Black Women, Black Love

America's War on African American Marriage


By Dianne M Stewart

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In this analysis of social history, examine the complex lineage of America’s oppression of Black companionship.

According to the 2010 US census, more than seventy percent of Black women in America are unmarried. Black Women, Black Love reveals how four centuries of laws, policies, and customs have created that crisis.

Dianne Stewart begins in the colonial era, when slave owners denied Blacks the right to marry, divided families, and, in many cases, raped enslaved women and girls. Later, during Reconstruction and the ensuing decades, violence split up couples again as millions embarked on the Great Migration north, where the welfare system mandated that women remain single in order to receive government support. And no institution has forbidden Black love as effectively as the prison-industrial complex, which removes Black men en masse from the pool of marriageable partners.

Prodigiously researched and deeply felt, Black Women, Black Love reveals how white supremacy has systematically broken the heart of Black America, and it proposes strategies for dismantling the structural forces that have plagued Black love and marriage for centuries.



Jumping the Broom

Racial Slavery and America’s Roots of Forbidden Black Love

Never marry again in slavery.” A peculiar piece of advice. Poetic in its brevity and clarity. No other arrangement of five common words could better reveal the contradictions confining enslaved Black women’s options for sustained romantic love and marriage during their years of bondage in this country. When twenty-four-year-old Margaret “Peggy” Garner uttered these words to her husband, Robert, on her deathbed, she certainly was not the first among Black women in America to change her mind about the benefits of marriage while legally enslaved.1

The institution of marriage assumes a degree of sovereignty for the individuals involved to exercise responsibility for one another and the children they are likely to produce. By her early twenties, however, Margaret Garner had come to know better than any that slavery granted no such liberty. Married bondpersons were mere property in the eyes of the law, and they had no rights over the destinies of their children. They could never know with certainty what the future held for them, their families, and their marriage vows because they answered to the legal authority of their captors. As Margaret came to understand, marriage under the condition of chattel slavery invited only an intensification of the system’s most horrific rituals and psychological assaults. And this is what prompted the young bondwoman, moribund from typhoid fever, to forewarn her husband of something he in fact already knew.2 The privileges and responsibilities of marriage were jeopardized daily by slavery’s solicited and unsolicited intimacies.

Endless studies examine racial slavery in America as a reverberating assault upon Black people’s historic and contemporary liberties in perhaps every arena of life but one: romantic love and marriage. The difficulties Black people, and particularly Black women, face today establishing romantic relationships leading to marriage are explained often without causal reference to slavery. Yet from its very beginnings, the transatlantic trade in human cargo, which set the American institution of African bondage in motion, required the disruption of intimate relationships and marriages. Since the average age range of Africans destined for slave markets was fifteen to thirty, the majority of female captives aboard slave vessels were married with children. “These women were not only daughters and sisters.… [T]hey were also wives and mothers leaving husbands and young children behind, or seeing them embark on another ship.”3 In 1669 one such “Angolan” woman, Hagar Blackmore, told the Massachusetts Middlesex County Court how she was “stolen away from her husband and the infant that nursed on her breast”—her enduring trauma of capture punctuated by the dissolution of love and life nurtured through familial bonds.4

Blackmore’s bondage in America sundered her from more than just her conjugal family. Captivity permanently ruptured her ties to a robust kin group, the source of her social wealth and personal meaning. Marriage would have been the social glue holding together Blackmore’s family and clan. Whether polygynous, polyandrous, or monogamous, marriage in Africa was a rite of passage that regulated social life and the care of children and elders. It prescribed rules for inheritance and was the structure through which one’s lineage and clan proliferated.

