When we think about Black history, we often see images of major moments in time, like marches, revolutions, political triumphs, innovations, or sports highlights, but how would any of these things come to be without Black love?
Black love, Black marriage and Black history existed long before white Europeans kidnapped and enslaved our ancestors and brought them from Africa to this land. Our very existence today is evidence of our ancestors' strong Black love for us, and hope for a better future. So, in this vein, let’s take a look at a snapshot of the history of Black love and marriage in America, through the ages:
1800s: Black Marriage Through Challenge
While slavery in America stripped many of our ancestors of their rights, including the right to marry who we choose, Black couples still held wedding ceremonies signified by a practice called “jumping the broom.” According to scholar Alan Dundes, this was common during antebellum times and continues in many Black marriage ceremonies today, in honor of our enslaved ancestors.
Post Civil War and emancipation, many heterosexual Black couples’ marriages were made legal, however, in the former Confederate states, “some whites did not want the law to legitimate,” Black marriage, historian Tera Hunter writes in her book, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century. She adds that white supremacists opposed to Black rights saw Black marriages “as a challenge to social order and racial hierarchy.” In America, Black marriage has always been a revolutionary act.
Late 1800s-1940s: Bonds Run Deeper
By the late 1800s, Black Americans married at higher rates than their white counterparts, and from 1890 up until 1940, Black women married earlier than white women. In fact, according to the U.S. Census, the percentage of Black men 35 and older who never married was lower (at about 8%) between 1890 and 1930, than for their white peers. For Black women, the rate teetered at around 7% and steadied at 10% until 1950.
Famous couples of the era include iconic composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Jessie Walmisley (who wed in 1899); champion boxer Jack Johnson and Etta Terry Duryea (who wed in 1911); and entertainer Josephine Baker and Jean Lion (wed in 1937) who also had many relationships with women, possibly including the legendary artist Frida Khalo.
Famous singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were also bold queer women who pushed boundaries during the time. While Smith was married to Jack Gee in 1923, she reportedly had relationships with women, and so did her mentor Rainey. Rainey even alluded to lesbian affairs in her music, and reportedly had girlfriends while married to her husband Will Rainey.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and wife Coretta Scott King
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1950s-Early 1970s: Fighting For Rights… Including For Who We Love
Many revolutionary movements have historically been held up by power couples. Even as patriarchy relinquished women and queer people to behind-the-scenes roles in the civil rights movements, the wives of the appointed movement leaders were powerhouses in their own right. From Coretta Scott King to Betty Shabazz, to Myrlie Evers-Williams, to Kathleen Cleaver, to Miriam Makeba, and beyond, these women organized the movement and supported, assisted, and led in building and continuing the legacies of activists Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Stokely Carmicheal.
All of these leaders fought for legislation and initiatives to change laws and lives during this period, leading to educational, political, and social freedoms that had not been seen before this time. A key change in legislation related to marriage during this time was the legality of interracial marriage, which came in 1967 when Richard and Mildred Loving won their case in the Supreme Court.
Activists were also fighting for LGBTQ protections and rights, including legal marriage. The first LGBTQ+ Pride was held in 1970, commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, an event sparked by iconic trans activist Marsha P. Johnson after New York City police violently raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar, and hauled off Black and brown employees and patrons. Unfortunately, queer unions would not be legalized until decades later.
This period was also a time when marriage rates shifted, especially for Black men. By 1960, those who were age 35 and over had a higher percent of never having married (at 10%) when compared with white men, and that percentage remained steady into the 1970s. Black women during this time were more likely to have been married by age 35 than their white counterparts, according to research, until 1970.
Former POTUS Barack Obama and Michelle Obama
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Early 1980s- 2010s: Evolving & Elevating
TV shows like The Jeffersons, Family Matters, Martin, The Cosby Show, Living Single, and Girlfriends, began to reflect advancements in Black love depictions, and films like Love Jones, Boomerang, and The Best Man reinforced the notion that Black love is strong, ever-changing, and here to stay. Queer love depictions were also in the fold, with shows and films like Set It Off,The Color Purple, Blackbird,Moonlight and Pariah offering a glimpse into diverse narratives of love.
In 2003, Black Marriage Day, an annual celebration of the resilience, importance, and beauty of Black American relationships, was founded by Bisa Muhammad and is celebrated each March. And what a celebration indeed, since just five years later, the landmark U.S. presidential election brought in our first Black POTUS and first lady and ushered in an era of the image of Black love in the White House with Barack and Michelle Obama. In 2015, queer unions were finally legalized nationwide by the Supreme Court.
Actress Niecy Nash and wife Jessica Betts
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Today: Celebrating Black Love In All Its Forms
Today, we no longer have to wait for Hollywood to show us the images of Black love that we long to see. Thanks to the internet and social media, we can see Black people luxuriating in the expansiveness that our love has to offer 24/7, all over the world. Whole platforms have been created to showcase and celebrate the evolution of Black love including IG’s Black Love Feed and Blackqueer Love and shows like OWN’s Black Love.
The exploration of gender identities, polyamory and other non-monogamous relationships, as well as the de-centering of sexual relationships and the elevation of platonic relationships, radical self-love and community-building, are also redefining what Black love looks like, taking away the pressures of marriage as the only legitimate or "official" source of love and putting the prerogative in the hands of the people. Black love–in all of its forms–has always been revolutionary. And it's never looked more beautiful.
Featured image by Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images