Single and Defying Expectations
Expectation is defined as something that is probable or most likely to happen. It is also described as something we are bound in duty or obligation to do. Like many women, when I envisioned my future, I did not anticipate that I would grow older alone. I expected that I would be married with children by the time I was thirty at the latest. Moreover, I felt pressured to be happily coupled.
Simply put, whether or not I would get hitched wasn’t even a thought--it was a given. It was a foregone conclusion that I would be settled with a husband and little ones, much like my parents and their parents before them. After all, as a well-educated, well-traveled, and financially secure black woman, why would I not be? Yet as I drifted into my midthirties I found myself and many of my equally successful friends alone.
Let me clarify. We’re not alone in the sense that we are isolated or without any connection to anyone. Rather, we are without the one singular connection that is valued by most of society--a significant other. While we all have people that matter in our worlds, such as family and friends, it is the lack of a life partner or a soul mate that stigmatizes us and downplays all of our other accomplishments. No matter what else we have achieved, we are all still bombarded with questions like “Why can’t she find a man?” and “Is there something wrong with her?” I must admit that these questions haunted me as my milestone thirtieth birthday approached. Then, on September 11, 2000, something in me shifted when I stumbled across the premiere of a show called Girlfriends.
Girlfriends was a half-hour sitcom revolving around the lives of four black women living in California; three of them were single and one of them was married. I was instantly captivated--glued to the set. What drew me in was the image of three positive sisters navigating their way through careers, education, and life without the aid of a man. It was only the second time in my life that I could recall seeing someone like me or my sisters on television in an inspiring way.
Every Monday I’d sit and watch Joan, Lynn, and Toni confront challenges similar to mine and my girlfriends’. It gave me solace knowing that I and my friends weren’t the only beautiful and successful women unable to attract a suitable suitor; we weren’t alone in the struggle. What I didn’t know was how statistics painted an increasingly bleak picture of marriage prospects for black women.
According to the 2005 U.S. Census Bureau data, 70 percent of black women and 61 percent of all women over the age of thirty live alone. This is not surprising considering that over the twenty-year period between 1970 and 2001 the overall marriage rate declined by 17 percent. The drop for black people, 34 percent, was double that of whites. By 2005, data found that 44 percent of black men and 42 percent of black women reported that they had never been married.
I was not aware that the deck was stacked against me as I entered my thirties. I guess, as an avid television watcher, I wouldn’t have known, though. With the exception of Girlfriends, even in 2000 there were few other shows featuring strong, independent black women making it without a man.
Television had been slightly kinder when reflecting the struggle of single white women. They began to be empowered in the 1970s with the launch of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, starring that career-driven woman who moved to a new city for a job at a television station. The show made a point to depict Mary as a woman who was not desperate to find a man. She was happy and fulfilled just living up to her professional potential. When I was young I’d stay up late at night to watch reruns of the show, awed and inspired by Mary Richards. I used to say, “I’m gonna be the black Mary.” Still, I yearned for a character that looked and sounded a little more like me.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show wasn’t the only one over the years that showed progressive, single white women. In 1976, there was Alice, a show with an ensemble cast of single women striving to make their way in the world. Of course, who can forget the eighties, which produced a rash of ensemble shows designed to showcase white women making it against the odds, like Cagney and Lacey, Kate and Allie, and Designing Women. Yet nearly a decade and a half after the white woman revolution began, there were still no independent, single black woman to show me it was OK if I didn’t live up to the marriage expectation. Where was the Julia for the generation Xers?
I saw my first sassy single black woman on the Jeffersons. Florence, played by Marla Gibbs, showed up in 1975. She could give verbal jabs as good as she got; she was confident and bold. Yet she was hard for me to relate to because even at five I knew I aspired to be more than a servant.
A year later What’s Happening came on, and once again I felt that I was left short. Mabel was a hardworking mother trying to support her two kids. She was no-nonsense, fiercely protective, and determined to carve out a better life for her family. However, she also had a low-paying job and lived in the ghetto--a life I knew nothing about, having been raised in a predominantly white neighborhood with professional parents.
By the time the eighties rolled around I at least got to see upwardly mobile, single, strong black men. There seemed to be a run of them. There was Benson, Ricardo Tubbs on Miami Vice, Blair Underwood’s character on LA Law, Denzel Washington’s character on St. Elsewhere, and Michael Warren’s character on Hill Street Blues. Sure, there were also more black women on TV, but it appeared to me, even as a child, that there was a clear reason that these sisters were unattached. Nell Carter’s character on Gimme a Break was overweight and stuck taking care of white kids in a small family home. Anna Maria Horsford’s character on Amen was desperate and needy. She also still lived at home with her father as a thirty-year-old woman. Jackee’s character on 227 also worked a meager job and only got by using her sexuality.
It wasn’t until the year I was to graduate from college, 1993, that I had my first glimpse of black female characters that resembled women in my life. Living Single focused on four single black women living in Brooklyn; each of them was smart, well employed, educated, and self-reliant. It was in one of those characters, Maxine Shaw, that I saw myself. She was sharp tongued, had a brilliant mind, and felt no need to compromise herself to find a man.
Despite my internal pull to be married and be part of a “we,” I found myself wanting to be her and being comfortable with the thought. However, as with all good things, the show came to a screeching halt after just four short years. When Living Single was gone, I found myself reverting back to conventional needs and wants, including a desire to be Mrs. Somebody. I continued to crave the traditional role of wife and mother and felt inadequate without it until I tuned into Girlfriends that random Monday night five years later.
It was Girlfriends that guided me back toward the notion that a single, prosperous woman is complete with or without a man on her arm or in her bed. It has again stirred up the beliefs in me that I don’t need to sacrifice my talent or blessings to have a husband, that any man who is worth it will accept and respect me as I am. In fact, he will lift me up and make me a better person than I am alone.
While I don’t credit Girlfriends, Living Single, or any other television show with being the only or most powerful factor in my being at peace in my own skin, seeing images of women who embody what I feel innately I am supposed to be fills me with a greater sense of support and gives me the confidence to buck expectation.
I hope other single African American women will realize that although we’ve been downplayed and ignored in the media, we are not failures simply because we don’t have a man. Nor are we disappointments to anyone unless we fight to rise above the glass ceiling in business yet allow others to be define belittle, or limit the possibilities for our lives based on our lack of a relationship.
As my grandmother told me, there is a huge difference between being alone and being lonely. At some point we all will find ourselves alone; we came into the world alone, and we will leave it that way. Single women can and often do have lives filled with love. The trick is loving yourself even when you are alone and finding people you can love and who will love you back so you will never be lonely. Afri
Causes M. Beamon Supports
A Better Chance
American Red Cross
MS Hope For A Cure