Black non-monogamy is a pre-colonial practice
There are particular histories and contexts that ensure that only one-dimensional representations of love are uplifted.
Valentine’s Day is tomorrow and as usual it’s got me reflecting on how utterly diabolical consumerist culture is, how it influences and perpetuates our constant need to measure who is most worthy of love, affection and gifts. And why we think it is our business to begin with.
It also has me deeply bitter about the fact that toxic monogamy represents itself as the most applicable, natural, sustainable and mutually beneficial romantic relationship structure when in reality, it is fairly new.
Whether we want to admit it or not, toxic monogamy centers reproduction, possession, transaction, extraction, and control, requesting that its participants lay claim to another body, or at least shift towards being someone’s only as the pinnacle of #relationshipgoals. It’s exhausting.
But more than that, the culture is so successful in its assumption that everyone wants it, that it ends up producing an explicit and expected hierarchy. In this hierarchy partners are prioritized over other non-sexual, intimate relationships. Jealousy and competition are applauded and then reanimated/ repackaged as growth.
Cultural understandings of romance and relationships end up centering men, nuclear families, cisheteronormativity and codependency. The preoccupation with monogamous cisheterosexuality is so central to the way systems function, that in order for me to receive or share health benefits with those I love, we have to either be married (legal or common law), be relatives or lie. Consumerism and toxic monogamy work together to further the idea that single persons are damaged, defective, unworthy and/or unattractive and that anything existing outside of those margins is illegitimate.
Even the deeply “Black” movies depicting Black relationships (Love & Basketball, Waiting to Exhale, Boomerang, Love Jones, Jason’s Lyric) revel in ego, comparison, lies, infidelity and romantic partners being their everything. And though this is what is being represented in mainstream media, Black folks across the globe are challenging the things we’ve been spoon fed and engaging in practices that feel good, regardless of what shape it takes.
I’ve had the luxury of witnessing how “alternative”, expansive relationship configurations and agreements have fulfilled Black folks’ lives, and not just the lives of those engaging in that particular dynamic. I’ve shattered the idea that in my life, intimacy will be relegated to my partners and no one else. I’m clear that Black queer folks have always actualized futures that include our pleasure, play, emotional support, intimacy, asexuality and differing, sometimes converging identities.
And yet, patriarchy, misogynoir and white supremacy bleed over into those lives, regardless of which relationship styles we choose into.
There are particular histories and contexts that ensure that only one-dimensional representations of love are uplifted. But for Black folks, this representation is even more insidious because it opens up more space for those of us whose love shows up differently, to be perceived as aspiring to whiteness or the unhealthy idea that one person can (and should) be our everything.
Non-monogamy, an umbrella term that refers to the practice of having multiple partners or concurrent relationships, is a Black people thing. It is pre-colonial and has existed for as long as humans (and animals) have been on this earth—encompassing different relationship styles including open relationships, swinging, polygamy, polyamory, solo polyamory, swinging, triads and tribes.
Common misconceptions about polyamorous, non-monogamous folks are that they are slutty, selfish and sex crazed. Their forms of relationship building aren’t categorized as meaningful, consistent and/or ethical. And the consensus is that there is something inherently wrong with how they engage because they are “constantly dating multiple people” and thus, their connections can’t possibly be genuine.
I think that a lot of Black folks are attempting to decolonize the ways that white supremacy has encouraged us to relate to one another by utilizing false narratives of scarcity. And, that we re-animate those when we choose into trying to determine who deserves abundance, care, compassion and connection.
Most things aren’t just about sexuality or gender, they are also about power and who gets to wield it.
Outside of polygyny, there’s an agreement in some non-monogamous relationships where a man is allowed to have multiple women partners. Those women are each allowed to have other women partners but are forbidden from having any other male partners. This practice is often referred to as the “one penis policy” (OPP) which sometimes is sometimes referred to as “oppressive penis policy”. While this in itself is cringeworthy, what’s most damaging is that it’s also transphobic as fuck, as it equates genitals with gender and furthers the idea that some women (and intersex folks) don’t have penises.
Though mostly Muslim nations still engage in polygamy, the practice of marrying more than one spouse, common representations of polygamy are actually polygyny (think sister wives). In Niger, men are allowed to have up to four wives, while their wives are not allowed to have sexual or intimate contact with anyone else.
In fiction, even cultural understandings of romance and relationships center men, regardless of whether they are monogamous or not. It subtly paints the picture that while men may not be present, women and non-binary folks’ only possibilities of survival are substituting those relationships and connections with each other. It denies that these connections wouldn’t otherwise actively exist or be sought out of choice, want, queerness and desire instead of “necessity”.
Toxic monogamy culture normalizes relationship configurations that closely align with it. If non-monogamous folks’ statuses are revealed they risk isolation, employment termination, losing custody of their children, and judgment by community members and family. They may also be labeled as unsafe, perverted, and/ or mentally unstable. But folks are actualizing communities on and offline that support the well-being and futures of marginalized genders.
This Black history month, I want to highlight Black polyamorists/ ethical non-monogamists and sex educators who are queering these conversations and centering Black women and non-binary folks rather than continuing the practice of understanding relationships through how they only benefit the male participants:
As well as Black speculative fiction writers who have queer, non-monogamous characters:
The Broken Earth Series by N.K. Jemisin
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
Xenogenesis by Octavia Butler