The geography of African marriage was vast during Blackmore’s time, as it is today. However, owing to shared cultural orientations across diverse regions of the continent, we can safely assume that Blackmore had many mothers, fathers, and senior and junior siblings, but probably no cousins. She would not have entered into marriage because of romantic love and affection, though this is not to say that love and affection were necessarily absent in her conjugal relationship. Seminal as it was for the children it produced, the conjugal union was an aperture to a wider marital arrangement. Blackmore was indeed married to her husband’s family members, too; however, her entire identity did not melt into her husband’s. Although her culture would have given her permission to tie her wrapper differently around her waist or adorn herself in some way to signal her new social status, Blackmore, whose aboriginal name enslavement erased, would not have relinquished any of her personal names to assume her husband’s family name. Nor would marriage terminate her inheritance rights in her biological family lineage or her right and responsibility to participate in the agricultural economy to provide for herself and her family.

Blackmore and her husband had entered marriage because parents and family elders recognized advantages for both kin groups. Their marriage would unify two kin groups to ensure lineage continuity. And Blackmore likely derived a momentous sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when she sacralized her marriage through a series of ceremonies. Involving gifts and other signs of investment, acknowledgment of new kin alliances, pledges, and agreements, not solely or primarily between Blackmore and her husband, but between their kin groups, the rituals involved would have confirmed the sanction of ancestors, elders, and parents. Once married, Blackmore’s experience of biological motherhood was further spiritual confirmation that her marriage was “meant to be,” and so the calamity of being severed from her family and clan had to have imposed an exile upon her soul that was just as intolerable as the physical disruption and treacherous voyage across the Atlantic. Blackmore’s capture and absence also meant that the two kin groups she connected like a linchpin were torn asunder. Thus, she was not the only victim of the transatlantic trade. The people she united through marriage suffered as well and paid a heavy cost because of her capture.5

American slavery exploited the marital and familial disruptions that began in Africa for women such as Blackmore, and advanced a host of other intimate intrusions pioneered by the transatlantic slave trade. Slavery’s racial logic brought Blackness into existence as a human identity at the same time it brought forbidden Black love to the African captives and their descendants exclusively adorned by its chains and whips. When we examine the status of Black women under the purview of this nation’s founding legislative decisions, for example, we find that as early as 1643 the Virginia General Assembly ratified laws that levied taxes on African-descended women’s labor, slave or free. Similar taxes were placed on men as heads of their households and on those who worked in agriculture. However, women were not previously taxed until African women alone were identified as a source of revenue for the colonies. The African female labor tax priced many free African descendants 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 women of African descent who had to finance the tax without spousal support.6 Historians might caution that no causal relationship ensues between this practice and the circumstances that have hindered Black women’s opportunities to find marriage partners in later centuries. But the larger context of twentieth-century federal and state welfare laws that adversely impacted Black women’s marriageability is redolent with seventeenth-century precursors.

Experiences of prohibited love are indeed legion across America’s temporal and geographic landscapes of slavery, reminding us that, for nearly 250 years, enslaved African descendants in America, whom Whites bought, sold, mortgaged, gifted, and inherited as movable property, had no legal rights, essentially—and certainly no right to pursue love, coupledom, and marriage based upon their own somatic desires. As disclosed through the accounts of the women’s lives examined in this chapter, love for them and their kinfolk was directly or indirectly forbidden through the often combined factors of sexual and reproductive violence and control, “misogynoir” jurisprudence and legal transactions, and the domestic slave trade and family separation.7 In Bound in Wedlock, historian Tera Hunter insists, “The character and nature of slave marriages and families depended in large degree on regional, demographic, and temporal shifts in slavery during the antebellum era.… And yet there was a great deal of consistency in the challenges slaves faced and the strategies they used to adjust.” This chapter’s preoccupation is with the “great deal of consistency in the challenges slaves faced,” challenges that fostered patterns of prohibition and expectations of fracture regarding love, coupling, and marriage among enslaved African descendants in this country.

Scholars attribute the low rates of heterosexual marriage among Black women and men today to a range of complicated factors that have regulated post-1960s Black life, including shifts in modes of production and socioeconomic institutions as well as mass incarceration and relaxed cultural norms and attitudes about marriage, sex, and divorce. Notwithstanding these explanations, sexual and reproductive violence, “misogynoir” legislation, and separation of families during the slave period have had both a rippling effect and an epiphenomenal impact on Black women’s postemancipation episodes with romantic love and marriage in this country. These interlocking pillars of forbidden Black love reappear in the scope of abuses women of African descent have suffered since slavery, whether during Reconstruction, the Great Migration, Black women’s entry into the welfare system, or mass incarceration. To understand fully their reappearance and the historical consciousness many Black women today have regarding the circumstances provoking their romantic dilemmas, it is essential to begin our narrative in slavery.

