"I know what every colored woman in this country is doing... Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I'm going down like one of those redwoods." America was in a very different place in 1973, when novelist Toni Morrison put those words in the mouth of the doomed yet defiant Sula, whose triumph lay solely in the fact that she could meet death on her own terms. Who then could have imagined that an African-American female would one day stand atop the nation's foreign-policy pyramid? Who could have predicted that black women would, educationally, so outstrip black men? Who could have dreamed the day would come when black women would lay claim to "white men's" jobs--the phrase used by banking executive Malia Fort's former boss as he reminded her of the time when "the only thing a black woman could have done in a bank is clean up"? Today a black woman can be anything from an astronaut to a talk-show host, run anything from a corporation to an Ivy League university. Once consigned to mostly menial work, black women (24 percent of them, compared with 17 percent of black men) have ascended to the professional-managerial class.
This is not to say that black women have climbed the storied crystal stair. They remain "in the proving stage," observes Alabama Power executive Alice Gordon. Nearly 14 percent of working black women remain below the poverty level. And women don't yet out-earn black men. But the growing educational-achievement gap portends a monumental shifting of the sands. College-educated black women already earn more than the median for all black working men--or, for that matter, for all women. And as women in general move up the corporate pyramid, black women, increasingly, are part of the parade. In 1995 women held less than 9 percent of corporate-officer positions in Fortune 500 companies, according to Catalyst, a New York-based organization that promotes the interests of women in business. Last year they held close to 16 percent, a significant step up. Of those 2,140 women, 163 were black--a minuscule proportion, but one that is certain to grow.
These days, few black women are willing to settle for Sula's life. There is a search not only for recognition but for "models of happiness," in the words of Veronica Chambers, author of a new book called "Having It All." But that quest brings with it a host of questions--some whispered, some loudly (even anxiously) debated. Is this new black woman finally crashing through the double ceiling of race and gender? Or is she leaping into treacherous waters that will leave her stranded, unfulfilled, childless and alone? Can she thrive if her brother does not, if the black man succumbs, as hundreds of thousands already have, to the hopelessness of prison and the streets? Can she--dare she--thrive without the black man, finding happiness across the racial aisle? Or will she, out of compassion, loneliness or racial loyalty "settle" for men who--educationally, economically, professionally--are several steps beneath her?
Such questions are now being debated because black men and women are, increasingly, following different paths. As choreographer Fatima Robinson put it: "I love brothers... But there is such a gap that I think I may not end up with a black man." In 1970 the numbers of black males and females in college (though much smaller than they are now) were essentially equivalent. There were only 6 percent more black women than black men enrolled. But in the aftermath of the women's liberation movement, females of all colors moved into the academy and the professions. In 1970 America's college population was predominantly male. Today it is 56 percent female.
Twenty-five percent of young black males go to college; 35 percent of women do. Only 13.5 percent of young black females are high-school dropouts; more than 17 percent of young black men are. The notion that college was a place to find a man has slowly given way to the conviction that decent, educated black men are rarer, to borrow Shakespeare's words, than pearls in beauteous ladies' eyes.
Daven Jackson, a 25-year-old veterinary student at Alabama's predominantly black Tuskegee University, thinks she understands why. In her high school in Thomasville, Ga., recalls Jackson, "most black males were encouraged to be athletes," not scholars. None made it big as jocks; instead, "over half of the males who graduated with me are in jail." Tametria Brown, a student at Meharry Medical College, remembers being singled out for leadership roles in high school. That rarely happened with the boys. Not just teachers but the entire educational support system now favors girls over boys, argues Monette Evans, a Tuskegee vice president. There is also the powerful drive of the women themselves. "Oftentimes women go into higher education and beyond because they can't depend on anyone else to support them or their children," Evans points out. And whereas boys typically lack focus, girls show up with a sense of purpose. "Females had no excuses about anything," says Kevin Cook, an administrator at Arizona State University. They arrive with an attitude that quietly announces, "We're here. It's tough. We're black. We're alone."
