By Krissah Williams
Sunday, October 8, 2006
Robyn Thorpe hoped he would pursue her, but she played it cool. She waved goodbye as she stepped down the stairs of the busy cigar lounge.
She took three more steps, conscious of the sway of her skirt, deliberate in her casualness. Then the guy in the red tie and blue button-down shirt made his move.
"Are you leaving?" he asked. "Can we finish our conversation?"
She stopped her descent and smiled as she followed him to an empty table. Her plum-tinted lip gloss glistened.
This is what she had come for: the chance to meet a man, a black man, a potential husband. The moment was full of possibility and light, much like the romantic Nigerian films Robyn has come to adore -- where lovers' eyes meet in passionate glances, and romance rules over reason.
But it was also a moment that masks a maddening numbers game. She is a 31-year-old black woman seeking to marry a black man, which lands her in the heart of the most uncoupled demographic in the United States. For every 100 single black women, there are 70 single black men, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau figures, a number that does not take into account the prison population or men living in group homes. In the Washington area, there are 83 single black men for every 100 single black women.
For eligible black men, that equation can look like a dating smorgasbord, with seemingly limitless choices, and not just among black women. According to the 2000 census, black men enter interracial marriages at a higher rate -- 9.7 percent -- than any other racial or gender group except Asian women. That's twice the rate of black women.
For Robyn and black women like her -- who see their fates intimately bound to black men -- life means strategizing and dreaming beyond the numbers in a world where it seems the ground has shifted under their feet.
Her experiences in that world are far more than some "Waiting to Exhale" story line. They are a window on black men, a foray into the never-ending dialogue about the delicate balance -- or imbalance -- between black men and women. It is one of the most volatile and enduring conversations. Just what does it mean, for example, when a half-million more black women than men are college graduates? For some black men, it can be a chance to redefine traditional roles; for others, it opens a widening intraracial battleground over class and gender.
Robyn hasn't joined the ranks of black women who are beginning to talk about exploring their options elsewhere.
"I can't just brush off brothers and say we are in a crisis," she says. "I'm still a believer."
Her faith is soldered by the black men in her life. Men like her father and grandfather, longtime husbands and providers for their children. Men like her siblings, one married and a father of two, the other dating a Bulgarian woman.
And there are her platonic single friends, and the men she has dated and those she has loved. She has learned from them all, and even when the lessons have been hurtful, or enraging, she has still landed on the upside of love and marriage with a black man. So part of her strategy has been to remember that each handshake with a "brother," each returned smile or held glance, could be the curtain rising on the rest of her life. Like the night she met Mr. Red Tie.
* * *'What Are You Looking For?'
She was at Ozio, sipping a $4 cranberry juice, thinking that the mixer of young black professionals, hosted by an association of black female lawyers that Robyn belongs to, might be another bust. So Robyn was thrilled when she looked into the mirror behind the bar and saw a guy with a short afro smiling at her and mouthing something she couldn't understand. She curled her index finger and gave him that classic come-hither sign. In seconds, he was at her side.
"Robyn Thorpe," she said, as she shook his hand. "I couldn't make out what you were saying at the other end of the bar. What's your name?"
Robert Caldwell. He is a recent transplant from Cincinnati and works for a federal agency, reviewing contracts. They have each learned to download the vitals quickly: like her, he has never been married and has no children.
They smiled at each other. Something was clicking, and Robyn felt free to discuss compatibility the old-school way. She is 5 feet 2 inches tall, a Gemini and every bit the talkative, intellectually engaging extrovert that the stars suggest. He is a foot taller, two years older and a Virgo who puts no stock in astrology.
He does believe in education, though, and has three degrees -- political science as an undergrad, history in grad school and the third in law. He wrote a thesis on black empowerment, studying leaders such as Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. He is talkative and playful, flexing his muscles to show off the stocky build that made him a good football player at Virginia State University.
He was definitely a prospect, Robyn thought, and a man who knew how to get to the point. He was direct when he stopped her on the stairs.
"Are you in a relationship?"
