Black Love Matters: The reality gap for Black men between family life and the image shown on TV
By Armon Perry, Professor of Social Work, University of Louisville
Finding and keeping a good Black man in a relationship has become a cottage industry. From celebrities and reality TV stars to social media influencers, for better or worse, there is no shortage of relationship advice to people seeking to figure out Black men.
And while much of this content is understood to be for entertainment purposes only, some of it is presented and received as legitimate and data-driven. This is a problem because too many people cannot distinguish what they see onscreen from reality. Media portrayals are often hyperbolic and sensationalized to attract public attention. Equally troubling is that the majority of academic research in this area also perpetuates many of the same, negative patterns that are common in popular culture.
As a graduate student and university professor, I have spent nearly two decades reviewing these studies on Black men and families. The general consensus from them falls into one of two categories: first, that many Black men are not viable marriage mates because their financial struggles will not allow them to provide for a wife and children.
Other studies conclude that many poor Black men reject monogamous romantic relationships in favor of a hypersexual masculinity to overcompensate for their inability to fulfill the traditional breadwinner role. These men, the studies conclude, treat women as conquests rather than partners. In both historical and more recent research, studies on Black men have disproportionately examined the lives of low-income men and the struggles they faced in maintaining stable relationships in the face of economic disadvantage.
I have found that the near-exclusive focus on low-income Black men in research related to the family skews perceptions of these men. It also limits the public’s knowledge of them and the meanings they attach to their romantic relationships. And this perception can be used to perpetuate negative stereotypes that frame them as dangerous and predatory.
Resetting the image
In response to that limited view, I spent the last four years conducting a study on a more diverse group of Black men to learn more about their perspectives on marriage.
The men’s stories reveal important findings that are typically not explored in research on Black men. They opened up about their desire for intimacy and companionship in their relationships. My findings, many of which are counter to the popular image that our society holds of Black men, have just been published in a book, “Black Love Matters: Authentic Men’s Voices on Marriage and Romantic Relationships.”
My study followed 33 Black men from Louisville, Kentucky, chronicling their personal circumstances, as well as their attitudes, experiences and behaviors within their marriages and romantic relationships. The data for the study were collected from over 150 hours of interviews with the men.
The men I interviewed ranged in age from 18 to 72. They represented a variety of relationship statuses, with men reporting being single, romantically involved, married, divorced and remarried. The men were also diverse in their educational attainment. Some had graduate and professional degrees, while others had high school diplomas and GEDs. The men also varied in their economic situations, with annual incomes ranging from $0 to US$175,000.
In sharing their experiences, the men provided an in-depth look into their love lives. Their discussions touched on many important factors that have shaped their past and current relationships. They reflected on how they met their partners and the characteristics that made them stand out from previous partners. The men described their ideal marriage mate and shared what marriage means to them.
In discussing what attracted him to his wife, one man stated, “She wasn’t phony. She was comfortable being herself, she wasn’t trying to impress anybody. So it made me learn to be comfortable being myself.”
‘The most important decision’
In the interviews, many of the men credit their partners with making them better husbands, fathers and men. According to one of the participants, “I always tell her that I couldn’t have become who I am without her. Meeting the right person, to stand with the right person is probably the most important decision I’ve made in my life.”
The men even recognize the ways their relationships serve to combat the negative perception that often surrounds Black men.
“The media portrays us as shiftless and violent and not to be trusted. I think when you see a man with a woman treating her well, a man with his children treating them the way they should be treated, it dispels a lot of what folks see in the media. Just seeing positive men doing what men should do is a good thing,” said one man.
Most often, the men talked about how the unique characteristics that set their mate apart from others they had dated.
In explaining what attracted him to his wife, one man stated, “I think just how she was able to articulate to me who she was and how she shared some of my values when it comes to children and relationships. It’s just how she carries herself. Her presence made me want to be with her and I never had another woman make me feel like that.”
However, many of these men said they struggle with previous traumas that challenge their relationships. A detective alluded to the psychological stress he faced in being a Black man having to police his community at a time of distrust and unrest, only to come home and have to be emotionally available for his wife.
In one of his interviews, he stated, “I try not to let the stress bother me, but it’s still one of those things. It just does. Sometimes I’m really withdrawn because I’m thinking about things at work or I’m always working. When it happens, I’ve got to put myself in check.”
Another man wrestled with the realization that many of his former girlfriends had a striking resemblance to a babysitter who abused him as a child.
Haunted by failures
In discussing their fears and insecurities, many of the men acknowledge being guarded with their emotions as a result of some of their early experiences. Even when they were able to move beyond early negative experiences, many of the men discussed feeling haunted by their friends and family members’ failed relationships.
In these cases, the men expressed concern that their relationships would not last. As one participant said, “I don’t know that many people of color have seen marriage modeled very well.”
Yet over and over again, in the interviews, men told how they would strive to maintain their relationships in the face of myriad internal and external challenges including racism and early negative relationship experiences. Given the lack of research on Black men featuring firsthand accounts from them, “Black Love Matters” represents a departure from previous work that seems to be preoccupied with implicating Black men in discussions of what ails their families and communities.
In lifting up the men’s voices, “Black Love Matters” shifts the focus away from talking about Black men and instead talks to them about how they love and want to be loved.