Read an Excerpt
I Didn't Work This Hard Just To Get Married
Successful Single Black Women Speak Out
By Nika C. Beamon
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 Nika C. Beamon
All rights reserved.
With Actress and Comedienne Kim Coles
Let's face it: as society struggles to catch up to the growing reality that fewer people yearn to or decide to marry, the idea of finding a mate is still continually pushed. For celebrities, who seemingly have it all, the questions about when they will marry or why they haven't yet are splashed across newspaper and magazine headlines all the time. One wonders if it's more difficult to be single in the spotlight, where women are perceived as having everything going for them — except for living up to the societal expectation of having a husband.
Who better to talk about living single in the public eye than actress and comedienne Kim Coles? In 1993, Coles, Ericka Alexander, Kim Fields, and Dana Owens, aka Queen Latifah, starred in the ground-breaking television show Living Single. The show set the groundwork for a discussion of the social life of African American women by following four black women while they tried to navigate the dating and business worlds in New York City. For five years Coles played Synclair James, the naive, dependent, country cousin of a strong self-employed woman. Audiences watched as her innocent and unworldly character met, fell in love with, and married the building's handyman, Overton, who was also the first man who came her way.
In reality, life has been anything but a sitcom for Coles. It has been more like a dramedy — a cross between a comedy and drama. Despite the twists and turns in her personal life, Coles is clear about one thing: she isn't willing to just settle for the first person to come her way. She balks at the fairy tale of a prince coming to sweep a woman off her feet, although she understands why many women buy into that notion. "I think for most of them it's not their fault. ... It's what society tells them it's supposed to be. I think society has this expectation, and the fairy tales didn't help, not to mention the fact that our mothers and grandmothers all got married. This doesn't help either. I think it has to do with feeling someone chose me. See, I am beautiful, smart, amazing, because someone validated me by saying, 'I'm choosing you and I'm going to walk down the aisle with you.'"
The road to enlightenment hasn't come without its bumps and bruises for Coles, who was married while struggling to establish herself as a comedienne. "I've been married," she says. "I was married when I was twenty-three years old. We were young; we were broke. We didn't even have a wedding, and there is a little piece of me — I'm not going to lie — that says, you know what, before I die, I kind of want a wedding. But I realize it's not because I want a man to choose me, because I've already had that. I kind of want a big party."
Although her marriage didn't last, Coles isn't bitter. Instead she views her divorce as the catalyst for her self-exploration. Coles took time to reevaluate her thoughts about marriage and commitment, something she thinks other women should do. "I think it requires women to think outside the box and go, like, 'Do I really, really want this life, or is it something someone told me I am supposed to have?'"
The answer to that question didn't come easily for Coles. She first had to take a look at her own dating habits before she learned that her main regret wasn't being single but being with the wrong person. "My regret was dating guys I shouldn't, dating guys that were bad for me, so I wouldn't be single," she says. Coles believes the fear of being alone is so ingrained in women that, like her, they are often not consciously aware that they are selecting or staying with someone who doesn't suit them. She says her own awareness only came through a chance encounter.
Coles's epiphany came during a shopping spree a couple of years ago. As the starlet passed a security guard, he innocently asked if she was shopping for clothes for a new boyfriend. That simple sentence stopped her in her tracks. It forced her to take note of how much time she'd spent buying suits from the men's department for various boyfriends. It was so often that she'd lost track — the guard had not.
Coles says, "I dropped out of the dating scene. ... I was a dating disaster. I realized it was me. I was drawing to myself guys, men, who had either alcohol or drug problems. A guy who was constantly saying, 'I'm in the process of divorcing of my wife,' but he never fully did. Or I'd find out he's crazy. You know, that kind of thing."
So Coles took a long, hard look at herself to figure out why she wasn't attracting the kind of men she wanted in her life, and she says she found that "if you believe The Secret or the laws of attraction, if you believe you deserve something better — that there's something better coming, that you're supposed to have something better — then you have a chance. I guess I didn't believe I did, so I stopped dating two years ago. I shut it down."
She went on dating strike, refusing to go out with any man so she could take time to get to know herself. "I said let's work on me first to see what it is about me that's drawing these disastrous relationships." She soon found that her lack of self-esteem made it easy for her to accept whatever person came her way rather than holding fast to her standards and demanding someone who met them. It wasn't until she learned to be happy with who she was as an individual that it became clear to Coles that she was OK on her own, and that if she was going to be with a mate he'd have to add to her life rather than detract from it.
