Altered Calls

Altered Calls

UrbanFaith contributing writer Jacqueline J. Holness’s first book grabbed our attention right away. Yes, in part because we’re proud of the personal and professional achievement of one of our own (her first book!), but even more because the title, After the Altar Call, is where many of us spend our daily lives as Christians. The joy, freedom, and zeal that we experience in that initial moment of salvation at the altar is gradually replaced by the boredom, temptation, and disappointment of everyday life, and we’re soon left wondering, “How do I get that fire back?” As a preacher’s kid who has spent her entire life in the church, Jacqueline knows that feeling well, and she set out to create a book that could help her and other women (heck, I’ll say men too) recapture and maintain their sense of hope, passion, and mission.

After the Altar Call:The Sisters’ Guide to Developing a Personal Relationship with God includes first-person accounts of 24 women who share stories of inspiration as they recount what happened after their altar-call experiences. Interviews with a variety of women, including The View‘s Sherri Shepherd, A.M.E. trailblazer Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and author and life coach Valorie Burton, make the book a fresh and relevant how-to manual for Christian women who want a serious relationship with God. Jacqueline, who is also a correspondent for the Courthouse News Service in Atlanta, says After the Altar Call is the handbook she wishes she’d had after her own salvation experience.

What I like most about the book is that Jacqueline avoids trite formulas and goes after answers to real-life questions that will eventually wreak havoc on our best-laid plans. So, among other things, we read about women who have faced divorce, religious conflict, breast cancer, the loss of a family member in the war, and chronic illness. We spoke with Jacqueline about her book and the lessons she learned from writing it.

URBAN FAITH: The title of your book, After the Altar Call, suggests a sort of post-conversion emphasis. This is for people who’ve had that salvation experience and are in the “Now what?” stage. What led you to write about this?

JACQUELINE HOLNESS: The Christian life traditionally begins for many of us at an altar at the front of a church. After that, your life changes because you now live based on what God wants for you instead of what you want for you. I wrote this book because when I decided to follow Christ in my early 20s, I wanted to know what it was like “for real” to live as a Christian. My father had been a pastor, so I grew up as a “PK” [Preacher’s Kid], but I wanted to get beyond the “rules” I had been taught at home and at my home church. Also, I have always been a person with a certain joie de vi·vre for life. I wanted to be sure that wouldn’t end because I decided to be a Christian.

So you went on a quest.

As a budding journalist at the time, the only way I knew to get my questions answered was asking numerous black women whom I met along the way about what it was like to be a Christian. I asked about really personal stuff. I also looked for books in which women shared their testimonies. I kept hoping I would come across one book that contained life stories from diverse black women and their faith in God, but I did not. This book is the answer to my earnest search for “realness” at the time. I have interviewed women of varied walks and stations of life, from their 20s to their 80s. I looked for inquisitive women like myself who needed to “count the cost” before making that all-important decision to be a follower of Christ.

CHRONICLING WOMEN'S STORIES OF FAITH: Journalist and author Jacqueline J. Holness.

You spoke to a variety women who are either famous or accomplished in their particular fields. What was the most common recurring theme that you heard from each of them?

Regardless of age, socioeconomic background, or career path, it was obvious that each woman was intentional about having a personal relationship with God, and that was inspiring to me. I was inspired that someone like Sherri Shepherd, who has a nationwide if not worldwide platform on The View and a glamorous life, not only knows but acknowledges her utter dependence on the Lord. And it was the same with Betty Prophete of the Haitian Christian Mission. In Haiti, where voodoo is prevalent, she has been able to demonstrate to thousands if not more that knowing Jesus is more powerful than knowing voodoo.

Who surprised you the most with something she said?

The most surprising statement came from Melissa Summers, who was once a prominent radio personality in Atlanta. She was so popular, she was known as “Atlanta’s Girlfriend.” She decided to leave her radio position, in which she earned a six-figure salary not including endorsement deals, to become a missionary in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.  Today, she does not even have a regular salary and is truly dependent on the Lord to meet all of her needs. Not too many people, even Christians, would be willing to make that kind of sacrifice.

What does faith in God look like today for ambitious, successful women?

