Upgrade Him? Girl, No

I was chatting recently with one of my law school friends about a classmate of ours whose marriage was ending in divorce.

At first I thought it was regular gossip about another seemingly happy marriage falling apart.  But as my friend filled in more of the details, I understood it was, instead, yet another example of the Negro Improvement Plan gone wrong.

And as my friend and I are veterans of the Negro Improvement Plan Gone Wrong War, we clucked our tongues and sent up prayers for what we both know lies ahead for this woman in her efforts to divorce her low-income spouse.

“Negro Improvement Plan” is a term coined by my friend Stephanie to describe the phenomenon we began witnessing as one woman after another from our Harvard Law School class partnered up with lower income men.  The men were never just the construction workers, secretaries, mailroom guys, etc. they appeared to be.  Inevitably, he was “going back to school.”  In the rare cases where he wasn’t going back to school, he was starting a business.  Or he was a producer — for artists no one had ever heard of. 

The Negro Improvement Plan meant there was a plausible and legitimate reason for these Harvard-trained women lawyers to be marrying their Mr. Blue Collars.  He was going places.  He just needed a boost.  And his loyal, loving woman was going to be just the boost he needed to take him where he should go.

When more of us, including Stephanie and me, embarked on our own versions of the Negro Improvement Plan, we didn’t recognize that we had just joined the same club we had been so scornful of. 

The Negro Improvement Plan wasn’t always about trying to force the man into some sort of career change.  My ex was a construction worker when I met him.  I liked the sound of that, and was disappointed he didn’t stay in construction when I moved him into my Brooklyn apartment.  He decided he’d rather be working in an office, and I was OK with that, too.  I didn’t try to influence his career choices too much.

But from the day he moved to New York until the day he moved out of my Harlem brownstone, I rode him relentlessly for the way he mangled the English language, the fact that his subjects and verbs never agreed and his vocabulary was a bit “too street.”  He was a grown man from North Philly who had been speaking like a North Philly gangsta pretty much all his life, and he was very comfortable with how he spoke.  His friends were comfortable with how he spoke.  I was the only one who had a problem with it.  I told myself it was because I wanted my daughter to learn “correct English.”  I wasn’t honest enough to admit it was my issue and no one else’s.

I tried to upgrade my ex-husband’s grammar and vocabulary.  Other friends tried to upgrade their men similar to Beyonce’s “Upgrade U,” by putting them in Hickey Freeman suits, Pink shirts, Rolex watches and BMWs.  They tried to slot their blue collar men into their Pottery Barn worlds of 600-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, towels folded just so, a utensil for every kitchen-related purpose, and Jack and Jill for the children.

Stephanie had once snarked, “I guess he got tired of being bougie,” after one of our classmates’ marriages to a lower-income man fell apart.  But, as it turned out, Stephanie’s Negro Improvement Plan was the classic career changing  one.  She tried to turn her man into a small business owner.  The business failed, in part because her partner wasn’t a reliable employee of his own so-called business.

In all cases, including mine, the men enjoyed the perks of the upgrade efforts — the cars, the suits, the trips, the real estate — until they figured out their women expected those changes to be lasting.  My ex knew how to speak properly.  He was also very well-read.  Thanks to my nagging, he would correct his grammar in the presence of our children, but whenever I dragged him to some law firm function, he would reach deep in his storehouse of Ebonics and entertain my law partners, to my horror and frustration.  I was furious with him for deliberately fitting neatly into the stereotypes I assumed “they” held of “us.”

Once, I actually listened, and discovered he was carrying on an intelligent conversation, despite the Ebonics, with one of my partners and his wife about U.S. drug enforcement policy.  Later, the wife told me, “Your husband is a very smart man.”  I never knew if that was a genuine compliment, or if she was surprised to hear rational arguments coming from someone who spoke so poorly, like a dog sitting down to the piano and playing Mozart.

My ex-husband called me controlling, which I resented.  In hindsight, I realize most of our issues stemmed from a battle for control.  He already felt emasculated by my position and salary.  The fact that I would snark on his grammar was probably just a bit too much for him to stomach.  Embarrassing me at my law firm functions was his way of getting back at me.

It’s insulting and demoralizing to treat a man like, as my friend @HarlemWriter put it, stray animals or shelter rescues you can return when they soil the rug or chew on your pricey shoes.  You can’t change your mate.  You are supposed to love your mate as he is.  If you can’t do that, you are with the wrong partner.  Period.

Bottom line: leave the upgrading to Beyonce. 

And for the record, she didn’t have to upgrade her man, either.


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49 Responses to “Upgrade Him? Girl, No”

  1. L Martin Johnson Pratt Says:

    wow i love it will contact you about reposting this … As a man who was “was” always looking to rescue my queens from the evil world. Which besides being totally maleI can definitely feel her pain and yours. I am seeking therapy for my “rescue mentality” i believe that i can easily blame my obsession with Romance/Love Story given to me by LIEWOOD. I bought the whole lie that Hollywood produced. I hope to produce real love stories inspired by couples i have contacted through Jet that are together for 40-50 years. I do believe in LOVE but i definite dont beiieve in the UPGRADE or RESCUE PLAN unless i’m your consultant not husband/boyfriend.

  2. JDanielle Says:

    I loved this!

