Each week on the “Historically Black” podcast, we explore one object and its connection to a moment in black history.
It’s rare that Geveryl Robinson turns on the TV and sees a couple that looks like her parents, Harvey and Catherine, who recently celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary. Or her paternal grandparents, Willie Lee and Alex, who were married for nearly 70 years. In a movie, in a sitcom — heck, even in a commercial — Robinson seldom sees two black people in love on-screen.
Robinson submitted a photograph of her parents’ wedding day to Historically Black, The Washington Post’s Tumblr project, to show what she knows exists across generations but doesn’t see enough of in popular culture: black couples in loving, long-term relationships.
Historically, black love has always had a tough time with representation. Enslaved married couples always faced the prospect of being permanently separated. The average slave was sold four times in a lifetime, which meant many marriages were destroyed when one person was auctioned off. Slaves faced a grim reality as they sought to form and maintain family bonds, making the ability to finally exercise that choice all the more powerful. It’s for that reason Robinson described black love as “revolutionary” in her “Historically Black” submission.
Robinson was one of many who submitted items to highlight the existence of committed, loving relationships among African Americans, and evidence of long-lasting marriages. One person sent in a photo of her great-grandparents’ wedding rings; another sent in a raft of love letters written between her great-grandfather and great-grandmother in the 1890s. But on-screen, stories like those are often reserved for white protagonists.
Robinson and many of her friends have taken note of an ongoing shift in pop culture. In the ’90s they watched movies and TV shows, such as “Martin,” that showed black love. Even in the early aughts, there was “My Wife and Kids.” But it’s not nearly as present in mainstream culture anymore, they say. “What happened to it?” Robinson asks.
“Now, if you do see a black couple they’re at each other’s throats,” she said. “And if you don’t really know any better you will believe that that’s the reality across the board, when it really is not.”
Paula Penn-Nabrit is equally frustrated by years of this portrayal of black couples and families. It’s precisely why she didn’t let her twin sons watch cable TV when they were growing up. Instead, she preferred to show them images that contradicted the idea that a strong nuclear black family is, as she describes it, “a unicorn that farts rainbows.”
She’d share a host of family wedding photos with her sons — photos of her parents, her husband Charles’s parents, Charles’s paternal grandparents and her own maternal grandparents. She wanted to show them that the narratives being accepted as “cultural truths” had no basis in their reality. Penn-Nabrit submitted that set of photos to “Historically Black.”
“My experience as a black person doesn’t match up with what’s depicted in terms of black families,” she said. “And I was glad that I had photographic evidence of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents and what their actual experiences have been living in the United States.”
Penn-Nabrit’s family story has revolved around the institution of marriage since emancipation, when black people were finally allowed to marry. And for much of the time following the freeing of enslaved people, “love was, kind of in a way, all they had,” said Robinson.
“It speaks to a larger issue of what we’ve had to do as black people, to stick together and go through the good and the bad,” Robinson said. “My parents are a lot older now, but that love, it’s perseverance. We stuck together in love, as a unit, as black people.”
Because so many aspects of “quantitative inheritance” have been unavailable to black people, Penn-Nabrit said, marriage and the tradition of multigenerational marriage is what her family chooses to pass down. You can tell just how much these unions mean to her when she tells the story of how she introduced her son to his now-wife, or when she talks about the bond between her and her late husband, Charles. He died in 2013.
“We were married for 36 years, 8 months and 22 days.”
You can hear hosts Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu talk more about black love on the final episode of “Historically Black,” a podcast co-production between APM Reports and The Washington Post that tells the stories of people’s lived experiences of black history through the objects that evoke those connections.
See more objects that have been submitted to the project and share your own at historicallyblack.tumblr.com.
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Correction: A previous version of this article said Robinson’s maternal grandparents, Elizabeth and Clarence, were married for nearly 70 years. This post has been updated to reflect that it was her paternal grandparents, Willie Lee and Alex, who were married for nearly 70 years.