I think God deals with each one of us differently according to His purposes for our lives, and success for one person may not be success for another. For instance, Sherri Shepherd is probably the most famous woman that I interviewed, and her success and faith are very public. But for someone like Tracy King, who struggled with infertility, faith and success are defined differently. Tracy King’s success is found in being a wife and mother. And while she does not hide her faith, it does not look like Sherri’s faith. Both are equally ambitious, successful, and faithful women in God. Stephanie Bronner, who is married to the youngest of the Bronner Brothers [who created the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show] is a mother to seven children. She toyed with idea of working as she started to have children but realized that success for her meant being a full-time wife and mother. Obviously, being a mother to seven children is very ambitious and requires lots of faith.

What were some of the different views about the church that you found among your subjects?

I did not ask the women about any of the polarizing issues in the church, because I wanted as many women as possible to be drawn into the book rather than be put off by various opinions and debates. Also, I tried to include as many denominations as possible. However, a few topics came up that may be conversation starters. For instance, Cee Cee Michaela Floyd, a minister and actress probably best known for starring on Girlfriends, talked about courtship versus dating, and I know that many people have debated this topic. Fiction author Monica McKayhan has been divorced twice and is married again. I know some Christians don’t believe in divorce, so that may be controversial for some people.

The topic of love and relationships is, of course, the source of never-ending discussion, debate, and anxiety for women in general, but there are obviously unique challenges for black women. What new light does your book shed on the subject?

I did not get into the gloom-and-doom of the present day when it comes to marriage and black women. And in fact, of the two dozen women in the book only three are not married (and one of them is me!), so we are not all “man-less!” Instead of focusing on negative statistics, I interviewed them about how their faith came into play in their romantic relationships. Erica Mountain, who is in her 20s and was probably the youngest woman in the book, shares an incredible story of meeting the man who would become her husband when she was a teenager but not realizing it until years later when they were both engaged to other people. After Cee Cee Michaela Floyd became a Christian, she was celibate for close to 11 years before she got married. Lisa McClendon confessed that the views of a church she attended at the time persuaded her and her first husband to get married less than a year after knowing each other, when in fact they should have never married. She has an interesting perspective on the 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 passage that says, “To the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried …”

In speaking to these women for your interviews, what did you recognize as the greatest challenges facing them on their faith journeys?

I think it is difficult for all Christians to develop a personal relationship with a Being whom we can’t see. I think their greatest challenge was to learn how God speaks to each of them and how He directs them in their daily lives. I hoped to demystify some of that process in my book.

You write about your own experience of having grown up in a Christian home, attending Christian schools, being a PK, yet you didn’t really begin to embrace the faith as your own until later. Can you talk about that?

I’m a preacher’s kid and a preacher’s grandkid, and a preacher’s niece, so faith is our family business so to speak. Like most people, I just wanted to fit in as a child. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that I actually do fit in because we all, to some extent, are the products of our family background. And as I’ve met more people, I realize that it was a blessing to be raised in a Christian household with clear rules. It has spared me a lot of drama, being the adventurer that I naturally am.

You spoke to a lot of successful, professional women? What about women who aren’t there yet — women who have experienced setbacks, made poor choices, or who just can’t seem to catch a break? What kind of encouragement does your book offer them?

Many of the women in my book have experienced setbacks or made poor choices, but through their relationship with God, they are being redeemed. Susie Doswell, executive director emeritus of the Annual Christian Women’s Retreat, talked about her history of teenage pregnancy and marrying abusive men and how she has been able to make better choices. Lola Uter, the oldest woman in my book, talked about hearing about the Lord as a teenager but not responding to what she heard and how that poor choice affected the rest of her life. These, as well as other stories, encourage women to acknowledge poor choices and make better ones in the future.

When readers are finished with your book, what do you hope they’ll do with the stories and information?

This quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God, applies here: “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” I hope my readers develop an inspiring and adventurous personal relationship with God that sustains and propels them from season to season in their lives. And I hope the book shows them that it’s entirely possible, regardless of their inevitable mistakes and missteps.

For more information about Jacqueline Holness and her book, visit her website: AftertheAltarCall.com.

Abstinence = Epic Fail

Abstinence = Epic Fail

On February 10, 2012, rapper Too $hort posted a video on XXLMag.com, a hip-hop website, where he gave “Fatherly Advice” to middle-school and high-school boys on sexuality. The disgusting, misogynistic, dehumanizing, and graphic nature of his comments do not bear repeating here, but his comments made me wonder about the consequences of reducing sexuality to merely a physical concept in the absence of virtue. Thankfully, the video was removed and Too $hort offered an apology for offending people. The rapper, however, offered no apology for the way in which he advised young men to touch the bodies of young girls.

