What Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison Have Taught Me about Black Love A consideration of the meaning of Black marriage.

Marriage continues to be idolized in Black culture, and I write this as a Black woman who is happily (most-of-the-time) married to a Black man. I can still recall the 5×7 images of toffee and chocolate couples smiling from Jet Magazine on my parents’ coffee table. They were the eighties’ equivalent of Instagram’s #blackweddings—minus the embedded marketing.  Shimmering from both paper and web page, sweetheart necklines, crisp designer tuxes, and diamonds have dressed this stage of life as a standard of achievement, both nostalgic and aspirational, especially if it is accompanied by a high income. I suspect this is one of the reasons the OWN network’s flagship show, Black Love, continues to be the highest-rated program among Black women ages 25 to 54. It is also why a daydream sequence in the second season of HBO’s Insecure¹ unfolds so rapturously: a one-minute montage set to a Neo-soul track in which the character Issa gets everything she desires: the man, the ring, great sex, and a child. The dream sells, making it easy to find oneself rooting for the series to end in the cathartic fulfillment a white wedding dress still symbolizes. The underside of this imagery is the rhetoric that continues to pathologize Black women, who are often blamed for “the Black marriage crisis,” or seen as its victims,² regardless of whether their singlehood is a choice.

Recently, I reread a passage of the 1985 novel Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor, and the exchange between two male characters reads as if from a transcript of a YouTube vlog: “There just aren’t enough decent [Black women] to choose from. They’re either out there on welfare and waiting to bring you a string of somebody else’s kids to support, or they’ve become so prominent that they’re brainwashed into thinking that you aren’t good enough for them.”³ Naylor ventriloquizes this updated version of the Moynihan Report and the patriarchal refrain that diminishes Black women’s economic struggles, motherhood, and educational achievements. Black feminists have long critiqued this government artifact for laying societal disparities due to structural racism at the doorsteps of female-led Black households, and moreover, even blaming married Black women for the instability of the Black family. Coming across this passage in the current moment was jarring because there are several social influencers making their bread on this very topic, one who has even inspired an anti-misogyny petition. Linden Hills’s intricate plot includes a Black wedding that is fabulous by societal standards. Before the end of the book, however, two brides have met their deaths because of the stigmatization of one’s childlessness and the other’s assumed infidelity. By the denouement, Naylor exposes how much the preservation of the surrounding community depends on a strict view of social hierarchy, one in which Black women may never be considered properly marriageable.

Linden Hills’s intricate plot includes a Black wedding that is fabulous by societal standards. Before the end of the book, however, two brides have met their deaths because of the stigmatization of one’s childlessness and the other’s assumed infidelity.

The gist of Naylor’s fictional premise still being repeated today is that the integrity of Black relationships is compromised because modern Black women do not represent the traditional ingredients needed for the recipe. This argument positions marriage as plat de resistance in the Black community without addressing why other relational arrangements get labeled as scraps. At a funeral once, the minister looked out over the assembled and told us women to get a last look at the good man in the casket because we were unlikely to find another one to marry us. By then, I had been “safely” married for eight years, but the minister’s presumption enraged me. Why is it that marriage is frequently portrayed as the key to ultimate satisfaction, while good friendships, or even contentment with the self, are seen as useful but only in service of the goal? The alternative future is often greeted with a piteous nod of the head. I am married to a Black man. I am obviously not anti-marriage. I am also protective of Black women and Black people, considering our social vulnerability at America’s banquet table. So rather than center the clichéd theme of what’s wrong with Black women that so few get married, I want to ask how the novel encourages Black women to understand marriage if marriage is what they choose.

By literary standards, this will not be too broad a sweep. I want to put Naylor in conversation with her contemporary, Toni Morrison, to query some lessons from the marital imaginary of their literature, which overall, I find helpful and hopeful. Like many prospective English majors, I devoured Pride and Prejudice in high school. The quaint social world Austen painted was an entertaining but recognizable fantasy to a young Black girl growing up in the South. I doubted the arrival of a member of the English “gentry” in my romantic future. Hard to picture Mr. Darcy at a gym jam in my local rec center or graduating with me to juke joints and graveled parking lots off two-lane state roads. Moreover, the stakes for Austen’s characters felt too . . . genteel. On, the other hand, I was mystified by the violent antics of Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). At that age, I was mystified by marriage, in general. Or, maybe I was confused by the paradox of the general acknowledgment in my community that all of our two-parent homes were not happy (it was common knowledge which pairs were unfaithful or abusive) and, yet, the wide cultural assumption was that to miss out on marriage—or God forbid end up a single mother—was somehow to fail. Perhaps, young English majors today are reading Anne Tyler or Gone Girl. For me, it was the works of Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison that provided a window into marriage’s complexity and a way to read against the discursive terrain.

