A disturbing video came across my news feed the other day. And it wasn’t a street fight or some bloody crime scene, it was in fact a wedding. The video showed a woman crying tears of joy as she prepared to wed her longtime boyfriend of 23 years. The ceremony took place in a North Texas hospital room where the groom had taken up his fight against Stage 4 Colon Cancer. And as family, hospital staff and local news cameras bare witness to the rare occasion, the couple lovingly exchanged their vows.
“Do you Blair, take Pamela to be your lawfully wedded wife,” the officiant queried, “promising to love and cherish, to love in sorrow, sickness and health?” “ I do” replied the groom. And after the bride echoed similar sentiments, the officiant proclaimed the two, one. The couple kissed as friends and family looked on tearfully. “We did it!”, Pamela exclaimed, causing a second round of applause to ensue. And as I watched the video I couldn’t help but to feel sorrow for the both of them. There’s no denying that cancer is crushing. It strips us of loved ones, devastates entire families, and has a well-earned reputation for being nothing short of relentless. Cancer is an unjustifiable offense on human life and to be clear, the groom’s cancer diagnosis is the most tragic part of this story. But what also disturbed me was the less obvious tragedy we’d all just witnessed. The one having less to do with wellness and more to do with weddings.
The comments affirmed what I’ve always known to be true about society’s understanding of marriage as it pertains to women. We’re conditioned to believe that marriage is something you do FOR a woman, a reward if you will, not something you do WITH a woman. And as commentators applauded the groom for “finally making an honest woman” out of his longtime lover, I thought of the women in my family who had made similar sacrifices. The sacrifice of their time, dignity, and self-respect. No woman should have her relationship expectations and desires dangled in front of her like a carrot in exchange for her undervalued contributions and psychological buoyancy. If a man finds that he cannot offer a woman what it is she requires to be content in relation with him, even if that be marriage, he should in fact move on. Not because he doesn’t love her, but because people have a right to have their needs met in relationships without being made to feel guilty for it, and black women need to hear this the most.
We are consistently told that we should ask for little and accept less. We’re labeled gold diggers and social climbers if we dare desire partners who are providers, something women of other nationalities have done and continue to do for the betterment of future generations. And we’re regularly told that the things we desire are out of reach, out of touch or simply out of our league, marriage being one of those things. Black Women are constantly bombarded by statistics and studies proclaiming that we’re marrying less frequently, marrying less stably, and divorcing more commonly than their peers, and the underlying suggestion is that we should lower our expectations if we hope to find (and keep) a man. And this is reflected in Black media, Black film, Black television and Black music.
The Ride or Die chick isn’t a myth. She’s a grown woman now. She’s our aunties, our cousins, our mothers, truthfully she’s some of us. She’s the caveat to every 20 year dead end relationship, the exception to every rule. She’s the pinnacle of holding a man down, devoting her life to proving her worthiness to a person who has chosen not to see it, finally having all her resilience pay off in the final hour. And when the man finally comes around, it will be a result of his deflated perception of himself, not because of an inflated perception of her. A man who waits until his health has run out only to commit to you in his sickness is asking you to fulfill vows that he himself is incapable of. Marriage doesn’t just mean help me get through my worst, it means benefit from me at my best.
There’s a reason marriage is a social concession for men but a social achievement for women. And maybe the reason is that these relationships were never intended to be mutually beneficial. As women struggle to walk a fine like between housewife and harlot, men are encouraged to sow their royal oats by engaging in things they actually enjoy like partying and casual sex. The idea that marriage is the end of things for men is not uncommon, particularly in the Black American community. And far too often, Black men assert that marriage is for timeworn men who’ve exhausted their better years and tighter options, not for men who still have things to lose… or gain. The notion that after you’ve had your reckless fun in life, you latch onto some man’s daughter and burden her with the aftermath of those reckless decisions is not amiss in black social circles. And because patriarchy assesses women’s worth based on their attachment to men, Black women knowingly take the shitty deal and are applauded for doing what many others would scoff at.
If Black women are going to get married anyway, knowing the demands society puts on us both as Black women and as wives, we should do so under the best circumstances for us. Marriage already requires more labor, more sacrifice, more change, and more give from the woman, at the very least, it should be done when the partnership is in its’ most productive state, not when only one person is capable of contributing. That doesn’t make you a partner at all actually, it makes you a caretaker, and that is a role Black women have played for far too long. Marriage isn’t the prize you get for being the last woman standing after a man has exhausted all other resources. If we keep allowing ourselves to be convinced that love is all we need, that a piece of a man is better than no man at all, and that later is better than never (none of which is true), we’ll continue to accept relationships that lack purpose and reciprocity.
Marriage is about sickness and health, yes, good times and bad, absolutely. But marriage, at its core, is a legally binding agreement intended to offer equal social benefits to a team of two people who agree to work together for the betterment of themselves and society. It’s not a charitable act and it’s certainly not a favor. No amount of struggle or endurance makes you a worthy candidate to a man who sees marriage as a social reward for your suffrage. Struggle love will never pay you back everything it requires of you to hold onto it, it’s much cheaper to let it go. We are deserving of love that feels good, that affirms us and that meets our expectations, and we shouldn’t be asked to wait decades to get it.