Across two and a half centuries in America, the psychic and emotional trauma married bondpersons endured at the hands of slaveholders and their surrogates was incalculable. What went through the mind of a bondman who had to leave his wife and marriage bed when the slave master or overseer showed up at night? How did married bondpersons manage the threat the domestic slave trade posed to their families or cope with the dissolution of married life when one spouse was sold separately? If granted the privilege of remaining together or in the same vicinity, what did enslaved parents do when the master or his sons began violating their pubescent daughters?

The narratives in this chapter explore each of these questions, illustrating the incompatibility between the sovereignty of slavery and the sovereignty of marriage. Laws and customs designed to uphold and protect slavery trivialized, punished, and forbade Black love and marriage, making it hazardous or impossible for couples in abroad marriages to spend quality time together. Slavery’s culture of forbidden Black love likewise deprived individuals of selecting their marriage partners and wedding rituals. The authority of slave owners nullified the authority of the enslaved to protect their spouses and children from the clutches of the domestic slave trade and from sexual, physical, and mental abuse. Even the physical labor enslaved women and girls performed left them vulnerable to sexual advances of any White person with access to their bodies. There was nowhere to hide, practically no way to escape the White gaze, the White penis, and White America’s stratification of beauty by phenotype. Categorically, slavery’s scale of sexual valuation made Black girls and women of all phenotypes sexual prey in the eyes of their owners.8 However, Whites’ preferential treatment of mixed-race persons created a color-caste system that endured across the centuries and remains influential in today’s Black marriage market.

Only by sifting through interviews, letters, poetry, legal documents, and court records of the slave period can we behold the tangled roots of forbidden Black love that nourished these and other conditions of American slavery. The nature and structure of this nation’s practice of bondage left Black captives with virtually no weapons to defend themselves against its war on Black love and marriage, and each story to follow illustrates this predicament acutely, penetratingly, horrifyingly, to say the least. The singular message gleaned from the initial 250-year period of Black involuntary presence in this country is that slavery constituted the first battlefield in America’s war on African American marriage, making marriage unstable and unworkable for millions of African descendants. This fact must be tempered, however, by testaments of bondpersons’ inscrutable capacity to “make a way out of no way.”9 In the thick of their daily battle for love, not all vanquished by slavery succumbed to the forces bent on destroying their bonds of affection. The ensuing accounts of Black love and marriage also feature enslaved persons’ aggressive and affective resistance to slavery’s encroachment upon their romantic relationships and marital unions. Undeniably, a good number accommodated the spoken and unspoken rules of forbidden Black love. But some fled north to pursue Black love, some chose enslavement over manumission to preserve Black love, others sacrificed their lives for Black love, and some, like Margaret Garner, killed in the name of Black love.


Margaret initially began her northward quest not to kill but to pursue unfettered Black love—self-love, love of her husband, Robert “Simon Jr.,” of her family, and of course, of freedom. On January 27, 1856, after fleeing bondage in northern Kentucky, the Garners; their four children; Robert’s parents, Simon Sr. and Mary; and nine friends from neighboring farms traversed a frozen Ohio River and separated into smaller units. The three generations of the Garner family remained together and sought refuge at the home of Margaret’s uncle Joe Kite.

Within hours, their hopes of securing freedom farther north were thwarted, as slave catchers and US marshals hunted them down and surrounded the house with reinforcements. Robert, however, not only had left Kentucky with his master’s horses, but also had taken his gun and used it in the showdown with authorities. Defending his family’s liberty, Robert discharged his weapon and wounded one or more of his opponents, while his pregnant wife killed their two-year-old daughter and injured their other children as she attempted to kill them and herself.10 At this critical crossroads Margaret was forced to choose between surrendering her children to a world of unending horrors or fleeing from it eternally. Although outnumbered and overpowered by their opponents, Margaret achieved a measure of victory in sparing at least one of her children from returning to slavery’s stranglehold.

