Who's your baby daddy?

A Brooklyn author is sponsoring a contest that offers 10 lucky black couples with children free weddings. But is this really going to strengthen the black family?

By Lynn Harris

Published February 24, 2005 5:57PM (EST)

"I always imagined having a big wedding," says Kenny Edwards, 34, of Brooklyn, N.Y. He and his fiancie, Tanya Engram, 30, have been engaged for two years. Supporting their 5-year-old son on her school-secretary salary while he looks for work in computers, they haven't been able to pull together the cash for anything fancier than a trip to City Hall. But if Kenny and Tanya are lucky, their wedding will be lavish -- and free.

Engram and Edwards are one of 300 African-American couples hoping to be among the 10 who'll be chosen for an all-expenses-paid weddingpalooza on Sept. 29 -- an occasion that the competition's inventor, Brooklyn author and journalist Maryann Reid, has dubbed Marry Your Baby Daddy Day.

Reid, 29, says she conceived of the event -- to be sponsored by several local black-run wedding businesses -- as a community service of sorts. "I kept meeting women who said, 'I live with my baby daddy and we're not married but we've been engaged for five or 10 years ,'" she says. "There are so many couples who live together and love each other but for some reason just are not motivated to tie the knot, but when given an opportunity, they jump right at it." She sees the campaign as a way to draw attention to -- and perhaps decrease -- the number of black couples who call each other "baby daddy" and "baby mama" instead of "husband" and "wife."

According to figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, 68 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers (compared with 28 percent of white children and 33 percent of children overall). Also, according to the U.S. Census, 45 percent of black families have single female heads of household (compared with 14 percent overall, and more than any other group). The slang term "baby daddy" was popularized in rap songs, and can be pejorative, denoting the guy who fathered your kid but isn't putting in for Pampers (possibly leading, as Reid notes, to a "baby mama drama"). She says, however, that lots of couples she's spoken to for this project use it as a term of endearment.

But is Reid, who is single herself, really promoting marriage, or weddings? Or, for that matter, her forthcoming novel, which just happens to be called "Marry Your Baby Daddy," and is conveniently due out in September?

Reid readily admits that "any publicity is good publicity," and that she's in "that age range" where she'd like to get married "sooner rather than later." "I can't, like, go get married tomorrow. But I do have control over myself and what I want to do. So I just said, let me take it upon myself in the meantime to bring attention to the high out-of-wedlock rate for black children and give other women what I want for myself," she says. "I'm just a regular person who's concerned with the direction that our community is going in and I want to do something about it besides talking."

The book, for its part, is about three sisters who have to marry the father of their children in order to inherit $3 million. "So the question of the day is, are they marrying for love or money?" says Reid. "Just like for the wedding: Are people marrying for love, or to get free things? They're two separate vehicles for the same message."

After a series of interviews -- telephone, in person, and in the couples' homes -- with Reid and Patricia Ragin, a wedding planner, the winning couples will be announced on March 1. "Since Patricia's already married, she knows what a wife would sound like, what a husband would sound like  she's my intuitive ear," Reid says, adding that her background in journalism has shored up her sense of authenticity and sincerity. One doesn't need a Pulitzer to hear alarm bells, however. "I had one couple come in and argue throughout the entire face-to-face interview," she says. "Couples who ask about all the trinkets and the honeymoon giveaway before the word 'marriage' comes out of their mouth are usually looking for a good ride." They're out in the first round, as are people who are, well, still married to others.

Reid insists that she's not promoting marriage for marriage's sake. If you're trying to get your man to commit, she can't help you. "I've had people call and say they want me to help push the guy into getting married, to help him try to realize they should be together," Reid says. "That's not my job." Rather, she's looking for couples who -- if they're not already engaged -- have a "strong, loving base," she says. "They're not coming into this contest to be fixed." (One prospective couple, now in their 30s, has been together since the woman was 15 and he was 17.)

In the face-to-face interview, Reid -- who also appears as a relationship expert on the TV show "Life & Style," which appears on UPN and Oxygen -- asks couples about their perspective on marriage to try to make sure they're not "too idealistic." "We want couples who see marriage as a beginning, not an end to all their worries." In the home visit, where she meets the children, she talks to the couples about how they communicate, what they fight about, what they like and dislike about each other. "We do this to get a sense of their commitment to each other, and how they get through their difficulties," she says. (The winners will evidently need superior negotiation skills right away. Since the wedding and the reception are both joint 10-couple affairs, each marrying pair will be permitted to invite only 10 people, total. )

But if the couple is already engaged, what's holding them back? Well, Engram and Edwards are typical of Reid's target demographic: committed, but low on cash -- and, Reid says, entrenched in a culture that doesn't always frown on unmarried parenting. "The stigma in the black community is just not strong enough to motivate people," she says. "For some women, the ring is enough, and they get comfortable. They say they had a wedding date, but someone died or lost a job or the babies kept coming."

