African Americans seek committed relationships and marriage just as much as any other ethnic group. They, too, long for the pomp and circumstance that the world will witness April 29, when England’s Prince William weds his bride Catherine Middleton.
It’s become standard practice in recent generations for Black couples to ceremonially jump the broom at their weddings. The act exemplifies a delicate link between contemporary African Americans to the slave culture of their ancestors who resiliently sustained precious native marriage practices. Though weddings between slaves were not officially recognized, the dogged continuation of matrimonial ties reflected marriage and family’s central position in Black culture and community. ?And yet, recent surveys suggest that young African Americans, devoid of stable relationship role models, see marriage as something Whites do, not Blacks. The percentage of married Black Americans ages 20-54 dropped from 70.3 in 1970 to 39.6 in 2008, according to the 2009 Marriage Index, a joint study by the Institute for American Values and the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting (NCAAMP).
And while the evidence may suggest a decline in the value of marriage, for many African Americans, it is a testimony to the difficulties in finding a suitable partner who is prepared and ready to make the commitment. Not surprisingly there are convincing indicators that marriage’s status has declined throughout America. The percentage of all Americans ages 20-54 that are married also plummeted from 78.6 in 1970 to 57.2 in 2008.
For instance, analysis of government statistics reveal that rural Whites – long the bastion of marriage and barometer of American middle class values – now divorce at the same rate as Whites living in metropolitan areas. At the same time, the percentage of births to married Americans tumbled from 89.3 percent in 1970 to 60.3 percent in 2008, according to the Marriage Index. Among African Americans, that same measure fell from 62.4 percent in 1970 to 28.4 in 2008.
This steady deterioration of humanity’s central relationship is as much a crisis in America as the slumping economy, joblessness, and global instability. Marriage affects other more glaring social concerns in more substantive and direct ways than those often-discussed headline issues. And yet, the decline of marriage has been woefully absent from our national debate. This must change if we hope to stave off the wholesale cultural decline of America. ?The discussion of family values must move beyond its traditional place as an exclusively conservative political action item and be embraced in rural and metro America, discussed among Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians and native people, and maintained across all faiths.
Our children need stable families and communities. It’s time to elevate the marriage discussion to the national level and draw attention to it from a broad range of communities.
In the short term, we can defuse any youthful reluctance to discuss the importance of marriage with the timely paparazzi surrounding the royal union. But once the nation and its youth are aware of what must be done, we can only hope that marriage – restored to its irreplaceable position – is celebrated, cultivated, and continued with the same reverence as the old broom jumping ceremony that’s been carefully passed down from the slave era.
Michelle Drayton is the president of Today’s Child Communications – based in New York City – and a maternal-child health registered nurse and holder of a master’s degree in public health. She is also the publisher of “Today’s Child” magazine now entering its 13th year.