Margaret’s Black maternal actions can be understood only through the prism of slave life. One contemporary newspaper reported that Margaret “and the others complain of cruel treatment on the part of their master, and allege that as the cause of their attempted escape.”11 Margaret certainly had revealing scars to this effect. “White man struck me” was all she said in response to inquiries about what had to have been flesh wounds that left such glaring imprints on her left cheek and temple.12

Convincing evidence, if not outright proof, also suggests that Margaret endured repeated sexual violation at the hands of her master, Archibald Gaines (or another White man), and her two fair-skinned children were believed to be sired by Gaines, the man with the most access to Margaret, even more than her husband, who lived about a mile away from Gaines’s Maplewood farm. Although identified as chestnut brown (Margaret) and a Negro (Robert), their children Mary and Cilla were described as near white in complexion. That Gaines insisted to deputies dispatched to recover his human property that “no harm whatsoever should be done the little children” conveys an emotional investment in their well-being atypical of a slaveholder with no blood ties to the fugitive children he owned.13 While we may never know for certain whether Gaines sexually assaulted Margaret, we do know that, with only seconds to act decisively and successfully, Margaret zeroed in on slaughtering her girl child first. Cutting her throat five inches long and three inches deep, from ear to ear, Margaret ensured that two-year-old Mary would not return to the physical, sexual, and reproductive violation awaiting her at the Maplewood farm.14

Margaret had apparently attempted to kill all four of her children on that dreadful day of reckoning. After the family was apprehended, her sons, Tommy and Sammy, ages six and four, respectively, were found with knife wounds across their backs and shoulders, and her infant daughter Cilla had sustained a blow to the head from a shovel.15 However, something telling remains with Margaret’s infanticidal wishes and filicidal act concerning her two girl children. A local minister, Reverend P. C. Bassett from Cincinnati’s Fairmount Theological Seminary, interviewed Margaret after Mary’s death, during which she denied any mention that she was temporarily insane.16 “I was as cool as I now am; and would much rather kill them at once, and thus end their sufferings than have them taken back to slavery and be murdered by piecemeal.” According to Bassett, “She then told the story of her wrongs. She spoke of her days of unmitigated toil, of her nights of suffering, while the bitter tears coursed their way down her cheeks.”17 Another curious detail about Margaret’s daughters might help answer the question of how Margaret suffered under cover of night. Her two near-white girls and the baby she was carrying at the time of her recapture were conceived during the exact periods when Gaines’s wife, Elizabeth, was pregnant and unable to engage in sexual relations with her husband without endangering her and her unborn baby’s health.18

In the aftermath of the family’s recapture, Margaret’s remaining daughter, nine-month-old Cilla, would drown during a boat accident while en route to New Orleans. Her master, Archibald Gaines, had shipped the entire family south to avoid having to return Margaret to Ohio to stand trial for the murder and likely secure a more sanguine future with the backing of local sympathetic abolitionists than what he had in store for her on his Maplewood farm. Cilla had been seated on her mother’s lap when their steamboat collided with another vessel, and as mother and child rushed overboard, Margaret’s hands were actually in cuffs, preventing her from preserving her own life or that of Cilla. When pulled from the water, still in handcuffs, Margaret “exhibited no other feeling than joy at the loss of her child.”19

Two years after the Garner family’s dreadful episode, tuberculosis finally granted Margaret the death she had long preferred to enslavement. She was survived by her husband and two sons.20 Married bondpersons like Robert and Margaret experienced a peculiar type of spousal abuse at the hands of the slaveocracy, forced to suffer as powerless bystanders at scenes of their wives and husbands being beaten, raped, verbally threatened, and subjected to other unforgettable injuries. In an interview, Robert’s mother, Mary, who described herself as a “mother of eight children, most of whom have been separated from her,” confessed “that her husband was once separated from her twenty-five years, during which time she did not see him,” and “could she have prevented it, she would never have permitted him to return, as she did not wish him to witness her sufferings, or be exposed to the brutal treatment that he would receive.” The emasculating shame Simon Sr. and Robert suffered while married to women they could not defend against the humiliating and torturous assaults they witnessed undoubtedly led Robert to the same conclusion his wife expressed: never marry again in slavery. When Robert did remarry, it was not until after emancipation.21

