(Part 1 of 3)
In Joan Morgan’s ground-breaking feminist manifesto, “When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost,” the author recalls a conversation she had with the mother of a childhood friend. The mother shames Morgan for being single and implies that her focus on her career is the reason she can’t keep a man. Morgan responds, “It’s like Gloria Steinem said. Our mothers did a great job raising their daughters to become the men they once wanted to marry. But how about raising their sons to become the men their daughters need?”
I showed this chapter of Morgan’s book to my own mother after a conversation about what she perceived as the loss of all cognition on my part; I told her I was quitting my job to pursue my writing full-time (after I returned from an impromptu trip to Jamaica where I would spend a month working on an organic farm … but that is a story for another day.)
My mother fired questions at me: “What are you going to do for money? How will you survive? What happened to graduate school? What about your boyfriend? I think you’re making a mistake.”
Her reaction to the news was understandable. As a parent, it is natural for her to be concerned about how I progress in my personal and professional life; but I was a tad bit vexed when she proceeded to praise my older brother’s parenting skills based solely on the fact he showed up. “He is here. That is more than most women can say about their fathers.”
The Black feminist in me (inaudibly in front of my mother, of course) sucked her teeth and stood flabbergasted as a result of this double standard.
For a myriad of reasons I couldn’t possibly begin to cover in the scope of this article, there is an onus to protect Black men: their lives and livelihood are relentlessly threatened by systematic oppression. Everything from the education system, the prison-industrial complex, and encounters with law enforcement (that all too often turn fatal) put a target on the backs of our brothers. Out of communal fear of losing our boys, we wrap our arms around them. Simultaneously, Black girls are raised to be strong and independent. Since Black men are often removed from households unexpectedly and indefinitely, Black women are expected to survive without assistance from a man.
This instability creates a cycle that produces, as Morgan describes, “strongblackwomen -n- endangeredblackmen;” As Black girls grow into Black women, they are accustomed to fending for themselves. As Black boys grow into Black men, they are accustomed to insulation. Morgan laments, “I kinda feel like before mothers start bashing their perpetually single career girls they might want to check themselves. After all, the brothers we date are the sons they raised. These mothers are creating totally dependent men who will expect all women to do for them. Yet these boys are future husbands and fathers.”
Some Black women in Madison feel the effects of this cycle in the city’s dating scene, especially when it comes to sustainability and balance in heterosexual, cisgender Black relationships. Self-care champion and cosmetics entrepreneur Angela Fitzgerald moved to Madison three years ago to further her career, and believes Black women receive a lot of unfair backlash for the “Strong Black Woman” archetype. “Black women get dinged a lot for being too independent,” she says. “People don’t understand that we do what we have to do, not because necessarily that we want to do it. Women would gladly accept a man that makes decisions. I want to take that hat off. Don’t dismiss me because I’ve been doing it on my own, help me alleviate that load.”
Sistas are accustomed to taking the lead and carrying the load, oftentimes to our detriment. A National Institutes of Health report details the struggles Black women have with depression and the stigma around mental health care. Many Black women are not seeking treatment because of the strongblackwoman archetype; regularly deciding to silently cope with mental health crises.
Kira Stewart spends the majority of her day advocating and caring for some of Dane County’s most vulnerable populations. A native Chicagoan, Stewart moved to Madison as an undergraduate, and agrees with Fitzgerald’s perspective about the strongblackwoman label. “I want someone who is a leader, a protector, who will let me take a step back,” Stewart says. “I am in charge all day. I constantly have to make decisions. When I come home, I want you to take the lead and be confident in that.”
Although Black women in Madison want Black men who are comfortable co-leading in their relationships, they are also willing to work with brothers who are still learning the true meaning of partnership. Black women are re-evaluating their definitions of an ideal partner for the sake of building meaningful relationships. “I’m willing to work with people.” says Chartrise Conard, who grew up in Madison. “I’m not perfect. I’ve made mistakes in my life. Everybody makes mistakes. If you have drive and dedication and you are willing to work on us as a partnership we can see where it goes.”
As a mother of two, Conard is acutely aware of how her romantic life will be a mirror for her children and seeks to raise them with a degree of consciousness around partnerships. “What I allow into my life that my son sees, he will think that is how he is supposed to treat women,” she says. “When my daughter sees how men treat me, she will grow up thinking ‘it’s OK, I saw my mom do it.’”
Coming to Madison helped Fitzgerald realize that, in seeking meaningful relationships, a person’s life purpose is more important than common relationship tropes. Fitzgerald is happy in her relationship with a brother that she met in Madison. “Who I’m dating now does not fit the mold of who I thought I would be dating in terms of their background being really different from mine,” she says. “I had to change the ideals I had in mind to be OK with that …[living here] has made me more flexible. I’m big on purpose. If I see our purposes align, we can work it out.”
The dating scene for Black women in Madison is not atypical. Sistas all over hope to align their purpose on a path with their partners.
(Coming soon: Part 2. Black women and dating and religion in Madison)