Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer. -Song of Solomon 3:1
Hey, Free Agents! It has been too long since my last post, but I am still on the topic of nineteenth-century marriage theology. This post is my second post of three in this series. My last post focused on the politics of labor and black women’s marriage in the nineteenth-century. The post explained the concept of the cult of domesticity which allowed white women of means at the time to keep their own vineyards (to borrow from the language of Song of Solomon) while black women focused on keeping everyone’s vineyards except their own. This week, I want to think more theologically about black women’s marriage. The question of this post is what did it mean to “become married” as a black woman in the nineteenth-century?
What in the world is going on in Song of Solomon between a young black woman preparing for marriage and her elusive lover? By Chapter 3, her lover eludes her. She is in her bed, and he is nowhere to be found. Even when she calls for him, he does not answer her. What is it to be a black woman who is in the process of becoming married? What is it to be awaiting a mate who is there, right at your fingertips, and yet eludes you? That is what seems to be happening in the life of the heroine of this fascinating piece of wisdom literature. This Song of Solomon woman was vulnerable, she had waited for love, she had no awakened love too soon, she had found her mate, and yet, he is still not quite with her. Even after finding him, she must continue to chase after him. She calls for her love; she even goes out looking for him, but he will not answer her.
While I have been working (slowly) to write this post, I read a blog post by theologian Candice Marie Benbow called “What Shall We Say to These Things? The Implications of Black Women’s Singleness”. You can read that post here. In the post, she writes about the real physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges that accompany being a single, black woman and the problems with theological teachings that negate, ignore, or diminish that reality. While her post is situated within the context of a twenty-first-century black Christian women’s life, the phenomenon she describes has its roots in the old practice of neglecting the womanhood, and with it the full humanity of black women. For, as Benbow explains in her post, “Companionship and intimacy matter for the fullness of life.” One is not fully alive if one is not fully loved and received by one’s community. The contemporary single black Christian woman who can never quite find genuine intimacy in her life has her roots in her black female ancestors who, might have had marriage, but rarely had intimacy. Our black female ancestors often awoke in the middle of the night, like our heroine in Song of Solomon, seeking after the ones their souls loved. Why wouldn’t he answer?
What is it to become married? In their 1993 book, Becoming Married, Herbert Anderson and Robert Cotton Fite explain that becoming married is a process that happens over time but that the most important task of becoming married is that one must leave home. Throughout the book, the two theologians explain what that process of leaving home ought to be. It involves differentiation from one’s family of origin and a confrontation with the impact of family history on the life of the one becoming married. Of course, in the late twentieth century, more young adults than ever before had already left home years before they were married. Living away from home in the years before marriage is a phenomenon that has become even more pronounced in the decades since Anderson and Fite published their work. In 1993, the process of becoming married looked significantly different than it had in the preceding decades of American history.
The process of becoming married for the nineteenth-century black woman was not a neat process and perhaps, black women, more than any other demographic, most closely mirrored what the process of becoming married looks like for many young adults today. I mean that in the sense that black women disproportionately had work outside of the context of their homes. By the time they married in their late teens and twenties, many black women were already intimately involved in the lives of wealthy white households where they were nannies and servants. While they had blood relatives, as teenagers and young women, many nineteenth-century black women were impacted by a circle of other women with whom they worked and laughed and shared the intimacies of community.
“I called him, but he gave no answer.” Why didn’t he answer? Where was this woman’s love? Why did he elude her? When I imagine this woman she becomes, at least in my imagination, one of the many women in the history of black womanhood who was left, for all sorts of reasons, to fend for herself. In the antebellum period, perhaps her love did not answer because he had to return to his plantation, for the bonds of their marriage were not to be respected. In the Reconstruction period, perhaps he was seeking a better opportunity for his family or maybe he was testing the limits of his new freedom. In the early years of the twentieth-century, perhaps he was unexpectedly imprisoned or fleeing from a mob who sought to end his life, or perhaps he struggled with the idea of being faithful to his wife. Maybe her love died, suddenly and unexpectedly. We don’t know where he went or why he did not answer when she called. All we know is that she was alone and that she did not want to be alone. She wanted to have the privilege of following through with the process of becoming married.
When becoming married is all about leaving home and forming a new home with your partner, how can one become married when they don’t have a precise definition of home? What is a home? Is a home a home if there is no intimacy? And, by intimacy, I mean the intimacy not only of touch but also and perhaps more importantly, the intimacy of presence. The intimacy of answering one’s lover when she calls.