WASHINGTON -- "We will laud the bold and brave couples around the country that have committed to each other until death do they part," Nisa Islam Muhammad's Web site declares. "We want to acknowledge their bravery because in a world where it is far easier to break up a family than it is to get help to stay together, it takes sheer courage to fight for your marriage and resist divorce."
She is referring to Black Marriage Day, which will be observed March 27. The event, founded by Muhammad three years ago, continues to gather steam. Last year's activities included workshops and programs in about 70 cities. In churches and community centers, couples gathered to renew their vows and recite a black marriage pledge. Muhammad hopes to involve 150 cities in this year's commemoration. She writes, "much of what we hear about marriage in the black community is a blues song about low (marriage) rates, out-of-wedlock births, escalating divorces and how somebody done somebody wrong."
I share Muhammad's distress. The rates to which she refers are, in the words of the African American Healthy Marriage Initiative, "crisis-level statistics." While 62 percent of adult whites and 60 percent of adult Hispanics are married, only 41 percent of adult African-Americans are. There are 23 divorces per 1,000 black couples per year, compared to 19 for whites. The number of unmarried women having children is high for whites and Hispanics as well (25 percent and 42 percent, respectively), but astronomical for African-Americans: 69 percent.
While black communities are allegedly more opposed to gay marriage than other populations, one can look at those numbers and wonder if African-Americans are beginning to lose faith in marriage of any kind. Wedded bliss once attracted considerably more esteem from African-Americans, especially in the years following emancipation, when blacks were able to marry legally for the first time.
According to Betty DeRamus, between 1890 and 1940, a slightly higher percentage of black adults than whites married.
DeRamus is the author of "Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories From the Underground Railroad." She pored over unpublished memoirs, Civil War records and other materials to document the efforts of couples (some interracial, most of them black) who risked life and limb to be together. She told me she began the book after researching a couple whose descendants live in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Her investigations led her "to believe that there must be other stories about people who made extraordinary efforts to get married despite all these forces arrayed against them."
Foremost among those forces were slave owners who, DeRamus writes, "justified splitting up plantation couples by claiming that slaves felt little pain at losing a mate and cared nothing about lasting relationships." She quotes the wife of an Alabama minister who contended, "Not one in a thousand, I suppose, of those poor creatures have any conception whatever of the sanctity of marriage."
DeRamus' book, like others before it, exposes the fallacy of such outrageous claims. Among many remarkable accounts in "Forbidden Fruit," I was most affected by the tale of John Little who, during an arduous escape to Canada, often carried his sickly wife on his back. They reached the Canadian wilderness with "nothing but two axes, one suit of clothes, an iron pot, a Dutch oven, a few plates and forks, some pork and flour." They built a home there amid wolves and bears, DeRamus writes, and raised wheat and potatoes. Compare that to modern couples of any race, who spend an average of $24,000 on their weddings only to likely divorce, according to statistics, within 15 years.
Meanwhile, word of Black Marriage Day is spreading slowly. DeRamus hadn't heard of the observance but understood its purpose. "Sociologists could give you a zillion reasons why the family is in shambles," she said. "I'm not saying single parents can't raise their kids but it has to be harder." DeRamus fondly recalls her dad reading to her each night and combing her hair on Sunday mornings before sending her off to church. "He was such an important part of my life that I have to think we're all the poorer when we don't have that," she said.
DeRamus' talk of growing up in a two-parent household led me to recall a sage observation from the actress Ruby Dee. "The divorce rate would be lower if instead of marrying for better or worse people would marry for good," she once said. Good words to keep in mind on March 27, or any day.