When I first started writing for Model Behaviors, I’d recently gone through a breakup, which forced me into one of the most transitional and transformative periods of my life. I tossed myself into my work at the University of Kansas and reinvested in me—discovering new joys, renewed passions, amazing friends, and uncovering a power and resiliency that was hidden under years of making myself small for others. As I became clear about the people and ideas holding me back from living fully and authentically, I began to take the necessary steps to cultivate more community, love, respect, and compassion in my life. I began to truly live my values, challenged by those around me, and my fear of possibly being alone dissipated. I fell in love with myself. It is that energy I sent out into the universe, and it is that energy which brought me my life partner, Derek.
I left the place where I was broken and left the community that helped me heal to start anew. On January 5, 2015, I started a new job back in my home state. A year and a half later I’m now a homeowner, almost someone’s wife, and even more committed to social justice and equity (if that was even possible).
In our non-traditional-traditional fashion, Derek and I made the decision to marry over Valentine’s Day breakfast while I was wearing his turquoise owl onesie. Despite this being a typically commercialized “romantic” holiday, we decided on this together. No fanfare. No extravagant setup. Just an honest conversation between the two of us about what we wanted. We both understand marriage to be, historically and presently, an oppressive institution, specifically toward women BUT we both also understand the power of our relationship and our values as a means of truly transforming what our marriage will look like.
With that said, I couldn’t write about our wedding, our marriage, and the values we hope to live out through our lives together without including my beloved Derek Hall, so I’ve asked him to journey with me for this month’s post to reflect on our future as two betrothed black feminists.
Bulaong: So, why didn’t you propose to me?
Derek: I didn’t propose because whenever I’ve seen it in the media or read about it in books, it’s always like the man makes some grand, romantic gesture to sweep the woman off her feet as if she needs to be wooed out of her single status. He asks for her hand in marriage, and that’s always been very strange to me. It feels like she’s entering into this ownership type of deal. Like, once you put this ring on, now you’re mine, you are no longer your own. But you and I are already partnered. We are already living our lives. We are already committed to one another, so that felt false to me, to pantomime this cultural norm, when in reality (as in everything else in our relationship), it should be an open and honest discussion about what marriage means to us, how we want to go about entering it together, and what we think it looks like for us in the coming future.
Bulaong: So what does marriage mean to you then, because if the process historically has been inequitable structure or tradition, why even enter the institution in the first place?
Derek: Yea, you know I struggle with that. For a long time I didn’t think I would ever enter into the institution of marriage because it favors heterosexual people and I was never comfortable with that. That being said, you’re my partner. You’re everything to me. I didn’t know I could be this connected with a person in the present, understand and connect with your past, and look forward and be committed to our future in the way that I am. Also, in our relationship, marriage felt like the next logical, wonderful, beautiful, connected step. Ain’t nobody just trying to shack up and hang out forever. For me, I’ve always wanted to make a commitment, not only to myself, but to my partner, my community, and my spiritual connectedness.
I mean, what does marriage mean to you?
Bulaong: Besides the tax break, I’ve never felt more myself in a relationship than I do with you, and I want to show my personal commitment to our growth and our life’s journey as a unit—as two individuals who have decided to become a unit. Marriage felt like the next step in our relationship and a very logical way for me to commit to you.
But growing up, I never really thought about getting married. I grew up with women who had all been single or divorced. No one in my family was really married except my grandmother, but my grandfather passed away when I was really young. My dad got married when I was in middle school, but other than that, there weren’t many examples of long-lasting marriages in my family. It seemed normal, in society, but it didn’t feel like the norm in my family.
A part of me always thought I would end up like them, a single mom, or divorcee, or just alone. I never wanted to settle and it wasn’t until I met you that I realized I didn’t have to. I truly believe that our commitment to each other will ground me, and you do such a wonderful job centering my worthiness. I mean, what is marriage if not a constant reminder from another person that you are completely and fully worthy of all the love, joy, and freedom in the world. That is what our relationship and our marriage will continue to do for me—and I hope I make you feel worthy every day as well.
What about you? What’s the most important thing for you in our marriage?
Derek: That it provides and nurtures space for us to grow. That it allows us to interact with the world in a more impactful way and not less so. To go into this further, I feel like so many people get into relationships and they lose themselves. They become what their partner wants them to be, they become what society expects of a “husband” or a “wife,” and it’s more like I’m adding an identity. I’m not erasing the others and superimposing this one over it. I’ll be a husband and a black man, queer, authentic, autodidactic, sometimes intransigent, sometimes a jerk, sometimes a really good person—no, always a really good person who is sometimes not nice. I just want to continue to be all of those things and be a husband, too.
