By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Eleanor Holmes Norton started to become concerned about marriage among black people when her first child was born in 1970. She told those gathered at an Urban League convention there was reason to worry -- fully 30 percent of black children were then being born out of wedlock.
Two weeks ago, before a standing-room-only crowd at the Congressional Black Caucus Conference, she provided a startling update: "What was 30 percent then is 70 percent today," she said, eliciting a collective murmur of disapproval.
So many people turned out for the two-hour symposium "Single Women, Unmarried Men: What Has Happened to Marriage in the Black Community?" that Norton (D), the District's nonvoting delegate in the U.S. House, had to "sweet-talk" a fire marshal into letting the line of attendees squeeze into the large room.
"Whenever there are black people standing up trying to get into a room to talk about this subject, I'm going to make it possible for them to get in," she said.
That day's conversation continued 175 miles south of Washington last week, with the launch of Hampton University's National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting, an academic organization focused on studying black relationships and developing resources to improve them.
There's a reason this issue is generating so much attention: "We really are in a state of crisis," Shane K. Perrault, founder of African American Marriage Counseling, a D.C. area counseling service, told the Congressional Black Caucus crowd.
"For the first time, young black women cannot necessarily look forward to marriage as the next natural state of life," Norton said. "They are finding themselves without comparable mates."
To that point, Audrey Chapman, radio host and couples counselor, told the audience she believes black women need what she calls a "rainbow coalition" approach to dating beyond their race. "We're the only group of people who are devoted to a group of people who aren't devoted to us," she said.
Norton said her primary hope for the session was that it would spark follow-up conversations throughout the country, bringing to light a problem she feels people are loath to discuss.
Linda Malone-Colon's goals are more concrete. Malone-Colon, chairwoman of Hampton University's psychology department, intends for the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting to become a clearinghouse for research on marriage in the black community and a resource for organizations looking to get involved with the issue.
Malone-Colon recalled working as director of the historically black university's counseling center a decade ago. More often than not, she said, the students who came in were grappling with problems "having to do with relationships, often male-female relationships that were conflict."
Malone-Colon took on the topic as a major area of professional research and developed the curriculum for a black marriage course that is oversubscribed semester after semester at Hampton. In developing the course, she was astonished by how little research was being done on African American relationships. She hopes the new center will inspire other academics to study various aspects of the issue and generate proposals that might strengthen black marriages.
And, as the college that graduates the highest number of black psychology majors in the United States, Malone-Colon's intention is to use the center to train a generation of professionals equipped to effect real change. She fears if it doesn't happen soon, the problem will become systemic. "Because there are so many more children born in single-parent homes, they're not learning how to be in relationship with someone else -- they're not having that model," she said.
The center plans to develop targeted literature and educational programming that can be disseminated to church groups and social centers that work with black families.
Like Norton, Malone-Colon hopes this topic gains some public traction -- and community involvement.
"When challenges become very huge, people back away and say, 'Well, I can't do anything,' " she said. "That's in part what's happening with this issue. We're not hearing much about it because it is so huge."