Celebrating black marriage

My in-laws recently celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary—an amazing, beautiful gift to themselves and to those of us who love them and who see their relationship as a beacon of light for black and married couples trying to figure out how to stay happy and in love and together. Though their official anniversary was September 29th, I honor them today with this post, which I stumbled upon last night as I was reading through some of my old writings. I think it is as beautiful today as it was then. More so. Enjoy.

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My in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Chiles, cut a fine portrait this weekend, walking down the aisle of a candle-lit room at The W Hotel here in Atlanta—she in a stunning champagne gown, with an armful of calla lilies; he in a sharp tux, his fingers interlocked with his wife’s. Brian McKnight’s ballad “Never Felt This Way” filled the air, serving a fitting tribute, as if Brian wrote the lyrics specifically for this posh, golden celebration: There will never come a day/You’ll ever hear me say/That I want, and need to be without you/I want to give my all. And when they reached that magical place at the altar, with their children and grandbabies and family and friends surrounding them, we all lost it like we were at a Janet Jackson concert—alternately whooping and hollering and clapping and crying like we were a gang of groupies gone mad.

We had good reason to act this way. Walter and Helen Chiles, you see, were celebrating their 50th anniversary.

That’s five decades, dude. Since the two eloped in the living room of his sister’s home on September 29, 1958, men walked on the moon, black folks waged the Civil Rights Movement, America’s fought in four wars, and, by God, the Wu Tang Clan broke up. But through it all, Helen and Walter have remained together, a testament to their generation, which, it seems, has made much more of a point to practice what it preached at the altar: For better, for worse, for richer and for poorer, through sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part.

For Helen and Walter, you see, being together—staying together—is as important to them as breathing air. It’s not an option. It’s just what you do.

For the sake of the kids.

Because it’s the right thing to do.

Because a promise is a promise.

Because they love one another.

Helen has been schooling me on the art of marriage since the first day I presented her granddaughter to her, back in 1999. I was giving my baby girl, Mari, then about six months, a bath in Helen’s sink, and she could see right through my fake smile—right through my tired eyes. While I’m sure Nick was helping as best he could, I’m also sure his mom could tell I was exhausted and sore and silently questioning just how in the world people stayed married and raised babies all at once. You know, without k-i-l-l-i-n-g one another.

“Love,” she said, as she handed me a towel, “changes.” It feels a certain way when it’s new. And takes on a different feel when a ring is introduced. A whole ‘nother feel when kids come into the picture—and when they leave, too. And certainly as you grow older. “Just remember that,” she said. “Love changes.”

All these years later, as they readied themselves for the big Golden Chiles shindig, my in-laws gave me a few more pearls of wisdom on how to stay together:

Give each other space. You just don’t have to be all up under each other all the time. The smothering isn’t cute—everybody needs to breathe. Let them.

Be a loser. Winning every argument isn’t everything. Sometimes you have to take the “L” in the fight to score the “W” for your marriage. So what you don’t agree with everything each other says or does. Get over yourself.

Let your spouse be. Walter is quiet and tends to be a bit of a loner. Helen is the exact opposite—always up in the mix, armed with an opinion, and never, ever afraid to use it. Neither ever tries to convince the other that being this way is wrong. It’s simply who they are, and they accept this—no questions asked. It’s what’s best.

My husband Nick and I are working on incorporating these jewels in our marriage. And we thank God every day that we have Helen and Walter’s example, as well as that of my parents, who were married for almost 40 years when my mom died, to shine a light on how to make marriages work. Indeed, both couples are a sorely needed example of committed black love—the kind that slams against the statistics that proclaim we black folks are more likely than not to be single and never married or divorced and never to be in happily wedded bliss again.

Personally, I think the statistics only tell part of the story. Nick and I have been married for 11 years, and there are many more couples just like us—happy, in love, dedicated, and committed—than the headlines lead all of us to believe. My list of married friends runs deep: My in-laws Angelou and James, and my friends Mike and Tina, Mona and Keith, Wendy and Reggie, Jenny and Anthony, Jackie and Harold, Marcia and Jomo, Kathy and Bruce, Michelle and Horace, George and Alicia, Stephen and Chanel, Renee and Anthony, Shawn and Desere, James and Bethsheba—each one of these beautiful couples buck the notion that committed black love doesn’t exist.

The best each of us can do is prove the statistics wrong by keeping our eyes on Helen and Walter’s example—by following their lead and staying together. For ourselves. For our children. For our community. For love.

We’ve got 11 years under our belt.

Thirty-nine more to go.

I think we’re gonna make it.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. My husband and I are on 37 years heading towards 38 and I say, your mother-in-law is 100% right with her advice to you. One thing I have learned that is of the greatest importance in my marriage, is being able to say “I am sorry”, even sometimes when I am not sure I was totally wrong (LOL) and my husband also can say to me “I am sorry” or in other words we try not to keep those grudges alive. I think it works, it has for us. We also do not smother each other, but feel very comfortable with each other, he is the man I love.

  2. Thank you so much for this lovely post. I am young, married and happy about the institution of marriage. You see, I married very young, but it’s working and prospering by the grace of God. I get so tired of hearing about the lastest divorce, affair or domestic defeat in someone’s home. It is so good to see an example like this, and this article is exalting the union of marriage from such a positive tilt. Yes, it is 2013, but marriage is still honorable and precious. Young people need to see this example more often. Marriages serve a powerful function, and a unified marriage is a force. Cheers to more marriage success!

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