An elderly black couple
An elderly black couple. © poco_bw - Fotolia.com

My grandfather called my grandmother “Shawty” long before rappers got a hold of the word. And while hip-hop was becoming infatuated with huge gold jewelry in the mid-eighties, my grandparents were celebrating their golden anniversary – yes, 50 years of marriage. They have since passed away, and so has any notion many black people have of reaching 50 years of wedded bliss. The golden anniversary is dying for us.

When considering that only two ingredients are required to make a golden anniversary possible – staying married and living long enough – declaring it dead may seem a little sensational. A simple review of the facts, however, reveals that extinction may very well be imminent.

First, fewer people are marrying. A Pew Research Center report shows that from 1960 to 2008, the number of people currently married decreased from 72 to 51 percent.

Second, of the 50 percent of the population that marries (and the smaller percentage that stays together) the partners must get married at a young age in order to reach 50 years of marriage. A Census Bureau study shows that the average age of marriage for black women is approaching 30 and their life expectancy is 78. Further, the average age of black men who marry is almost 31 and their life expectancy is 72.

The overall median age for couples marrying is 28 for men and 26 for women as of 2009, by comparison. The life expectancy for white women is about 81 years. For white men it is over 76 years.

In other words, our women marry too late and our men don’t live long enough compared to the general population. The conclusion is obvious: golden anniversaries will go the way of the dinosaur and the 8-ball jacket in about a generation.

So we must ask ourselves: do we even care? Is seeing our people reach this remarkable milestone of any benefit to us?

When we celebrate golden anniversaries, we are paying homage to the strength, perseverance, and dedication of the couple. Marriage is work. So holding that job steadily for 50 years is worthy of praise and recognition.

What is also true is that many of these long-lasting marriages of older generations were littered with emotional and physical abuse, infidelity, and the subjugation of women. In years past, the family unit was the foundation of the only security most black men, women, and children would ever experience. As a result, circumstances that today’s men and women would never tolerate were seen as just a part of life in decades past.

These couples endured such conditions in order to provide a home and opportunity for their children. The unprecedented economic success and education attainment by today’s African-Americans are a direct result of our golden grandparents’ and parents’ self-abnegation. That is worth honoring.

That does not, however, mean they are worth emulating. Historically, marriage was used as a vehicle to secure economic stability and to procreate. In other words, it was about money and babies. With this line of thinking, it is no wonder that fewer people are marrying when the institution is no longer a prerequisite to living comfortably or providing for children. In many situations, a single parent today can provide more stability than a nuclear family could provide a century ago.

So when survival and security are removed from the equation, the remaining motivations for marriage are mainly love and happiness. We have the luxury of finding these on our own time.

Marriage will only become passé when people no longer desire love and commitment. That day will never come. Marriage may not arrive in time for many black couples to make it to fifty years, but many will still have the chance for Silk, Crystal, and Silver Anniversaries full of love, empowered husbands and wives, and healthy relationships as examples for our children.

In fact, by age 55, only 13 percent of black women will have never been married, to counter the erroneous statistic that will have you believing that 70 percent of black women will never marry. In reality, that rate only applies to black women under 30.

But still, we must face the fact: the 50-year marriage is about to vanish. Its passing should not go unnoticed. As the hip-hop parlance goes, we should pour some out for the Golden Anniversary. We owe it to those who ran that ultimate race when other options were scarce. It is they who enabled us to find happiness in our own space and time, and then, commit to our partners.

After all, it’s not about reaching 50 years of marriage just to say you did. It’s about living the life one has with one’s spouse like it’s golden.

Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.