RECENTLY, I watched an episode of “Don’t tell the bride”, the BBC reality TV series where a couple get money to spend on their wedding, with the groom responsible for organising every detail, and surprising the bride while at it.
In this particular show, the groom, a black man of Ghanaian heritage, was marrying a white woman of Irish descent. They made for a lovely couple.
During the ceremony the groom and his groomsmen performed a surprise routine for the bride: they danced the Irish stepdance to symbolise that the groom was heartily embracing his new wife and her culture.
It was all very admirable. Then the following question came to mind: Why is that when a black man marries a woman of a different race, he accepts her for who she is as a person, and even goes as far as adopting aspects of her culture as a part of his newly formed identity, but when he marries a black woman he expects her to become a totally different person from the woman he courted at the beginning of the relationship, so much so that he would even subjugate her and break her spirit, in the name of making her a “traditional and a good African wife”?
Different folks, different strokes
Unlike the white woman, the black wife is not seen as a lover and equal partner or someone that is worthy of his respect in the long run. She is instead seen just as a child bearer and a homemaker.
This is a rather strange phenomenon, because often the man sees himself as a progressive black man, and yet the same man would oppress the black woman when married to one, and justify it by asserting himself as a “true” African man, in keeping with the ways of his African culture.
Don’t get this wrong, there is nothing wrong with a man being progressive; in fact black women yearn for this species in romantic partnerships, but I’m really baffled by just how backward this same man can be when married to a woman of his own skin colour.
Many African men will even use Christianity to justify a lot of the undesirable aspects of African culture in order to oppress the black wife, as if he were some sort of Jekyll and Hyde and can assume either persona perfectly, depending on the race of the woman he is married to.
Going back to the wedding, I tried hard to remember if I had ever been to a black wedding where the groom joined in when the bride’s family performed their traditional dances. I really haven’t, so it was thought provoking to watch the black man gaily embrace aspects of his wife’s culture. It’s not a bad thing at all, but it’s not something one usually witnesses at a black wedding.
Awkward issue of validation
Why the difference? Does the black (African) man, carrying the conflicted of the continent’s trouble racial/colonial history, feel validated when marrying outside of his race, that he has made it by stepping up into “better” racial and social circles?
A black friend told me his thoughts are that “black men think of other cultures as being superior, and to marry into them is a leg up in life – a great achievement so to speak. Adopting their new spouse’s culture is thus being progressive and this way he is able to keep her, as well as win her approval and that of her family and friends”.
In other words he feels validated, good enough, accepted and so does his best not to rock the boat by demanding of her what he would of a black woman. He treats her as his better half in the literal sense, based on the colour of her skin, and finds her worthy of his love, respect and loyalty.
Thinking back on my tertiary days (there’s a lot of truth in what my friend had said on this topic), I befriended some Congolese students and noticed just how many spoke highly of women from other races when relationships were being discussed.
They came from a country where there weren’t that many white women, but they were some coloured women, whom they referred to as the “Jewel of Congo”. If a man was wealthy enough he stood himself a good chance of marrying a metis (a coloured woman) and this would earn him higher status amongst his family, peers and his wider community.
Skin and colour
He would even be known as, for example, “Patrice, the one that is married to the coloured woman”. They would often say that the black skin is cursed, and it was as if picking a metis or a white wife would afford them a chance at some sort of self cleansing, and in this way also ensure that their offspring would not suffer the fate of the “black curse”-or being born a black person.
A Nigerian “bride price” app last year caused huge controversy, when it placed a higher premium on women with Caucasian features or lived or were raised in the west.
There was no agreement on whether it was criticising those attitudes, or endorsing them.
There were times when beauty was measured in similar ways in my own community in South Africa, but a lot was done during the struggle against apartheid to reiterate to black that “Black is Beautiful”, and speak against “Whiteness” as a measure of beauty.
At some point there was a wedding song that said “ Tswayang le bone ngwana o tshwana le lekhalate”, loosely translated to: “Come out and see the beautiful girl that looks like she’s coloured”, to refer to the bride. However this was changed during the late 1980s, the “coloured” reference becoming a “star”.
I eventually married into a Congolese family and there was a lot that I admired in the Congolese people and their culture. But there were also other practices that I found quite shocking, including the issue of skin colour.
On closer observation I saw how different treatment was afforded to women according to skin tone, in the same way that you would find in a caste system. The white and the coloured women had the highest level of regard and admiration, and then the black women would trickle behind, graded in order from the lighter skin tone, with the darkest receiving the least amount of praise. Both men and women had remarks to make black girls feel really low.
Growing up under the principles of the “Black Consciousness Movement”, I knew that black is beautiful without a doubt, and spoke out in support of this.
I was however perplexed to find that this was not a sentiment shared by my in-laws, and I was often in the minority in a crowd that wished themselves different. What was especially hurting was that the women also advocated for beauty according to Western standards.
One felt for the children hearing all this, in addition to seeing adults lather up on skin lightening creams.
Is this one of the reasons why our black brothers feel validated when married to women of other races? Does the level of self-hate permeate into our African cultural practices, causing him to want to free himself from the pressures of being a black man in a black society?
Let’s face it, some cultural practices and expectations can be really restrictive even for the black man. Maybe it is time that we reevaluated our cultural practices, and left behind those that make us feel imprisoned, and retained those that make us proud of who we are as a people.
Perhaps this way, the black man can truly be progressive and feel free to love whoever he chooses, whether a white or black woman, and treat her with the same amount of respect and admiration.
—The writer is an avid traveller and commentator on social issues in Africa. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.