Clarene & Thomas Mitchell

Clarene & Thomas Mitchell

*On Saturday, March 16, the day before the national Black Marriage Day event observed across the United States celebrating the virtues of holy matrimony in the Black community, we held our third annual event, which coincided with the national observance.

The attendance at Brentwood Church of Christ was impressive. We attracted couples of varying ages and years of marriage, from six months to 57 years.

Also in attendance were our youngest daughter and her fiancée. We hope they were encouraged by the event and what the older couples shared as to what makes a marriage work—and that it is work. As Evangelist Barry L. Gainey, the featured speaker at our Black Marriage Day event, stated, “When you say I do, believe me you will.”

But it’s also a labor of love we married couples who are committed to this centuries old institution wouldn’t’t trade for anything in the world.

So you can imagine our consternation when we read a story in a recent Sunday edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS). On the front page of that issue was a story about the economic decline and racial division hampering the rebirth of a city that was once the “beer capitol of the world,” and “the machine shop of the world.”

The story partly blamed the economic decline and slow turnaround on—of all things—disturbingly low numbers of Black married couples in the city!

The statistics for Black marriage in Milwaukee may indeed be extremely low, especially in comparison to other metropolitan areas, but Black love, and Black marriage is still alive and is still a desired value in our community.

The article’s author neglected to mention this, let alone the various indicators that have led to the racial divide and decline in Black marriage in Milwaukee…and nationally.

As a matter of fact, the writer should have included the history of Black marriage in America. That would have been a lot more interesting to read than cold, meaningless statistics that only fueled the fires of misinformation and myth, as well as illustrate the negatives of our plight as a people through the centuries in this nation since we set foot on these shores in chains.

Despite the naysayers and their statistics, next to the Black church, the institution of marriage (and its inevitable off-shoot, family) is one of the most powerful and important institutions in Black America.

It is—in our opinion—the reason for our continued survival as a people on these shores from the “curious institution” (slavery), through the oppressive American Apartheid system known as “Jim Crow,” to today’s supposed “post-racial” society of the Obama era.

Marriage and the fuel that drives the institution—Black love—is still important and is experiencing a revival in America, as evidenced by the annual Black Marriage Day recognizing its importance to us.

But it wasn’t always easy…and still isn’t given the statistics and the unfortunate action of some of our folks. What the author of the MJS article neglected to include was the impact of slavery on marriage and Black love.

During slavery, Africans were denied the right to marry in the eyes of the law, according to a Black wedding guide book titled, Jumping the Broom by Harriet Cole.

According to Cole, slaveholders considered their captives to be not human, only property that could be bought and sold. As such, they had no rights. It was further reasoned by the “massah” that if slaves were allowed to marry and live together, they might “find strength in numbers that could lead to a revolt,” Cole wrote.

Fortunately, our ancestors didn’t let enslavement keep them from expressing love…or getting married! Our ancestors creatively and secretly used the African rituals taught to them from early childhood to express love and marital unity right under the eyes of Whites. Our ingenuity created the tradition of “jumping the broom.” The broom, according to Cole, held “spiritual significance for many African peoples, representing the beginning of homemaking for a couple.”

Cole wrote a woman of the Kgatla people of southern Africa would sweep the courtyard of her in-laws one day after the wedding “symbolizing her willingness and obligation to assist in housework at her in-laws residence until the couple moved to their own home.” Thus during slavery, with the permission of the slave owner, before witnesses and to the beat of talking drums (until, according to Cole, they too were outlawed for being instruments of indecipherable communications for the enslaved), a couple “would pledge their devotion to each other and finally would literally jump over a broom into the seat of matrimony.”

That tradition—and countless other heretofore lost or forgotten acts from the Motherland—have been revived within the last 10-plus years and are finding their way back into Black weddings as a symbol of unity between a Black man and Black woman. In fact, we incorporated this tradition into our wedding in 2009 and proudly have our broom framed and on display in our home.

And though methods of enslavement were used to set Black men and women against each other, we still—despite the brainwashing—still loved…and love each other! We have done this—and continue to do this—because of our strong spiritual base borne from African traditions and mixed lovingly with the Christian principals regarding matrimony we adopted and stubbornly hold dear.

Yes, we do love as Black people despite the nagging myths of our people being consumed by the physical expression of love (which isn’t love but lust).

Yes, we do love as Black people despite modern day systems that work to destroy our family units. Many of us remember the movie Claudine from 1974. We can quickly recall this movie mostly because it showed how the welfare system forced Black women to choose between loving a Black man and being able to get the welfare benefits she needed to put food on the table. The welfare system forced Black women to fend for themselves, just as slavery did when Black men were sold away from the women that they loved.

We do love, despite the dire news stories of domestic violence between “co-habitants” or reports, editorials and essays on the widening chasm separating Black men (viewed as nothing more than unfeeling “playas” who use love as a weapon for sexual gratification with no concern for the “consequences” they help produce); and women (looked upon as angry, bitter and alone, struggling to care for those “consequences” without the help, support and love of the individual who helped produce them).

We’re more than myths, stereotypes and statistical numbers that increase the coffers of bureaucracies while leaving us bereave of any assistance to eliminate the negatives that continue to weigh us down and slow our progress as a people.

The roots of Black love run deep, as Lerone Bennett Jr. chronicled in his 1981 Ebony article, The Roots of Black Love: New research underscores strong bonds of Black concern. He noted, “As a matter of hard historical fact, the true story of Black love – love colored by, loved blackened by the Black experience – is the exact opposite of the tradition myth.” He went on to note that “Black love was denied legal sanction and support and the Black family was systematically violated. For more than 200 years, slaves were violently denied the right to marry legally, and slave masters violently and repeatedly separated husbands from wives and children from parent.” How can a people who are just a few generations removed from legalized slavery be freed from the lingering impact of these systematic barriers?

The MJS reporter could have asked the couple he noted in his article (Rev. LaHarve Buck and his wife who have been married for close to 50 years.) what makes their marriage strong and long-lasting (he didn’t). Instead of just the narrow view of bleak statistics, the highlighting of couples such as the Buck’s is needed to give hope and encouragement to those who are in a relationship—or single—yet struggling with the decision to take the next step and “jump the broom”.

He might have been surprised by the answer: “Love and friendship”—with the emphasis on love. Love is that aforementioned fuel, the foundation on which the institution is built…and must be built if it is to withstand the harsh realities of life and living that we expect, but are rarely prepared for.

Love, remembering the lessons of our history, and applying both in equal amounts will continue to revive the institution of marriage and increase the numbers of those living “happily ever-after.”

Indeed, the social conditions for Milwaukee Blacks must improve. When our society truly fosters justice for all, equal access to resources and opportunities, there will no doubt be increases in Black marriages.

Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr. is the editor for the Milwaukee Community Journal, an African American newspaper, and Clarene Mitchell has over twenty-years of journalism experience. Contact them via: [email protected]