What Shall We Say to These Things? The Implications of Black Women's Singleness
On Sept 1, writer Emma Lindsay published a piece on Medium titled “Being Single is Hard”. It had been shared a few times on my timeline and I thought the title interesting enough to read it. In it, Lindsay details how difficult singleness can be and the ways many couples negate it. As a Black Christian woman, I experience this in many different ways. More times than not, someone is always trying to over-spiritualize my singleness. I’m either single because God is pruning people out of my life so my mate can come in or God is preparing me so that I will be ready when he comes. In either instance, I’m never “good” enough on my own. To be single, as a Black Christian woman, suggests that I haven’t done something right or well enough to become a wife. Singleness is seen as a consequence. And, while I disagree with the ways the church frames singleness or the ways married people project meanings onto our singleness, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tired of being single. It is hard.
I think this is precisely why this piece resonated with so many single Black women: it was a small glimpse into our world. A world where we text our friends when we get out the bathtubs just so that someone knows we didn't slip and fall. A world where we drive ourselves to and from the hospital when we're sick because our family and friends are unavailable. A world where personal moments of joy are often bittersweet because we don't have someone special to tell. A world where we often hate going to family functions because someone will think it’s their place to ask us why we're not married and/or have children. A world where the moment we start to complain about being single, someone will immediately shut us down and tell us that things could be worse. A world where we have to suffer in silence because to speak loudly about it is to lack faith.
I know all too well the implications of singleness for Black women. My mother, 60 and never married, died alone at home. We found her hours later. For the past nine months, I have replayed scenarios of my mother's final moments if she was married. My stepfather would have been home. He would have been able to call the police. She wouldn't have been alone. Since she passed, I've realized how much my life mirrors hers. I am single and live alone. While at my age she had a daughter, I only have a dog...and I'm seriously considering getting a landline phone and enrolling him in specialty classes to know how to nudge the phone over with his nose and hit a button to call 911 in case of an emergency (yes, those classes exist). I do not talk to someone every day, several times a day like I talked to my mother. That means no one knows my schedule intimately enough to know when I'm off of it and need a check-in. And I'm not the only person who experiences life like this. These implications are real.
The author spoke about the importance of touch and the real need for it. Have you looked at a single sister in your life and wondered when was the last time she's been held? Have you asked her? In the wake of my mother's passing, my skin began to do some crazy things and I sought the help of a dermatologist. After examining me and hearing about what just transpired in my life, my dermatologist said "your skin is missing your mother. Your body is grieving this loss." His declaration led me question- if our bodies react to the unexpected traumas, in what ways have they been reacting to the continuous neglect they face? How have single Black women's bodies reacted to weeks, months, years, decades without touch? In what ways have these bodies conditioned themselves into believing they will never be held again? For centuries, scientific research and experiments have shown us the importance of touch and what happens when human existence lacks it. These effects don't stop when we become adults nor are they less important because single Black women are impacted.
So what is our responsibility to Black women who are experiencing the weight of their singleness? First, I think our response is an honesty about their circumstances. Too often, especially in the church, we dismiss these experiences by telling single women to just "wait". What do you think they've been doing?! Contrary to popular belief, most single Black Christian women do not fall in the Meagan Good or Fantasia Barrino categories- women who say they did not entertain relationships with men and intimate encounters in order to prepare for marriage. If you ask the average 35+ year old single sister in church to name the last time she had the opportunity to entertain a relationship, serious or otherwise, their response may shock you. Many single sisters are not experiencing relationship prospects at that level. I met at 43-year-old sister who flat out asked me, "I haven't been on a date in 9 years. I haven't been in a relationship in longer than that. What's wrong with me?" While relationship theologians and shady preachers/pastors will not hesitate to answer that question for her, the truth is that nothing is wrong with her. People have always been able to find love no matter the state of their life or condition of their personality and character...except Black women. There are some valid reasons Black women who desire heterosexual partnership cannot find it.
We shrug our shoulders when we hear it but it's true: many of our husbands are in prison and many of them are in cemeteries. We would be foolish to think that Black male incarceration rates and inner-city violence didn't affect Black women's ability to marry. Additionally, income and achievement gaps continue to be a barrier for many brothers. Several sisters just aren't willing to take a chance on a brother with a record and/or no job. Conversely, despite all the freeloading friends of Tyrone out there, some brothers just won't step to a sister if they feel like they're not together. And add to all of this the brothers who are single and available...and choose to remain single and available because, with the number of single sisters at the ready, they don't have to settle down. These and many more reasons factor into Black women's singleness and it leaves sisters reeling because there is literally nothing they can do about it.
Many of us have read all the Christian relationship books (telling us to wait), went to all the conferences, did all the fasts, believed all the prophecies and we're still single. And for us, the church only has "well just keep waiting" or "learn to be content in whatever state you're in" or "when I stopped worrying about it, God sent my husband." Girl bye and shut up. We are uncomfortable discussing failed dreams and plans and our desire to blame women’s behavior in these moments show that we don’t know as much about God’s love and grace as we suggest to know. And because of the harmful theologies many of us sat under for years, too many sisters are still wedded to a restrictive view of sexuality…and I'm not even talking about sex before marriage. There some single sisters who won't try their luck at online dating or initiate the first move with a brother they're interested in because they believe it's out of the bounds of what godly women do (meanwhile, we are ignorant to the ways the married women in our lives conspired to get their husbands). And there are also some who see the one dimensional nature of relationships "God's way" as the only way a good, Christian man should approach them and many lose out as a result. And then there are women are trying; they're putting themselves out there and still nothing is happening. So whether they’re too churchy for their own good or whether they’ve loosened up a bit and become more progressive, sisters are still single and it hurts. And we must take that hurt seriously.
I've often wondered how many pastors- genuine pastors- know how many single members they have in their congregation and know their stories. Have they talked with any of these sisters about their singleness, listened behind all the church-speak and fought to hear the truth? Have they prayed about something practical, tangible they can do besides preaching "How to be a Virtuous Single Woman" again? How many single pastors pastor with a level of empathy for their single members? This matters if we’re going to say that we love and care for the single sisters in our congregations, many of who are doing the bulk of the church work because they have very few personal responsibilities. Or is that the point? Are we unwilling to take seriously Black women’s singleness because it would mean that Black women might place boundaries around their presence at church?
In my dreams, when my mother went to Glory, neither of us would be single. I would be at her bedside and so would the man who pledged to love and honor her beyond death. And after I laid her to rest, I would fall apart in the arms of the man who pledged the same things to me. Neither of those things happened. In my prayer time, I have been honest with God about the sheer cruelty of a moment like this. I have unapologetically voiced to my Creator anger and frustration regarding my singleness because I am over it. I am tired of doing life alone. And though Paul may have learned to become content in whatever state he found himself in, I have not nor will I pretend to do so.
Companionship and intimacy matter for the fullness of life. And Jesus was clear that he came so that we all would be able to experience life in abundance. What if we saw Black women's singleness as an affront to the Cross? How might our ethical approach to this dilemma change then? What would happen if we saw taking seriously Black women's singleness as a form of worship- our reasonable service? And I'm not talking about these Pinky Promise/Purity Circles/Wives-in-Training/Waiting Wives that take advantage of genuine desire and good intentions but are nothing more than spiritual pyramid schemes. I'm talking about the economic empowerment work, the solid re-entry programs, the APOLOGY for harmful theology and the commitment to sound-yet-practical teaching. I don't have all the answers...or possibly any answers. Maybe I just have a lot of questions. But those questions matter.
They matter to me and to the other sisters longing for something more than what we have right now.