Rethinking and retooling the “wife school” people always expect Black women to attend
Equal partnerships are absolutely possible for and accessible to Black women.
by Josie Pickens
Recently, singer Ciara caused some controversy when she retweeted a sermon from Pastor John Gray of Houston’s Lakewood Church, in which Gray warns single women that they need to learn to walk in the “spirit of a wife” instead of the “spirit of a girlfriend” in order to be chosen as a wife.
Gray goes on to say to single women in his congregation and beyond, “You’re not a wife when I marry you. You’re a wife when I find you.“ So, according to Gray and the many people who think like him, single women are at fault for their lack of partnering or marriage options because they are not demonstrating the characteristics of a wife. Whatever that means.
Ciara is very recently married and has a dating history that suggests that she herself has spent most of her dating life not walking in the “spirit of a wife” (her dating resume includes Future, Bow Wow, 50 Cent), whatever that means. She shared Gray’s sermon to her followers with the caption #levelup.
CiCi. Girl. No, no, no.
In the past, I have published a few #TeamCiara (or rather #teamleaveblackwomenthehellalone) pieces, defending the entertainer when she was criticized for dating as a single mom, and even when people attempted to shame her for her wardrobe choices. Honestly, I have always hoped that Ciara would serve as an inspiration to the single Black women who aspire towards marriage—and we need to remember that not all Black women want to be married, and I can’t believe I have to remind people of this in the year of our lord 2018. Ciara has made plenty of “questionable” choices in love and relationships throughout her life, as many of us have, but ultimately landed in a seemingly happy marriage with a man who appears to not only love her deeply, but also her son from a previous failed relationship.
In a world where Black women’s worthiness is constantly questioned, and Black single mothers are often considered the most unworthy of all, it was meaningful and inspiring to watch Ciara, find the joy, love, and care she deserves in a relationship as a Black single mother. And I am disappointed that she, barely a wife herself, now has the gall to pour salt in the wounds of single Black women who used their breath to defend her, many of whom desire the kind of marriage that she has, but have yet to experience it.
There is plenty to question about John Gray’s sermon and Ciara’s sharing of and commenting on it. As Brooke Obie points out in her piece at The Root: “There is no such thing as having the ‘spirit of a girlfriend,’ or carrying yourself ‘like a wife.’” These concepts, projected onto Black women, are no more than tools of Black patriarchy and misogynoir. She continues, ‘It’s just another iteration of the sexist dichotomy and hierarchy of women, the same tired Madonna-whore complex: the good kind of woman vs. the bad kind.”
As Candice Benbow asserts at Essence.com:
“Relationship theology is only for Black women. Books, conferences, social media memes and everything in between are all geared towards making women believe their singleness is a consequence. It preys on heterosexual Black Christian women’s desire to be coupled and does nothing to undo the false narrative that their singleness is their fault.”
There is always, too, the question of why we don’t require this kind of marriage training for future husbands, or why we don’t shame men as a whole for their relationship choices. Of course, we know the answers. The shaming of single. Black women is always rooted in patriarchy, Christianity simply attempts to mask it as care and concern.
In this conversation, which is always heteropatriarchal and always cisnormative, one of my chief concerns is what we should be teaching Black women about marriage.
If Black women are expected to attend some type of “wife school,” formal or informal, which is supposed to prepare them to marry, then the lessons should teach the truth about marriage—that women are often unhappy when they marry and that that unhappiness often comes because women do not negotiate equal partnerships that are rooted in balance, reciprocity and an absence of antiquated gender roles.
Dr. Lisa Wade makes it plain:
“Heterosexual marriage is an unequal institution. Women on average do more of the unpaid and undervalued work of households, they work more each day, and they are more aware of this inequality than their husbands. They are more likely to sacrifice their individual leisure and career goals for marriage.”
I have been married twice and am headed towards marriage a third time. I often tell people that I did not become a womanist (or seek professional counseling really) until after I got married and had a child. I was completely unprepared and overwhelmed by how much my life was expected to change as a wife and a mother, especially compared to just how little my husband’s life was expected to change. And it pissed me off.
When my girlfriends get down in the dumps about wanting to marry, but are unable to find a person willing to commit in such a way, I offer them a tour of my rings—wedding bands and engagement rings. I want them to understand that marriage is nothing like what we are taught it is, and I remind them of what marrying the wrong person can cost them.
I argue, again and again, that traditional heteropatriarchal marriages and families that do not address the emotional and physical labor disparities between wife and husband always benefit men significantly more than women, because while women are socialized to pour into marriages, men are socialized to withdraw from the relationship after the rings have been exchanged.
Equal partnerships are absolutely possible for and accessible to Black women—straight women and queer women alike. We must demand them, be with partners willing to work towards them, and accept nothing less. If we negotiate and require it, the partners that we love and hope to build lives with can help us avoid the second shift that all too often stunts our ability to live happy, healthy, productive lives.
We can create lives for ourselves where running households and caring for children is no longer considered women’s work, while men have to be practically coerced into providing basic care for themselves and/or their children in their own home.
I’m completely down for a wife school that teaches women to seek out partners who walk in the “spirit of a husband” and who exhibit characteristics that will make their future wives feel like fully supported and appreciated partners instead of indentured servants.
If this is what wife school looks like, great. But in the meantime, and all the time, Pastor John Gray and Ciara and everyone else need to stop publicly shaming single Black women and keep their misogynoir to themselves.
Josie Pickens is a professor, cultural critic, writer and griot. Follow her on Twitter at @jonubian.