The novels of Naylor and Morrison acknowledge the historical significance of marriage as an attachment in the African American community but complicate that heritage. Take Mama Day (1988) and Beloved (1987). In Mama Day, Naylor’s third novel, the central love story between George and Cocoa is grounded in an origin story of the novel’s setting. In 1823, we are told, Cocoa’s ancestor, Sapphira Wade, a conjure woman and healer, married her slave owner and seduced him into not only releasing his slaves but deeding them all of his land on the island of Willow Springs. And then, as one telling goes, Sapphira poisoned him. This is the backdrop for George and Cocoa’s marriage in 1985, a marriage that Naylor depicts as passionate but immature until George finally loses his life trying to save Cocoa’s. There is a certain way the novel obscures just how the fated pair’s relationship is illustrative of “everything there was to tell about 18&23” (an allusion to the days of Sapphira’s disappearance).⁴ However, in invoking the mystery of an enslaved woman at the heart of the text, the book forges a deeper social imagination about their marriage’s ancestry. It raises questions about miscegenation’s impact on Black conceptions of love, about death, and mythology.  Thus, one of the lessons that Naylor gifted me is the historical depth of marriage’s relationality.

In Beloved, the enslaved woman at the center of the text, Sethe, must grapple with the mythic, as well as the brutal realities of the antebellum period. What fascinates me in this portrayal is how Morrison uses a slave marriage to reflect an unexpected site of agency.  Historians have documented the existence of slave marriages and their structural dependency on the master’s whim.⁵ Morrison allows us to look deeper into these interpersonal relations, which does the work of recentering what threatens to get lost, in history and in marriage, that is, the acknowledgment of a distinct personhood. The character Paul D, another fugitive slave, recalls Sethe’s marriage to Halle on the Garner plantation. Morrison uses the metaphor of corn being shucked to steal a moment of selfhood for all three characters under slavery’s regime. The scene of Paul D slowly peeling a corn cob, pretending not to watch a young Sethe and Halle making love in a field, momentarily dispels the historical reality that the slaver controlled Black pleasure. This small moment of desire and envy blew my mind when I encountered it as a young reader in college. That slave marriage could inspire lust, could even be considered “sexy” is a provocative argument for the institution’s longevity beyond slaves “imitating the master’s religion” or simply holding on to the institution because its permanence under slavery was so fragile. Mama Day and Beloved reveal some of marriage’s deep (and dark) roots beyond its lay associations with cultural assimilation.

Morrison allows us to look deeper into these interpersonal relations, which does the work of recentering what threatens to get lost, in history and in marriage, that is, the acknowledgment of a distinct personhood.

Ann DuCille in her study of Naylor and Morrison’s foremothers—Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston—finds that “In black women’s novels of the 1930s and 1940s, marriage is no longer the relation of rescue and protection it was in the nineteenth century . . . but a seat of emotional confinement, sexual commodification, and male domination, as well as infidelity, brutality, and betrayal.”⁶ She argues that embracing female desire leads to “devastating consequences” for Larsen’s and Hurston’s characters as marriage is relegated to the domain of power relations against which Black women have to wrestle to establish subjectivity. By contrast, writing in the late 1970s through the nineties over the twentieth century’s black feminist wave, Naylor and Morrison do not demonize marriage, or exalt it. They portray just as much infidelity, brutality, and betrayal.  However, they take Black women’s subjectivity and creativity for granted, and they represent marriage as one type of meaningful communal form rather than the Black community’s pinnacle. This is important because marriage in the United States is still viewed as the prize of nuclear heteronormativity. I mark it as particularly heteronormative because it was withheld from same-sex couples until six years ago, and representations of same-sex weddings (on television, at least) are still rare. Across popular unscripted programming, such as The Bachelor and 90 Day Fiancé, men and women chasing marriage is the norm, and finding love in marriage is the dream. In Black culture, shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Basketball Wives signify⁷ on this norm and enfold hopeful girlfriends and ex-wives into their titles under the camouflage of glamour and celebrity, thereby still valorizing the status of marriage, never mind legal facticity.

