Marking the 400th anniversary of African enslavement in the Anglo-United States, 2019 has been a year of bitter remembrance. Commemoration events, conferences, congressional hearings, news reports and public awareness initiatives crammed our calendars over the past 12 months with retrospectives on America’s heritage of racial slavery and its damaging legacies among present-day African American communities.
Yet among the many themes addressed and debated about the legacy of slavery, there is one glaring omission: America’s war on black love, a war whose casualties are most apparent in the peculiar privation of love and marriage facing black women today.
The majority of black women in America are single by circumstance, not by choice, and the statistics are jarring. The 2010 U.S. Census revealed, for example, that in 2009, 71 percent of black women in America were unmarried. Of that group, 71 percent of black women between the ages of 25 and 29 and 54 percent between the ages of 30 and 34 had never been married. By comparison, 43 percent of non-Hispanic white women between the ages of 25 and 29 had never married.
The dilemmas surrounding black love in 21st-century America are all too often mischaracterized as personal hardships that individuals must struggle to surmount. But, in fact, over the past 400 years structural forces — racial slavery and terrorism, government welfare programs and mass incarceration — have forged the institutional basis for undermining black marriage.
The fracturing of black love and marriage began during the Middle Passage, when women such as Hagar Blackmore recalled being “stolen away from her husband and the infant that nursed on her breast.” In 1669, Blackmore described the unique predicament of marital dissolution that most African women captives experienced before ever setting foot on American soil.
Once they arrived, our nation’s founding legislative decisions denied black women protections and advantages granted to white women, curtailing their options for marriage. In 1643, for example, the Virginia General Assembly ratified laws that levied taxes on black women’s labor, slave or free. This African women’s labor tax priced many free black women out of the marriage market, for if a free black woman was married, her husband was responsible for paying the tax. It also placed an undue economic burden upon single black women who had to finance the tax without spousal support.
Over the next two centuries, American slavery thrived on strategic disruptions of black love, especially after the United States abolished the foreign slave trade in 1807. The new law had the perverse effect of escalating an already robust domestic slave trade that even further destabilized black romantic relationships across slaveholding states.
As a result of the interstate trade, over 30 percent of enslaved couples experienced dissolution of their first marriages after the Revolutionary War, and between 1808 and the start of the Civil War in 1861 more than 670,000 people were displaced. Thousands more couples were torn asunder by temporary or extended work assignments in disparate locations.
After emancipation, freedmen and women went to great lengths to reunite with their families. They often secured legal recognition of their marriages in compliance with government regulations. But it was not always so easy. Love triangles and plural marriages were among slavery’s unavoidable outcomes, and Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen’s Bureau) agents lacked empathy. “Whenever a Negro appears before me with 2 or 3 wives who have equal claim upon him,” explained one agent, “I marry him to the woman who has the greatest number of helpless children who otherwise would become a charge on the Bureau.”
This process left many black wives neglected and cast aside. But America’s war on black love was not always about privation. It also degraded the quality and assets of black romantic relationships. In regions where tenant farming was prevalent, for instance, white proprietors and Freedmen’s Bureau officials insisted on negotiating tenancy contracts with husbands — in their eyes, legitimate ‘heads of households’ tasked with regulating the labor of their wives and children. With the legal authority to control their wives’ labor contracts, earnings and property, black husbands exercised a new form of gender sovereignty while black wives experienced a new type of gender subjugation.
During the earliest decades of freedom from bondage, Southern black women, confronting the patriarchal intersection of agricultural labor contracts and marital contracts, recognized immediately how personal liberties they expected to enjoy as freedwomen were slipping away from them under legal parameters they had never known in slavery.
Adding to this injury, marriage rights and privileges did little to protect black widows of Civil War veterans against federal, state and municipal powers that frequently denied them spousal pension benefits. And this pattern of denial persisted throughout and beyond the civil rights movement.
Black couples did not fare much better under government regulations in the latter 20th century. Personal testimonies from black women and children whose lives were touched by federal and state welfare programs, especially during the 1960s, indicate that black love and marriage were adversely affected by callous “man-in-the-house,” “suitable home” and “substitute father” policies that played into racist tropes emphasizing black women’s presumed propensity toward promiscuity, deceitfulness and inept mothering. Most egregious is the image of the “welfare queen,” a trope that gained currency during Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign and continued to surface within policy debates during subsequent campaigns and administrations.
Operating alongside the welfare state, since the 1980s, the carceral state has implemented America’s most effective strategy for containing post-slavery black communities and black love. The prison industrial complex, with its craving for black male inmates, became a principal mechanism of subjugation, impeding black love and marriage with unmatched methodical precision. By 2014, incarcerated black men outnumbered incarcerated black women by nearly 490,000.
But we need not look further than the most celebrated symbols of black love in America today to identify the structural source of venomous attacks on black women and black relationships. Despite wide public admiration for Barack and Michelle Obama’s powerful romantic bond and enviable marriage, Michelle still couldn’t escape Fox News’ pathetic attempt to reduce her to “Obama’s baby mama” or Pamela Ramsey Taylor’s longing for a “classy, beautiful, dignified first lady” in the likes of Melania Trump rather than the “Ape in heels” she was “tired of seeing.”
The pervasive image of the welfare queen and other “misogynoir” tropes in the white American imagination empowered these invective caricatures of a black first lady who had checked all the ‘respectability’ boxes along her path to marriage and motherhood. Whether of common or uncommon stature, black women can’t seem to catch a break. And the consequences are very real: Many black women who desire a long life of coupledom with children will miss out on bearing offspring with their spouses as well as the economic benefit of nearly doubling the wealth potential with two incomes if, as statistics indicate, they are forced to delay marriage until their early 50s.
During these final days in a charged year of 1619 commemorations, it is high time we tackle America’s intractable legacy of forbidden black love, not by reminding black women of the personal strategies they must deploy to remain competitive in a depleted marriage market, but by confronting the structural nature of this festering problem through the prism of black love, marriage and family formation.

Dianne M. Stewart is an associate professor of religion and African American studies at Emory University and the author of the forthcoming book, "Black Women, Black Love: America’s War on African American Marriage" (Seal Press, 2020).Follow