[AAS21 Podcast] Episode #7: What Was African American Marriage?

Thursday, Jun 8, 2017


Podcast Transcript:



Eddie: Hi, I'm Eddie Glaude and I'm the chair of the Department of African American Studies here at Princeton University and welcome to the African American Studies Podcast. I'm delighted to have with me today, Professor Tera Hunter. She's a scholar of U.S. History with specializations in African Americans, Gender, Labor in the South. Her first book, Tour de Force, To Joy My Freedom, Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors After the Civil War is an extraordinary exploration of the lives of newly emancipated Black women who made their way to Atlanta and through their labor, however constrained, contributed mightily to the African American struggle for freedom and justice in this country. That book received several prizes including the H.L. Mitchell Award from the Southern Historical Association, The Leticia Brown Memorial book prize from the Association of Black Women's Historians and the Book of the Year Award from the International Labor History Association but today, we are excited about her latest book, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century, the first comprehensive history of African American marriage in 19th century America. Welcome, Professor Hunter.

Tera: Thank you, Professor Glaude.

Eddie: So, talk to me a bit about how you came to write on this subject. I mean, this is- this is huge. It's an amazing book. So, talk to me about how you came.

Tera: Well, it was actually when I was doing research on my first book. Um, I was very interested in the reconstruction period and I noticed that there were a number of archival records form the Freedmen's Bureau that were quite evocative about the intimate relationships of African Americans and at that time, I didn't feel like the literature had fully captured the sentiments that I was reading about and in my own book, I wasn't able to really fully explore those issues. I mean, I did address them to some degree and so, I started in the reconstruction period (2:00) wanting to really understand those records and realized that I had to really look at the entire 19th century to really reckon with what has happening after slavery ended. So, I needed to go backwards into slavery to understand what was happening in the reconstruction period and then also go forward, um, towards the end of the 19th century. So, part of it was the desire to really capture that intimacy, um, but also, I was interested in some of the current debates about Black marriage in the 20th century and the- the early 21st century.

Eddie: Mm.

Tera: The late 20th century and the early 21st century in terms of liberal and conservative commentators making arguments or making assumptions about how present-day Black marriage is basically a product of slavery and so, I was quite interested in, um, sort of looking at some of those assumptions and really, um, really challenging those assumptions which often are not- not based on historical research.

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: And wanting to go back and look at slavery and look at the ways in which, what happened under slavery was completely separate for- from the things that are happening in the 21st century.

Eddie: So, talk to me a little bit about the- the archive. I mean, I mean, it's huge. You move from the law, uh, I mean, obviously, you're working in slave narratives, uh, you know; we get these extraordinary accounts of-of marriages, uh, under the conditions of slavery marriages after slavery. Um, you use the WPA narratives, of course, but they're-- the law records you're in, um, uh, uh, the census records, the- and- one of the- one of the more, for- at least for me, interesting moments is your use of the civil war pension files. Talk a little bit about how you managed such a vast archive over the course of a hundred years.

Tera: Right, so--

Eddie: 19th century.

Tera: Exactly. So, this was my biggest challenge, actually, and it's very different from my first book where I was dealing with the scarcity of sources.

Eddie: Yes. (4:00) 

Tera: And with this book, it's just the opposite. There's an abundance of sources and those sources grew overtime especially with sources being digitized and then made available online. So, the longer I worked on this project, the more challenging it became. So, it's both a blessing and a curse--

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: In that, I had so many sources to work with. I mean, you mentioned the slave narratives. Virtually, all of the narratives have been published, they’re online, they're easily accessible. Then, we have the WPA interviews from the 1930s, those are, you know, many, many volumes long interviews with ex-slaves. We have many legal cases in the antebellum period and the postbellum period at the end of the- the 19th century and, um, you mentioned the pension files. Those--

Eddie: Yeah.

Tera: --are among the richest, but also the most complicated, first in accessing them in the national archives. There's a whole ritual that you have to go through because they're very popular sources and genealogists find them very interesting.