The whole episode reminded me that I am not convinced that Christians do a good job of telling young people what to do with their bodies other than say “no” to them. As a result, I am beginning to wonder if abstinence programs are even helpful for developing moral maturity. While abstinence rightly places sexual intercourse within its proper context — marriage — it fails to construct a moral theology of the body. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for Christians to return to teaching chastity.

Some of the early teachings on chastity date back to church Fathers like Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 A.D.) who made a serious case for bodily self-control (some argue he went too far). The teaching has faded, but some contemporary authors continue to make a case for chastity. For example, Duke Divinity School scholar Lauren Winner sought to reintroduce the ancient subject for a postmodern generation in her 2006 book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity and Bible teacher Paul Tripp offers a challenging perspective on the reality of sex and commitment in his 2010 book, What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage.

For the sake of brevity, the Roman Catholic Catechism provides a useful and succinct introduction to chastity that is helpful even if one does not agree with Catholic doctrine (I will adapt the teaching in this article). The Catholic teaching begins with the recognition that we are sexual beings whose “physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life.” That is, the mutual support between the sexes is lived out as we recognized are complimentary need for mutuality.

The vocation of chastity, then, is defined as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.” Chastity as a vocation does not require that one divorce one’s body from one’s passions but that one strive for maturity in the virtue of self-control — a skill needed before and after marriage (Prov. 25:28; 1 Cor. 7:5; Gal. 5:23; Titus 2:6; 1 Pet. 5:8). In fact, “the chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. … Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” What develops and matures young people in their moral reasoning and virtue is the conscious and free choice to use one’s body for the good. Not simply to say “no” to sin but “yes” to holiness (Deut. 7:6). Moreover, we are not to be mastered by any sin but are called to intentionally pursue holiness (1 Cor. 6:12). Abstinence does not teach this virtue.

For Christian young people, the knowledge of one’s union with Christ, a commitment to obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, fidelity to prayer, and a daily requesting and reliance on the Holy Spirit, and so on, gives one what is needed to inaugurate one into the vocation of chastity. The active work of the Holy Spirit enables us to permeate the passions and appetites with mature moral reasoning that is consistent with what the Bible teaches.

“Self-mastery is a long and exacting work,” says the Catechism. “One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.” Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of freedom. Our union with Christ in the pursuit of chastity enables us, then, to be fully human. Chastity leads those who practice it to become witnesses to their neighbors of God’s fidelity, loving kindness, and the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). The call to chastity is simply a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Chastity is for everyone.

All baptized men and women, single or married, are called to the vocation of chastity. Sexual wholeness is living according to God’s articulated design for human beings and applies to married couples and singles in the same way. Abstinence does not teach this. As a man who can relate to sexual temptation (Heb. 4:15), but who never sinned against His call to a chaste life, Jesus Christ is the perfect example of living out the vocation of chastity.

Growth in chastity includes the reality of failure, repentance, and renewal. This is why the gospel and work of the Holy Spirit is so central to the sustaining of such a vocation and why it is unsustainable in the best possible way outside of one’s union with Christ. Chastity is violated with things like adultery, pornography, rape, sex outside of marriage, sexual abuse, and so on.

In the end, if chastity were a dominant teaching in urban America, it would not only address sex before marriage but would create a culture of sexual virtue that honors God, best fits with how God designed human beings to live, and would serve as a powerful example of what is means to live knowing God’s Word is true. Abstinence education is well intentioned but fails to develop young people into morally mature followers of Christ. True love does not wait. True love loves God and neighbor by saying “yes” to God’s better way (Matt. 22:36-40).

The Miseducation of Whitney Houston

The Miseducation of Whitney Houston

DANGEROUS LOVE: Whitney Houston in 1997 with then-husband Bobby Brown. (Photo: Kathy Hutchins/Newscom)

Over the past week, we have been riveted by the tragedy of Whitney Houston’s untimely death. Accounts of drug use and a fallen icon have flooded the media. Yet, little has been said about how her self-professed faith may have contributed to both her downfall and eventual escape from an unhealthy marriage relationship.

In her last major interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, Whitney states that she stayed in the marriage, endured abuse and humiliation, and engaged in self-destructive behaviors in her effort to be a “good” Christian wife. No matter what happened, she felt she had to remain because as she quotes, “What God has brought together, let no man put asunder.”

