Jumping the Broom

Mark your calendars for the second annual "Marry Your Baby Daddy" Day coming in September. For the second year in a row, co-habitating parties have an opportunity to do the right thing, take the plunge, jump the broom and restore their honor in the community. Fine and dandy, except that, for the community being offered the opportunity, marriage might not be such a big deal.

The tally for last year's event totaled 10 couples, far shy of the estimated 30,000 marriages taking place during China's Golden Week holiday. Granted, the MYBD event was confined to the New York metropolitan area (which, though, putting up a mighty effort to compete, still falls short of the population of Beijing by about four million) but, the participation rate was, more likely, a microcosmic reflection of community attitudes as a whole. Founder Maryann Reid established the event as a way to "raise the esteem" of marriage within the African American community. Reid recognized a painful truth: over the last seven generations, matrimony has suffered a stupendous fall from grace.

The stats on marriage among Black couples having one or more children between them are less than stellar: 70 percent of our babies are born out of wedlock, a complete flip from the 80 percent marriage rate held for nearly a century after emancipation. Even during the radical 60s, out of wedlock births leveled off at 23 percent, modest by today's standards. Conventional wisdom contends that social gremlins -- lack of peer pressure, diminished stigma of having illegitimate children -- are responsible for the freefall, but a closer look at circumstances tells a lot about the human condition.

Slaves were not allowed to marry, and families torn asunder at the whim of slave owners created a mighty longing for that which was forbidden. Post-emancipation accounts by whites told of former slaves aimlessly wandering the roads all day for no apparent reason. But for the freed men, the reasons were all too clear: they were looking for the common-law mates and children lost to them through the cruelties of commerce. Once free to claim a husband or a wife, marriage represented the ultimate status of freedom and independence long denied an entire population.

Family commitment went on to retain its importance as newly formed communities required the resources of all its members to establish solid financial and institutional footing. The period of 1900 through the 1950s saw prosperity and boom times within Black communities across the country, frequently to the consternation of less prosperous white townships. Many a riot was sparked by the deliberate destruction of economically healthy Black communities.

Again, during the civil rights initiatives of the early 1950s and on through the next decade, a unified front was required to battle the forces of segregation and inequality. Mothers and fathers fought to ensure their own rights, but, more importantly, the rights of their offspring. But economics once again intervened in the family structure via that old bugaboo, the welfare system. Though in place since the early 1930s the structure of the system shifted in such a way that single mothers, rather than intact families, reaped the most benefits for the longest period of time -- circumstances appealing in light of a shrinking workforce and urban economic hardship. The crumbling nuclear family became the norm rather than the exception and we stand today as a community with the highest divorce and lowest marriage rates in the country.

Current social trends suggest that marriage is no longer a necessity. Birth announcements outpace wedding invitations, and, with 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce, statistics would seem to bear that out. But, in the face of alternate evidence suggesting that married individuals earn higher wages, enjoy more financial benefits, are healthier, live longer and are more likely to raise better educated and more productive children, can we really afford to dismiss the institution as an outdated social norm? We as a community need to bolster our chances of remaining healthy and in tact by embracing that which made us thrive in the first place: a strong and extensive structure that revolved around the nuclear family.

"Baby Daddy's" Reid has been quoted as saying that the majority of calls she got from people interested in taking part in the marriage fest, surprisingly, were men. Could it be that brothers, long saddled with a reputation for shirking familial duty and responsibility, will be the ones to lead us back from whence we came?

Now that would be a reason to celebrate.