Queering Black Politics: Reconsidering the Black Single Mother Argument
I don’t wish to argue about whether or not black women are having children without being married, or whether or not it is occurring at a rate that is disproportionate to white women. I’m also not concerned about the supposed increased happiness and longer life spans of married people, or whatever.
I’d like to dialogue about what I perceive to be the problem of discussing black politics and “black issues” as though black people are one homogenous group with identical desires, family structures, and ideals. Black politics are not white politics in blackface. The old habit of acting as though black life is a poorer colored version of middle class white life has never been appropriate and it certainly is not now. The thing is, the American family is becoming increasingly queer. And this applies not only to the black family — although that’s primarily what I’ll be referring to in this post — but to families across racial groups. We are still having conversations about issues as though the Eurocentric “ideal” of the nuclear family is the norm and the model, and it is not. We have to accept that different family structures exist, are prevalent, and do work, and confront the fact that the discourse and policy propagated by the nation-state make it extremely difficult for queer families to survive.
Queerness in the black community — black folks are gay, not all black people are married, there are many multi-generational black households, and so on — is either ignored as though it doesn’t exist or referred to only as deviant. Why are we blaming single black mothers for the problems of a failing educational system and poorly designed social welfare programs that are supposed to act as some kind of end-all? Why do we have so much trouble turning to the state and looking at its role in perpetuating structural violence against non married (non heterosexual) households?
The 2000 census showed that the nuclear family now makes up just less than 24 percent of families in the United States. While in 1960, when nuclear families made up 45 percent of all households, the lie that the average American family was nuclear may have been closer to the truth, it is now merely unabashed rhetoric intended to generate a perceived norm and inspire conformity. What is more, the number of households that consist of people living alone or with people who are not related (which are curiously being called “nonfamily households”) make up about one-third of all households.
I want to point out that nuclear black families do exist, and have in the past, alongside other family arrangements. Before Moynihan declared in 1965 that the problem with black america was that “nearly one-quarter of negro births are… illegitimate,” and “almost one-fourth of negro families are headed by females,” 74 percent of all black families were maintained by a husband and wife, and 22 percent were headed by women. Interestingly, by 1982, almost two decades after the implementation of policy that followed his report, black families maintained by married couples had dropped down to 55 percent, and single mother households rose to 41 percent. (Check Survival of the Black Family by K. Sue Jewell.)
The principal problem with the argument that intergenerational crime and poverty are due to the prevalence of single black mother households (aside from its sexist undertones) is that it centers blame on the family structure itself — which is queer — as opposed to the state-sponsored hostility that incriminates that family structure and makes it so difficult for single-mother households to survive. The fact of the matter is, through policy, the nation-state systematically discriminates against single-mother households and other queer domesticities that are not husband-wife-child. There are federal and state policies that not only encourage marriage, but also actively discourage other forms of love and commitment by granting multiple economic and legal privileges to married couples. These privileges include sick leave to care for a partner or child, crime victims’ recovery benefits, and access to things such as annuities, pension plans, Social Security and Medicare. Because single mothers are excluded from the rewards and protections of heterosexual marriage, and left only with the prospect of becoming entangled in the cobwebs of the U.S. welfare system, their families end up suffering more severely from substandard economic conditions than ones that mirror the nuclear mold.
The same is true for other queer domesticities that do not reflect the heterosexual patriarchal norm. The United States government’s pro-marriage policies are similarly hostile towards people who cohabitate, but are unmarried (be they heterosexual or not), and towards people of queer sexualities. In all but five states, queer couples are outlawed from sharing a union that is recognized by the state. And of course for the couples that do acquire such a union, their rights are only recognized within the boundaries of that state. If you’re a gay married couple in Massachusetts, you’re fine, but as soon as you drive into New Hampshire your marriage is no longer recognized by, nor protected under, the law.
Unmarried couples and their children are at an extreme economic, social, and legal disadvantage as a sheer result of their supposedly aberrant family structure. In such families, children do not have automatic access to the resources, benefits, and entitlements of both parents, such as employer-provided dependent health care; couples and their children are not protected by social security against a variety of risks such as survivor benefits in the case of death of a spouse; and partners are not acknowledged as next-of-kin in the case of medical emergencies. Through its unfair treatment of queer sexualities and domesticities, the nation-state has essentially transformed civil rights into privileges, granted to citizens based on the assumption of performed heterosexuality. It is an assumption of heterosexuality because while heterosexuality is inferred from marriage, similar to love, it is not a necessary component of marriage. There are marriages that exist for convenience, and for the sole purpose of receiving the multiple benefits conferred upon spouses by the state and federal governments
All of this being said, it is important to acknowledge that black people have queer domesticities and sexualities. In terms of queer domesticities, single-mother households are just one form of black queer familial organizaiton. K. Sue Jewell writes about “serial families,” which is the movement from one family structure to another. Examples of this would be a black female and her children returning to her family of orientation following a divorce, or black men and women traveling from town to town establishing temporary living arrangements with various black families during the mass migration of blacks to the North. There are also what have been called “familial constellations that exist as autonomous units or within families” such as a single-parent family that exists within a nuclear or extended family structure. Furthermore, there are multigenerational houesholds in which the grandmother is the primary caretaker of the children, or where there is a group of sisters raising children together, etc
Re: sexuality – not all black people are heterosexual. I’ll assume I don’t have to cite examples to prove that.
My point is that queering the black agenda (and the national agenda) is necessary. There are privileges that many queer American families are being excluded from, and like it or not this includes black families. The right to see your loved one in the hospital should not be contingent on sexual preference nor marriage status. The partners of single (black) mothers should be able to claim the child on their employer health insurance. Households headed by uncles and grandmothers should be able to file joint tax returns. If one partner dies, the other should be granted automatic inheritance in the absence of a will. These are rights that are kept not only from queer people of all colors, but also from nonqueer people who do not reap the benefits of acting as a nuclear family.
I’m not trying to say that queer family structures are invariably functional, just as I don’t believe the nuclear family is. I’m also not trying to belittle wife-husband-child (nor “husband”/man on his own, since I’m sure I’ll be accused of that as well). I’m trying to reconsider and rephrase some popular arguments. We talk about absent fathers without mentioning the prison-industrial complex. We talk about single-black mothers more than we talk about anti-queer federal policy.
The problem is not that people are different. The problem is not that girls aren’t marrying. The problem is not that black women are reproducing. The problem is that the dominant ideology governing what is socially acceptable and legally rewarding works to systematically discriminate against queer ways of life, including unmarried lifestyles, living without a pronounced male head of household, or being a single parent.
No, the black family does not always resemble the patriarchal nuclear family that has been deemed the most successful and productive. Yes, black single mother households have increased over the last four decades, and yes, a number of black children come from single-parent households. We should use these realities to question the formation of exclusionary norms, rather than to lambaste black morality with underlying aspirations to assimilate. Discourses around proper sex and family structures have regarded black families as violating social and moral code, while social welfare policies and pro-heterosexual marriage policies have cunningly made maintaining queer family structures particularly economically onerous. In order to constructively organize (and queer!) black politics, we cannot ignore the presence of black sexualities and domesticities on the periphery of dominant discourse, and the role of nation-state in perpetuating and punishing this queer positionality. We have to affirm our family structures, and redirect our criticisms towards the nation-state and its undeniable role in policing sex through criminalization of the black queer.