Yet, Whitney’s statements about letting, indeed inviting, her husband “to take control of her life,” and that a wife must do whatever her husband says is not a new concept. In fact, the concept of women being required, as a matter of faith and faithfulness, “to submit” to their husbands in all things is the pervasive normative gospel preached in churches across racial, denominational, and geographical lines. Ephesians 5:22-24, which outlines a wife’s duty to submit, is often taught without context or nuance.  Rarely is the verse above it, which says to “submit to one another,” discussed. Moreover, the last verses of the chapter, which make it clear that a man wouldn’t hate or hurt his own body, do not get much airplay in the church either.

This kind of uncritical, a-contextual acceptance of a half-developed theology leads many women to unconditional obedience to a man regardless of how he treats her, much like Whitney Houston. It rebuffs and chastises women who critically analyze its meaning much like slaves were chastised for questioning the ever popular scripture of slave masters, “slaves obey your masters,” (Col. 3:22). Both the Ephesians 5:22-24 and Colossians 3:22 texts are biblical since they do appear in the Bible. But both have the potential to be misused to oppress and disenfranchise whole groups of people. They’ve also been used to maintain the status quo of unjust power structures in society.

Moreover, in 2011, CBS News reported on a Glamour/Harris poll that found that “30 percent of women who have been in a relationship have been abused. Of that 30 percent, 62 percent were hit, 33 percent were choked or strangled, and 11 percent feared their partner would kill them. Even more shocking, another 30 percent of the women said they had experienced behaviors by their partners that can be categorized as abusive, whether they be emotional or physical.”

With this kind of data, it seems incomprehensible that the church would continue to simply preach the gospel of female submission without critical reflection and further context. It is also sad that we do not give equal attention to stressing that violence has no place in any dating or marital relationship. Finally, since 83 percent of Americans categorize themselves as Christians, according to ABCNEWS/Beliefnet, this is relevant to a huge portion of our population.

Yet, Whitney’s is not just a cautionary tale of how one’s theological premise can lead them to accept abuse, disrespect, humiliation, infidelity, and neglect. In the end, it was her faith that gave her the strength to finally realize that the God she believed in did not want her to continually make herself and her talent small, so that her husband could feel big.

AMAZING GRACE: Houston was baptized in the River Jordan near the Sea of Galilee during a Holy Land pilgrimage in May 2003. (Photo: Ygal Levi/Newscom)

Whitney recounts her mother’s prodding her, telling her that the life she was living with drugs, abuse, and chaos with then-husband Bobby Brown was not God’s best for her. According to Houston, her mother, a strong Christian, reminded her of God’s presence and power to bring her out. Whitney says in the 2009 interview, “I began to pray.  I said, ‘God, if you will give me one day of strength, I will leave [this house and marriage].” And one day, she did. Much like Tina Turner left her husband, Ike Turner, with only the clothes on her back, Whitney Houston left her home and husband with only a change of clothing.

The transformative power of her faith can be seen in her public discussions. When asked by Diane Sawyer in 2002 what she was addicted to, Whitney rattled off a number of drugs and added that she was “addicted to making love [to Bobby Brown].” But when Oprah asked Whitney in 2009 who she loved, the singer said, “I love the Lord!” And it was that part of her faith that had her on the way to a professional comeback and personal redemption.

In the end, Whitney Houston did not conquer every challenge that haunted her. And none of this excuses the decisions she ultimately made for her life. She owned that. But to understand her life, it is critical that we analyze the thinking and theology that animated her decision-making and helped lead her to such a tragic place.

In the Christian tradition, good theology illuminates, liberates, and pushes us to be our best selves. Bad theology takes bits and pieces of scripture out of context and threatens any who has the audacity to ask questions or to critically analyze the paradigm put forth by those in power.

Whitney’s story is the story of millions of women. It is a cautionary tale that reiterates the importance of thinking critically even about matters of faith. It also invites remembrance of the core tenant of the faith, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” (John 3:16). A God who does not want anyone to perish in the afterlife surely does not condone them perishing at the hands of another in this one.

Why We Can’t Ignore Racism

Why We Can’t Ignore Racism

By now you’ve probably heard about the Kentucky church that decided to ban interracial marriages and even membership privileges for interracial couples. In the wake of embarrassing news reports that quickly went viral, the church is now reconsidering its 9-to-6 vote to forbid interracial relationships. But the episode’s stark reminder that our nation — and the church — is still mired in the sin of bigotry and racism has not gone unnoticed.

When I see disturbing stories like this one, my heart aches — but not before I’m forced to examine it for my own hidden pockets of racism.

