinity plays out in the marriage market. Rather than seeing educated Black women as competition, they need to start seeing us as allies. We are in the same quest for social justice in all areas of our lives, including marriage.


Murder at the Wedding

Their heavy breathing had stopped. Tom Smith reached over and kissed his wife’s eyes. She pulled him closer, her hands rubbing his nipple, his belly, reaching down… the log cabin door flew open.

Winter’s air sliced the room. Men’s voices screeched at Tom, rough hands yanked his shoulders. Tom fought as fists and boots and clubs smacked his body.

I am sure that this was not how Tom Smith wanted to spend his wedding night. He is just one of the many characters in Susanna Moodie’s classic memoir of pioneer life in Canada. Roughing it in the Bush, Or Life in Canada was published in 1852. Tom was Black. His wife was not.

Tom Smith appears half way through the book. The runaway slave from the USA had settled in the small Ontario town, setting himself up as a barber and laundry specialist. He was quiet, good-natured and successful. Tom was well liked, until the day he wed.

Marriage is a sacred act between two people who are free to choose each other. Or, so we like to believe in Canada. Here, love might be blind, but it is never colour blind. Mix-race marriages, then and still now, has a way of exposing the fault line of race in a society. Especially, marriage between a Black man and a white woman. This tends to wake up the sleeping dogs of race, sending them snarling, snapping or biting.

Moodie wrote that the small Ontario town had a quaint custom called charivari, a leftover from the days when French was the dominant European culture of Canada. Young men of the town held a charivari on some wedding nights. It was a chance to poke fun at the bride and groom with chants, bottles of wine, and an impromptu orchestra of banging pots and clashing sticks.

The charivari rabble disguised themselves with masks and hats, and blacked-up their faces. They turned up, uninvited, late at night at the newly-wed homes. On a deeper level the charming custom reinforced the norms and values of the small town. Couples who deviated from the norm were tried and judged by the charivari.

In one example the town did not approve of the May-October romance between a young bride and a middle-age groom. At the end of the charivari the groom was as stiff as a box. Another spring-autumn pairing had a different outcome. After a week of nightly charivari taunts, the autumnal bride outwitted the rabble. She found out the identity of the ringleader, a young lawyer, and invited him in for a handsome afternoon tea.

The wilderness was a wild and fearful place for Susanna Moodie. The menacing presence had to be conquered, cleared and farmed before English civilization could flourish in the backwoods colony. Moodie wrote Roughing it in the Bush specifically to encourage English immigration to Canada.

I don’t think Tom Smith shared Moodie’s pessimistic take on the Canadian wilderness. After all he had left the shackles and the whipping behind once he reached Canada’s shores. What he could not leave behind was his skin colour. And the perception of his blackness in the white imagination.

Tom Smith believed that his hard work was enough to grant him full citizenship in the pioneer town. Perhaps he felt that the right of citizenship included the right to marry the one you loved.

Moodie wrote that the town was sorry for what happened. The ringleaders of Tom Smith’s charivari fled the town to avoid jail. It did not matter to Tom Smith.

He was married and murdered on the same day.

Photo: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Jessie Walmisley and their children, married in 1899.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Choices: Marriage or Academia?

Like mosquito bites the professor’s words stung. The more she talked the more the bites itched. I willed myself to continue listening, ignoring the angry rash spreading in my spirit.

The professor introduced herself in class by summarising her accomplishments and climb up the academic ladder. Her achievements were many. Then she added a few personal details. She was married, this I expected. She had two children, this I did not expect. It was the first mosquito bite.

I did my first degree in England, switching from chemistry to international relations. As expected, there were no female professors in the science faculty. There was only one in my social science department. Three years of school and only one woman to show the possibilities of an academic career. At that point I decided it was not for me.

I did not want to end up at aged thirty, single, childless and old, facing a group of adolescents dissecting me with their pitying looks. Scanning my fingers for a ring, ears pricked for any hint of a life outside of lectures, books and exams.

Male professors aged thirty were fanciable, even in their corduroy pants, sensible shoes and jackets with elbow patches. A whiff of Old Spice enhanced their appeal. Female professors were a different a different chemical combination, smelling more like hydrogen sulphide than Chanel No. 5.

A decade later I did my master’s degree in Canada. Half of the professors were women (White). Hiding behind the gender parity was another reality. Most of the female professors were either single, divorced or childless. The male professors were the ones who were married with children. Once again, I decided that academia was not for me. Female professors were lonely old maids – albeit superbly educated lonely old maids.

And now, some two decades later, in my PhD class orientation, was a woman living the life that I had walked away from. She was my age. She was an academic. She was married with children. It should have been me. The mosquito bites blistered in my spirit.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir or Travel and Love