'Til Death or Distance Do Us Part: Love and Marriage in African America

'Til Death or Distance Do Us Part: Love and Marriage in African America

'Til Death or Distance Do Us Part: Love and Marriage in African America

'Til Death or Distance Do Us Part: Love and Marriage in African America


Conventional wisdom tells us that marriage was illegal for African Americans during the antebellum era, and that if people married at all, their vows were tenuous ones: "until death or distance do us part." It is an impression that imbues beliefs about black families to this day. But it's a perception primarily based on documents produced by abolitionists, the state, or other partisans. It doesn't tell the whole story.

Drawing on a trove of less well-known sources including family histories, folk stories, memoirs, sermons, and especially the fascinating writings from the Afro-Protestant Press,'Til Death or Distance Do Us Partoffers a radically different perspective on antebellum love and family life.

Frances Smith Foster applies the knowledge she's developed over a lifetime of reading and thinking. Advocating both the potency of skepticism and the importance of story-telling, her book shows the way toward a more genuine, more affirmative understanding of African American romance, both then and now.


Then comes Mama with the baby carriage!

—U.S. American folk rhyme

AS CHILDREN WE LEARN THE SEQUENCE OF STEPS TO take if we want to live happily ever after. In the United States, especially, our personal evolution should move from love to marriage, and then parenthood. Adults may know more than children about the missteps that might come along the way. Nonetheless, whether they are in love, have ever been in love, or are looking for love, most of them affirm the sequence: love should beget marriage, marriages should make families, and families should and do form the bedrock of civilization. According to our shared sense of American rightness, here abides love, marriage, and family, but the greatest of these, what we simply can’t do without, is marriage.

Marriage means a lot. But what it means and how it should be experienced is not all that clear. Social scientists assert that a civilized society cannot emerge from unregulated love, nontraditional marriage, or eccentric family arrangements. Romantic love may be the proper prelude to marriage, but more important is the social foundation it establishes. A correct union is between one man and one woman, preferably of the same religion, nationality, and culture. Though variants such as . . .

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