Perhaps black folks’ ambivalence about marriage signals problems with the institution itself and not with black people. – CrunkFeministCollective
For months now our media has flooded us with arguments that large groups of Black women are single because they are degenerate and/or undesirable. This is really little more than an inconspicuous expression of contemporary racism; as Professor and novelist Toni Morrison said: “Racism is a pathway to power and profit.” A fact that Black male relationship pimps like Steve Harvey or Hill Harper are very aware of in this context. Scooting aside the inexpert activities of these wanna-be pundits, thus far it has only been Black feminists (Jamilah Lemieux and Susanna Morris as two examples) who have entered the discussion vocalising the idea that there are Black women who do not want to get married, or are at least (re)viewing it as a complicated and difficult institution. There are further women who choose to withhold themselves from relationships that can be threatening spaces for them and are therefore experiencing singleness. To enrich our understanding of Black women’s experience of love and relationships I think it useful to also consider the complications of practising marriage for educated heterosexual Christian women in the evangelical tradition.
When I was sixteen and in love I dreamt of being married to the church drummer by the time I was nineteen. Having minimal control of my affairs then I did not imagine I would grow up to want solitude, sorority, or the single-minded pursuit of my ambitions and the option to live in whichever city they lead me to. I did not imagine I would want anything that was not complete service to him, this Miami born baller who wrote me poems. I did not fully understand that my aspired ‘ascension into the sainthood of the married church community’ would mean that my desires would be mediated by husbands will, under which I would submit.
Submit: verb:- To yield or surrender (oneself) to the will or authority of another.
I would like to be explicit that my consideration of marriage here is as a means of creating and sustaining love (property, security etc are secondary). To this end all Christian women are solicited with euphemisms about submission. One of my favourites is ‘you get to choose who to submit to’. Whichever way we look at it, submission is about an exchange of power and pre-empting love or communion by shaping our personal relationships around power, (who can and cannot have it and how much) is a sinister activity. It is the foundation for – though not necessarily the promise of – subordination, exploitation and violence. Love is predicated upon surrender. The Biblical ‘headship’ of husbands assumes a unilateral direction of power and his lack of mutual surrender and submission is preparation for unloving practice in marriage. The scriptures state:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5:22-27 NIV emphasis added.
This gendered submission is an extension of the patriarchal state. Barnes’ Biblical commentary explains ‘In everything, except that which relates to “conscience and religion,” he has authority. But there his authority ceases.’ and Gills scholars write, ‘this subjection is only to her husband; not to any other […] and this consideration should render the subjection more easy, voluntary, and cheerful’ – how very insightful of them. I’m sure that some would argue that this is Christian fundamentalism and an extreme interpretation of the scripture, but even our desire to believe that Paul was an egalitarian does not remove the central obscenity of his words: the redundancy of women’s (free) will. These are hardly attractive conditions for marriage. Unless potentially, you are a man.
As women develop educationally one of the most important tools we acquire is the ability to critically assess our world. In turn we often form spaces of resistance that can polarise our position in the Christian faith. As we experience Platonist awakening to the cave of our experiences we are instantly incompatible with many of our male peers – who remain seduced by the privilege of headship (ceremonially endorsed by biopower) – and so whilst ‘unequally yoked’ is usually a denunciation of romantic relationships with non-Christians, Christian women (myself included) may actually find that it is relationships with Christian men to whom this term is most applicable. As Black men are often disenfranchised from social power as a result of racism, its expression in this space is all the more important. The challenge then is to find a gender conscious partner who is open to practising a revised model of marriage and a radical form of Christianity. It is the same tools that make a woman aware of social condition that also empower her to resist damaging models of relationship as an act of self love – or as my best friend puts it: “Not just to say I have a man.” Singleness for Black women then is not an exclusive story of spinsterhood but often a courageous demonstration of self-love.
Regrettably under the hegemony of patriarchy the ideology of submission extends itself beyond the confines of marriage further distorting personal relationships between men and women. The structure of the Black church allows power to amass for a single figure head and in many cases it is corrupting. He wields his power in varying degrees of repression, exploitation and abuse. It may be in forms of sexual violence as in the case of Eddie Long, monetary extortion by the likes of the Creflo Dollar camp, or in the case of the church I belonged to for ever a decade, cultural effacement where women were banned from wearing trousers in order to prevent our figures (bums in particular) from arousing the men. Though the Black church operates its own counter-culture this is largely a dialectical relationship with colonial tradition. In this space both patriarchy and colonial ideology serve to control, possess and police women’s bodies. There is therefore as I observe a culture of power and this also corrupts the character of young Christian men – who largely unaccountable to anyone – tend to be heady (sexual) consumers of the commodified young Christian women saturating the church market. All of whom have been readily socialised into the pursuit of status via marriage. As a space that polices sexuality in a heteronormative way I have been unable to conclude how this structure informs the experiences of LBGT Christians who are precluded.
The true power of submission is this context is to silence dissent and critique against the order, most simply achieved by ‘God said’. Where relationships are concerned it means that married women who suffer any form of abuse, neglect or adultery are taught to stay no matter what as an act of submission to God. The focus on the supernatural as supremely more important than the practical in the Black church encourages women desiring of partnership into perennial patience in lieu of the husband that God will miraculously supply. In the meantime – sometimes decades – these women remain unshakeably devoted to the church and its male leader, a ‘reserve army of labour’. Young Black Christian women are underdeveloped in this space through gender biased abstinence messages and a fear of education as an instigator of critical consciousness. Often young women experience depression, low self-esteem, sexual abuse and repression, poor body image and more under this regime. The church fears that they are increasingly losing young people to higher education, people who do not return, or are ostracised when they do by communities who believe in revival through evangelism and transformation as conversion; in the great (and true) potential of Christianity to change the outside world, but remain essential and dogmatic about the value of the inner world of Christian church life. There are Black women practising dissent against this, and these are women open to negotiating and testing the boundaries of love and safety outside of subordination. We are exploring alternative ways of organising relationships, a vital part of the Black experience that is not reflected in the statistics of Black spinsterhood.