In reply, she held up her ringless left hand and flashed a need-I-say-more look.
"So what are you looking for? A man who can quote Nietzsche? Garvey? What?" Robert asked.
"That would be nice," Robyn said, trying hard to sustain her eager-but-not-too-eager posture. But there was no denying that she was impressed. She couldn't get her last boyfriend to read a book. Now before her was a man asking her out, just like that, and tapping her phone number into his cellphone. On the dating scene, that signaled some serious intent.
* * *Casting a Wider Net
Robyn settled on a couch in a room lined with chairs where other young black women sat, munching on chips and salsa, waiting for the party to start at a girlfriend's home in Prince George's County.
"You might as well resign and be single with 50 cats," said another guest, Lasana Smith.
Robyn is nowhere near the giving-up point, but she shared a deep and knowing laugh with Lasana about the "Sex in the City" episode in which an elderly single woman dies alone. By the time her body is found, half of her face has been eaten by her cat.
The fear of such loneliness is real, and for black women interested in black men, it's a protracted one. The few men at the party were either married or dating seriously. And every uncoupled woman in the room seemed tired of waiting for that moment to breathe again.
Hostess Esther Abu strolled over carrying a platter of crab legs. She throws a few house parties a year with a deejay and catered spread, because she loves to socialize but hates nightclubs. She hates the crowds, the preening and posturing, and the way some black men treat black women.
She was at a club with Robyn one summer night on the Georgetown waterfront and got cat-called. "Say, say. Come here," the guy said.
Esther ignored him. Then he pulled on her arm.
"Who do you think you are talking to?" she demanded.
She said later, "I don't care if people think I'm stuck up. It's just degrading and demeaning to black women, and I feel that there are some things I should not be subject to."
Sheila Kennedy is not like Robyn. She's done waiting to marry a black man, she said. At 41, and more than 10 years after divorcing and hoping to remarry, she has decided to date interracially.
It can be hard, no matter who you are, to find love in an ever-isolating world, where speed dating and the Internet have become matchmaking tools. Between 1970 and 2001, the overall marriage rate in the United States declined by 17 percent; for black people, that drop was 34 percent.
Last year, the federal government reported that 44 percent of black men and 42 percent of black women had never been married. Black men and women surveyed this year in a national poll conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University said they believe the top reasons for the decline are the high incarceration and murder rates for young black men.
Robyn was uncharacteristically quiet through much of the preparty chatter. And before the night was over, she found herself sitting under a starry sky with her friend Emeka Onwezi, a Nigerian-born lawyer with his own firm. He reminds her of her father, hard-working and confident, and her girlfriends teasingly have dubbed him her African prince.
"Whoever marries him won't have to worry about anything," Robyn says.
Emeka has dated many black American women, but last Christmas, he met a Nigerian in his home town and started a serious long-distance relationship.
Still, Robyn and another friend have planned a trip with him to Nigeria near Christmas, and Emeka tells her she will return with a boyfriend.
Robyn laughs, but the irony of going abroad to find a husband is not lost on her.
* * *Looking for Mr. 'Do Right'
She does not rule out such possibilities, but that is not her first choice. Though it has not been easy, wrestling with the frustrating mix of race, class and sexual politics is part of the black American experience. She knows how the subtle realities of race can eat away at you. And she also knows the tension that can come as black women succeed professionally.
For three years, she dated a man who installed high-end appliances.
They met in 2001, on a cold November night at the opening of what was the lavish club Dream in Northeast Washington.
A tall, bald man with honey-brown skin approached Robyn on the dance floor.
He befriended her, took her to Copeland's for seafood and to the movies at a theater in Rockville, near her two-bedroom condo. Soon, she was cooking him meals and watching college basketball games with him, though they bored her. They fell into an easy routine, chilling on weekends and after work.
Then they went to a dinner party with some of her lawyer and journalist friends. He was uncomfortable and quiet all evening. Her friends later told her they didn't like him, either. Soon after, he was always calling her stuck-up or "bougie." And she began to think of him as "ghetto." She mentioned wanting to hire a housekeeper when she married. Bougie, he thought. He bought bootleg movies. "Straight-up ghetto," she told him.
