Sitting at my desk at work, not long after Dan and I got married, one of the cleaning ladies walked into my office. After the warm greeting we exchanged, she caught sight of Dan’s and my wedding photo on my computer desktop. She asked if that was my husband. I enthusiastically responded, “yes!”
As she emptied out my bin, she said, “Oh, you must be very happy!” Assuming she was referring to the natural happiness one feels on being newly wed, I beamed even brighter. Naively, I didn’t know what was coming.
She continued, “… I’m sure a white man/husband doesn’t beat you, or drink too much, or sleep around with other women …”
Rather taken aback, I didn’t know what to say. After a somber moment that felt like ages, I responded: “I’m glad he doesn’t beat me or drink too much; as for other women, I trust and pray not – but that’s between him and his God.”
She went on. “I’m sure a white man treats you well; not like my [black] husband who often comes home late at night, drunk, or sometimes doesn’t come home at all”.
Saddened and caught unprepared, the only (weak) response I could muster was, “white men can be bad too”.
Perhaps it is strange that I did not stand up in full defence of my husband, confidently stating that I believe he would never do that. But, then again, one has to acknowledge that this was a catch-22 where – as much as I trust Dan – to fully defend him felt like it would be rubbing this lady’s face in the fact of my being, as she put it, “happily married … unlike her”. Even worse, this would simply reinforce the racial stereotypes she presented to me. Nonetheless, I accept that, called upon to think on my feet (as I was), I failed to arrive at a satisfactory compromise.
I’ve since had another such conversation with a married, black woman: a young woman living in rural KwaZulu-Natal to whom I gave a lift. I wish I could say I was more prepared and armed with an appropriate response that time round. I was not. I suppose, I had hoped that the first conversation had been an outstanding aberration. (Of course, I worry that the “will you hook me up with a white man” requests previously blogged about are based on similar assumptions that white men treat women in a manner fundamentally different from how black men do.)
Recently, I related these encounters to a group of friends. Among them, two white friends correctly pointed out that my defensive response had, indeed, been the wrong one: “instead of saying, white men can be bad too, why didn’t you say black men can be good too?” I felt duly challenged.
With some grief, I conclude that I probably subconsciously share some of these women’s stereotypes about black men often making bad spouses and the reasons for such a belief are quite straightforward. Firstly, I more personally know of more black men who have been hurtful and unfaithful toward black women than white men – some of these unfaithful men and injured women having been members of my own extended family, or good friends. I personally scarcely know any white women who have ended up in abusive relationships with their white partners that they have spoken to me about, and I personally know only one black woman who was terribly mistreated by a white partner.
Secondly, it doesn’t help that typical media images of black men are in keeping with this idea of them being scoundrels, and crooks. (If you don’t believe me – though I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t – evaluate the news for a few days. Alternatively, see the negative bias in the spectrum of ways in which black men are portrayed in For Colored Girls, and be warned, this movie is really not for the faint-hearted. Otherwise, you can see the juxtaposition of a “bad” and “good” black man in Diary of a Mad Black Woman.) By contrast, white men are represented in more balanced ways, if not in a manner fully biased toward their “overwhelming goodness”.
Thirdly, I would argue that we are socially wired to stereotype more about black people (especially negatively) than white people, who are not generally seen as people with a culture or ethnicity. Black people are typically viewed as jointly responsible for anything one of us does because we are perceived to be simply expressing our (flawed) “culture” or “nature”, and exceptions – no matter how many – do not tend to (re)make the “rule”. (Edward Said makes this point eloquently with regard to East-West relations in Orientalism.)
Nevertheless, I can honestly say that I know many good black men – some are married to my friends, others brothers of friends, and I’d say one raised me. A picture of such is worth sharing.
Shortly after my friends pointed my folly out to me, I was fortunate to be driven for an hour to the airport by an African-American man who could not help but rave about his beautiful black wife and kids of whom he was so proud. It was such a delight to see the veritable glow on his face as he spoke about them. This man was clearly devoted to his family and wanted the best for his kids. Consequently, he was committed to doing whatever he had to (including driving taxis for a living) in order to support their dreams and help build their character. He told me of the sacrifices he and his wife made in order to help their kids make it and escape the traps that so many black kids fall into – especially young black men. He spoke of what he was teaching his sons: to be hardworking, responsible, wise, respectful and strong. He was teaching his daughters to respect themselves too much to be taken advantage of and to be committed to obtaining success in their own right. He spoke with admiration of how strong his wife was, and how he loved that about her. He spoke, too, of his faith in God and how much of a rock that was for him and his family. He spoke of mistakes he’d made and his awareness of his imperfections and shortcomings. But he was grateful and hopeful for the future toward which he and his family were working very hard.
Hearing his story reminded me of another similar story I had heard from the mouth of a black man with whom I had partnered in some work in rural KwaZulu-Natal where I do my research. He was a man whose values, dreams and lessons from an imperfect past had – in his words, “by God’s grace” – brought him to the same place as the first: married to a good, strong woman and fathering children whom he sought to help realise big dreams, despite barriers faced in the unequal world and poverty in which they live.
Finally, there’s no denying that Barack and Michelle Obama give us a welcome and refreshing public image of such a pairing between a devoted black man and strong black woman.
These stories are everywhere to be found. Even amidst the depressing array of stories of black men who’ve been emasculated by oppressive systems that forced them to be “boys” and “monkeys” before white men and women, and tore them away from their wives and children through slavery and forced migrant labour. Amidst stories of men demoralised by alcohol, drugs and guns made most widely available in their communities so that they would destroy themselves and kill each other even as harsher sentences were imposed on black men for (especially drug) crimes they committed at no higher rate than their white counterparts. And amidst the stereotypes of culturally-prescribed patriarchal and chauvinistic black masculinity that fail to acknowledge the role that white domination played in establishing those (self-)images. (Even films sometimes capture these positive stories of black men defying their stereotypes: for instance, see Daddy’s Little Girls.)
So, in case it’s not already abundantly clear, my answer to my own question, “Where is the love?”, is that the love is there. But, largely by fault of our tormented past making it hard to be a black man even today, sometimes it’s broken.