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: So you’re kind of limited when you go in the archives to how many you can-- to- you can look at at a time but the records themselves are so rich. They're worth every bit of time and energy that you put into them. So, one of the- the things that's really nice about these, these are basically the- the pension files of civil war widows, widows of soldiers.

Eddie: Right.

Tera: And they received benefits basically for, um, having been married to, um, soldiers and for African Americans, um, Congress basically allowed them to document their marriages by bringing in people to testify about their relationships. Um, and so, as a result of that, you get, um, people that knew these widows during the period of slavery coming in and basically telling the story of their marriages to these soldiers. And so, as a result of that, we get a very rich repository of records about their marriages under slavery.

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: But what's also interesting is that once they receive the pensions, in order to maintain the pensions, they also had to remain unmarried.


Eddie: Right.

Tera: And so, if they- they were not allowed to cohabit with men, they were not allowed to remarry. Some of them did anyway and often, as a result of investigators poking around, um, friends and enemies being willing to talk, that generated, yet, more documentation. And so, as a result, what's great about the pension files is you could have- you can have a history of these women's lives over with that- what it's-- that basically would span, um, from the slavery period in the late 19th century--

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: --into the early 20th century and you can see the ways in which they're trying to negotiate their relationships even once the war's over, once the civil war's over.

Eddie: But I can just imagine how difficult, um, sifting through all of that information. I mean, the stories are amazing. So, you defined marriage, uh, in- in- in- in Bound in Wedlock as, uh, to- to encompass committed, conjugal relationships whether legal or not, monogamous, bigamous, polygamous or serial and- and- and it's a rather broad definition that when you read the book, you kind of see why but talk a little bit about how you came to that understanding of marriage.

Tera: Mhmm.

Eddie: Uh, as you were talking about them- wri- writing about the 19th century.

Tera: Well, trying to actually define it succinctly was very difficult because I felt like that's what the book is about, that's, you know, one of the core things the book was trying to wrestle with is what was a marriage under slavery? What was it, you know, after slavery ended? And so, it took a while for me, actually, to be able to come up with that seemingly neat definition.

Eddie: Right.

Tera: But it's also very broad, as you said, but I think at the core, what I was trying to do is to figure out what did marriage mean to African Americans, how did they define it and- and as a result of that, we have a very capacious definition of what it- what it meant because it- it doesn’t fit the standard norm of the way in which marriage is usually defined, um, because of the ways in which (8:00) they were not allowed to basically have all the privileges of heterosexual marriage and so, as a result of that, we get marriage having these various tentacles, um, being defined in these various ways.

Eddie: Hm. So, you- there- there- there's a sense- there's this wonderful line, um, where you write, um, "It's not a marriage respected by law but a kind of marriage in the heart." Because the material conditions under which, uh, these committed relationships came to be, um, are- or- or- or challenging, at least, you know, to put it mildly, right? So, even in the context of slavery and in the context of the war, in the context of reconstruction and even the latter part of the 19th century, uh, you-- marriage is-- you- you write about marriage in a way where it- it-- you force the reader to keep track of the material conditions under which these committed relationships take shape, um, or form. And- and- and slavery plays an important part of the story although you- you don't wanna make a causal claim that- that- the state of marriage in 2017 in Black America somehow indebted to, uh, what happened in slavery but there's something about the conditions under which those committed relationships took shape in slavery, that kind of redounds across, um--

Tera: Mhmm.

Eddie: Across, uh, the period. So, tell me some-- tell- tell- tell the rea- the listeners about what's distinctive about these committed relationships under the conditions of slavery?

Tera: Well, I like the fact that you first started with affect in the heart.

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: Because that's where I began, that's where I began to think about these relationships because so often, we don't see that affect. We don't see, we don't-- we don't hear African Americans speaking in their own words about their love and their affection for one another and some of those early documents (10:00)  that I read were-- I was actually really struck too about men and the way men saw these relationships. So, we often talk about, you know, women's affect but really, we- we talk about men's affect.

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: So, that's one thing I really wanted to capture was how do husbands and wives see each other? How do they feel about each other?

