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Rethinking Marriage. The World Has Changed. It's Time!

We must do more than simply re-integrate new groups into an old system. We need to seriously consider our assumptions about the system itself.

Feminist author Jessica Valenti's marriage to Andrew Golis of Talking Points Memo was the lead wedding story in the New York Times style section this Sunday. It was odd to see this Full Frontal Feminist not only marry, but also submit to a romantic short story about her union. Indeed the Times seemed intent on portraying Valenti's marriage as a morality tale: tough feminists may talk about social equality, but all girls really want is a good man and note-worthy bustle. For some, Valenti's wedding became a lens for assessing her feminist credentials.

Valenti's story, as written by the Times, is an interesting companion to last week's National Equality March in Washington, DC. The National Equality March was clearly defined by organizers and participants as a demand for equal protection in all matters governed by civil law. It was a demonstration for justice in housing, employment, property, citizenship, and family law, but media nearly exclusively reported the event as a march for same-sex marriage equality.

For Valenti and for the National Equality March participants, as for many in America, marriage is the terrain where the personal is indeed political.

Marriage as the intersection between the personal and political is not new in the United States. In an upcoming book, ‘Til Death or Distance Do Us Part: Love and Marriage in African America, Frances Smith Foster challenges the received wisdom that black families were destroyed during American slavery. She marshals convincing, historical evidence refuting the assumption that enslaved people accepted that their marriages were not "real" because they were not recognized by the state.

Her study of slave marriage does not reveal fragile, transient attachments; rather Foster uncovers a rich legacy of love, struggle, and commitment among enslaved black people. By choosing whom to love, how to love, what to sacrifice, and how long to stay committed, black Americans carved out space for their human selves even as enslavers tried to reduce them to chattel.

In spite of the fact that their marriages were not legally sanctioned, many enslaved people formed lifelong attachments, sacrificed personal security and freedom to maintain their relationships, protected their fidelity despite unthinkable obstacles, and remained deeply attached to their identities as married persons.

Some black men and women chose to remain in slavery or to submit to more brutal enslavers in order to stay married to their chosen partners. Foster's stories of these marriages challenge any idea that marriage is just about health insurance and burial rights. Clearly marriage is rooted in something far more personal and spiritual. To sustain marriage some were willingly to endure slavery.

I'd just finished reading Foster's book when I discovered the story of Keith Bardwell, a white, justice of the peace in Louisiana who makes it a practice to refuse marriage licenses to interracial couples, despite the Supreme Court's 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia. Bardwell explains his resistance to interracial marriage not as racism, but as a protective measure for the potential children of these unions who, according to Bardwell, are not accepted in any racial community.

It is impossible not to laugh aloud about the utter absurdity of defending the tragic mulatto narrative in the age of Tiger Woods, Mariah Carey, Ben Jealous, and Barack Obama. The hilarity is exceeded only by Bardwell's quaint assumption that refusing a marriage license to a heterosexual couple would block their ability to procreate. It is clear that Bardwell is not protecting children; he is protecting a particular understanding of marriage rooted in old American bigotry.

Together Foster's text and Bardwell's policy are reminders that marriage is a complex interplay between private choice and public practice. Marriage is never exclusively about loving attachment and commitment among consenting adults. It is also about state recognition of and ability to confer a specific bundle of privileges on particular individuals and relationships. But these privileges and state recognition are not enough to explain why people desire and chose marriage. The power to love, commit, and consent is more deeply human than that.