My parents’ storybook romance gave me unrealistic expectations for (Black) love in the digital age
Black love had gone digital, and I was still analog, wondering why my parents love story wasn't hereditary.
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By Ravynn Stringfield
My parents’ storybook romance gave me unrealistic expectations about (Black) love, especially in the digital age. They met at ages five and six and grew up across the street from each other in a small town in Virginia. They went to different colleges, but fairly soon after graduating, they got married and a few years later they had me.
Cory and Topanga got nothing on my parents.
Whenever I tell their story, people immediately fall to pieces at how romantic it is. I completely get it. Growing up, I loved my parents’ love story. I still do. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized how much I had idealized this narrative, and how I had internalized the idea that this was how my own love story had to unfold to my own detriment.
It definitely didn’t help that I had a penchant for late 90s and early 2000s romantic comedies like Brown Sugar. Needless to say, given my belief in the happy coincidences that make up romcom plots and how my parents just happened to find each other so early in life in such a blissful way, I just assumed for several years that the right relationship would simply fall into my lap.
Despite having a strangely contentious relationship with the boy who lived in the neighborhood across the street for several years, we would not, I realized, fall in love and get married. I would not, it turned out, have my Brown Sugar moment with any of my best friends, though Lord knows I tried. And that enemies become friends become lovers trope? Let’s just say, I tried that too, and ended up with a pocket full of hurt feelings.
I was shocked—shocked—when I finished college and did not have a partner I was planning on marrying. I was even more astonished when I realized that, after several failed experiments in finding love of the romcom variety, I would actually have to date if I was to find the future love of my life. My intent on finding a Black partner became added another layer. I hadn’t magically come across that person who could hold me down, and who I could face the world with.
I discovered that, for the most part, love, like many other things, had gone digital. For a Type A, “always ready” type of gal, I was not prepared for this. The very thought of Tinder and Bumble scared me, and I certainly was not about to slide into anyone’s DMs. (Black) love had gone digital, and I was still analog, wondering why my parents love story wasn’t hereditary.
Following a rapid succession of failed relationships and unrequited loves, I was forced to reflect. I began to see that I was wrapped up in this notion that intimacy is a result of proximity and chance.
Because time and space can be manipulated with the introduction of different technologies, I had to rethink those “chance meetings” to include meeting by accident on Twitter instead of just running into each other on the school yard. I am a product of the digital, and yet, somehow I was afraid of the evolution of digital love, despite embracing it in every other aspect of my life.
I was clinging to something akin to tradition, what I thought I knew, without asking questions about why I believed this to be true and, more specifically, why I thought it must apply to me. If I can self-make online, why can’t I cultivate digital love practices too?
Self-making online was always nothing but an extension of my essence. I crafted my digital self for years on MySpace, AIM, LiveJournal, and Tumblr well before I finally found clarity and a distinctive voice in my WordPress blog and Twitter phase. I came of age as platforms for digital self-expression and community building were finding themselves, too.
I came into an understanding of my own Blackness through occupying digital spaces, feeling more free to do so there than in reality. It was on the Internet that I discovered the multitudes of Black folks, realizing that Blackness was a patchwork quilt of unity in our differences.
Cultivating romantic relationships online requires a similar set of skills that we use when we self-make in these digital spaces. And while it’s scary, mostly because it’s new, online is also an extremely innovative space. Digital humans can now make casual conversation via Twitter threads instead of stopping by your crush’s work, or FaceTime while watching Netflix instead of seeing a movie together in theaters. We can now build with other people online when distance might otherwise end a relationship before it has a chance to start.
This is by no means to take away from the horrors that can and do take place on the Internet—there are many daily, hourly even. This is more of a reminder that spaces of all kinds, even the digital, are multi-faceted and complex, just like relationships have always been. Even my #relationshipgoals #BlackLove parents fought sometimes. They are the first to tell me that their love required work, when to me it seemed as effortless as breathing.
Jessica Marie Johnson, a scholar at Johns Hopkins, has this beautiful term which she calls, “digital Black femme love practice,” which is mostly used to describe how Black femmes care for each other, and ourselves, while build community online. In her essay, “4DH + 1 Black Code / Black Femme Forms of Knowledge and Practice,” she writes: “Black femme digital practice, even in our mourning, is the labor of living despite and in the wake of the storm.” But if that can exist, so can different types of Black love.
I’m calling for not only digital Black femme love practices, but digital Black love practices writ large, and we do a lot of this work already. It can look like fiercely protecting our shared digital space so that we can be ourselves. It can mean using the tools we’re given to share information and engage with it. It can mean lifting each other up through the successes and being there in the DMs when life hits the fan. This is what it looks like to protect our right to live and love online.
I think it’s fine to dream about that in-person meet cute, but I’ve been doing myself a disservice to not observe the magic in our current digital love practices as well. I’m learning how to cultivate love practices that are not bound by ideals, but to meet love where it is. Even if it didn’t turn into the epic love story I spent my life imagining, I’ve already met and retained relationships with a few great people by sliding into a few DMs.
Ravynn K. Stringfield is a PhD candidate in American Studies at William & Mary in Virginia. She blogs and tweets about grad school (and other things) at blackgirldoesgradschool.com and @RavynnKaMia respectively.