She continues: "I had one of my prospective brides tell me that she settled for not getting married. The stereotype is that the man leaves you after you have a baby -- the baby daddy goes and the baby mama drama starts -- so a lot of these girls feel like, well, he stayed, my baby daddy's with me. They breathe a sigh of relief and they're just content with that. So they end up settling instead of saying, 'Let's get married, let's make it official.'"

Tanya says it wasn't until she started going to Kenny's friends' weddings that she began dreaming of her own. "Before I met Kenny I didn't get the feeling that it would ever happen to me," she says, explaining that the people in her community just weren't focused on marriage. "I was always around friends who had kids with a man who lived here and they lived there. So I think this would be great not only for me, but also for my female friends and women who are in my same situation."

For many of the couples vying to win the wedding, marriage may have seemed like something for other people, something for someday. But once it seems within reach, Reid says, they get motivated. "They tell me they want to make it legal, to seal the deal, to stop explaining to people why they have three kids and they're not married," she says. "And they want to set a good example for their children. Some come from generations of unmarried women and they want to break the cycle."

And yes, the men -- at least those who are winning-couple material -- say they're into it, too. (Reid says, in fact, that in many cases it's been the guy who made the first call to her.)

"I think getting married would strengthen our relationship. I know who I want to be with for the rest of my life, but marriage seals it," says Kenny. To Tanya, who is also on the line for the phone interview, he says, "I did find you and I did say I want to be with you, but I want to show it to you by actually making it legal." He explains that they had already set an April date for Plan B -- tying the knot at City Hall -- when they heard about Reid's campaign. If they're not chosen, that's where they'll go.

Reid has also booked a well-known Brooklyn minister, Rev. Herbert Daughtry of the House of the Lord church, to perform the service. After an article about the project mentioning his involvement ran earlier this month in the New York Daily News, he was besieged with calls from couples from as far away as Delaware and Texas inquiring about the contest. Daughtry, who will require the winning couples to go through premarital counseling at his church, agrees that the mass marriage will set an example for the black community. "We have a serious challenge with respect to family cohesiveness," he says. "Anything that can stabilize the family, anything that can bring families together, I extol to the highest."

Other community activists also applaud Reid's efforts. "There are no police dogs keeping us from the altar," says Robert L. Woodson Sr., founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington. Noting that marriage rates were much higher among blacks until the 1960s -- even in the face of racism, poverty and lack of political participation -- he insists that societal woes alone are not to blame for the current instability of the African-American family. "What this woman is saying is that we must reach down and pick ourselves up out of the mess we're in now. And one of the ways we can do it is to encourage marriage."

Still, some experts wonder if Reid might be putting the Cinderella coach before the horse.

"Under the best conditions, marriage is probably a stabilizing force," says social psychologist M. Belinda Tucker, director of the Family Research Consortium IV at UCLA, a professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences, and co-author of "The Decline in Marriage Among African Americans: Causes, Consequences and Policy Implications."

But if it were up to her, she says, she'd focus on strengthening the community so that it can support marriage, not the other way around. "There are people who see marriage as the answer: If people get married, then all else will follow. But I'm not sure there's a recognition that there are all these barriers to marriage. I say that if you provide the supports for marriage -- jobs for all people who need them, dealing with the imprisonment rate, and all the other things that make it difficult for people to marry -- then you might see an increase in marriages."

David Popenoe, professor of sociology and co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, agrees in part. "The biggest problem, of course, is not that they can't afford the wedding but that the men don't make enough money to help support a family," he says, citing high unemployment and underemployment rates for black men. The resulting attitude among women, he says, is, "'Why bother marrying them if you're just going to inherit their debts?' So that leads to the whole idea of having more effort put into jobs and job training for black men." He also cautions that cohabitation -- which, in the context of Reid's project, is a good thing, showing that the couples are committed -- may actually be a shaky precursor to marriage; some research suggests that those who live together before marrying are more likely to split up afterward.

Still, he does believe in a fundamental effort to shore up the institution itself. "Promoting marriage in the black community is entirely worthy. There's a very, very striking correlation between problems in the black community -- whether crime or school dropouts or teen pregnancy -- and the percent of children in that community who are growing up outside of a married-parents family," he says. "I'm just not sure about promoting weddings." The key, he says, is marriage education, which is also what's at the core of the government's African American Healthy Marriage Initiative. "The best way is to teach -- especially guys, if you can get them in there -- the importance of marriage and how to treat women. Because a lot of these guys grew up without dads, and they have no idea what a marital relationship is all about -- and it's hard."

Manhattan psychotherapist and couples counselor Sharyn Wolf is more than willing to give Reid's couples the benefit of the doubt, but she also comes out and states something uncomfortably obvious. "To say you're not getting married because you don't have the money is kind of a lame excuse," she says. "Sure, there are couples who just haven't gotten around to getting married yet, and there are couples who for other reasons have been avoiding it  and I hope she knows the difference when she picks them."

Reid, while conceding that there are "no guarantees," says she's confident that she can indeed tell the difference. "I want to bring black love back in style," says Reid. "Ten couples may not be what it takes, but the lives of over 30 children will be affected, plus countless family and friends who will be motivated by their courageous stand to get married. There's a cycle that has to be broken."

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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