I cannot remember the last time I had an open discussion about race relations. Some might consider that a good thing—that maybe I have resolved my personal prejudices and do not feel the need to have conversations about issues that I have settled in my mind. And, after all, we have laws to guarantee civil rights and to protect against discrimination—why stir up controversy? But I am not so naïve as to believe that our laws have done away with racial tension in our country, and I also recognize my own need to repent for past ignorance’s. I know that my silence is not helpful or healthy.

Over the last few years I have begun to acknowledge that, as a white American man, I am sensitive about, and mostly avoidant of, the subject of race relations. It seems that my common reaction is to become defensive when someone brings up racism—as though by acknowledging the problem I am somehow degrading myself or my ethnicity. And considering my profession as a mental health counselor, and that I frequently encourage clients to be open about even the most painful subjects, I find my reactions more perplexing and I wonder about the underlying cause of my avoidance of race issues.

Recently I was watching a documentary on the Civil War and was gripped by the narrator’s descriptions of the hardships endured by families living in slavery. I was particularly stunned to learn that many slave couples would change their wedding vows to read, “Till death or distance do us part,” as there was always the possibility that the couple might be forcibly separated by their owner, with no regard for their marriage. As I watched that documentary, I was disturbed by how much I do not know about black history. But I was more disturbed by how little I consider the thoughts and feelings of my African American friends and acquaintances as they relate to that history.

I remember studying about slavery, segregation, and discrimination in school, but even back then my common thinking was, “That’s all in the past,” or “It’s great that we don’t have to worry about that anymore.” I memorized the facts for the tests, or outlined the events of black history in my term papers, but I rarely allowed myself to be touched by the tragedy of our past and the consequences in the present.

Earlier this year, I attended a meeting at work and as we were gathering in the large conference room an African American woman whom I had never met came and sat near me. She looked to be in her mid to late sixties, and as we made small talk I began to think about how her life experiences could have influenced her view of me. In her lifetime, she possibly attended segregated schools, was probably not allowed to eat at certain restaurants, and had surely endured derogatory, racist comments from men who might have looked much like me. She greeted me with warmth and kindness, but was that greeting difficult for her — did I remind her of someone who may have been unkind to her in the past?

At times I have been guilty of rolling my eyes when I would hear the subject of racism on news shows or other media — as if to say, “Here we go again; why can’t everyone just get over it.” But I cannot imagine counseling a client who has endured some sort of trauma and telling them to “get over it.” I am proud of the progress our country has made in the area of civil rights, and I am not suggesting that anyone dwell on the negative, but I do believe that ignoring wounds from the past can be as hurtful or damaging as the initial trauma.

So again the question dogs me: How and why have I managed to dodge the issues and discussions that should be so crucial to racial reconciliation and healing in our country and world? Part of my avoidance (and I do not believe I am alone in this) is born out of shame for the sins of the past, and a feeling of helplessness that comes from not being able to undo those offenses. There is also a fear of disagreement and of being misunderstood — discussing race issues seems to be taboo in some circles, along with other topics to be avoided such as religion and politics. And when racism is viewed on a global scale, it is only natural to have feelings of despair and to question whether an individual can make any real difference.

But I believe I have misunderstood what is needed and what may be most helpful in relating to my neighbors and friends of other races. No one has asked me to find a universal solution to racism in our world, but in my lifetime I have missed many opportunities to simply empathize with others — to try to understand what it is like to be discriminated against because of my color, or to have parents or grandparents who have endured the pains of Jim Crow and the civil rights struggle, and who may still bear scars from those battles.

I no longer want to be ruled by fear when there is an opportunity for me to listen to someone and relate to them as they share their life experience. Though I may not be able to offer easy answers, and may not be able to give immediate relief to their pain, I can offer my presence and attention. And in those moments where I and my neighbor take the risk of being vulnerable, we may both find healing — not in solutions to problems, but in our service to each other. And in doing this, perhaps we’ll be able to carry out what Paul wrote to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

UPDATE ON DEC. 4, 2011: The Kentucky church that voted to ban interracial couples held another vote today to reverse the ban and welcome people of all races.

The Intermarriage Solution

The Intermarriage Solution

Congratulations to Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks, author of the new book Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone, which was released earlier this month. With a sensational title like that, Banks is sure to sell a ton of books. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the author doesn’t have something important to tell us.

