Black men are not personal projects and non-monogamous relationships should not be reduced to “entanglements”. The extramarital relationship between Jada Pinkett Smith and August Alsina has caused quite the stir among folks interested in (pun alert) Black love affairs. In a recent interview, R&B singer and songwriter August Alsina revealed the fact that he and Jada had a romantic relationship over the course of her marriage. However, Jada, Will, and Alsina’s public acknowledgement of the romantic relationship between Jada and August has uncovered just about everything that is wrong with Black politics around non-monogamous relationships.
Like many discussions over Black love, marriage is the starting point. When Alsina’s news first broke, there was a prevailing opinion that his relational role was simple. He was a “side nigga” who had two jobs; 1. Provide for Jada’s sexual satisfaction and 2. Preserve discretion around their relationship by keeping his mouth shut. First, the reduction of Alsina to the sexual satisfaction that he might provide is an extension of the same politics of white supremacy that understands Black men as hypersexual beasts with gargantuan dicks. There is no coincidence in the fact that this narrative is attached to Alsina alongside a thirst trap that surfaced with an outline of his penis in his underwear.
Next, in spite of his observably visceral struggle with his body while recounting his relationship with Jada, the legitimacy of that relationship was openly questioned simply because Alsina is not her husband. Overlooking the possibility of relational equality among non-monogamists, a lesson we learn from Black polyamorists for example, Alsina’s relationship with Jada was assumed to be subordinate by default. The politics of power here are clear: husbands and wives are more believable, valuable, and worthy of preservation and protection than the extrarelational relationships that occur outside of the marriage—this is true regardless of what the quality of that marriage might be. Thus, marriage factors heavily into the politics of believability around the legitimacy of romantic relationships.
The question of who gets to have legitimate relationships is an important one. Social and Political privileges attach to our relationships when they are endorsed by the state and society at large. Politically, for example, spouses are entitled to tax benefits and legal protections. Socially, conforming to a romantic relationship trajectory that is ultimately protected by marriage facilitates one’s access to being “normal”. It was both the social and political failure of early American colonizers that facilitated disruptions of Black families that were both violent and legal. This relationship politic (or lack thereof) tracks the trajectory of personhood for Black Americans—you are first property, then you are property that has become person. Furthermore, American anti-miscegenation laws systematically sought to protect the institution of marriage from inter-racial unions between Blacks and whites until Loving v. Virginia. The logics that underpin both of these early American positions on Black relationships have to do with chastity and purity that has been historically associated with white womanhood. As hypersexual beasts and jezebels under these perverse logics, Blacks simply are not the appropriate subject for marriage and legitimate romantic affairs; instead Black men are predators and Black women can’t be raped. Marriage, then, “tames” Black relationships in exchange for “respectability”.
The Smith’s public treatment of the relational allegations was careless at best and exploitative and irresponsible at worst. To address the allegations, The Smith’s decided to appear on The Red Table Talk. This decision is optically questionable. Could Alsina not have appeared as well? In the 12 minute interview, the married couple frame a questionably predatory Jada as a healer, make jest of the trauma and pain of a far younger Black man, and situate Alsina as a mere prop upon which the repair of their marriage depended (without ever even saying so much as ‘thank you’). Jada also manages to trivialize both the existence of Alsina’s trauma (in spite of social encouragement for Black men to be “more vulnerable” and do trauma work on themselves) and the existence of an otherwise meaningful non-monogamous relationship structure by reducing it to an “entanglement”.
Jada’s reluctance to give voice, on her own, to the romantic relationship with Alsina perhaps demonstrates both an awareness of and an aversion to possibly being socially stigmatized as a predator. After all, Smith is 20 years Alsina’s senior, far more professionally and financially established in entertainment, and acknowledges that August was “sick” when he entered into her life. (A sickness she thought she could “heal” through engaging in a romantic/sexual relationship with the much younger Alsina?)