I also recognize the gender dynamics, how the expectations of a wife are different than the expectations of a husband. From a societal perspective, all I have to do is continue to bring home the bacon and father kids, whereas a “wife,” in a stereotypical role, you gotta make a house a home, cook the food, love your husband, be available to him, AND now be a career woman who can bring home your own bacon. That stuff can really box you in and life won’t feel as flexible and I don’t want that. I want the world to continue to be a wondrous, amazing place that you could interact with in a more advanced and improved way than you have in the past. I want to add to your life, you know?
Bulaong: Yea, I get that. Our generation is somewhat shifting that particular narrative around marriage—at least those of us rooted in social justice and feminism—trying to combat those archaic gender roles, especially about what it means to be in a perceived heteronormative relationship. Similar to Tia Mowry and her husband, I believe we are a couple that doesn’t put labels on each other. There are no expectations that you’ll do something because you’re a man or I’ll do something because I’m a woman.
For example, our new grill. I proudly put that together all by myself, not because you couldn’t but because I LOVE putting furniture and things together. It’s a relaxing activity for me. You enjoy cooking so you’ll often make our dinner or take the lead grocery shopping, and I appreciate that so much because without that I would probably eat chips and ice cream every day. We just have a really amazing balance of labor and responsibility and we allow each other space to lead or follow based solely on how we are feeling and not our gender identity.
Derek: I mean, and maybe I also have to protect the home from wolves, you know if we are thinking historically. I mean, I want to protect my home, but not through that gendered lens. Like as a man, deep voice capital “M,” Man.
Bulaong: As someone who does social justice work, how has that value system trickled into the planning of our wedding?
Derek: So right from the beginning, (disclaimer—no shade to the way anyone else does their wedding) …some critiques I have of the typical or stereotypical way, especially how Americans engage in weddings, is that it’s very capitalist. It’s about how much money can I spend to show all these people (that I barely know and care about) that I’m a productive, worthwhile individual and now part of a family unit. How can my parents prove to this other family that they are wealthy and worthy of value? What opulence can I engage in? What extreme amount of economic waste can I engage in to show people around me that this is real? I think that it was Melissa Harris Perry that said if you wanna know a person’s value, a country’s value, follow the money.
My circle is very small and I have little to no interest in impressing anybody. I wanted to spend our hard-earned, passion-driven money on people that we love and care about. I wanted to take a community focus to the ceremony. I want to pull from Quaker traditions of providing space for people to stand and talk a little bit about the couple, give some well wishes. We’re going to have our friend Erica Richmond and Bishop Selders, a young white woman minister and an older black man bishop, co-officiate. That’s another way our community and social justice show up.
Also, a big thing for me is not allowing the planning of the wedding to completely destroy and erode our relationship. Continuing to listen to each other deeply and actively. I’m trying to continue to be responsive to your needs as we go through this process and pay attention to the ways the planning of this may trigger you as a woman, as a black woman. Social justice work gives me the ability to keep things in perspective. This is a day, in what will be a whole bunch of days, most of them really beautiful and amazing, some of them really hard, some that we will grow from. I don’t want to blow it out of proportion. It’s important AND we have other things to do. Not more important, but very important.
Bulaong: I think our intentionality in the planning, from our invitations to our vendors, has been so important and reflective of who we are. For us, social justice is about creating a world and communities where people can live as fully human and where the inherent worth of all people, animals, plants, and other resources is acknowledged and centered. For me, it was important to reduce our carbon footprint and try to reuse, recycle, and reduce our use of paper products. We also wanted to keep the money that we are spending in our communities, specifically hiring women vendors considering the wage gap, opportunity gap, and cycle of wealth as it exists in our country.
We first started by hiring our photographer, Rachel Adele Studios, who is a member of our local community and a young woman looking to build her business. Not only was it important for us to find a woman photographer, but it was equally important to find someone who had experience photographing people of color of various skin tones. Our caterer, Royal Brown Sugar Events, was founded and run by a Black woman who we hope to continue to uplift and bring business. One of my students, a young Dominican woman, will be DJing our reception. And our florist, a young black woman who is in the process of purchasing her own flower shop, will adorn our ceremony and reception with her amazing designs. Giving our money to young women, especially young women of color, makes this feel so much more rooted in our community and our values.
What part of our wedding are you most excited about?
Derek: I’m most excited about seeing you come down the aisle.
Bulaong: GAH! How traditional of us!
Derek: And I’m excited for whoever will say “I now pronounce you husband and wife” or wife and husband. I’m fine switching that around—look at that social justice right there! I’m excited about getting it over with so we can just hang out with our friends. What about you?
Bulaong: I’m excited for our honeymoon (*wink wink*) but seriously, I’m just excited to be able to finally call you my husband and to defy all the stereotypes that come with traditional marriage. I’m ready to take the world head-on with you.
I think this poem by Rupi Kaur sums up all that i feel: