‘Keep Your Sorry’: On Slavery, Marriage and the Possibility of Love – The Feminist Wire

‘Keep Your Sorry’: On Slavery, Marriage and the Possibility of Love

Recently, the Iowa based organization, The Family Leader, apologized for a controversial reference to slavery in their “Marriage Vow,” a document that it created to obligate Republican presidential candidates that it endorses to conform to its homophobic, anti-choice, conservative agenda. The passage in question says that:

“…a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the first African-American President.”

This preamble substantiates this claim by citing a conservative literature review focusing on promoting marriage in the African-American community.  Both the original report and this marriage vow clearly fail to take into account the very meaning of chattel slavery.  Slavery in the United States meant that any family member could be sold at the discretion of an owner.  Any form of partnership within an enslaved community could be interrupted and ended at any time.

Black conservatives like Cheryl Contee and the self-identified “black reluctant Republicans,” Alaine and Aaron from “A Political Reason,” and even the mainstream news figure Rachel Maddow, along with other bloggers, scholars and activists, pointed out the discrepancy between the organization’s claims and the historical reality, prompting The Family Leader to apologize.  An article in Salon calls this particular passage “gratuitous,” and the first contextualizing point of their statement which lays the groundwork for the argument concerning what they deem a crisis of marriage in the United States.

And I say to the Family Leader, as the lady in blue in Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf says as she breaks up with her partner:

“Keep your sorry.”

Obviously, to suggest that a child born into slavery, who can be sold away at any time and whose parents can also be sold, has more stability and richer family ties than a child who may, for example, be raised in a mother-ful household or by unmarried teams of parents reveals a nostalgia for slavery that goes beyond any fidelity to facts.  The fact that the authors of this statement chose to actively wish for a time more like those of chattel slavery and to reveal a desire to return marriage to those terms is not a random racist outburst.  It is actually a clarifying and fundamental element of their agenda.  Simply put, they want the function of marriage today to be (even) more like the function of slavery in 1860.

Conservative groups like this one and others who have instigated campaigns across the country to limit the legal benefits of marriage and civil unions to “one man and one woman” (and certainly without a trans-inclusive or self-identified standard for who counts as a man or a woman), desire marriage to remain a function of and a key structure for the reproduction of social control in the United States—one that rewards certain modes of relationship and punishes others. And as they say, marriage is in crisis because people in the United States are actually proving themselves to be more creative than contract law when it comes to love, partnership and family-making practices.

For example, I was honored to attend and celebrate my sister’s wedding this past weekend in New York City.  My sister and her now husband decided to design their own vows. They each committed to be “life partners.”  After they vocalized their commitment, the officiate said: “I now pronounce you married, life partners.”

This is what the conservative groups rallying to defend marriage mean when they say marriage is in crisis. Not only has the state of New York decided that anyone who chooses to be married can be recognized, regardless of gender; but maybe even more disturbingly for the so-called defenders of marriage–even heterosexual couples would rather be partners with each other than slaves to an archaic construction of gender as property. Imagine that.

And so, to The “Family Leader” and the entire marriage defense movement I say:

“steada being sorry all the time
enjoy being yrself”*

The belief that slavery is a better context for family, especially for African-American children, is consistent with the ways that African-American people have been policed since slavery through racist policies attached to welfare and healthcare for generations.  This nostalgia is consistent with the wish of Moynihan Report (which is cited in the vow as well).  This ongoing wish, advocated by conservatives of all races, is this: If Black people would just conform, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality, oppression as usual, in the form of heteropatriarchy would have a lot easier time reproducing itself.

And I say to myself and to my beloved community.  Don’t conform.  Transform.

The gendered scripts that The Family Leader so desperately wants candidates for President of the United States to support are not only archaic, they are violent.  While the organization’s statement suggests that homosexuality is a public health risk, they overlook the fact that the insistence on marriage as a property relation (like during the good old days of chattel slavery) actually makes partner violence more likely. Their vow, acknowledging both that 50% of first marriages end in divorce and that 60% of second marriages do as well, makes no allowance for the fact that this might mean that a significant amount of people find that the form of marriage does not work for them. By suggesting that it should be harder and take longer to get a divorce, they suggest that people should stay in bad marriages, possibly even abusive marriages, instead of moving on to safer alternatives.

The Family Leader and the marriage defense movement it represents wants marriage to be more like slavery, where participants conform to roles designed to manage property instead of actively partnering with each other and being present to the transforming meaning of life in partnership. And this is consistent with their conservative push to enforce a so-called democracy that is more about the conformity to scripts designed to divide, constrict and oppress people in this country. As a Black feminist with no tolerance or nostalgia for slavery, I envision something different: a democracy on the scale of every community, including family, where democracy means that we actively transform the meaning of life together by freeing ourselves and each other with love.

And “love” is a key word: a name for the transformative element of life that allows us to grow and honor each other with the faith we deserve.

Not surprisingly, the word “love” does not ever appear in The Family Leader’s “Vow” about marriage.  But the word “slavery” does.  And why should The Family Leader apologize for that?  Its members are just being honest about the fact that their idea of marriage has more to do with slavery than with love. And it does.

In the meantime, I am an unapologetic marriage abolitionist, which means that I believe that the financial and legalized structural advantages currently attached to the institution of marriage in this country should not be linked to the practice of marriage as such, but should be available to all people who want to collaborate on home, family, support and love on their own terms.  It also means that I am committed to actively generating multiple powerful forms of love in my life and in my communities.

And so I have my own vow to make to my communities inspired by Ntozake Shange’s 1974 brilliance:

“I will love you on purpose. 
I will be open on purpose.
And I will not be sorry for any of it.”**


*Ntozake Shange, 1974. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide: When the Rainbow is Enough.  New York: Simon and Schuster.