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Maybe it's just me, but as a divorced woman of African descent,
I am more often contemplating the question, is polygamy a possible solution to the male shortage in our community?
Have I limited my options by only considering brothers born in America? Is the male shortage real? Or perceived? When I find myself answering, "Yes", to all of the above, I feel fatigued by the prospects. What are my chances of meeting a brother who wants to deal with my independence, my passion as an activist? And even though I know I'm getting better with each passing year, I am over forty.
Five hundred years removed from mother Africa, I would argue that polygamy is one of our African cultural retentions. In it's various forms it is not necessarily preferred, but it is tolerated. Most of us can remember hearing our mother, auntie or grandma speaking of so-and-so who had another family "on the side."
Growing up in America, I was taught that marriage is a highly revered social function within the African community. Without it, somehow, you are not complete, not fully adult. Once visiting Ghana I was once told that a grown woman is still considered to be a child until married with children.
When I was in my twenties and met my ex-husband I was full of hope, idealism and romance about our union. But these days I am more practical. I have the same basic desires as my sisters; I want a positive, healthy relationship -- with a brother. I want to share a meaningful life with 'my man' and have peace of mind. Of course I realize that the African community in America has historically been confronted with decades of systemic economic inequities and social injustices which challenge this desire. Yet, in spite of these obstacles and daily struggles, we as a community share a collective yearning for a 'normal' life.
As a divorced, single woman, I often feel a personal rage for the subtle judgements I receive from family, society and myself for not 'holding onto my husband'. Most people think marriage is as normal getting a job or owning a house. Unmarried you will not enjoy a full menu of life. The perception is that your life lacks the most important ingredients and spices.
Have I put too much weight on the value of marriage? No! I do want a partnership and companion for life. Yes. I want the respect, consideration and status that comes with the title, "wife". But what about "co-wife?"
There is nothing in my background that has prepared me to accept polygamy, so why would I consider it as a possible option today? I realize, like most women, regardless of our social, economic and cultural status, we will at least once in our life share a male significant other with another woman. Sharing a male significant other with another woman is usually seen simultaneously as inevitable, but extremely undesirable. Sharing is also sometimes known as 'cheating', 'adultery', 'relationship betrayal' or 'unofficial polygamy'. Each of these social improprieties seems to carry the weight of being an immoral person, but it is a sometimes tolerated act.
Do I, as an African woman accept 'relationship betrayal' because it is inevitable? No. Are brothers naturally polygamous? Most will tell you they are.
As an activist I have studied African culture (traveled and lived in Africa and the African Diaspora) and have concluded that the African family is resilient and multi-faceted. The extended family is more than a notion. The African extended family is the glue that has kept our community together this long. The !Kung (also known as the "Bushmen of the Kalahari") believe sole commitment to one person is the ultimate human goal and 99% of their society achieve this. The !Kung also have a practice called, "trial marriage" where multiple divorces are allowed until a couple are mature enough. By the third or forth trial their "hearts have grown big" towards each other and they stay together forever. Polygamy is also tolerated by the !Kung, but not preferred.
I have some 'sista-friends' currently in open 'polygamous' relationships. I recently asked Maya (not her real name) how she developed her ideas about polygamy and if it really worked for her. Maya grew up as a teenager around Black Panthers and Black Muslims at a time when polygamy was more openly discussed. She grew to accept the idea. Her husband is a Muslim and has accepted this all of his life. I asked her if she would have felt differently if she had been the first wife instead of the second?
"No. Because it's illegal in this country most people don't ever discuss it," she said. "Most married men have another woman anyway. A lot of women silently accept this. I do too, but not silently. I just happen to know her. And we know our husband is not sleeping around getting diseases and stuff. Deep down most women just want their man to themselves. This would be the perfect thing. But, in our imperfect understanding of the world men tend to want more than one woman, why, I don't know. It must be in their blood. I do know I'd like to have a man, then to be alone."
Relationships are like food; we need them to survive. Within each relationship our hearts seek love, on whatever terms, definitions or flavors we have come to call it. Marriage becomes the main dish on this menu. Maya also said she thought that "most American men (black or white) are afraid to ask their wives to become polygamous because they think she'll leave." Maya believes that once a woman accepts her husband loving two women and she's not afraid that he'll leave then she will become secure, even appreciate the new family set-up.
Of course, Maya knows her situation is very specific. "This is easy for me to say as the second wife, because I want to share. But I have been blessed with a husband and co-wife who grew-up accepting this as natural. I like the fact that he has a week with me and then I have time to myself. I was single for a long time, so this is like having my cake and eating it too".
I am still not convinved about polygamy as an natural alternative. It works for my friend but certainly won't work for most of today's black women in America. Still, it is a centuries-long tradition which may still hold some benefits in today's society. So why not legalize it? Legalized polygamy just might lower the divorce rate. What do you think?