Coles says the kind of man she discovered she was attracted to wasn't drawn to her, in part, because men buy into the societal expectation that a woman with her level of financial security and success is either taken or unattainable. "I think there is an expectation that you are a public person so you must have access to a billion men. ... For me, the expectation is: 'She probably already has someone so I won't even try to talk to her.' There's an intimidation factor when it comes to me. A man who dates me has to be willing to date my career as well because it's a public career. Someone is going to walk up to the table and interrupt us, and he's got to be OK with that."
While her level of achievement tended to scare off some men, Coles unfortunately found that her means and status were enticing to men who viewed being with her as a step up for them. "It doesn't deter the broke ones. I have no problem attracting the broke ones, because they have nothing to lose." She says the reason that men don't hesitate in approaching a woman, no matter how much greater her means may be than his, is that "one of their common traits is they're often looking for something better. They're always thinking: 'Can I find something better?' I think women settle, and they get happy. They say, 'Well, he's a little pudgy, but I love him.'" She cites as proof that men are motivated to constantly upgrade in their personal life "the famous line 'Show me a man who's dating Halle Berry, and I'll show you a man who's sick of dating Halle Berry.' So I just think that's something men are hardwired, biologically, to do — constantly look for something new and a new place to spread their seed."
Coles says men, conversely, have the expectation that all women, including her, date for the purpose of finding a man to marry and procreate with, but this is definitely a notion with which she cannot identify. "I don't have the same pressures. I don't want children, so I think that knocks away a lot of the needing to be a couple for me." In fact, she says, "If I had one hundred men in front of me, and any of them wanted to have children, I would throw them all [the ones that want kids] back into the dating pool."
While Coles doesn't buy into the idea that marriage and children are the keys to happiness, finding someone with whom to share her life is of interest to her. Coles says she is open to dating any man who has the characteristics she values, and she takes issue with the common expectation that a successful black woman isn't looking to settle down with a man of color. She rejects the notion that women of color with money believe "white is right," even though census data show that black women are exploring options such as interracial dating at greater rates. In 2006, for example, there were 117,000 unions between black women and white men; that number represents a sharp rise over the 95,000 marriages in 2000. Nonetheless, Cole states, "I have to admit, I would really prefer a brother. I would prefer a man of color."
Ultimately, Coles has found that she's happy with who she is, with or without a man. It's a realization she came to only after, she says, "I discovered it is better for me to be single and find a way to be happy than be miserable with some guy just to say I have a boyfriend. To be miserable in a relationship is not better than being single and lonely sometimes. I discovered I enjoy my company. I enjoy other things about myself, so now I won't accept a disastrous relationship. I will see the red flags, and I won't knock them down."
Cole suggests women ask themselves not whether they have a man but whether they have love in their lives. She says, "I don't have a boyfriend, but I have lots of love and that fills me up." Looking at her life in terms of what she does have rather than what she doesn't and being at peace with her present situation are part of developing a better sense of self. Coles says that will serve her best whether she stays single or goes on to find a mate. "I think you have to be a strong single before you can be a strong couple anyway."
Still, if Coles does spend the rest of her life single, she will have no regrets about it. "I don't have any regrets about being single. You know when I have regrets? When I need someone to climb up on a ladder and do something for me. But you know what I do? I call the handyman."CHAPTER 2
With Author Deborah Gregory
Life has been anything but a crystal staircase for author, performer, and writer Deborah Gregory. The creator of the wildly popular Cheetah Girls novel series may be a household name now, but in her childhood she was just another case number in the New York City foster care system.
"I remember my first foster mother. She was an angry woman, and she had a very derogatory opinion of men. She was from the South and quite a drinker. She would say, 'Yeah, when you got one coming in the door, you just get the other one moving out the back.' I remember seeing this. She was married, and not an attractive woman, especially when the glasses came off and the teeth came out. I look back now and marvel that she got some man to marry her who was never there, and she got other men. She was slipping on the side."
Gregory's story of neglect is unfortunate, but even worse, it isn't unique. According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System, 32 percent of all children in foster care are African American. Disproportionately, these same kids will remain in the system until age eighteen without being adopted or getting a permanent home. Life afterward doesn't look bright for them either: 84 percent of the kids studied in the report became parents before the age of twenty-one, 51 percent were unemployed, and 25 percent had been homeless, while yet another 30 percent were receiving public assistance. Only 54 percent of them got their high school diplomas, and just 2 percent of foster children earned a college degree.