Eddie: You even begin with your great-great-paternal parents, right? I mean--

Tera: Mhmm.

Eddie: --your paternal great-great-parent, Ellen Morrison and Moses Hunter.

Tera: Right.

Eddie: Right, as a way of kind of bringing this home.

Tera: Right.

Eddie: It's not just simply an abstract question.

Tera: Right.

Eddie: So, this-- yeah, okay.

Tera: Yeah, so that my great-great-grandparents' marriage, um, obviously, I did not know them but they served as inspiration, um, having their marriage certificate, you know, on my bulletin board and also having more and more access to my family history through our family historian who's not me, actually, it's my- my dad's cousin, Bruce Hunter. I have to always give him credit.

Eddie: All these historians.

Tera: Retired engineer. Um, but getting more information about those earlier ancestors and understanding how much they are evocative, um, the kind of struggles that they faced are really evocative of this larger story that I was trying to tell was very, very much inspirational.

Eddie: Mhmm. So, I was really struck by the discussion or the story around Dred Scott and Harriet Robinson. Um, we typically think about Dred Scott with that horrible moment, right? But we don’t know that there's this love, this- the complex intimacies, to use your phrase, that's at the heart of the case. Talk a little bit about that.

Tera: Mhmm. Yeah. So, we tend to think about the case in terms of the denial of citizenship rights. Obviously, that is really the most important thing about the case. It's one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in U.S. History.

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: But at the heart of that case was, again, a (12:00) story of love; a family love, a marital love. Harriet and Dred were actually married in the free territory and it's one of the ways in which they were claiming their freedom because Harriet's master, who was actually a justice of the peace,  um, married them in this free territory and if you read what he wrote about these two people in his diary, um, it's suggests that when he married them, he actually expected them to be free as a result of that marriage and so, the defense used that argument before the courts that one reason why they could claim their freedom is because Harriet's master had essentially freed them by marriage, in part, because it's hard for people at this time to really conceptualize marriage and slavery co-existing. So, the dissenting justice in the case, Benjamin Curtis, took up this argument in his descent and said, essentially, that Harriet and Dred were free in part because of the fact that they had been married in a free territory. 

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: They had also lived as a free married couple, um, they were listed in the census. Dred was listed as a head of household. You cannot be a head of household as a-- an enslaved person.

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: So the fact that they were living their lives independently as free people and as a married couple, was an important part of the dissenting argument which obviously didn’t have-- when the day.

Eddie: Right.

Tera: But I think it's really important that we remember that and so, what that tells us is that family and marriage were often at the heart of many of the stories, um, about the struggles over rights, over citizenships rights--

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: Over just basic human rights.

Eddie: Yes, and I get this sense when- when I- when I read the book that marriage is, um, (14:00) it's important to talk about the institution of marriage and the ways in which, um, uh, uh, enslaved people and- and those who, uh, are freed and those who, uh, are bearers of the legacy of those who come out of those conditions, how they’ve constitute intimate relationships- committed relationships. There’s that, but marriage also becomes this kind of point of entry, uh, to talk about their status within the country, to talk about a contract, to talk about a range of the violence of the intuition of slavery, uh, the complications, the complexities of the material conditions under which they tried to forge a life, you know, in some ways. Um, and how domesticity, right, becomes a pathway in interesting sorts of ways to, uh, to a certain understanding of freedom, right?

Tera: Mhmm.

Eddie: The-- well-- so, marriage carries a burden in the text that isn't just simply about looking at these relationships, right? It's- it's actually pointing us to a broad canvas so, combine that with the archive, oh my goodness, you get a sense of the scope of the book--

Tera: Mhmm.

Eddie: In some ways. So, again, I wanna go back to a question that we- that we talked about a bit, uh, but we didn’t kind of stick with it and that is the kind of peculiar challenges of what it meant to have a committed relationship in the context of slavery in this-- within this relation of domination, um, from, you know, kind of paternal connections cut off to, uh, you know, descending and ascending generations caught up within the institutions. So, talk to me a bit about what it meant for men and women to try to be in a committed conjugal relationship under such conditions.