As they graduate and move into the work world, many black women stay just as tough-minded. "I never had this expectation that someone would reach down and pat me on the head," says Laura Murphy, head of the Washington office of the ACLU. "In order to advance, I had to change jobs." For many black women, that professional struggle never ends. "Nobody reaches out to [black women]... And when they reach out, the door gets slammed in their face," says Ella L. J. Bell, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and coauthor of "Our Separate Ways," a study of black and white women in corporations. Indeed, despite all the progress they have made, black women "are the least satisfied [of all groups of women] and overall least likely to stay in their current jobs," says Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst.
Still, for significant numbers the atmosphere in corporate America is changing. In a recently released study of corporate women of color, Catalyst found that 57 percent had been promoted between 1998 and 2001. According to that study, 62 percent of black women reported having mentors, up dramatically from three years earlier, when the number was 35 percent. Although the updated survey drew from a much smaller sample, it indicates something extremely encouraging--that black women may be starting to overcome one of the most significant barriers to career advancement: connecting with influential people in the work hierarchy. Corporate types may still not see black women as members of the club, but they "don't feel threatened by us," notes Gwen DeRu, vice president of a black-owned consulting firm in Birmingham, Ala.
In fact, if watering-hole conversation is any criterion, the most difficult challenge black women face today may lie closer to home. Go any Friday night to Lola's Cajun eatery in Los Angeles and you'll find a weekly gathering of what could easily be dubbed "the black, beautiful, accomplished but can't find a mate club." In bars, colleges and other gathering spots across America, the question is much the same: where are the decent, desirable black men? "When I left high school, I had a boyfriend, but that went down the drain," confides Tametria Brown, 23. As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, she found " a lot of people dating the same guy... The dating scene was not good." The marriage scene may be worse. According to the 2000 Census, 47 percent of black women in the 30-to-34 age range have never married, compared with 10 percent of white women. "I figured that as I made more money and got the education that's required to get a good job, that that would automatically make it easier for me to find someone," said Lana Coleman, a Pasadena, Calif., attorney. ''But it's really been the opposite.''
For M. Belinda Tucker, a psychologist at UCLA and co-editor of "The Decline in Marriage Among African Americans," such comments evoke memories of her own experience as a graduate student at the University of Chicago some three decades ago. A fancy education, her black female friends had concluded, came at a significant price. "You were essentially consigning yourself to being unmarried... That's what we said to each other and that's what we were told." Tucker is quick to add that, for many, the prophecy proved false. But the sentiment resonates much more strongly today--if only because the numbers are so much more daunting.
Gwen McKinney considers herself among the blessed in being married to a black man (a systems engineer) who is unthreatened by her success as a Washington public-relations-firm owner. "I just consider myself like the Marines--the few, the proud--in terms of being so fortunate that I have a spouse who is supportive." McKinney believes her husband's comfort level stems from the fact that they got involved before her business took off. "Most of the time it doesn't work unless those relationships are forged before the woman's ascendancy," she says. That many black men seem threatened by successful women is a development that Michael Eric Dyson, author of "Why I Love Black Women," finds ironic. "I call it femphobia--the fear of black women. The same strength that was used to save black men is now being used against them.''
Underappreciated by black men, many black women are looking elsewhere. Connie Rice, a Los Angeles civil-rights attorney and Radcliffe graduate, puts it plainly: "If you have to have the same race, your choices are limited." For years, there has been a general assumption that while black men were comfortable dating white women, black women (for many reasons, some having to do with exploitation dating back to the time of slavery) generally steered clear of white men. Certainly, statistics show that interracial black-white unions, while relatively rare, have been much more common between black men and white women. But the marriage statistics are shifting. And if unpublished research by Tucker and her colleagues is any indication, the dating wall of Jericho is tumbling. In a survey of residents of 21 cities, Tucker & Co. found that 78 percent of black men (average age: 32) had dated interracially at least once, as had 53 percent of black women (average age: 34).
