IT'S SUPREMELY fitting that Valentine's Day comes smack in the middle of Black History Month. As an African-American man, I feel that the love and affection of black women is the greatest advantage we have in trying to endure our trials and tribulations.

Of course, amid the endless pronouncements that murder and hypertension are making us an endangered species, some white folks may be surprised to learn that there are any advantages to being a black man at all. But in truth there are at least three, two of them shared by women: a spiritually and politically empowering church, the world's most popular and heartfelt music to keep you going through the hard times, and the company of truly loving and self-assured women. That is, faith, hope and love. And as newer translations of the Bible say, the greatest of those is love.

All I have to do to be happy I'm a brother is get on the subway and look at the sisters through the lens of my own relationships to my wife, my mother, my women friends. When I do, I see many women who are beautiful, but I also see many more whom I know to be warm, hard-working and more than ready to open their hearts to a decent man who is emotionally involved with them rather than withdrawn or manipulative.

While I do consider myself pro-black, my feelings about African-American women aren't based on the theory that more melanin makes one more loving. Nor do I buy the notion that black women are the embodiment of a great Egyptian earth mother who gave birth to absolutely everything in the civilized universe. And my feelings aren't rooted in deprecation of non-black women. In college I knew many white women who were open and affectionate with their boyfriends and husbands, and in the labor movement I've had more chances than most men to witness the grit and courage of working-class white women.

My belief is based on my own experience of my own culture. Many observers have explained, with considerable justification, that everything from poverty to the "legacy of slavery" has put extreme and destructive pressures on some black marriages. But people seldom acknowledge other cultural factors that actually make it much easier for black men and women to enjoy happy and satisfying relationships -- and at a time when alienation between men and women is growing in many other groups of Americans.

Truth is, many black couples find their relationships enhanced by an aphrodisiac that's rare in white society: economic and sexual equality between the sexes. African-American men and women who went to college during the '70s, as I did, probably shared the most level playing field of any group in American culture. Most of us were broke; we wore the same sneakers and jeans; birth control was easily available and generally used responsibly. But equality between black men and women is not limited to the college-educated; it may be even more pronounced among blue-collar workers. Black women have worked for generations, so many of us have had parental role models for gender equality. Most of us were the children of men and women who lived during the Depression, came to adulthood during World War II and -- whatever our income and educational level -- shared the comradeship of being pioneers in an integrated society.

For many of us, growing up in such a world produced exactly what feminists like Betty Friedan anticipated: closer friendships and better sex. Some of this holds true for white kids too, but for black folks it all takes place within a much larger set of cultural values that allows many more people to express and satisfy their romantic needs. For example, few mainstream white Americans find large, round women very beautiful. However, because Afro-American culture is more accepting of diverse appearance, more black women who wear large sizes are able to maintain their sense of beauty and feel freer to act, and thus be, desirable or alluring.

Similarly, most black people do not find it unusual that sexual and religious passion can exist in the same person. In most white Christian religions, original sin is fundamentally sexual; therefore, eroticism and religion are profoundly at odds. But in most African-American theological traditions, original sin is political in nature (which may explain the attention given to parallels between the oppression of the Israelites in biblical times and the condition of black Americans today). African Americans can be both very sensual and quite devout with little conflict or guilt. But most importantly, our whole history teaches that a person's desirability does not depend only on what they own, earn or control.

If I'm right about equality among black men and women, why do we hear so often that they can't get along, that the strength and equality of black women cause more problems than they solve? Don't many nationalists, such as those in the Nation of Islam, believe that the key to black liberation is restoring the black man to his rightful position as dominant patriarch, as head of the black family? Didn't Stokely Carmichael, now Kwame Toure, make a famous (and possibly facetious or misquoted) statement that "the only proper position for women in the movement was prone"? Didn't some African Americans agree when Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued in the 1960s that black families had grown too "matriarchal" as racism and unemployment increasingly prevented black men from playing their traditional role as sole breadwinner?

Certainly some black families were, and are, casualties of racism, but in the past 20 years historians such as Herbert Gutman and Jacqueline Jones have documented their contention that most black people grow up in extended families that have endured over generations. More importantly, acknowledging the pressures on black families is not at all the same as believing that black men prefer women who are weaker. Where did these perceptions come from? I believe they're a historical aberration with roots in the culture of the 1950s and in the histories of black people who came to adolescence during those years. Some scholars believe that rigidly defined gender roles were held up as ideal more strongly in the '50s than at any other time in the 20th century. In earlier centuries and decades, women of all races worked hard in farms and factories. But during the '50s, a culture of gender inequality arose in the media: Women -- meaning white women -- were supposed to stay home and have babies in the suburbs while Father played the breadwinner and always knew best.

Of course, black women during the '60s couldn't stay home and live like the white ladies they saw on television. Nor did white women themselves accept this suburban fantasy; its inherent inequality and sexism were exactly what helped give rise to the modern women's movement.

Black people who believe that black men and women have difficulty getting along are not those my parents' age (late sixties) who grew up under the old rules, or my age (late thirties) who grew up under the new rules, but the people now around 50 who got caught in the change. This bitterness can still be seen in the ugly attacks on black women writers such as Alice Walker by the brilliant, angry Ishmael Reed. Reed feels that white publishers and critics promote Walker and other African-American feminists precisely because books such as "The Color Purple" contain few positive images of black men in traditional roles as breadwinners or heads of households.

Well, thank God I'm not 50. I entered college after the women's liberation movement began and I never ever wanted the traditional, dominant male role of sole breadwinner. What I wanted was what many other brothers sought and found: an independent career woman who wanted me for love and companionship.

What does this mean, now that I have been married for almost 10 years to a woman I've known for almost 20 and have two children? It still does my heart good. A wife who doesn't have to disguise her strength means I don't have to pretend I know or can do everything. Having a strong wife means I can have strong women for friends. My daughter will have many models of how to be a strong yet affectionate woman during difficult and confusing times. My son can learn to appreciate and enjoy women as equals.

When someone asked Sigmund Freud what a person living in a neurotic world had to do to be "healthy," Freud's answer was simple and wise: "Love and work." Every day, I'm glad as a man to be part of a culture where so many women work so hard and love so well. I know, of course, that many black women wish things were easier. But for Valentine's Day, I would like you to know what many of the brothers know: When you start with the right stuff, pressure makes diamonds.

Paul Ruffins, a former editor of Black Networking News, writes frequently about black politics and culture.