But Naylor and Morrison show how marriage might be valuable by ultimately illustrating its irrelevance. In fact, my favorite couple in their combined works is not even married. The foil for those devastating relationships in Linden Hills is the commitment between Ruth and Norman. Ruth is a divorcée who has left her higher-class husband in the hills for a low-income apartment with a man who suffers from schizophrenic breakdowns. Naylor describes Ruth’s love for Norman this way: “She didn’t stay because every dime he did earn, when he could earn it, was brought home to her; or because he would take her swollen feet out of her waitress loafers, put them in his lap and rub them patiently for hours; or because the music in his laughter had a way of rounding off the missing notes in her soul.”⁸ Seemingly in contrast to this romanticized, Naylor writes that Ruth stays because on a night when they are both sick, Norman fights through his psychosis in order to take care of her. Admittedly, this example reflects both my own and Naylor’s idealization. What I mean to say is, any real love, like any good marriage, sometimes involves extreme sacrifice. I worry, however, that marriage’s exalted standing in popular culture diminishes other relationships where equally balanced forms of reciprocity can and already do take place.

Black women should not opt for marriage to meet society’s standards. The novels Paradise (1997) and Bailey’s Café (1992) both depict alternatives: queer, safe spaces where Black women can find solace in themselves and one another, although Morrison and Naylor show us the extent to which such spaces are perceived as a threat. Because I have read these novels, I know that the warning sexist Black influencers use to berate their audiences (you’re going to end up alone or living with a bunch of other old Black women) is not the life sentence those influencers think. In The Women of Brewster Place (1982), for example, Etta Johnson is disappointed in her attempt to snag a minister husband, but Naylor ends the chapter with the confirmation of another form of spiritual companionship for Etta. After the minister drops her off, she is comforted by her old friend Mattie, who has waited up and is playing blues records for her. “She climbed the steps toward the light and the love,” Naylor writes. Neither Etta’s nor any of the Brewster characters’ stories end in marriage, but “light and love” affirms a form of care that the reader can still hope for outside of marital bonds. Sula (1973), Morrison’s second novel, interestingly supports this hope by negation. It is after the character Sula sleeps with best friend Nel’s husband that Nel comes to understand the depth of her bond with Sula. By this point, Morrison has developed and characterized the two women’s relationship so thoroughly, the reader is heartbroken twice. The book comments–not on the morality of adultery–but that we might not emphasize the importance of Black women’s friendships enough. The question for Morrison is bigger than which state is most preferable, marriage or singlehood. She asks the married and unmarried to consider what enables knowledge of the other to converge into true intimacy—possession or loss?

Because I have read these novels, I know that the warning sexist Black influencers use to berate their audiences (you’re going to end up alone or living with a bunch of other old Black women) is not the life sentence those influencers think.

Both Naylor’s and Morrison’s marriages were short-lived (Naylor’s only lasting something like ten days). In a conversation between them published in Southern Review, Morrison states that some people “just put everything in marriage like that was the entire solution.”⁹ I was “some people” for a large part of my twenties and early thirties. I did not see the point of dating for fun, and I bought into the premise that attaining “Black love” would count as a vague form of racial uplift. As Naylor admits in the conversation with Morrison, I think I also was afraid of the “untraveled terrain”¹⁰ beyond societal expectations. I wanted to be one of those highly educated Black women who got lucky. I wanted to make the pages of Jet. I did not want to be forty and alone. And then I got married, and the misplaced yearning in the eyes of my single friends was scary at times, because I recognized it.  Like Naylor, I learned that “being married” was not the same as “getting married.” Marriage is hard. There are a lot of conflicting ambitions to sift through. What Naylor’s and Morrison’s novels have shown me, though, are the many textures of marriage, and of love, between two equally flawed people. More nuanced than the branding of “black excellence” or magic so often touted on social media, these women’s literature taught me to simply be grateful to have found love and marriage, as Morrison would say, “all in the same thing.”¹¹