Tera: Well, I think the most difficult part was the caprice that slaves could never predict, you know, what would happen next with their relationships, um, to what extent would masters respect those relationships? To what extent would they not? Um, you know, at what point might they (16:00) be separated?

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: And they were often separated in their prime years, which was often early in their marriages because they're also prime, um, workers at that point and primary producers.

Eddie: Right.

Tera: So, that was the biggest challenge, the- the threat of separation but also the threat of violation, of sexual violation of women especially, that was a constant threat, that third flesh.

Eddie: Right.

Tera: Intervention of the third flesh, um, which I called how the master basically intervenes into a relationship. So, under Christian norms and thinking, we think about two flesh combining into one and so, I talk about the introduction of the third flesh, how the master basically intervenes--

Eddie: This is brilliant.

Tera: --in the relationships of slaves. So, that's another violation that slaves were up against.

Eddie: In the second middle passage, it comes-- it's such an important moment in- in the text. Talk a little bit about the second middle passage and its impact on these committed relationships.

Tera: Right. So, the second middle passage is an important turning point in slavery in general. Um, we have the shift from the eastern seaboard states towards the southwest as a result of cotton plantations being built and becoming dominant in the- the southern economy and therefore, the American economy and as a result of that shift, slaves are being separated, um, from their families. They're being torn apart, they're being sent to the plantations in Mississippi, in Louisiana in the early decades of the 19th century. And so, that becomes a really important moment for African Americans to once again be put in the position of having to face separations but also then face ways of reconstituting and rebuilding their relationships. They've already undergone that process earlier in their history, you know, going back to the first middle passage, um, when Africans were brought over to, um, (18:00) what became the United States and they had to reconstitute their families under- under the conditions of slavery in that context.

Eddie: This is one of the first instances when you-- in- in the book when you- when you- uh, introduced those moments where, um, someone may have married someone else, um, that relationship was the caprice disrupt- disrupted, someone's sold, um, then they find themselves in a different context and having to remarry again if they fall in love or for what-- or being forced, um, in some ways to reproduce and then, what that means for the very idea of marriage, right, under these-- under these conditions, right? Um, and this takes on a different kind of resonance, post-emancipation, right? Where folks bump into former wives that they haven't really divorced and what that means legally, right? But- but the interesting thing about slavery is that none of this is legally binding, right?

Tera: Mhmm.

Eddie: Um, so, so, I mean, it's just part of the complexity of marriage under this-- under these conditions that you're trying to get at.

Tera: Yeah.

Eddie: One of the things that- that- that I- I- I wanted to talk with you about and wanna get your thinking about is the nature of, you know, public and private distinctions, um, that are often marked by the notion of marriage. You- you- you quote Nancy Cot really quickly in the text. You said that marriage designs the architecture of the private life, right? But- but, um, it also assumes the characteristics, as you write, of a public institution regulated by local communities in the State but one of the things that we see in your account is that the notion of the private, right, in the context of slavery and even in the context of post-domest-- that the notion of the private for these Black folks is always under- under constraint, always limited. Say, talk a little bit about that.

Tera: Right. So, that's another big challenge because these relationships (20:00) are never left to their own devices.

Eddie: Right.

Tera: They're always under scrutiny, they're always under, um, surveillance.

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: Um, to some degree. So, that's one of the struggles that African Americans are faced with during slavery but then after slavery ends, it's one of the things that they’re really fighting for is to be able to cordon off their family space and keep it separate from their workspace to the degree that that's possible or- or at least to- to have it separate from the, um, the direction and the command of the landowners.

Eddie: Mhmm.

Tera: Post-slavery. Um, so there's- there's always that tension for African Americans and to go back to the question of- of the public nature of marriage. I mean, you mentioned earlier the importance of marriage in terms of citizenship.

Eddie: Right.

Tera: And in terms of what it means to- to have a contract and so, we've always associated marriage with certain ideas about what it means to belong to the nation, right? So, marriage is deeply connected to being considered basically a sovereign person.

Eddie: Hmm.

