When Michelle Obama’s appearance at the Biden/Harris inauguration set social media ablaze, many enjoyed imagining Barack Obama bragging about his life partner, and it reminded me of a line in his 2020 memoir The Promised Land. Speaking of meeting his wife of 27 years, he declares, “I was smitten almost from the second I saw her.” As a Black woman who is not light-skinned, I always notice moments like this. Women with both dark complexions and doting partners exist, but—and I’m particularly aware of this as Valentine’s Day approaches—American culture insists that we don’t.
For instance, when Black men publicly explain why they find Black women unattractive, the reasoning is not ignored but gains traction as a story. Especially for those who extol the virtues of Asian American or “exotic” women, African American women are “not feminine or submissive enough.” The men making such declarations do not constitute a majority, but their insistence upon offering unsolicited negative assessments must be seen for what it is: the American way. It aligns with the contours of mainstream American culture, which is invested in the erasure of Black people choosing each other.
This erasure has roots in slavery. Knowing their captives were human and maintained human agency, enslavers tried to brutalize it out of them. Although United States law did not recognize sexual violence against Black women as rape, they were forced to have sex with enslavers or with other captives. This practice did not simply enrich white people because children inherited the mother’s slave status; it also attempted to make the bondswoman’s feelings irrelevant. Nevertheless, the historical record is full of testimony from Black women who enraged white “masters” because they loved partners of their choice.
Not surprisingly, then, many African Americans celebrated Emancipation by reassembling their families and making their marriages legal. As Black people invested in the legal protections of marriage, white Americans disregarded those bonds by asserting that Black men were rapists obsessed with white women. These claims worked to obliterate the image of Black men happily paired with Black women; it was a form of discursive violence that emerges as a response to African Americans’ success at loving each other against the odds. Even if historians haven’t found much archival evidence, queer intimacies and domesticities no doubt existed and attracted violence. In those cases, people were punished for the victory of knowing that their right to belong did not rely on sexual conformity. In all instances, discursive violence was accompanied by physical aggression. As historian Hannah Rosen documents, even while declaring that Black coupling was nonexistent and that white women were in danger, mobs “ku-kluxed” black homes, often raping the wives of accomplished Black men. White terrorists destroyed Black domestic and intimate success while insisting it never existed.
Several decades after Emancipation, distorting Black love was no less meaningful in shaping American culture. Between 1890 and 1940, Progressive Era reforms lifted European immigrants out of poverty with education and employment opportunity, but African Americans were treated as irredeemable. As Khalil Muhammad has shown, Black Americans’ financial struggles were criminalized rather than addressed with community investment.
Denying Black people’s right to public resources that typically accompany citizenship required casting them out of the nation’s family portrait. As a result, African American mothers were said to produce natural criminals. Crime became “Black,” so its existence among whites was deemed an aberration. The pathologizing of Black families in the 1965 Moynihan Report may be better known, but its depiction of Black women as matriarchs who damage Black men and boys was a continuation of earlier assertions, including those of Black sociologists like E. Franklin Frazier. If Black love existed, it was pathological—not empowering. It did not create households that functioned as safe havens but rather as dens of delinquency and dysfunction.
All of these portrayals erased the truth about the love that had sustained African Americans through the horrors of slavery and beyond. As Tera Hunter’s Bound in Wedlock makes clear, African American men and women went to extraordinary lengths for family, including returning to bondage after securing freedom in order to be with loved ones. The refusal to highlight how routinely Black people choose each other advances assumptions about a lack that, if true, would have already obliterated the race.
Most representations of African Americans throughout American history have downplayed bonds of affection, and have purposefully avoided presenting them as defining characteristics of their families and communities. Whether the loveless impression emerges in mainstream depictions or in casual remarks about not dating Black women, it fits the pattern of erasure too neatly to be incidental. Not surprisingly, then, the tendency to denigrate Black women has a parallel. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “the crude communal myth about Black men is that we are in some manner unavailable to Black women—either jailed, dead, gay, or married to white women.”
