No, the engagement of Serena Williams and Alexis Ohanian does not spell doom for black love. But it’s always beneficial to black people seeking intra-marriage to understand the difficulties of finding it in order to overcome them.
When news broke that legendary tennis player Serena Williams got engaged to her long-time beau and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, my first, main and ongoing reaction was “Okay. Another celebrity couple decides to marry. And? Why should we care?”
And that’s it. Honestly, I didn’t think much about it beyond that.
Which is to say, I viewed this as, ultimately, a case of dating within socioeconomic status. Which is to say, I didn’t exert any brain power forming an opinion of the “news” in other terms. At all. I emphasized this point to a friend who called to inquire about whether or not I felt any way about the announcement.
Scrolling the comment section of some of the articles carrying the story, I learned very quickly that a lot of folks — and by folks, I mean black men — did, indeed, feel a certain way about Williams’ decision. Taking into account that none of these dudes would ever find themselves in the same social orbit as Serena Williams let alone have a shot with her, I was really flabbergasted as to why.
While it’s true that some of these Hotep-identifying black men were just butthurt, what I also realized — or, rather, reminded myself — is that the reaction wasn’t so much about Serena Williams as it was about what her engagement suggests about the state of black love; Williams, like other pop-culture icons, was merely a conduit to wrestle with, and recapitulate, larger questions concerning the difficulties of finding and sustaining companionship and intimacy within the black community.
I tend to assume that most black people are familiar with the problems confronting black love — socioeconomic, psychological and historico-cultural factors play a major role. In fact, the odds have always been stacked against the formation of healthy black relationships and families since the inception of America. With the passing of time, this has only grown worse and more sophisticated.
The criminalization of black male bodies has been a major boon to the American penal industry, which has effectively warehoused black male dating partners and shrank the dating pool. While black men are left to rot away in jail, black women, determined to enter the professional world and achieve some semblance of an elusive American dream long denied to black Americans, attend college and university. Studies show that the majority of black undergraduate and graduate attendees are black women, and very few black men apply or finish higher education. And, with so many black men locked away serving astronomical sentences, involved in extralegal economic ventures or prematurely dead, black women have found it extremely challenging to find a black partner on campus. The direct result of this is that black women either “marry down” or resort to what’s called “assortative mating.”
Aside from the limited eligible black male partners available on college campuses, there’s also the tendency of black men and women navigating the dating scene searching for a partner to internalize black gender stereotypes. The two most famous of these are the views that black women are angry, attitudinal and harbor a propensity to emasculate black men, and black men are lazy layabouts who lack entrepreneurial drive and ambition, and any motivation to find and keep gainful employment.
None of these stereotypes, of course, align with history of black women forced to work the fields alongside their men or, during the era of Jim Crow, forego full-time motherhood to find employment in the domestic industry to supplement the scant income their husbands were able to scrape together. By this very act, American society forced black women to redefine traditional American gender roles, equalizing (thankfully!!) the household positions of black men and women. Nor do these stereotypes take into account the fact that stable and meaningful job/career opportunities were intentionally foreclosed to black men, impeding their ability to fulfill their role as the primary “breadwinner” and forcing them to seek other means of securing an income in the underground economy.
Add to this the erroneous belief that European beauty is superior to all other forms of human aesthetics and that, consumed by this falsehood, some black men have pursued non-black women precisely for this reason, and you’ve pretty much accounted for all the reasons in the world that it’s difficult for black people to find and keep black love.
Difficult — not impossible or improbable. In other words, there’s no need to despair or hit the panic button. There are still plenty of black people who haven’t given up on intra-marriage.
Lastly, I suspect that much of what’s been briefly explored above doesn’t apply to Williams or any of her former black lovers — she had been linked to rappers Common and Drake before meeting her fiance in Rome — that she’s taken. As I said before, I view the engagement as primarily a union between celebrity elites who, in many respects, exist in a manufactured bubble.
Canvass the demographics of celebrity couplings and you’ll find that Williams and Ohanian are not the first, nor will they be the last, interracial relationship. Think Robert De Niro and Grace Hightower or Alfre Woodard and Roderick Spencer. On the flip side, they also don’t point the needle toward the demise of black heterosexual relationships.