Birthed by the kind of psychic pain her mother-in-law described, Margaret Garner’s 1858 circumspective caution regarding slave marriage is a portal to America’s story of forbidden Black love. Slavery tortured and killed Black love, compelling women such as Margaret to kill their own kin in the very name of Black love. During this same period, slavery would force another young bondwoman, close in age to Margaret, to kill in defense of Black love, though in this case someone other than kin would have to die.


The privilege of autonomy and self-ownership will not allow many readers to imagine how nineteen-year-old bondwoman Celia must have felt when ushered into the Callaway County, Missouri, circuit court on October 10, 1855, to face charges for killing her serial rapist. Perhaps her mind rested upon her first uninvited sexual encounter with Robert Newsom, the then sixty-year-old Virginia transplant and recent widower. Newsom had traveled about a day’s distance from his Missouri homestead in Callaway County to Audrain County to purchase her, and already, on the forty-mile ride back to his farm, Newsom raped the fourteen-year-old adolescent. It was the first of many such episodes that would plague her five years of bondage on his estate.

Confronted by accusers in the courtroom, Celia must have centered her thoughts on both her living and her expected offspring, each of whom shared the same blood with her rapist. She was pregnant with her third child, and she could only guess what future her other two children had in store. She probably agonized a thousand times or more about whether it was the act of disposing of her sixty-five-year-old abuser’s body by fire that had been her fatal error. Under questioning, she reportedly confessed that “as soon as I struck him the Devil got into me, and I struck him with a stick until he was dead and then rolled him in the fire and burnt him up.”22

Truth be told, it was Black love that had gotten into her. She had found neither sympathy nor support from the members of the Newsom family she had approached for help. Following her boyfriend George’s refusal to share her with their master, Celia warned Newsom not to force himself upon her anymore. It seems Black love had finally inspired Celia with the courage to resist her rapist’s assaults at any cost, including his life and inevitably her own.

To the all-White male jury, her act of self-defense was no different from murder. The fact that she was sick and expecting to bear Newsom’s third child when he insisted on violating her for the umpteenth time on that dreadful night of June 23, 1855, mattered not one iota. It was further adjudicated that Celia had no right to defend herself at all. Within a day, twelve citizens of the state of Missouri, many slaveholders themselves, sentenced Celia to be “hanged by the neck until dead on the sixteenth day of November 1855.”23

Following a November 11 escape from the jail where she awaited her state execution, Celia was returned to state custody several weeks later to face punishment. She was hanged to death in Fulton, Missouri, on the twenty-first day of December 1855 at 2:30 p.m. Her lover, George, was not there to see it; having come under tremendous suspicion of aiding Celia in Newsom’s killing and the disposal of his body, he had fled the Newsom estate in the aftermath of Celia’s imprisonment.24

Celia’s story is central to understanding the foundations of forbidden Black love in America. Her experience as a victim of ritual slave rape who acted in self-defense is incomplete without accounting for her true love and desire for George. She was an enslaved Black woman who harbored the ambition to freely choose a Black man as her lover and life partner. Although thwarted by the role the culture and psychology of rape played in American slavery’s prohibition and prosecution of Black love, that she decided to eliminate her owner and violator places on record the length to which at least one enslaved Black woman was willing to go in order to experience love and satisfaction with a Black man of her choosing.


