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Black History Month: Planting & Reaping Love

Shantella Y. Sherman | 2/19/2014, 3 p.m.
Shantella Y. Sherman

One of my great joys as an historian is dispelling commonly held myths about African-Americans. Perhaps none excite me as much as leveling the contention established decades ago by well-meaning, but culturally biased researchers, who labeled black relationships stagnant, pathological, or otherwise unnatural. What Daniel Moynihan overlooked and black nationalists like Eldridge Cleaver never understood, was that romantic relationships between black men and women function far and beyond the parameters set by white, middle-class standards. Be clear, permeating pop culture images of the half-clothed, debased, and sexualized are not the scope of this commentary. Rather, it is the everyday celebration of African-American couples who embrace love, honor, duty, and as much passion for one another as compassion.

While studying the works of 1920s migrants moving from the South to northern enclaves like Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, I came across a collection of love letters sent between men and the girlfriends and wives they left behind. As Isabelle Wilkerson documented in her work, without the modern benefit of mobile phones, cars, or ready cash, and often no particular final destination in mind, these men had no way of getting word back to their women that they were even still alive. Journeys took anywhere from weeks to months and those first correspondences, like letters to sweethearts in wartime, symbolize the beauty of anticipation, the pride of sojourning, and the conviction that, with time and provision their unions would soon be reestablished.

These letters challenged the precept that Black men and women did not get along through some type of abnormal shift in roles that left men emasculated and women carrying the burden of both gender roles. Overarching themes can be found in some of those letters, which have now become a part of Pamela Newkirk’s new anthology, "A Love No Less: Two Centuries of African American Love Letters." One of the most endearing is the belief that Black women have no character flaw that a Black man would publicly announce. For what brings shame upon her, brings shame upon him – and as an extension of Black womanhood, his daughters and granddaughters. Black men knew to speak to and of Black women in genteel terms to protect her from the stereotyped monograph larger society heaped upon her. In addition to protecting her, Black men in these letters freely expressed a type of romantic love that was bold in its vulnerability and exciting in its honesty.

As early as 1862, letters can be found of both enslaved and freedmen, professing their love. In one such pronouncement Lew writes to Amelia: How can I express the pleasure it affords me to receive a letter written by the hand of her I love?... Men and women talk of love, can anyone describe it? For the life of me I cannot tell the reason that I love you.

When Herbert (104) and Zelmyra (101) Fisher a couple married 85 years (and who held the Guinness Book of World Record title for the length of their marriage until their recent deaths) were asked in 2011,

What are the most important attributes of a good spouse? Zelmyra responded: “A hard worker and good provider. The 1920s were hard, but Herbert wanted & provided the best for us. I married a good man! Everyone who plants a seed and harvests the crop celebrates together. We are individuals, but accomplish more together. Re-member marriage is not a contest – never keep a score. God has put the two of [us] together on the same team to win. We are both Christians and believe in God. Marriage is a commitment to the Lord. We pray with and for each other every day.”

The Washington Informer celebrates the couples, like the Fishers who are planting seeds and reaping harvests of love.

Read & Enjoy,

Shantella Y. Sherman

Editor, Special Sections