Tera: Um, having the ability to form a relationship with another sovereign person and so, that's one way in which African Americans were always sort of fighting for marriage and at the same time, fighting for freedom at the same time.

Eddie: So, this makes-- again, this met-- to- to talk about marriage in the 19th century is not just simply talking about, right, these intimate relationships, how many-- how complex they are, you used these wonderful phrases like complex intimacies, gradations of intimacies, the denigration of intimacy and love. Um, but it's- it's- and-- but it's really pointing to something not necessarily broader or- or bigger but it's-- it's a point of entry to thinking about how we find our feet in this place.

Tera: Right.

Eddie: Right.

Tera: Mhmm.

Eddie: How the very notion of belonging or attached-- national attachment is evidenced (22:00) here. 

Tera: Mhmm.

Eddie: Um, so there's- there's this sense of what happens with the civil war. So, we have slavery and then we have the civil war, you have these, um, con-- these contraband making, uh, making their way into northern union army camps and- and how, uh—how they're dealt with and how many of them decide -- you use this wonderful phrase, ‘marriage under the flag.’ Talk a little about, 'cause there are these different moments right there; slavery. There's the war. There's, there's reconstruction, then you know, there's post-reconstruction. There's the Nadir. What happens to black marriage in, in the context of the war?

Tera: So we have another important turning point in the history of marriage and the history African-Americans more generally. What the civil war does is, it opens up this possibility. This new possibility for African-Americans to basically reformulate their relationships as they're running away, as they're seeking freedom. As they're also asserting themselves in the war and trying to turn the war into a war for their own liberation. And in the process of doing that, they make themselves available. They make themselves in known to the union. So they start to run away to help the union, to aid the union side of the, the civil war. And as a result of that, then the federal government creates these contraband camps. And so that becomes an important venue for them to start to reformulate their relationships. The federal government gets involved for the very first time in marriage policy by encouraging and um, sometimes even coercing, um, African-Americans to remarry under basically federal authorities. You have Christian missionaries working in concert with (24:00) army officials and other agents of the federal government encouraging African-Americans to basically use the opportunity under federal authority to remarry if they've already been married under slavery times or marry for the first time. And so that's one entry point into marriage rights for African-Americans.

Eddie: But you also say, you're also saying unless I mis- misread that there's a sense of deep suspicion by, on the part of some because it's, there's, it seems like there's an underlying motivation that has everything to do to create more efficient um, -- how can one could say -- um, uh, uh, efficient entree into to, into paid labor, right? In some ways, right? In terms of how, how marriage will enable them to work better --

Tera: Exactly.

Eddie: -- or more efficient.

Tera: Right. And so, marriage means many things and people are enthusiastically embracing it but then there are, there are also some who um, want to maintain their relationships as they are. To maintain that flexibility and not have the law involved in their relationship.

Eddie: Right.

Tera: So, so that's also going on. You also have the federal government involved in these free labor experiments on confiscated plantations and marriage then becomes a, a policy. And marriage is seen as instrumental on the part of federal government. It's a way of basically creating a stable workforce, of creating a kind of monogamous sex ethic, of basically training these fugitive slaves how to become American citizens. And so the federal government sees it as a way to usher in these future citizens into the body politic. And also cultivate a new labor force under the conditions of freedom.

Eddie: Now, in the context to slavery, we know that certain gender norms are kind of evident, right, in the very ways, various ways in which um, black men (26:00) and black women are figured within that relation of domination. Women's wombs are sights of capital accumulation; the reproductive labor, right? Um, enables, “white masters” to make money off with their ability to produce children. Um, and they're working like men in, in, in or it has, has been, right? It's always -- to use Hortense Spillers' language they're degendered in, in certain ways. Um, and then in the context of uh, this marriage, in the context of the war, the civil war, do we see kind of an attempt to reassert gender norms, right? Through a discourse of respectability? What cost kind of allowing men to, to lord over their households? You talked about coverture in this, in this context and even uh, it gets even more complex in the, in, in the area of reconstruction. Talk a little bit about how patriarchal norms are repro -- are, are being instituted? Gender norms are being um, solidified and constituted in the midst of this effort to produce citizens among these folks. Am I getting it right or am I confused?

