Friday, April 17, 2015

Bennets in the 'Hood

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a widely-known literary work. Enough so that people who are otherwise unfamiliar with it may still recognize the opening line:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
But, like most tales, it goes on from there, and the second sentence starts to get to heart of the matter.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other or their daughters.
While I have yet to start in on Pride and Prejudice in earnest, I will confess to being somewhat curious about the work's overall themes. According to The Economist, "Jane Austen’s characters took it for granted that men with money made more eligible mates." And as the first two sentences make clear, that eligibility was also viewed as something of an obligation. While the Regency era United Kingdom and the 1990's United States might appear to be worlds apart, I suspect that in certain ways, they are very similar.
Young never-married black women outnumber young never-married black men with jobs by a startling two-to-one. This helps explain why although African-Americans are more likely than other races to say they value marriage, only 26% of black women are actually married, compared with 51% of whites.
"I dither" The Economist
While I don't know what the ratio was in 1990, when I was just entering the "young never-married black man with a job" demographic, I suspect that it was pretty high even then - during my year at an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) it seemed that women outnumbered men on campus by four or five to one. So it wouldn't surprise me if the 2-to-1 figure were true back then. Had I paid any attention to demographics at the time, I wouldn't have been surprised at the ease with which one could have updated Austen's words.
It is a truth commonly understood, that a single Black man in possession of an education, job and, if called for, a car, must be in want of a wife. Regardless of the feelings or views of said Brother about the topic, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the African-American public that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other single, marriage-minded Sister.
I'd come to understand myself as notoriously un-romatic while in high school and college had taught me that I was much better off that way. But it also taught me, as Slate's Jacob Weisberg would note in 2005, that people "find the idea of nonsexuality more bizarre than deviant sexuality," and so my disinterest in being coupled was best kept strictly classified. Which caused trouble of its own. While my parents, and thus other adult members of my extended family, understood (sort of) that I was uninterested in relationships and a family of my own, their friends and co-workers were in the dark, and so they saw me as someone who should be looking for a Black woman to marry. Yesterday, if it could be managed.

And I most certainly felt the pressure. The Black adults of my parents' generation tended to regard the fact that I was unmarried with impatience, resentment or both. While the idea that there was something inherently selfish about remaining single struck me as fairly common, when speaking to African-Americans of my parents' generation especially, I would sometimes pick up a vibe that with so many Sisters looking for good husbands, I was being derelict in my duty by not marrying one. I joked to friends that I should have had a sweatshirt made up that read: "Property of the African-American Community," but there was a genuine feeling of being seen as owned behind it. Being unwilling to share the fact that I'd rather be watching animé or reading a book than out on a date, I simply allowed people to assume that I was seeing someone, and that led them, I think, to see me as either something of a cad or only interested in White women. I don't know which people felt was worse. (Once I took a housemate, who was white, out to dinner. We wound up seated near an older black couple, and if looks could kill, poor Diane would have spontaneously combusted. Fortunately, she had her back to them.) Moving away from Chicago, and the community of people that my family knew, removed most of the pressure, although there were still a few isolated incidents. Being in the technology industry and living in the suburbs of Seattle meant that interactions with Black people a generation older than myself were rare to non-existent, and even when they happened, they tended not to be in circumstances in which my relationship status was a topic of conversation.

Being more informed in my middle-age than I had been at the beginning of my adulthood, I understand the demographics and the identity politics; and it all makes sense to me, for all that I still have no intention of playing the game. Given, as The Economist noted, that things haven't much changed in past nearly 30 years, I suspect that there's a satirical novel of manners lurking in the African-American community, waiting for a new Jane Austen to set it to paper. I'm pretty sure I'd enjoy reading it.

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