Saying ‘I do’: Black marriage campaign is growing

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by Megan K. Scott
Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP)—For Kenny and Lynette Seymour, last weekend’s Black marriage gala was about celebrating their seven-year marriage. They got to meet other Black couples while spending a romantic evening together.

“Every time you meet another couple, you learn something new about yourself and relationships in general,” said Kenny Seymour, a 39-year-old Broadway music director who lives in Queens. “It was beautiful to be around a bunch of married people in love.”

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HAPPY COUPLE—Joan Griffith-Lee, left, and her husband, Don Lee, have dinner March 25, at a restaurant in New York. The couple, who live in the Staten Island borough of New York, have been married for 20 years.

Other Black couples marked the eighth annual Black Marriage Day last weekend, by attending workshops, black-tie dinners and other activities. Some groups have held events throughout the month, although Black Marriage Day, which celebrates matrimony in the Black community, falls on the fourth Sunday in March.

The founder estimates more than 300 celebrations were held last weekend. The aim is to try to stabilize, if not reverse, the trend of non-commitment within the Black community. Studies show Blacks are less likely to marry than other ethnic groups and more likely to divorce and bear children out of wedlock.

Experts blame the disparities in part on high Black male unemployment, high Black male imprisonment and the moderate performance of Black men in college compared with Black women.

They also note the lack of positive images of Black marriage in the media and several misperceptions about matrimony—that it’s for White people, that it’s a ball and chain, that fatherhood and marriage are not linked.

“They have either seen really bad examples of what marriage looks like or no examples at all,” said Yolanda “Yanni” Brown, 42, a divorced mother of two in Chicago, who was hosting Black marriage events. “They are saying, ‘Why bother? This works for us,’ not knowing there are so many other benefits of being married.”

Brown says she wishes she had fought for her marriage.

Joseph Arrington II, a 38-year-old Black entertainment attorney in Atlanta, said there was a time when he wanted to get married, but his interest has waned. He hasn’t had a girlfriend in 15 years. His parents celebrated their 50th anniversary last year. He said he focuses on his work.

“It’s a combination of two things,” he said. “I haven’t found anyone, and I’m not actively seeking someone.”

Gerard Abdul, 45, who lives in East Orange, N.J., and runs an entertainment company, has never seen himself as the marrying type. He has nine children by five women. He said he cared about them all, and each wanted to marry him. But he wasn’t interested.

“Because I’m so independent and on my own, I really didn’t see the science of marrying them when I really didn’t have to,” Abdul said.

“I’m a great father,” he added. “But I probably would have been a lousy husband.”

Despite those attitudes toward marriage, there are a handful of campaigns to get Blacks to walk down the aisle, from the federal government’s African American Healthy Marriage Initiative to Marry Your Baby Daddy Day, with 10 unwed couples with children tying the knot later this year in New York.

“You Saved Me,” a documentary that explores the marriages of eight Black couples, was screened in more than 20 cities last weekend as part of a Black Marriage Day premiere.

“We want people to take away that successful positive (Black) marriages do exist,” said Lamar Tyler of Waldorf, Md., who produced “You Saved Me” with his wife, Ronnie. The Tylers started their blog “Black and Married With Kids” in 2007 and released “Happily Ever After: A Positive Image of Black Marriage” last year.

Don Lee and his wife, Joan Griffith-Lee, of New York’s Staten Island, who have three children, watched “Happily Ever After” Friday night and participated in a discussion at a coffeehouse. The couple have been married almost 20 years.

Several of their friends are divorced, and Griffith-Lee, 45, who works at Columbia University, said she and her husband often talk about why.

“We hope to leave there with a new awareness and maybe some tools that can help as we get older,” she said.

Black Marriage Day founder Nisa Islam Muhammad is encouraging couples to renew their vows in front of friends and family in honor of Tyler Perry’s movie “Why Did I Get Married Too?” which opens April 2.

Muhammad points out that many Black children come from single-parent households and contends that the media are not helping. There’s never been a Black “Bachelor” on the popular TV show, and the star of the 2008 movie “27 Dresses,” about a 27-time bridesmaid, was White.

“We’re going to focus on the positives,” said Muhammad, executive director of Wedded Bliss Foundation, which helps people develop healthy relationships and marriages. “We’re going to show ourselves and our community that marriage does matter and we have some fabulous marriages in our community worth celebrating.”

Those include the marriage of President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, said Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative in Germantown, Md. He credits the couple with setting a positive example and creating more discussion about the issue. In a way, their marriage is evidence of the importance of marriage in the African-American community, he said.

Most Blacks already think that marriage is a good thing, said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But many can’t find anyone they think would make a good spouse.

But at least Black Marriage Day will get people thinking about marriage, says Tammy Greer Brown, 43, executive director of Celebrating Real Family Life and organizer of the Staten Island event, who said she hopes to spark a discussion about marriage. She said she grew up in a single-parent home and didn’t want that for her kids. She has been married for more than 10 years.

“My daughter is already talking about getting married,” she said. “She wants to be like my husband and I.”

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