Tera: Yes. Yes. I mean I think there is something that's going on from the top down in terms of, of basically outside interests trying to recreate these family relationships you know, under the context of, of freedom. And that process begins during the civil war. So there's a, there's a very strong effort on the part of Christian missionaries, again, um, federal agents to inculcate um, dominant norms about gender. So one of the things about gender that becomes evident during the civil war is how men become citizens by virtue of serving as soldiers. By virtue of working as civilian um, workers on behalf of the union army. Whereas, women enter into citizenship as wives.

Eddie: Right.

Tera: So that becomes a really profound difference in um, (28:00) the way gender is getting reconfigured in the context of the civil war for African-Americans.

Eddie: Yeah and then and there's this one wonderful line -- I keep saying wonderful -- that the book is so amazing, Tera, in so many different levels. Um, you said, um, you write on, on page 298, "Slave society had benefited from not allowing slaves to marry and free society would now punish the reverse despite the impossibilities of undoing the entanglements it formally commanded. So we have intimate relationships, committed relationships constituted on the relation of domination that is slavery. Marked by precarity and, and, and caprice, right? Not knowing what could happen and in some ways overdetermined by the economic mandate of the relation of slavery, right? And then we have the civil war; the civil war turns out to be this fight over, over, over slavery uh, African-Americans enter into -- they see a pathway to freedom. Domesticity becomes this space in which this happens and, and then there's a sense not only uh, that they can assert a sense of sovereignty over themselves but the black men with the aid of the state assert sovereignty over, over black women. And then there's the way in which the state then polices, right, um, black intimacy, right? By using um, laws on the books to punish right, black intimate relationships, right? For not in some, some ways um, uh, looking like what is legally sanctioned, right? Talk a little bit about this perverse reversal where suddenly marriage becomes an instrument of discipline and punish?

Tera: Right. So it's definitely one of the bizarre ironies in African-American history. That for so long, African-Americans were denied basically (30:00) all the rights and privileges of marriage. And then after the war is over after slavery has ended, you have new laws being passed basically to safeguard their relationships. But it comes with additional burdens because they're often penalized. They're often um, they often find themselves in varied oppositions where they had a sense of hope about what marriage could bring them, you know, as free people. And yet marriage is often used as a tool of surveillance, as a tool of repression. And so in the book, for example, I talked about sharecropping. The emergence of sharecropping after the civil war, after reconstruction and so you have this new system of labor that's put in place. And so, one way of policing African-Americans is to basically confine their relationships to one particular type. So under slavery, African-Americans defined family in very broad terms. They have very broad notions of what it means to be ‘can’t’[?]. Once slavery is over, there is a, there is a, there is a huge effort on the part of outsiders to narrow the definition of what family should mean and to focus it on the nuclear family structure. And so, that's one way in which African-Americans under the sharecropping system a burden because suddenly those extended bonds that they've relied on for survival are no longer appreciated um, because they're being excluded. There are laws that are being passed in some states that basically define a laboring unit as a male head of household, a wife and children.

Eddie: Wow. Wow.

Tera: And so what happens is that other family members are then being left out and single women with children are being left out. And so, you have the migration of, of some of those individuals into cities. They're going to cities as single women if they're widowed if they've never married um, to find work (32:00) because they can't find as much work in this new plantation agricultural system.

Eddie: I mean this is one of the beauties of the book that you're constantly keeping track of the material conditions under which the institution of marriage takes shape. How it takes shape, right?

Tera: Uh-hmm.

