A model for marriage

As a child, the fictional Huxtable family on prime time television left an impression on Trenesseya Hobbs.

"I remember thinking I want that when I grow up," she said. "That's the kind of life I want for my kids."

The Thomson woman grew up in a home broken by divorce, and she vowed to avoid the same fate. Now 24, Ms. Hobbs is preparing for her May nuptials with fiance Barry Whitfield Jr., and she has found a new real-life family on which to model her life and marriage: The Obamas.

"They show a real African-American family," Ms. Hobbs said. "She stuck by him, and that breaks away from the stereotype that's out there. I can learn so much from their strength."

President-elect Obama and his wife, Michelle, have been lauded for their loving relationship and how they're raising their two young daughters. Both Ms. Hobbs and Mr. Whitfield agree the incoming First Family could change the perception of marriage in the black community and possibly increase the number of black couples who wed.

"People will do what they see a lot of the time," Mr. Whitfield, 23, said. "For people to see the Obamas, that shows we can have marriage, we can have family, we can have love."

Blacks have the lowest percentage of marriage among men and women in the 20-to-39 age group at 35.5 percent, according to a 2007 U.S. Census Bureau survey. Asians have the highest percentage, with 56.5 percent, followed by whites at 48 percent and Hispanics at nearly 47 percent.

The disparity has more to do with class than race, said Maryann Reid, the author of Marry Your Baby Daddy .

"Those in low-income communities and everyday working class people see it as an elitist type of thing," Ms. Reid said. "I think the Obamas may motivate young couples to achieve more, but a lot of them need to see more role models in their communities at the cafe, on the bus and in the neighborhood."

In 2005, Ms. Reid started Marry Your Baby Daddy Day, an event that invites unmarried couples to take part in a mass wedding in New York City. Many of the 25 couples who have married through the event said financial instability was the main reason they did not marry sooner, Ms. Reid said.

A lack of job security in lower-income communities has been a big deterrent for some black couples who want to tie the knot, said Stephanie Coontz, the director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families in Chicago.

The key role the Obamas can play beyond providing a positive example is helping to find solutions to the problems plaguing lower-income blacks, Ms. Coontz said.

"They show a great model of how we can be happy and equal in a relationship," she said. "The best part is Michelle and Barack want to work on the problems of working-class families. They know it's harder in real life than the Cosbys made it seem."

Michael and Brenda Walden would agree. They've been married for 19 years, have four children and credit their Christian faith and strong family ties for keeping them together. Though the Cosbys offered a positive portrayal of a married black couple, that is often the exception rather than the norm.

"Now, Hollywood just shows black families as dysfunctional and unhappy," Mr. Walden said.

They said the Obamas could go a long way in changing that image.

"You can find Mr. or Mrs. Right, and Obama shows that you can come from the lowest point and reach the top position all while having a happy marriage," Mr. Walden said.

The Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act of 2006, a bill Mr. Obama sponsored while in the Senate, represents the change needed to facilitate more black marriages, said Joe Jones, the president of the Center for Urban Families, an organization that provides work force and parenting development for low-income parents in Baltimore. The bill supports funding grants for programs geared toward employment services for parents, financial literacy, promoting healthy relationships and other key issues that affect low-income parents.

Mr. Jones' hope is that the goals presented in the act will come to fruition so more black couples can experience the marital bliss of the soon-to-be First Family.

"We can't just limit it to one role model. There has to be programs that support seeing this happen more often," Mr. Jones said. "It is nice to have the symbolism. It's a whole different visual of what's possible."

Reach Stephanie Toone at (706) 823-3215 or stephanie.toone@augustachronicle.com.