What Was African American Marriage?

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What was marriage under slavery? Professor Tera W. Hunter’s new book, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century provides an intimate glimpse of the affections and complexities of black marriage in the United States from its origins. In an illuminating conversation, Professor Tera Hunter and Professor Eddie Glaude discuss major takeaways from the book, key language introduced by Hunter, and various new understandings about African American marriage and family life from 1800 to the present day. A common assumption shared by liberal and conservative commentators alike is that low marriage rates in African American communities are a byproduct of slavery. However, Hunter’s research shows that marriage among African Americans, respected by law or not, was widely embraced in earlier times. From slavery to reconstruction, a desire to marry and build lives together factored centrally in the hearts and minds of African American men and women.After marriage was legalized following emancipation, black marriage rates started to eclipse white Americans’ by the turn of the twentieth century. Hunter suggests current declining marriage rates may best be attributed to advantages offered to some Americans, and denied to other Americans at specific, consequential junctures, such as in the wake of World War II. Bound in Wedlock is a groundbreaking book which, through an extensive archive, dismantles pathologies as it fascinates.

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