Eddie: And you wanna insist that uh, attention, attention to those conditions, right, matter, uh, for how we account for uh, the prevalence or not of marriage within particular communities, right? And as you tell this story from the horrors of slavery that into uh, the tragedy that is the civil war, that is the civil war to the broken promise that is reconstruction to the Nadir, what we see is a black -- in spite of all of this, uh, the folk are in some ways engaged in matters of the heart. They still, right, trying to build family units. They are still trying to uh, live lives together and so you give us the startling data about marriage, right? Uh, um, that it's not, you know uh, the, the, the data isn't so clear that black folk aren't getting married at the same rate as white people. I mean talk a little bit about that data around marriage in the 19th century um, 'cause it, in some ways it, it disrupts certain kind of stereo, certain kinds of stereotypes and it also serves as the ground for your uh, frontal challenge to Du Bois as the Negro family. So talk a little bit about that. 

Tera: So what's really striking is, what I try to talk about in the book is, on the one hand, the kind of harsh conditions that African-Americans face, but also the resiliency with which they face those conditions. So family is really important to understanding how African-Americans survived. We can't, we cannot understand how African-Americans have survived (34:00) for centuries of exploitation without understanding how they managed these relationships, their intimate relationships, their marriages, and their larger familiar relationships. So, that's really one of the core arguments that I, that I try to make in the book. Um, and what the data shows is that they did that quite well. By the end of the 19th century, marriage is nearly universal among African-Americans.

Eddie: Wow.

Tera: So, part of that has to do with the fact that marriage and agricultural work are very closely tied together. So much African-Americans are agricultural people. Marriage is very important to the kind of interdependent nature of the work and involved in agricultural production so that's part of it. Um, but on the whole what we see is, most adult African-Americans are marrying. So they're marrying at slightly higher rates than whites, but they're also remarrying quite a bit.

Eddie: It's this serial relationships that you're talking about, yeah?

Tera: Right. So there's a propensity to not only marry but there's also a propensity to remarry. Um, once relationships in for whatever reason separations, divorces, death, they tend to move on. Sometimes they're formalizing those relationships as legal marriages; sometimes they're not. So over the course of an individual, individual person's lifespan, they may have entered a, a number of multiple kinds of relationships including legal marriage or informal relationships. And so, at towards the end of the book, I take a look at the data that Du Bois produced under the Negro-American family publication.

Eddie: You took his kneecaps out.

Tera: Well, I mean what's striking to me about that book is how his own data says one thing. His argument says something quite different.

Eddie: Yeah.

Tera: So, (36:00) the data suggests, what I just said in terms of how African-Americans are actually marrying overwhelmingly, you know, as adults. And they're marrying slightly ahead of, of whites but the arguments that Du Bois is making and others are making at that time is that, there's a crisis among African-Americans. And that the crisis is a prive to slavery and that the family is, has been destroyed under slavery and therefore the family is suffering under freedom. He argues that there is progress that's being made post-emancipation but he still believed that there was a crisis going on. So that crisis is not consistent with the data in his tables, where he shows there's very little, there's no statistical difference essentially between black marriage rates and white marriage rates in the 1880s, 1890s, 1900s. Those racial disparities would come much later in the 20th century and I picked that up and the [crosstalk]

Eddie: Yes you do. Let's, let's make the turn 'cause you know we entered, um, you know, we entered the, the 20th century predominantly rural. We left it predominantly urban. You see, you make the claim that by 1940s -- you, you don't make the claim, you, you, you argue within and convincingly -- that by, the 1940s, we begin to see a decline in marriage rates. And, and it makes sense and in, given the arc of the book um, that these economic and material conditions right, impact marriage in each of these moments, right? So, as we begin to see the for-forces of urbanization and modernization impact black uh, folks as we're moving into cities. Not just into the northern cities but moving into cities whether it's from my hometown of Moss Point to Mobile from Mobile to Memphis, from Memphis to Chicago um, or Jackson as opposed to Mobile. We're beginning to see that it has an impact, (38:00) right? And so, you, you -- it's a cautionary tale in some ways that, that the line of argument from Du Bois to E. Franklin Frazier to Moynihan, isn't quite right to account for the decline. Say a little more about that.