She stayed with him for several more months, not ready to muster the courage to be alone again and lose the comfort of having a hand to hold, a Friday night date and the sound of a man on her phone at night.
But one day, finally, when they were at her place, she pointed to a leg on her coffee table.
"I am here ," she said. "And you are here ." She pointed at another leg of the table.
"We are very different people. . . . Every day of our lives, we are going to meet people that are closer to me or closer to you. Every day will be work, because we are so different.
"You are going to find a chick who grew up in D.C. and gets your joke the first time you tell it. I mean, the love is there, but life is going to screw it up. I can't pretend to walk into something that I know is going to fail just because I want to get married. I can't do that."
Her ex-boyfriend declined to be interviewed for this story.
She sees the breach between black men and women as a vestige of slavery. The legacy, she says, has created an "unhealthy independence" among black women and a level of irresponsibility among black men.
"Four or five generations of you ripping my man from me, I am going to have to learn to make due without him," she said.
But she doesn't want to make do.
She has platonic friendships with single black men who she thinks are not right for her but are good men. Through them, she gets to see what life is like on the other side of the statistics.
When she met Harry Hughes, he was pining for the woman he said he wanted to marry but had blown the relationship. Now he's enjoying his single life. When they hang out, she gets to watch women watch Harry. And she shakes her head at the doting father of a 6-year-old daughter who this summer said he was dating seven women. Now, as winter approaches, he has narrowed it to one, dropping the others for various reasons: one, for example, lived too far away; another, he said, was pretty but "dumb as bricks."
"Whenever Harry wants to get married, Harry will," Robyn says.
He says, "I understand it's a jacked-up ratio in this area. I don't think I'm a player. I just think I am a single man."
She and her friend Delano McRavin are regular panelists on "Urban Flow," a public access cable talk show for young African Americans. He is extremely picky, too, Robyn says, but he calls himself "marriage-minded." She has seen him shower his girlfriends with attention, but he is always evaluating his mental checklist and searching for "the one."
He recently ended a relationship with the woman he thought he was going to marry. He wants children, Delano says, and began to believe that his girlfriend was not interested in slowing down her career for a family.
"I only want to do this once," he says of marriage.
So does Robyn. She wants a "do-right" man who shares her progressive political views and is financially responsible. She does not rule out blue-collar men, she said, but it has to be someone who is not intimidated by her white-collar status.
She doesn't waste time on shady guys and men like the attractive one who wrote a thoughtful poem about women on BlackPeopleMeet.com. She was impressed until she read the last line of his posting.
By the way, I'm not into fat girls baby.
"What does that mean? Define fat," she thought.
She knows that some men judge women solely on physical appearance, but she thinks that's shallow. She is short and curvy, not supermodel/video-girl thin, works out regularly and knows that some brothers like "thick" women. Wearing her hair natural is her own way of filtering out men interested only in women with straight hair and European standards of beauty.
* * *A Man's Point of View
Robert Caldwell thought Robyn was pretty, liked the way her hair framed her face, the way she smiled, so warm and welcoming that night at Ozio.
He even sounds like Robyn when he talks about finding a black mate. He wants a woman, he said, who understands the subtle racism he faces in offices where he is chided for being too aggressive in contract negotiations while watching white counterparts get rewarded for similar behavior.
But he is also frustrated with the dynamics between men and women.
Black men, he said, have to be passive just to get into the professional world, and black women are just the opposite. "The women are so aggressive," he said. "African American females are so empowered that I think it does carry into relationships. The way I grew up, it was relatively equal, [but] my mom let my dad be a man."
"The women make more money. Their positions are higher. . . . It really shouldn't be like that."
His mother has a master's degree and worked as a school principal but still let his dad be head of the household.
"Now don't get me wrong," he said. "If my dad wasn't doing what he was supposed to be doing, my mom would have let him know. . . . I'm not trying to be archaic, but women now, they wear it like a badge of honor that they can't cook."