Because of the form of the novel, their bodies of work allow for a breadth you cannot find in a Twitter feed. Morrison has said of her novel Jazz (1992) that she was trying to show the magnitude of new choices and identities suddenly available to Black rural migrants who relocated to city centers in the early twentieth century. She elects to do this through a close-up on the marriage of Violet and Joe. Middle-aged, the pair are rocked by scandal, first when Joe carries on an affair with an inappropriately young girl and, ultimately, shoots her; but next, when Violet loses her mind and tries to deface the girl’s corpse, unhappy that she will never get to best her rival. I am certainly not upholding this marriage as exemplary. Instead, I am merely impressed with Morrison’s ability to convey the dangerous stake of going into a marriage without a stable sense of self.  Violet learns that she must stop wishing for what she needs and become who she wants to be on her own, apart from Joe. She realizes that even before the affair, she had forgotten herself, “Forgot . . . [her] life.”¹² She acknowledges this mistake to another young woman: “I just ran up and down the streets wishing I was somebody else . . . White. Light. Young again.”¹³ (I find this rhetoric resonant today with the pressure still put on Black women to fit a Eurocentric beauty mold.) Violet reclaims her sense of self and, resultantly, finds something worth claiming in her marriage. I want to suggest that marriage is a vehicle for the plot of self-development and not Morrison’s point. The unmarried couple in God Help the Child (2015) undergo an equally rough journey to self-actualization and restoration of their union. Ultimately, what Morrison helps us to see is that marriage is a viable route to self-discovery and acceptance, but it is not the end-all, be-all; nor should it be.

Headed towards my ninth year of marriage, I find myself culling these lessons of literary wisdom. I appreciate that marriage does not have to be an empty receptacle for property exchange and reproduction. I also appreciate that Naylor and Morrison believed in love. I have seen marriages in their literature that I recognize: troubled marriages, shallow marriages, commitments based more on double incomes than courtship, relationships aging into dry and empty nests. Marriage is not salvation, or a goal. Before Bridgerton, before Tyler Perry, before Girlfriends and The Game, Naylor’s and Morrison’s novels taught me that the soul of love was not to be found in a social contract that could be disintegrated by a slave master or devastated by meaningless infidelity. They taught me that love was first to be found in the self and then extended, wholly and plainly, like a dinner invitation to a good friend. Marriage is an admirable possibility for Black women. It is not the Black community’s missed fate.

¹ “Hella Perspective.” Insecure, written by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, directed by Melina Matsoukas, HBO, 2017.

² The language of crisis often befalls social phenomena in the Black community and can linger, even when its trend reflects broader patterns in society, or when the trend reverses.  See https://www.thoughtco.com/the-top-myths-about-black-marriage-2834526. In this case, I am highlighting the fact that statistics paint a picture in historical and recent studies that hinge notions of Black progress and community stability specifically to the success or unsuccess of heterosexual marriage as an institution and may overlook other loving kinship forms.

³ Naylor, Gloria. Linden Hills. Random House, 1988. p.108-109.

⁴ Naylor, Gloria. Mama Day. Vintage, 1988. p.10.

⁵ Eugene Genovese describes the varied marriage practices of enslaved persons, even divorce, but acknowledges its unrecognition by antebellum law; therefore, a marriage could only occur with the permission of one’s “owner” and could be disregarded according to the owner’s convenience (Roll Jordan Roll, p. 32). Saidiya Hartman draws out the precarity of this situation even further in her book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (1997), arguing that power over consent and will is the definition of unfreedom.

⁶ Ducille, Ann. The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction. Oxford University Press, 1993. p. 112.  See also the September 18 issue on “Black Marriage” in differences: a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, edited by duCille.

⁷ I use “signify” here in the theoretical sense mapped by Henry Louis Gates’s The Signifying Monkey (1988) wherein signifying is a cultural practice of iteration that relies on insider knowledge of permissible forms of behavior and language, as in, for instance, African American men calling prospective mates “wifey.”

⁸ Naylor, ibid, p. 35.

⁹ From Conversations with Gloria Naylor. University of Mississippi Press, 2004. p. 14.

¹⁰ Ibid, Naylor confesses this was the reason she got married so fast.

¹¹ Ibid.

¹² Morrison, Toni.  Jazz.  Penguin Books, 1992. p. 208.

¹³ Ibid.