A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a music critic. In fact, I spent 18 years reviewing and interviewing everybody from Gladys Knight and Dolly Parton to Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder. I left the beat (no pun intended) almost 10 years ago, driven by the realization that music had become defined by attitudinal young men cursing into the microphone and exceedingly fit young women whose only recognizable "talent" resided inside their bra cups.
My radio is usually tuned to the news station these days, so it was pure happenstance that I came across a singer named Kelly Price last week. She was singing something called "He Proposed," and it stopped me, for reasons that were not at all musical.
I mean, if I were to bring to bear the standards of my prior profession, I'd say Price has a nice, though not terribly distinctive, voice and a slight tendency to over sing. She's not somebody I'd ordinarily rush out to buy.
The fact that I did rush out to buy it had less to do with the singer than the song. In it, Price weaves a rapturous tale of how her man took her to "a special place," and told her to close her eyes. "When I opened them up," she sings, "he was on one knee reaching for my hand. That's when he proposed to me."
What struck me then and strikes me now is what a fantasy that image has become. Particularly in the black community. Black people are, to put it plainly, not marrying like they used to. That's probably due in part to the same changes in social and sexual mores that have swept the nation as a whole over the last 40 years. Probably also due to the tragically high rates of incarceration that have shrunk the pool of marriageable black men.
Whatever the cause, the effect is clear in Census Bureau figures tracking the decline of black marriage. Indeed, according to a report issued just last month, blacks are significantly less likely than their white non-Hispanic counterparts to be currently married (57 percent versus 35 percent) and are similarly less likely (43 percent to 25 percent) to have ever been married. Forty-three percent of black families are headed by single women, 48 percent by married couples. By comparison, 13 percent of white families are headed by women, 82 percent by married couples.
And at this juncture, I know someone out there is screaming for me to acknowledge that the lack of a marriage license does not always equal the lack of familial stability and that one can be whole without being hitched. Consider these things acknowledged.
But the point here is that blacks' reluctance to embrace marriage is symptomatic of a larger dislocation in the black family. That dislocation is seen in the aforementioned crisis of incarceration -- one in three young black men in prison, on parole or on probation. Seen in the almost 60 percent of black single mothers left to subsist on under $25,000 a year. Seen in the fact that the majority of black children are born out of wedlock and raised separately from their fathers. Seen in the pain of high-income black professional women who cannot find black men of similar achievement with whom to share their lives.
And it is seen, too, in an Essence magazine cover that once wounded me and now haunts me. "Manless," it said. Manless.
It would be foolish to suggest that everything that ails black folk can be found at the marriage altar. But it would be equally foolish, I think, to underestimate the family and community stability that might be created, the financial burdens that might be eased, the children who might be saved, if more of us were willing to take a shot on forever.
Until we find that willingness, it will be difficult to listen to "He Proposed" without hearing something unintentionally wistful in its words. The picture the songwriter paints seems less a reality than a mirage.
And also, a painful reminder. The woman in the song is getting married, after all. Many black women never will.