Gregory beat the odds, obtaining both an associate's degree and a bachelor's degree. She has also supported herself quite well using the talent for reading and writing she developed as a little girl. "I grew up so lonely. I was an avid reader. When I went to bookstores, the characters in the books were so white. It was very hurtful, so I wanted to create something for girls of all colors that would make them feel pretty." Remarkably, for a generation of preteen and teenage girls, that's exactly what she's done with the Cheetah Girls.
If you aren't up on pop culture and don't have a teenage girl in your life, you may not know who the Cheetah Girls are. Their names are Galleria, Chanel, Aquanetta, and Dorinda. Their ethnicity is unclear, and, like Gregory, one of them is a foster child. The quartet leaped from the pages of Gregory's novels to the small screen in a 2003 Disney Channel movie. The flick starring Raven-Symoné, Adrienne Bailon, Kiely Williams, and Sabrina Bryan was produced by diva Whitney Houston. Its success led to another movie and a hit soundtrack, which both shared the same message: young girls should rely on their instincts, intellect, and decision-making powers to fulfill their dreams despite obstacles and adversity.
"If you notice the drive of the characters in Cheetah Girls and Cat-walk," Gregory says, the latter the title of her latest novel about the fashion industry, "the main focus is to manifest their dreams. How are they going to do it — navigate things and deal with problems with their family and friends? In a way, it kind of says all that other stuff is nonsense so we don't deal with it."
The nonsense Gregory refers to is focusing on men and relationships rather than aspirations. Although she didn't achieve her early goal of being a singer, Gregory didn't let a longing for a partner stop her from being self-sufficient and becoming a successful novelist. Gregory learned early in life that no one was going to save her from foster care. "I wasn't raised to be married. I was raised in foster homes. I was raised with very low expectations, unfortunately." To combat them, she decided to elevate herself from loneliness and poverty on her own.
"We should stop teaching our children these things, teaching our girls these things, the Cinderella fantasy. My girlfriend, an actress, says she still has this Cinderella thing, this thing in the back of her mind that someone will save her." Gregory made a conscious effort to make sure her multiethnic characters in the Cheetah Girls did not embrace the fantasy. "None of them has the fantasy that some guy is going to come along."
Her unshakable resolve to not rely on men or marriage to fill the void left from her youth only partially explains why she is happily single. To hear her tell it, Gregory has had a steady stream of suitors, yet she never found the need to settle down. "I do not think for a second I feel incomplete without a man. I think if you don't have friends or a close family, you could be lonely, but I'm not. I have a lot of regrets in my life, but not being married or having children is certainly not among them."
Determined and headstrong, she's also decided that not wanting to get married doesn't mean she can't have male companionship at all. "We need them [men] for companionship, but not if they are broke down." Gregory believes that until she finds a suitable mate or needs assistance, she'll go it alone. "I do see myself when I am old with someone, 'cause that's when you need them. Over seventy, I think it would be nice to have a companion to live with, but before then I can have boyfriends. I don't have to live with a man, and I certainly don't have to be married."
Gregory knows that by being unwilling to be flexible about her standards she may have to wait a long while for the right man, so she's come up with a backup plan. "I was in an arts-and-crafts store, and I saw a hand-painted leopard cane that an artist had painted, and I said, 'Let me buy that.' So I now have a cane I can use for support when I am older."
She wishes more women would refuse to lower their expectations about a partner so they could stop being short-changed in relationships. "The truth is that most black women have settled. I see a lot of settling going on on women's parts, putting up with things that they wouldn't if there was more of a pool to draw from."
Gregory says what she's seen on the singles scene has made her often-times think that being by herself is better than simply choosing from the men available. "The biggest problem I find with men — and I meet a lot of men — is that most of them are emotionally damaged; they have a lot of emotional problems. They don't achieve. They don't succeed. They have a lot of baggage." Still, like a lot of black women, she's not willing to give up on African American men and consistently date outside of her race. "The majority of black women tend to like black men; that's definitely put a damper on my choices. Nine times out of ten, they [black men] aren't as emotionally balanced as I am. I've done a lot of work on myself. I don't see them working on themselves."
Gregory believes that if more black women recognized that making a bad choice is to their own detriment, they might also choose to face life solo. "There is nothing worse than a bad relationship. It can kill you, literally."
Constantly working on improving her self-worth and being willing to walk away from the wrong relationships have allowed Gregory to find her inner Cheetah Girl: "grown power" to be a woman who is fierce, tough, and still vulnerable — all qualities she hopes to inspire in the next generation of ethnic women through her writings so they can be their own "Princesses Charming."
Excerpted from I Didn't Work This Hard Just To Get Married by Nika C. Beamon. Copyright © 2009 Nika C. Beamon. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.