This morning, while reading Kate Weigand’s 2001 book Red Feminism in preparation for a book I’m writing, I ran across a fascinating story in her chapter on Black women’s participation in the Communist Party.
In 1934, Black female communist organizers asked the Party leadership to outlaw interracial marriages in the Party ranks. Many of the Black men in the Party had married or begun dating white women, and white men were not showing comparable interest in Black women, which severely restricted Black women’s dating options.
In response, the Party asked a Black leader named Abner Berry to deal “with the problem.” Berry, himself married to a white woman, was staunchly opposed to outlawing interracial marriages on the grounds that this move would be “counterrevolutionary,” but he did institute some sessions on Black women’s triple oppression of race, class, and gender. Apparently, they also tried to teach some of the white male communists how to dance so they would be more comfortable approaching Black women at parties. Seriously. Lol.
There are a few morals in this somewhat comic story:
- At least the CP had enough sense to talk about the social causes of Black women’s singleness, rather than blaming the sisters for being loud, attitudinal, too independent and unattractive. (Perhaps some preachers, comedians, and alleged scholars could get a clue; and perhaps some sisters should stop blaming themselves for a problem that began before we got here and will probably outlast us all.)
- Interracial dating has NEVER been a full-scale solution to Black women’s dating problems. So the idea that Black women just need to open themselves to the possibility as Ralph Richard Banks suggests in Is Marriage for White People? is belied by the fact that Black women like Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Claudia Jones politically supported interracial marriage in the 1890s and the 1940s respectively. But if the recent statistics on Black women’s success in online dating is any indication, white guys aren’t checking for us anymore now than they were in 1934 (at least not on legal, consensual, non-coercive terms).
- There has never been a racial dating utopia, particularly among highly educated and/or socially progressive sisters. Just ask Anna J. Cooper, Pauli Murray, and the sisters of the CP.
- Everyone who wants to downplay what’s happening with Black women and partnership would do well to recognize that Black women have considered these issues significant enough to talk about them (publicly) in every era since the 1890s!
- Back in the day, at least a few brothers felt enough responsibility to address and help with the problem rather than blaming Black women for causing it. (My, how things have changed.)
For the record, I’m not anti-interracial dating. Folks should date whom they want. Like many sisters, I have a “white-boys-who-could-get-it” list.
But the notion that interracial dating happens in a social and political vacuum is naïve at best and an act of willful ignorance at worst. The idea that love and romance are pure social categories that we inhabit without political consequences is equally naïve.
Also, I know sisters are tired of being lambasted by the media, and I agree.
But Black women’s bodies have always been tied to national narratives about the family, and as major social shifts have happened, Black women and their romantic and sexual practices are frequently blamed for our national decline. Take two examples:
- During slavery, we birthed slaves, and our allegedly insatiable sexual appetites caused white men to be unfaithful to their wives.
- Today, poor Black mothers who need welfare are considered a drain on the social system, precisely because of the same practice that generated so much wealth for the nation: childbirth.
So nothing new there.
But as someone who has encountered/is encountering the very kinds of relational problems that Anna Cooper, Pauli Murray, Elise Johnson, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara and Michelle Wallace have written about, I want to be able to have an honest discussion with my sisters (and with brothers) about what partnering might look like for Black women in this day and age. A few caveats:
- I know marriage rates are declining for all Americans.
- I also know that Black men’s rates of marriage are pretty low.
- I also know that singleness is not a death sentence. I love my single life!
- And I know that marriage is not all its cracked up to be. Frankly, I’m ambivalent about it, steeped as it is in notions of patriarchy.
(But I still want a partner.)
So the task for us is to separate the wheat from the chaff. That is, we must call out the opportunistic, damaging, disingenuous, sexist and racist social discourses and not lose sight of the fact that many, many sisters are struggling to find the love they want and need. That is my reality, and it is the reality of many of my friends. We need and must begin to have conversations about how to have healthy partnerships, healthy single lives, and every iteration in between, without exalting marriage, disparaging singleness, centering heterosexuality, or demonizing Black women. It’s a tall order.
In the process, I wish for us the moxie and the courage of the sisters of the CP. They spoke up and said what they wanted. They knew #aclosedmouthdon’tgetfed. And they knew their wants and needs were legitimate.
And what did they want? Relationships to go with their revolution.
That seems perfectly reasonable to me.