Those emerging trends represent a new promise of racial integration to some--and a threat of lost racial identity to others. Actor Samuel Jackson was caught a bit off guard when his only daughter, Zoe, began dating white boys in high school. "It was a little weird because you really always think of black couples being together and want that for your child, too," recalls Jackson's wife, Latanya Richardson. Last year the couple sent Zoe to Spelman College, a predominantly black all-female school in Atlanta. She now has a black boyfriend. "It made her father very happy," said Richardson. "I just think he wanted her to see the different side of things. To have the option of both, really."
Instead of crossing the racial line, others are trying to navigate the currents of interclass romance. Ellen Lewis, 32, a product manager for Oscar Mayer in Phoenix, Ariz., is married to a trucker. With a marketing degree and business experience, Lewis makes more than double her husband's salary. When they began dating, she hid all evidence of her success. "After a while, I could see he could probably handle it." But even now, says Lewis, "it's hard not to sense his resentment and his attitude that black women have it easier.'' Birmingham banker Malia Fort, who had a child (and is in a long-term relationship) with a laborer, has found the going somewhat smoother--in part because her expectations were brutally realistic. "He doesn't fit into my professional world, but he doesn't have to," she says.
In analyzing data collected from graduates of 28 selective colleges and universities, sociologist Donna Franklin found evidence of serious trouble with marriages where the wife was the dominant wage earner. The black women surveyed were much more likely than white women to have husbands who earned less; those who had been married were also more than twice as likely to have gotten divorced. The facts are not coincidental, says Franklin, author of "What's Love Got to Do With It?" --a probing look at relationships between black women and men. The higher divorce rate among highly educated black women was due, she believes, to the fact that they generally made more money than their mates.
Youtha Hardman-Cromwell, a Washington minister and associate professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, is hopeful that society is just going through a period of adjustment--that in the end, black women will not be penalized for marrying less successful men. "Look at how fragile interracial marriages once were," she says. But even among the most optimistic, there is an underlying sense of concern. Ella Bell, professor and soon-to-be Essence career-advice columnist, is far more successful than she ever dreamed she would be. Yet the never-married Bell is not exactly content. "I've come not to expect a traditional black husband," says Bell. "You can get a dog, keep yourself busy... keep yourself tired... You don't have to have a relationship," she says. Still, she wonders--neither morbidly nor excessively--if she "will die in a room all by myself."
Cassaundra Cain prepared her two daughters (now college-age) early on for the possibility of being alone. A divorced postal worker living in Atlanta, Cain says she "always stressed the Prince Charming thing wasn't our reality." She warned her daughters against getting "caught in what they saw young mainstream girls do... I tell them they're young black girls--that they may end up on their own and alone." Even for women in "mainstream" white America, says Franklin, hard times may lie ahead. Black women may be the leaders in the trend of marrying less successful men, but white women are surely following. And, argues Franklin, they will reap the same consequences--more domestic tension and higher divorce rates. Professor Bell agrees: "Nothing lies in isolation in a culture this fluid. So what happens to us will happen to them." But what exactly will happen to "us"? Bell concedes that black women, particularly young, black, educated women, are journeying into uncharted waters. "They have a degree of liberty no other group of black women have had... It'll be interesting to see what they do with it."
Interesting, indeed. There are several competing visions. In the most bleak, more and more black women will lead lives of success but also of isolation, as poorer, less well-prepared black women raise the community's children and perpetuate the existence of the "underclass." Then there is another view, one closer to that of Hardman-Cromwell's, the Washington minister. In that vision, black women are weathering a period of transition, after which they will find a way to balance happiness and success--and perhaps even serve as an inspiration for their sisters across the color line. It is, admittedly, the rosier view; but it is not necessarily less realistic. Given the history of black women on this planet, one would have to be supremely foolish to believe that there is any challenge they cannot overcome.