Those who care about Black families and communities sometimes hesitate to celebrate Black marriage. Praising traditional marriage can contribute to the overall devaluation of queer intimacies. It can also align with the routine vilification of all households that do not fit the heteronormative nuclear family mold, with its male breadwinner and financially dependent wife and children. As important, highlighting Black marriage can easily feel like another attack on single Black women in a society with self-help franchises and religious cultures based on scolding Black women for not properly preparing themselves to be “blessed” with a mate.
And yet, the hesitation to celebrate traditional Black marriage, of which there has never been a shortage, also amounts to erasing the degree to which African Americans do, in fact, choose each other.
Ever notice how examples that contradict dominant assumptions fail to gain traction? Many understood that it mattered for Barack Obama’s credibility among African Americans that Michelle Obama was brown-skinned, but the couple’s prominence has done little to change the impression that Black people rarely choose each other. American culture is built on presumptions of Black pathology even though, as Coates puts it, such characterizations should ring false “in a country whose existence was predicated on the torture of Black fathers, on the rape of Black mothers, on the sale of Black children.”
It is no accident that Americans of every background struggle to recognize how thoroughly the Obamas represent, in Coates’s words, “Black people’s everyday, extraordinary Americanness.” That is, African Americans often embody exactly what the nation says it respects. Their doing so is common, but it is also exceptional because they must reach every goal while the nation robs them of every public resource, including safety. Against the odds, African Americans create and nurture life-affirming and community-sustaining bonds of affection—bonds that are distorted, diminished, or ignored.
Black Americans have always cared more about cultivating intimacy than about specific domestic configurations (like the heteronormative nuclear family), but whenever they achieve what dominant culture praises, white violence emerges to put them back in their “proper” place. That “proper” place has been enforced with physical violence, but it has also been reinforced with discursive violence, including how Black people choosing each other is assumed to be most palatable when the woman is light, bright, almost white.
Keeping African Americans in their “proper” place also involves excluding traditional Black households from the nation’s family portrait. The quintessential American family is always assumed to be white and middle class, no matter how often white people prove to be less than committed to that model. And this is the case even as the United States provides white people with resources like safety—not having to fear that police officers or civilians will kill their loved ones without consequence.
Marriage relies on and bolsters economic standing, and the United States has always deprived African Americans of the financial resources to support their unions. Despite these formidable obstacles, marriage has not been rare among Black people, but it has been ignored. As Hunter shows, in the early 1900s, African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois and other elites insisted that traditional home life would dramatically improve Black people’s social, political, and economic prospects, but “somehow they missed the fact that most Black families conformed to the very behaviors they wanted to indoctrinate,” given that “by 1900, marriage was nearly universal for adult African Americans still living in a mostly agricultural society.”
Then and now, American culture ensures that few would ever suspect Black people’s consistent, stable history with marriage.
In this context, it is worth noticing that representations of Black family life have not changed with Michelle Obama’s prominence as not only a mother but also the wife of an affectionate husband. Indeed, her success in these roles has been simultaneously ignored and attacked. Attacks came in the form of asserting that she hurt the feminist movement by calling herself “Mom-in-Chief.” Meanwhile, her becoming first lady—woman of the nation’s house—was ignored in that it did not inspire popular culture representations of African American stay-at-home moms. Instead, The Help became a runaway hit, suggesting that Americans did not want to be reminded that Black women are homemakers, but they would relish seeing Black women pretending to be 1960s maids in 2009 (when the book was published) and in 2011 (when the movie was released).
That was not enough, though. In 2016, 63 million Americans voted to move the United States “From Mom-in-Chief to Predator-in-Chief.” The message was clear: African American marriages and traditional families may exist, but they will be excluded from the nation’s portrait of itself. Black women are acceptable as house slaves and housekeepers, but not as homemakers. That has always been the American way. Meanwhile, and nonetheless, Black people keep loving each other.