Personally, I’ve decided I won’t be reading Dr. Banks’ book. I’ve also been trying to avoid reading articles related to it. Why am I treating his book like Kryptonite? After all, I am a 38-year-old single, professional black woman — presumably smack dab in the heart of his target audience. Why wouldn’t I want to read a book about how miserable my life is?

What? Do I sound bitter? Well, I’m really not. I will admit, however, that I am annoyed. But I was annoyed way before Dr. Banks became the latest purveyor of solutions for the single black female.

In December 2009, ABC’s Nightline came to Atlanta, where I live, to interview several single professional black women and ask them why, in spite of their beauty, great personalities, and accomplishments, they just couldn’t find a good man. Cue Beyoncé’s infectious “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” in the background. Comedian Steve Harvey was to the go-to expert for the segment and demonstrated with his streetwise insight why single black women made his first book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, a New York Times bestseller. The segment “went viral,” facilitating the need for Nightline to follow up in April 2010 with a full-fledged and star-powered forum called “Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?” It also was held here in Atlanta. A few months later, dating expert, Deborrah Cooper, through her Surviving Dating website, blamed the black church for keeping black women single and lonely. And in May of this year, VH1 debuted its first scripted show, Single Ladies, which is about an interracial group of single women based in … yep, none other than Atlanta. So excuse me while I get from under society’s microscope …

All that being said, what do I actually think of Dr. Banks’ book? First of all, for those who may not have yet to hear about the book, Banks ponders why “nearly 70 percent of black women are unmarried” no matter their socioeconomic status and offers solutions based on about 100 interviews with African Americans. In a Wall Street Journal article adapted from his book, Banks wrote, “I came away convinced of two facts: Black women confront the worst relationship market of any group because of economic and cultural forces that are not of their own making; and they have needlessly worsened their situation by limiting themselves to black men. I also arrived at a startling conclusion: Black women can best promote black marriage by opening themselves to relationships with men of other races.”

In his article, Banks cited the high incarceration of black men as one source of the problem. “More than two million men are now imprisoned in the U.S., and roughly 40 percent of them are African American. At any given time, more than 10 percent of black men in their 20s or 30s — prime marrying ages — are in jail or prison.” Banks also pointed to the inequity of education between some black women and black men as another root of the problem. “There are roughly 1.4 million black women now in college, compared to just 900,000 black men.”

As a result, according to Banks, many black women have opted to “marry down” (i.e. marrying “blue collar” black men) instead of “out” (i.e. professional white men). This, he asserts, may contribute to the alarmingly high divorce rate, as these “white collar” black wives are often incompatible with their “blue collar” black husbands. “Even as divorce rates have declined for most groups during the past few decades, more than half of black marriages dissolve.”

His solution, according to the article: “By opening themselves to relationships with men of other races, black women would … lessen the power disparity that depresses the African American marriage rate. As more black women expanded their options, black women as a group would have more leverage with black men. Even black women who remained unwilling to love across the color line would benefit from other black women’s willingness to do so.”

It would appear many black women have already taken his message to heart. According to the latest U.S. Census data, black and white Americans are now getting married to each other in record numbers. In 2008, 14 percent of black men and 6 percent of black women tied the knot with a white partner; that’s up from 5 percent and 1 percent in 1980.

CONVERSATION STARTER: Author Ralph Richard Banks wants black women to expand their territory.

But back to what I actually think of Banks’ book. First, in all fairness to Dr. Banks, anyone who wants the full picture of what he’s arguing should read the book for herself. I’m sticking with my decision not to read it. I’m simply weary of sifting through this type of information and being assailed by the grim reminder that my chances of finding an eligible black man who meets my standards are severely limited.

Based on my experiences and the experiences of my friends, I think black women should expand their options. But that doesn’t mean they have to give up on being with a black man — educated or otherwise. I have friends who have married black men with a college degree, black men without a college degree, and white men. And I am happy to report all the friends that I’m speaking of are still married. So I believe marriage is for all people, not just white people. But I suspect Dr. Banks knows that already and is simply trying to grab our attention with his provocative title. (Note to Dr. Banks: From one writer to another, you hit it out the park with that title, sir. Cha-ching!)

As for me, my approach to dealing with this “where are all the good men?” dilemma, as well as other quandaries I find myself in, is to trust God and allow Him to speak through the challenges He allows in my life. I thoroughly believe what one of my favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston, said in her book Their Eyes Were Watching God: “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

My God has promised me that if I delight myself in the Lord, He will give me the desires of my heart. And to quote another Southern sage, Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”