Some time ago, I stated that I'd offer an explanation for why me and Kenyatta aren't married. A few weeks ago, when the Prop 8 stuff hit, my Pops called to laugh at me. He was laughing at the irony that I, a dude who would not marry, could be so adamant about gay marriage. As I'll explain in a second, I don't see much of a contradiction. Then this morning, I happened to be hanging out over at Postbougie and saw this Cynthia Tucker piece arguing that Barack and Michelle will somehow improve the marriage rates in the black community. You guys know what I think of these Barack the Magic Negro arguments. Still, the constant harping on the marriage rates in the black community, and the brandishing of that shockingly dubious 70 percent stat (70 percent of black babies born out of wedlock) always gets me going. So you're in luck fellow travelers. Today's the day you get to read what makes Kenyatta and Ta-Nehisi tick.
I met Kenyatta twelve years ago on the yard of Howard University. I was walking with another girl (not my girl!) and she was standing out there in jeans, her hair wrapped in African fabric. Over the next couple years we got to know each other pretty well, but seriously, at that moment, right there, I was undone. We were good friends for like two years after that, and then we started dating. She was, in a word, perfect. Where would you find a black woman loved the Gza as much as Fitzgerald? Who could move from Paula Giddings's latest to Seinfeld jokes?
Anyway, I think we must have been together for about a year when she got pregnant. It helps here to know a little bit about me. I came up in a time of chronic absentee fatherism. I also come from a family of seven, by four women and one father. As I say in my memoir, I've got brothers born to best friends, brothers born in the same year. Still, in my house, and in the minds of all my dad's children, fatherhood was a sainted calling. Particularly in my mind, it marked the barrier between boy and man. That isn't fair, but I'm only speaking to my state of mind. In the late '80s, the community was going to seed, and I think a lot of us felt like black men had abandoned their posts, had just threw up their hands and said "Fuck it. Crack. AIDS. Saturday Night Specials. Kids dying over Jordans. Whatever. We're out."
Again, that isn't fair--it's a statement about my own emotional reality, not my intellectual one. This is how it felt, for me, coming out of that era. I saw Kenyatta's pregnancy in the most romantic possible light, the way people who are military legacies see war. Here I was, a young man, and all my friends were getting high, chasing girls, and getting drunk, but I could make my life about something. I could go out there and turn a black child into a productive member of the community. It was my time to go to war. I was out of my fucking mind, no doubt. But damn, was I excited. Let us not get too angelic here. Me and Kenyatta huddled over the course of a week about what to do. Samori was not planned, and for whatever reason, I don't see any disgrace in that. Anyway, in the end, we decided to go for ours.
As soon as we started telling people, the first question we got was, "Are you getting married?" Now, if you talk to Kenyatta, she has been a feminist since the day she learned to read, and she never put much of a premium on marriage. Still, up until then, neither of us were opposed to the idea. We just didn't think we needed it. But the constant questioning put us in a place where we were able to ask why. Why did people think we should get married? What did that have to do with pregnancy? We both knew we were committed to the life of the child. But we did we think about each other? Truthfully, I don't think we thought much past the child. We'd been friends for two years before we started dating. I knew Kenyatta would be a great mother. I knew we wanted the same things for our kid. What else was there?
Well, a lot, actually. The marriage convo brought out quite a bit. As much as I can recall, there were basically three reasons for us to get married. 1.) I might leave. Marriage would force me to do the right thing. 2.) To declare our commitment to each other before a community of people whom we loved. 3.) The business reasons--the legalities of your estate and guardianship. I found--and still find--the first two reasons were utterly unconvincing. The third held some sway, but with the help of a lawyer we've managed to take care of that. The first turned marriage into a kind of insurance policy, and I just believed that if you felt you needed insurance for the person you were having kids by to stick out, you needed to reconsider the whole proposition. The commitment and community reason held some appeal. But I believed, and still believe, that long-term romantic partnerships are between the two people entering into it.
I hated the idea of public declarations, because the life blood of the relationship--what bills to pay, how to raise your child, your love life--all of that happened when no one else was around. Kenyatta knows more about me than any human being walking the earth--and this is as it should be. No one knows more about my strengths and my weaknesses, my failings and my successes. I trust her to the end. But that trust was worked for--it was not declared or conjured by the presence of other people. From the moment I met her, Kenyatta believed I could be a successful writer. For years after we hooked up, she was the breadwinner. When I got laid off from TIME, she said "Just keep writing," not "Negro, you gots to get a job." I was humbled by that, and humbled even more that she had more faith than me, and that--thus far--she was right.
That gets at the essential truth for me--a relationship couldn't be about talking to other people. It couldn't be about telling other people what I was gonna do; it had to be about the actual work. From that perspective, a wedding was abominable to me. It was the antithesis of everything I wanted--a vain spectacle of love, when love is to be demonstrated, it is to be done, it is to be worked like a job. Was it Andrew who said religion is what you do when no one is looking? That was what we wanted out of our relationship. To always be about our business when no one was looking, and then when people were looking they would see the truth.
This really has nothing to do with me being black. It's the belief I've come to after years of conversations with Kenyatta. We revisit this every couple of years and always come away with the same conclusion--if our lives are the thing, if we live what we rep for, what is the point of symbolism? Still, I get annoyed when I see people blaming the fate of black kids on the absence of marriage. The whole "marriage as a solution" thing strikes me as correlation subbed for causation. To create more fathers, who do their job because of a state-enforced contract, seems not to probe deep enough. Isn't there a deeper question about fatherhood itself? About what makes a man literally walk away from his last testament to the world? Do we really want to create fathers in contract only?
All of that said, I'm completely on board with gay marriage, mostly because of the exact reasons I've laid out against marriage. Relationships are private, and I don't like the idea of the state telling two people what they can call their relationship and how they can live their lives. Me and Kenyatta chose not to marry. We had the right and chose against it. I think the choice part is most important. Everyone deserves that.