Robert Staples, a sociologist at the University of California, has become one of the latest proponents of the notion that life in the world of the unmarried could be improved if well-educated women would begin to marry down instead of up or across. Less educated males could make acceptable mates, he says, if they are hard-working and had other positive qualities -- a view that is being talked about in some black circles these days even though it has enjoyed little acceptance among blacks in the past.
Relations between men and women are a problem all over America (where singles are the largest minority), all over this city (which has a good smattering of professional women) and all over the black community in particular.
Among black adults, single people are in the majority -- 52 percent of the country's black population over 18 falls into that category -- compared with 33 percent of whites in the same age range.
It's this group that is probed in Staples' just-published book, "The World of Black Singles: Changing Patterns of Male/Female Relations." It is in this group that we find Mary Helen Thompson, 32, a product of Montclair, N.J., and the New England Conservatory of Music and today a press secretary for Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.). It is with Mary Helen Thompson that we find some bona fide personal views on the theory put forth by Staples.
Nearly three decades ago, her family began to feed her the honeymoon version of marriage that tiptoes through the rose garden of life. At 27, she discovered the picture was counterfeit, cruelly counterfeit to a black woman who happened to be among a small elite of her race that loved opera, which she sings very well and finds few black men interested in.She's made a fragile peace with herself and her music, but she still finds her single status distressing.
"I've begun to live my own life for me," she says. "I'm thinking about buying a house . . . I have a retirement plan, a few savings and I'm thinking about whether to have a child or not.
"But that doesn't mean I don't want to get married. I guess in some deep part of me I still believe in the tooth fairy. And I'm probably more optimistic than most of my friends."
Could Mary Helen Thompson marry a bus driver who loves opera?
"Probably not," she says. "A lot of it has to do with my upbringing. When you have been preached to all your life about status and professionalism, when you have it within your own family, it is difficult to turn your back on that. Not impossible, but it ain't easy."
One of the problems she sees is the less educated man's view that he is not good enough his belief that he is a frog rather than a prince, as it were.
This is not to say that with good communication, however, a man who is a blue collar worker, a good provider and community member could not make a good marriage with a professional woman. It is to say that the problem is a complicated one.
The imbalance in the sex ratio among middle-class black singles is partly because black women were once sent to college instead of men to be spared the humiliation of domestic work. The gap has narrowed in recent times, but other problems have developed. Black and poor men are disproportionately imprisoned and disproportionately disabled due to military service. And an estimated 90,000 black men have chosen women from other races.
Staples contends that black singlehood is not a viable alternative to marriage. Sociologist Robert Hill of the National Urban League, whose work on one-parent black families stresses their admirable coping capabilities given the enormous pressures under which they must operate, agrees that one-parent families are not the desired state for most singles.
But by focusing on black life style rather than the conditions that affect the problem, Staples ends up with a somewhat overly simplified view. He acknowledges that socioeconomic problems complicate black family life. But then he uses such terms as black and white middle class interchangeably. That can't be done.
Mary Helen Thompson doesn't dispute Staples' premise that black singlehood is no viable alternative to marriage.
"What is missing is that emotional core that sustains you and that provides the same things to the other person. I need to give but it has to be to a person who wants -- and needs."