Most Black women were not as sensationally heroic as Celia or as tragic as Margaret, though almost all suffered sexual and reproductive assaults of some kind, whether physical, psychological, emotional, or verbal. From the dawn of colonial settlement, Black enslaved women were valued for their “increase” potential. Their childbearing bodies fueled the industries and wealth of White slaveholders who conceived short- and long-term investment plans based upon the expectation that natural increase would swell their slaveholdings. This was true even when the slaveholder himself fathered children with his Black female chattel. Partus sequitur ventrum (progeny follows the womb) declared all children of enslaved mothers the chattel property of their owners as early as 1662, protecting the right of White slaveholding fathers to keep in bondage the mixed-race children they sired with enslaved Black women and girls.25

Ultimately, it didn’t matter who impregnated her; the enslaved woman’s womb was a “capital asset” that the slaveholder could rely on in his wealth-building plans.26 Virginia planter William Geddy’s 1816 last will and testament discloses the value slave owners placed on bondwomen’s fertile wombs and how those wombs actually dictated gender-based patterns of separation among enslaved couples and families:

I loan to my beloved wife during her natural life, a yellow girl sister and twin to the yellow girl now in the possession of Henry Smith; also a negro man by the name of Charles, a black smith and the smiths tools, also Charles’s wife by the name of Eliza and at the death of my wife, said Charles the aforesaid black smith is to go free, but his wife Eliza and her increase to be sold and the money arising from the sales to be equally divided into three parts, my son Edward Geddys children to have one part, and my daughter Sally Smiths children another part, and Elizabeth Lindsey’s children the other part.27

Besides the forced work of “increase,” enslaved women faced long days of backbreaking labor. As one woman put it, “I had to do everythin’ dey was to do on de outside. Work in de field, chop wood, hoe corn, till sometime I feels like my back surely break.”28 Her recollection is no exaggeration. Across centuries of a changing economy Black women in bondage cultivated and processed crops and dairy and tended cattle and other livestock. They also found themselves clearing land of shrubs and bushes, especially during the early days of colonial settlement.29

The hoe became the symbol of their attachment to the tobacco, corn, wheat, and rice fields they tilled, and until mechanized milling of rice developed after the mid-eighteenth century, the mortar and pestle also belonged to enslaved women. With this heavy dual-component technology, they engaged their entire bodies—from fingers to toes. Grinding rice in this way was such “a hard and severe operation” that it reportedly “[cost] every planter the lives of several slaves annually.”30


  • “Stewart marshals substantial evidence to back up her thesis—proof of a centuries-long assault on Black love and marriage that in her hands takes the form of persuasive case histories of women, past and present.... It offers a fresh and surprising look at the economic, spiritual, structural and emotional constraints on the hundreds of thousands of Black women for whom love and marriage are neither blithely expected nor easy. In that, it feels not so much necessary as needed.”—New York Times
  • "Powerful, persuasive, and devastatingly haunting. Dianne M. Stewart has placed a historical and structural lens on the most personal, intimate areas of our lives and brought them into clear focus."—Carol Anderson, New York Times-bestselling author of White Rage
  • "Black Women, Black Love is profoundly necessary and long overdue. Dianne M. Stewart decimates popular myths about Black love and marriage. She reveals through data, history, and compelling storytelling that structural racism and patriarchy -- beginning with slavery and continuing through racist welfare policies, mass incarceration, and more -- have consistently thwarted the efforts of Black women to marry and sustain healthy, loving relationships."—Michelle Alexander, New York Times-bestselling author of The New Jim Crow
  • "Dianne M. Stewart's compelling Black Women, Black Love is the first Black feminist/womanist analysis of the structural barriers that make marriage for heterosexual African American women elusive, even impossible, within a racist, sexist America. In painstaking detail, she makes the provocative case that our persistent marital dilemmas over four centuries should be seen as a hidden civil rights issue. Her exploration of the concept of 'forbidden Black love' is nuanced, moving, and attentive to a broad range of variables. Personal narratives enhance her solid, though unsettling, arguments about America's persistent war on Black marriage, as well as 'undesired singlehood' for generations of women who love Black men."—Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women's Studies, Spelman College, and coauthor of Gender Talk

On Sale
Oct 6, 2020
Page Count
336 pages
Seal Press