He has been building his career, and his paycheck, so that he can hold his own financially in a marriage. And when he is ready, he said, he knows his chances are good.
He calls the District a mecca of black women.
Soon after he moved to the area in 2003, he recalled riding the Metro with a friend and nudging the guy.
"Wow, that girl is beautiful," he said of a black woman nearby.
"He's like, 'Relax man. There's like 10 more in the next train.' "
* * *Visions of a Lost Love
Trouble lives in Nollywood, but it is love that reigns.
It's like the Nigerian film "End of Dreams," which Robyn has watched over and over. It is a tragic story of love between a rich woman and a poor villager. The shrew of a mother-in-law causes quarrels and berates the man, even though he is devoted to her daughter.
He nurses his wife back to health after she has a miscarriage.
"I will feed you," he tells her. "When you are done eating, I will give you a bath."
The wife smiles as he brings a spoon to her mouth. "Thank you, my loving husband."
Robyn sings along to the soundtrack: "What kind of love is 'dis? What kind of love is 'dis? Thirty minutes love and twenty minutes fight. What kind of love is 'dis?"
It's that penchant for romance that attracts her to the overwrought characters of Nollywood, Nigeria's straight-to-DVD film industry. The movies can be hard to find in the United States, but she gets hers from her African prince.
She experienced a Nollywood love once.
She was a junior in college when she fell for a sophomore with deep-brown skin who wore a black Kangol cap. She admired his wit and Horatio Alger story of being reared by his single grandmother in a Chester, Pa., public housing complex and making it into Penn State University. He became her first boyfriend.
They dated for about a year, growing so close that they finished each other's sentences. But he broke it off suddenly -- fearful, she thought, that they would not be able to sustain a long-distance relationship after Robin graduated. She lost 12 pounds in a month, graduated and moved away. He dropped out of school for a semester, and they lost touch.
Years passed before she learned by e-mail that her college sweetheart had finished school but later did a stint in prison for drug possession. The news broke her heart all over again.
"We are throwing away black men we cannot afford to throw away," she says, criticizing the criminal justice system as too quick to lock up nonviolent black men.
Still, she has her own frustrations with black men for some of the irresponsible choices they make and the roles they play in their own demise.
She keeps photos of her and her first love in a frayed scrapbook. There they are at a homecoming dance, his arm around her waist, her smile full and easy.
* * *Models for Marriage
The muscadine grapes are in season, sweet and juicy right off the vine. It is a favorite time of year for Robyn, the days between summer and fall. It has become traditional for her to travel south on Highway 50, past the rows of tobacco fields and sun-high corn stalks to visit her grandfather in Maple Hill, N.C. -- and to pick the sweet grapes from the vines.
She is cruising in her champagne-colored Acura and sipping coffee, nodding to the "socialist guerrilla" hip-hop lyrics of rapper Immortal Technique. It was Labor Day weekend, and already since their initial meeting at Ozio, she and Robert had tried but failed to have their first date.
The night after they met, Robyn realized she already had plans that Saturday night and called to reschedule. Robert answered his cellphone, she said, but before she could get out a word, he asked if he could call her back in 10 minutes. But he never did.
"He just stood me up," she said.
And when his number popped up on her cell during dinner Saturday with her friend Esther, she didn't answer. Please , she thought. It was way too late.
But Robert called her again the next day, and they talked for 90 minutes, about law school and his trips to Togo and Benin.
"He tried to make it up," she said, and they agreed to try again.
So all was right in her world as she sped down the highway to Maple Hill, an unincorporated town about 40 miles north of Wilmington with two gas stations, one Zip code and hordes of her relatives.
"Hey, Granddaddy!" Robyn yelled to Roscoe Watkins Sr., her mother's father and her only living grandparent, as she walked through the door. She dropped her bags and hugged him. He is a retired maintenance man at Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base who quit school in the seventh grade to work and help his mother raise his four brothers and sisters after their father died. He became a Baptist minister, married his neighborhood sweetheart and never allowed his six children to hear him and his wife, Jessie Mae, argue. He cared for Robyn's grandmother until she died in 1987 of Lou Gehrig's disease.