The Smith’s account of the state of their marriage, one of “separation”, at the time of Jada’s romantic relationship with Alsina also raises questions about the legitimacy of their non-monogamous structure. Is formal marriage and romantic separation a legible non-monogamy? Is it an iteration of a kind of serial monogamy in spite of the formal marriage? Is it something else? If the Smith’s relationship is a kind of non-monogamy, it is one that possibly functions to exploit the institution of marriage. The Smith’s capitalize socially, as J. Cole spit, many of us want that “Jada and that Will” love. Politically, Alsina suggests that the preservation of the Smith’s respectable marital monogamous dyad came at the expense of his capitalizing on professional and financial opportunities. In this case, respectability politics protects the dyad (whether monogamous or not) at the expense of Black men.
The discourse that Jada’s “entanglement” has brought up about Black men has also been disappointing. Aside from trivializing Black men’s trauma and vulnerability, Will’s position on Jada’s relationship has also come up. Will’s early silence fed doubtfulness around Alsina’s claims and simultaneously revealed marriage’s historical connection to white supremacist patriarchy. Marriage evolved from an institution where women were the property of men to one where the relationship between partners to a marriage are symmetrical—at least in theory. The relationship between marriage and property in the U.S. shows marriage to be proximately close to white supremacy insofar as we understand Black bodies’ trajectory in America as one that unfolds from property to personhood, and not the other way around as it exists for whites. Alsina’s mention that his relationship with Jada got Will’s “blessing” (regardless of its truth) did two things; 1. Provided a superficial pathway for salvaging Will’s masculinity by quelling a perceived conflict between the two men, and 2. Reinforced the belief that women are the property of men (i.e. a woman needing a man’s permission to have romantic or sexual relationships).
Black men’s politics around non-monogamy and masculinity are also being exposed. Will’s acknowledgement that he was aware of the relationship has created a spectacle for public emasculation. Questions that begin with “What kind of man lets his wife…” have been asked by Black men. When framed this way, these questions show how many Black men relate to women as property and the manliest among us covet our property exclusively, lest it fail to retain its value. We learn at least two things: 1. That this property relationship in heterosexual romantic relationships is an extension of white supremacist patriarchy and 2. That non-monogamy among Black heterosexual relationships is only permissible for men. The latter bit seemingly forecloses the possibility of truly transformative Black love politics. Or, at least, it explains why part of the work to dismantle white supremacy still belongs to Black men. How might we re-work our romantic relational politics around our masculinities? How can we reshape our masculinities around non-monogamous relationship politics? The transformative potential of non-monogamy for Blacks somewhat depends on it.
Manhood has been mentioned in relation to Alsina as well. Defending Jada from the stigma of “predatory” has been the view that “Alsina is a grown ass man”. The implication here is that Alsina’s standing as a “man” removes the possibility for his being manipulated and exploited despite the asymmetries of power that exist between he and Jada—Alsina being the lesser. The phrase exaggerates Alsina’s position as a knower and consenter without critically reflecting on the requisite power relations that are necessary for consent.
Representations of ethical non-monogamy (or even rumored ethical non-monogamy) involving Black bodies is sparse. When Black people are featured in non-monogamous discourse its usually either unethical (the“cheater”, the “player”, the “adulterer” are prominent in any narrative trying to separate what love is from what love is not) or fictional like that of Spike Lee’s “Nola Darling” or Issa Rae’s “Molly”. On one hand, we are taught how to make Lemonade from the lemons that unfaithful relationships give us. On the other hand, fictional representation seems to only inspire think pieces about the legitimacy of non-monogamous relationships “in theory” or conversations about how far out of reach these lifestyles are for Black people. This is why the forever pulsing rumor mill about Jada Pinkett and Will Smith’s allegedly “open marriage” has sustained its strong public interest for a long time for Black folks interested in discussing Black love.
While representation of Black non-monogamy is important, not just any representation will do. The Janus-face of celebrity involves the fact that sometimes one’s private matters become public whether one likes it or not. Certainly this might influence how celebrities choose to message their romantic relationships. Given the social and political privileges that monogamous romantic relationships and marriages have, the presention of their relationship in monogamous terms is understandable. Folk may simply wish to avoid being asked endless questions. Yet, because representations of Black non-monogamy is marginal at best, celebrities who practice the lifestyle have a responsibility to be quality ambassadors for non-monogamy. The Smith’s do not meet that mark.