Columnists

Tricia Hylton
The case for Black marriage

| December 28, 2005
We just don't marry. Out of every ethnic group in Canada, Black Canadians marry the least. If marriage remains the foundation of a strong and stable family and community then clearly, this foundation is missing from our culture.

Now you may think the resistance of Blacks — primarily Black men — to marry is just part of a 21st century social condition, and yes, that is partially true. But, it may surprise you to learn our resistance to marriage also has roots in slavery.

Before we look at the reasons why we do not marry, let's first look at the overall situation.

When we look at a number of Canada's ethnic groups, a startling picture emerges. In 2001, 59 per cent of Chinese Canadians, 66 per cent of South Asian Canadians, 57 per cent of Filipino Canadians, 60 per cent of Arab Canadians, and 57 per cent of Korean-Canadians were headed by married couples. The divorce rates for these groups were three per cent, 2.5 per cent, 2.6 per cent, 3.6 per cent, and two per cent respectively.

Among Black Canadians, however, the situation is turned upside down. Here we have the lowest marriage rate at 41 per cent, coupled with the highest divorce rate at 8.6 per cent. Among ethnic Canadians, we marry the least and divorce the most; as a result our family structure is the weakest.

As we continue to look at the Black Canadian family, some other interesting trends emerge. Of significance, in 2001, the percentage of lone-parent families was 27 per cent compared with 15.6 per cent of Canadian families overall. This rate was not only highest among ethnic groups, but highest among all Canadians.

What's more, at six per cent, Black Canadians represented the highest percentage of ethnic Canadians living in common-law relationships. It appears we do not oppose forming committed relationship, but stop short of marriage.

Why the distinction between marriage and co-habitation?

Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, authors of The Case for Marriage, state, “Cohabitating couples [are] less likely to be sexually faithful, to support each other emotionally and financially, and to manage their money as wellâe¦since they know the relationship could end without strings.”

Now, this does not mean all cohabitating relationships will end or be unstable. Generally, however, cohabitation unions are less stable, less secure, and less prosperous than marriage unions.

Clearly the Black Canadian family is in trouble.

The question we must ask is why don't Black Canadians marry?

One possible explanation is related to economic factors.

Money or the opportunity to acquire money is a major influence in the decision to marry. For men, the ability to fill the role as primary provider is of paramount importance.

For women, the earning potential of a would-be life partner is also significant. Although many women are economically independent, a man's earning potential remains a major factor when assessing a suitable life partner.

This is all to say, when men and women view their economic futures as bright, they marry more readily. The opposite is true when current economic prospects and future economic opportunity appear bleak.

In the Canadian context, Black men and women earned more than $6,000 less on average than other Canadians and experienced a jobless rate at least 1.9 per cent higher than the general public.

A second explanation is steeped deep in history.

In pre-colonial Africa there was no such thing as an “illegitimate” child and marriage was a required rite of passage into adulthood. It was the joining together of two families, rather than two individuals.

These types of unions provided an organized way of life, most notably, each of these traditions created a method of rearing children. The saying “it takes a village” originates from these traditions.

These systems were dismantled with slavery and colonial occupation.

The dismantling of the African family structure was completed with the practice of not naming a father to children born of slaves. Elaine Pinderhuges, in a 2002 article notes, “Slave fathers of children were not named or listed in birth records. Only the slave mother's name and the name of the mother's owner were recorded.”

Post-slavery, Blacks began to marry and form unions, but the organized family and community structures that had pre-existed slavery were gone. To this day, these systems have not yet re-emerged and our family structure, and consequently our communities, continue to be in a state of disarray.

So where do we go from here?

The situation may sound hopeless, but there are several things to be hopeful about.

First, Harold McDougal, a noted African scholar offers some advice. Harold speaks about his marriage to a Ghanaian woman of the Ewe ethnic group and his journey to “rediscovering — a cultural artifact, the African family.” He notes that re-organizing ourselves into the kinds of family structures that existed in pre-colonial Africa is not impossible, but very possible.

Second, on March 27, the third Annual Black Marriage Day was celebrated in the United States. The event organizer, Nisa Islam Muhammad, notes the following about the importance of such events, “Marriage benefits everyone, because stable families create the social and economic foundation for a stable community.”

And finally, by far the most hopeful aspect of this situation is the recognition that we are in control of our futures. Unlike many of the problems that plague our community, the ability to strengthen the Black family and our communities lies within.

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