January 11, 2010

As a Black woman, I’ve endured my share of singlehood woes. Complicating my groove are meddlesome irritants of sex, race, money, religion, the government, family and a whole community of busybodies. It’s enough to make a sister want to holler.

It’s this slice of the Black community and Black hetero women’s journeys in love that Nika C. Beamon focuses on in her new book, I Didn’t Work This Hard Just to Get Married (Lawrence Hill Books).

"The realistic situation is I would love to be married and in a fantastic relationship, but I know a lot of people who are married and miserable," says business executive Susan Chapman, adding "If I don’t ever become a mom, I’ll be disappointed. If I don’t ever become a wife, I’ll get over it."

Chapman is one of several women interviewed in the book about her experiences in and out of love. She joins actress and comedienne Kim Coles, Cheetah Girls creator Deborah Gregory, book publisher and literary agent Nancy Flowers, interior designer to the stars Sheila Bridges and students, army sergeants, divorcees, single moms and a slew of upwardly mobile sisters in an exploration of what it means to be a single, Black, hetero female in the new millennium.

As the Beamon sisterhood tackles the tired stereotypes that plague them, they are introspective, engaging and often witty. The clichés that they confront are endless: she’s manless, childless and bitter. Or is it that she’s bitter because she puts the drama in "mama"? Or maybe it’s that she’s too concerned with her career to be bothered with a man-child? Whatever the beef, Beamon skillfully counters with a Fantasia song lyric, a study, a Claudine TV flash back or even a bible verse.

What Beamon really wants the reader to know is that, for the most part, single Black women are happy, desirable and making conscious choices about their lives. As a consequence, they have a slew of different reasons for being single. And their to-do lists are endless: go to school; run a company; raise a child; care for ailing parents; prepare for retirement; fly to Paris, Dubai and then Johannesburg (and sample the local flavor while she’s there).

But it’s a strong sense of self and not the prospects of marriage that propels her forward. It also makes her picky when it comes to a mate. For single mom Pamela Harris, knowing that she can take care of herself and her child and pay the mortgage is a source of pride. And a brotherman or any other man had better be down for the program or make room for one who is.

Beamon doesn’t turn a blind eye to the systemic realities that impact the lives of Black women, either. She does a good job of balancing the narrative with facts and figures around key issues in education, employment, criminal justice and professional attainment. For instance, Beamon cites the wage disparities among white men, white women and Black women, as well as other economic factors that come into play when sisters make decisions about their livelihoods, including marriage.

Beamon also doesn’t pull punches with mainstream media. Black cinema favorites like Waiting to Exhale and Last Holiday don’t escape Beamon’s criticism for furthering the caricature of an angry and desperate Black damsel in distress. She even takes on the condescension of Black icons like Essence magazine editor Susan Taylor, whose "Black Love" doctrine relies on behavioral edicts such as Black women’s unconditional forgiveness of Black men.

But of all of the issues addressed, one took center stage: Don’t you dare say that a sister is lonely. This line is a common refrain from many women who sound off on the "she’s lonely" mantra that even I–who’s been known to throw out the "I’m not lonely, just alone" line–started to think "perhaps she protests too much."

It’s movie producer Effie T. Brown who finally gets real with this admission: "It would be great to have breakfast, read the paper, some morning nookie–that would be great."

But between all of the stereotype-busting and explaining, Beamon, perhaps inadvertently, exposes a few cracks in the sisterhood. Some of these women are indeed angry. Unhappy with the quality of their dating pool, these women direct their anger at other sisters who have presumably "settled" for men who were "beneath" them, thus "teaching them" that they don’t have to be "real men."

Beamon then spends a good amount of ink retorting that sisters should not have to shoulder the responsibility of "raising grown men," an argument that simply addresses one stereotype with another. What is more worrisome is that even though class and assimilation issues within the Black community are often the spark that lights the fire of these heated debates, Beamon never challenges or even addresses them. She reduces the conversation to an issue of behavioral shortcomings, rather than acknowledge that many of the structural inequities that plague Black women have also affected Black men and the relationship between them. And as a result, the boundaries that women create for each other become just as unforgiving as those created for them by society.

An example of this is the side-by-side chapters of Kiada Moragne and Shenequa Grey. Monogamy had taken a back seat to school and work for Kiada, who is clear that for a while, sex was her end game when it came to men. According to Shenequa, Kiada commits the worst crime of them all by "giving the milk away for free." Beamon often takes a decidedly sacramental tone on sex, sexuality and parental formations. She cites studies from the Institute for American Values (which, among other problems, opposes the rights of gays and lesbians to marry) and isn’t above admonishing Black churches. "Instead of vehemently speaking out or urging congregants to embrace morality and condemn behavior that was detrimental to the [B]lack family," Beamon writes, "African American churches mainly remained silent."

How ironic, then, to find that Beamon’s final Black heroine is famed actress and activist Ruby Dee, a woman who embraced singlehood in her later life with great dignity, but also for many years had an open marriage with husband Ossie Davis.

An Oakland-to-New York plane read, I Didn’t Work This Hard Just to Get Married‘s upwardly mobile sensibilities ultimately make for a predictable analysis. Beamon’s conformist agenda hijacks any opportunity to apply a consistent and viable structural analysis of race and gender issues and their affect on the choices of Black women. But the portraits of each woman’s path through singlehood are a worthwhile read. The book is, for better and for worse, a reflection of the debate within the Black community around issues of race, class, sex, gender, sexuality and the right to self-definition. It’s complicated. And on that point, I agree with the author. 

Tammy Johnson is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Applied Research Center.