Tera: Right. So urbanization migration are really important forces in dramatically changing the fortunes of black marital rates. It's in the 1940s that we start to see marriage rates for African-Americans going down whereas marriage rates for, for white Americans are actually going up. Part of that has to do with conditions that African-Americans are facing. Part of it also has to do with benefits and privileges that white Americans are gaining. So the GI Bill is very important in this period in helping to basically encourage those returning veterans to marry. And that's part of what it was designed to do is to get those veterans um, settled into civilian life once again. To get them through you know, education, loans for education for, you know, mortgages for houses, for businesses, loans for businesses. To get them basically to be married, settled men. That program has had a profound effect on American society and the American economy. African-Americans didn't benefit as much from those, from that program because of racial discrimination. 

Eddie: Right.

Tera: And so as a result, it bolster the marriages of white Americans. And African-American marriages began to decline also because of some devastating things that were happening in the economy. So you have permanent unemployment happening for African-Americans for the very first time in American history, African-Americans are being thrown out of the economy. And from the 1940s, thereafter, permanent unemployment increases every single decade. So important to note that (40:00) marriage rates and employment rates are closely correlated for every racial group. And sociologists have traces as far back as there is data. When the economy is good, marriage tends to go up; when the economy is not so good, marriage rates tend to decline. And so African-Americans are suffering from that permanent unemployment. And then you have with that um, the impact of premature deaths um, from homicides, from a disease that's having a big blow especially on black men and so there's a kind of sex ratio disparity. Um, and then you also have mass incarceration. So, the combination of all of those forces is helping to push marriage rates down more dramatically for African-Americans. Now, keep in mind, marriage rates are also declining overall --

Eddie: Right.

Tera: -- in western industrial societies but there is a dramatic difference for African-Americans.

Eddie: So it to becomes almost an ideological uh, fixation when people try to account for declining rates of marriage among black folk by appealing to slavery as the reason why X, Y and Z uh, evidence itself now when in fact contemporary material conditions, these extent economic realities are impacting uh, the life, the, the ways in which uh, uh African-Americans constitute intimate relationships. So it's almost a kind of way of diverting our attention from permanent unemployment. Divert out attention from, from mass incarceration and the like. Uh, so even though we can see elements to actually make the causal argument is to in some ways turn a blind eye to, to what's actually happening around us. But there's this other point as we come to a close, this other moment where your story of marriage uh, uh, uh affords you a, a moment to give advice to those who hang a lot on its political (42:00) uh, uh, uh, implications. And you say to, you say something to LGBTQ uh, a folk who are organizing around same-sex marriage. You, you wanna talk to them about -- you give them some advice. What sort of advice are you giving?

Tera: Well, I wouldn't say that I'm giving other people advice.

Eddie: Oh, you, you say cautionary tale though.

Tera: Oh, I think there is a cautionary tale and other scholars. I wouldn't take credit for this. Other scholars have talked about this. You know, what does it mean for a group of people to be in franchise, right? And to achieve that enfranchisement? And then once it's achieved what actually, what kind of results does it produce? And so I think there are parallels between marriage equality for the LGBTQ community and marriage equality for African-Americans. In the sense that, um, for LGBTQ, people let's just say, um, they're still, we still don't have anti-discrimination laws for um, people with respect to sexuality and employment. And we've achieved marriage equality, which is wonderful. But I think what the lesson that African-American marriage shows is what in the end will marriage do for you, right? How far can you go? Even though it's important, even though it's supremely important, how far can marriage and the rights to marriage take you in terms of changing your material conditions?

Eddie: Right. Yeah.

Tera: Um, and giving you all the rights of citizenship that you deserve.

Eddie: Oh with that, well, let that be the last word. Thank you so much for joining us for this discussion today. I, I would like to thank uh, the amazing professor, Tera Hunter for joining, uh, joining me in this conversation. Additionally, special thanks to Courtney Bryan for providing the music to this podcast. To the staff of the department of African-American Studies at Princeton University. Our office manager, April Peters. Our event coordinator, Dionne Worthy. (44:00) Our social media specialist, Allison Bland and our technical specialist and audio engineer, Elio Leo. Remember, you can find this podcast and more by visiting our website, AAS dot Princeton dot EDU. Have a good one. Take care.




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