Eight years later, Roscoe married Katie Magdalene, herself a widow.
"There's nothing more sweeter than having a home and a wife with children and the Lord," he told Robyn. "I wouldn't trade nothing for both my marriages." A magnet on the couple's refrigerator reads, "Anyone can be a father; it takes someone special to be a daddy."
Robyn's grandfather tells her she must pray for a husband.
She learned what love should look like in his small, wood-frame house and in her parents' home.
Her own father, Joe L. Thorpe, grew up the son of a steelworker in Baltimore, joined the military and studied law, later opening his own general practice in predominantly white Allentown, Pa. He met Robyn's mother, Linda, in the Army and married her 32 years ago.
"I never questioned the fact that the black man is a protector and provider, dating back to my grandfather and father," Robyn said. "I had two grandfathers, uncles and a dad who just were there for me."
Her parents are homebodies and private. They are proud of their daughter but declined to discuss her life in the newspaper.
Their bond, Robyn said, has an us-against-the-world quality, one that even five children couldn't crack. Growing up, she witnessed joyful and difficult moments. "It was financially tight sometimes with five kids," she said, but she will always remember that there was never a night when she went to sleep without her father in the house.
Marriage is just a part of who her people are.
Her brother Christopher, 28, a warehouse manager in Allentown, is married to a woman from Jamaica with two sons. Her sister Jessica, 24, is a store manager who married a Jamaican man she met through her sister-in-law two years ago.
Robyn, her sister Carmen, a 23-year-old college student, and Eric, 26, are the single siblings. Though Eric he is dating a woman from Bulgaria whom he met in college.
Eric's girlfriend is nice, but Robyn ponders his choice when the number of eligible black men is already small. But, Eric says, "I've always been open."
Her mother has never offered much advice on dating but once told her: "If you are serious, race won't matter." Back in Maple Hill, her uncle Bryant Shephard Jr., 73, a retired Air Force master sergeant who lives down the road from Robyn's grandfather with his wife, Pearl, wants Robyn to take her time and choose well. But he worries. "Where is she going to find a man worthy of her?" he asked.
He sees a growing disconnect between himself and too many young black men.
"We see the need to take care of our wives and our families," Bryant said. "The younger generation seems to see women taking care of them, and they call them the b-word. They just don't have respect for our daughters."
On her way out of town, Robyn stops at the muscadine vineyard with an aunt and cousin. Nearly a dozen rows bursting with ripe fruit are stretched across a grassy field. Her cousin recently became engaged to a Chinese American man, and earlier this year, another cousin married a Pakistani man. But none of that, not even Robert, is on her mind as she and her relatives race beneath the vines with their plastic buckets, searching for the sweetest grapes.
* * *A Missed Connection
This time around, she and Robert made plans to meet at a club in Southwest for happy hour. Then Robyn, always looking for the next new thing, heard about a great spot on U Street and called Robert to suggest going there instead.
But her hopes had begun to fade. She has always believed that a man should pursue, that she is a prize worth winning. And even though she had agreed to try again for a date with Robert, she wondered whether she was setting herself up.
His reason for not calling back that first time, he would say later, was because he had been on the road driving to meet a male friend for drinks, and the evening got away from him.
If he really wanted to see her, changing places -- even at the last minute -- would not matter, Robyn thought.
But it was inconvenient for him, Robert told her, and he bowed out.
He would still like to hang out with Robyn, he said, and although he is not involved with someone seriously, he is dating four other women. On a Thursday night, his phone rang four times within an hour. "I told you, D.C. has been good to me," he said.
Robyn frustrated him, he said. It felt as if she'd flaked out on him.
Robyn, of course, didn't see it that way, and she began to doubt whether he had ever had any real interest.
Soon, time erased his number from her cellphone. And she was going to have to be fine with that, she said, because even a true believer must guard her heart.
Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.