  3. Tweets that mention Upgrade Him? Girl, No « Carolyn A. Edgar -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Invincible Joy, SekretK, danyelle , Kamillah, Carolyn Edgar and others. Carolyn Edgar said: Latest post: Upgrade Him? Girl, No: http://wp.me/psOZx-aU […]

  4. OneChele Says:

    I tried this once. Correcting his “dis” “dat” and “loveded”. Pressuring him to go back to school, get a better job. This resulted in Mr. Ebonics Fella having a breakdown, boo-hooing in my bathtub at 3:00am weeping that no matter what he did he just wasn’t going to be what I wanted… true. I gave up after that. The N.I.P. (Negro Improvement Plan) never works. People are who they are. Love ’em or leave ’em alone.

  5. Liz Says:

    I learned this a long time ago. I’m so much happier now that I know how to love a man for who he is instead of what I think he should be. And that’s the same way I want to be loved–honestly and sincerely.

  6. iamforchange Says:

    Very interesting and enlightening, I didn’t realize there was a plan and groups of women met to discuss such plans. It is the end result at least to from my perspective that matters.

    “You can’t change your mate. You are supposed to love your mate as he is.”

    And “not for nutin” If I loved my mate I wouldn’t degrade her or myself with negatives like the N.I.P. in the first place… Perhaps C.M.L. plan (Change My Love plan) Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings, one can not know how another views things unless they are shared.

  7. Mo Says:

    I once heard someone say kings should marry queens and vice versa.

  8. kd Says:

    Umm, the NIP gone wrong. Very familiar with the fallout. And thankful there was a way out LOL!

  9. Courtney Says:

    I liked this! You know, I’ve seen (and I’ve tried) women that try to upgrade their men so that he’s more politically and socially aware. I once dated a guy where the attraction was great. I felt that since I hung out with his friends and did things that he enjoyed that it was only right that he wake up early for the social/political gatherings I went to (community marches, speeches, etc).

    It didn’t last long. I think there are many ways that women try to elevate men and fail.

    Once again, great post!

    Miss C. Jayne (twitter @complex_smplcty)

  10. aisha1908 Says:

    (I kinda sorta mentioned this on twitter, but I figured I might as well elaborate here)
    My favorite part of this post is where you go in to mention the importance of loving your mate as is. It’s patronizing and dehumanizing for us to take on the attitude of “fixing” someone who was loving their life just fine before you came along. If you are not comfortable with blue collar work, then you should not mate with a blue collar worker. I had to recognize that as much as I like to think of myself as a proletariat/blue collar girl, I am a 4th generation lawyer who hasn’t experienced generational poverty. Recognizing this has facilitated relationships across socio-economic class lines (for me at least). Glad you had your revelation! good post

    • carolynedgar Says:

      The blue collar disconnect is the subject of another draft post. I had included it in this one but the topic made the post too long.

  11. Ginger @ Girls Just Wanna Have Funds Says:

    As I used to say in my single days, if he comes with a “Under Construction” sign on his forehead then he isnt for me. Great post, more women need to leave these unfinished projects to their mamas and get real men who come suited up and ready to go out of the box!

  12. Li Says:

    I’m curious about this since I don’t really see this phenomenon in my circle, especially not those younger than I (at least definitely not from a socioeconomic/class perspective…)

    What do you think drove the impulse that you saw it so much in your friends? Was it that common an occurence to pair up with someone you thought didn’t fit your lifestyle and if so, what was the thought behind it? Is there a slight generational difference which is maybe the cause of so much backlash from the Steve Harveys of the world, i.e. this used to be good enough and why are women rejecting it now? Some people are always going to be fixers but it sounds like you’re talking about something different here, something beyond that.

    • carolynedgar Says:

      It’s the other side of the dating question, and too multifaceted for one answer. For me, my blue collar ex was more familiar than the upper class guys I met in law school. For others, the blue collar guys showed interest where professional men with tons of options did not. Working on a post about this very subject: why professional women go for the blue collar guy in the first place.

  13. Maya Says:

    GREAT read.

  14. Ms. Smart Says:

    This is sooooo on point–especially considering this push to make women feel like if we’d just be willing to up-grade a man (or down-grade ourselves) life would be a fairytale.

  15. Anthony Says:

    Very interesting post. Relationships are doomed from the start when one partner feels superior to the other and thinks of them as a ‘project’ instead of a partner. If someone really wants to improve themselves, they will, especially if they have a supportive, non-judgmental mate.

  16. Let Me Upgrade You: **PAUSE** : Girls Just Wanna Have Funds: Personal Finance Blog For Women Taking Charge Of Their Finances Says:

    […] came across this post tonight over at Carolyn Nedgar’s site Upgrade Him? Girl, No. And, as I kept reading I found myself nodding in agreement with her eventual declaration that women […]

  17. Maggie May Says:

    As a former member of the Negro Improvement Program, I had to relationship fail because I was trying to turn pig ears into silk purses. My first failure was my ex-boyfriend. We were engaged and young. I had very good credit and credit cards. Since we were going to get married, I put him on my cards. As time went on, I put my efforts into him getting an education, paid for a resume to be done and sent them out. He, in turned, cheats on me with a student in a class that he was teaching. Left me with a sizable amount of credit card debt and a shattered heart. After vowing never to do that again, I fell in love with a man who was unemployed, had a son from a previous relationship, and was delivering papers. I felt that I need to help him. Fixed his credit, got another resume, and sent them off. His first job was at a prison. The second one, he worked at a steel mill making good money. We married in 98. After 9-11, he was laid off. I worked my job at a hospital pulling extra shifts while he sat at home and did nothing. I asked him why he didn’t do more around the house, he told me that I was stressing him out and I need to do my wifely duties. He got a job at a railroad making great money. I thought we were on the right road to saving money for a home, me going back to school, and have a baby. Little did I know that this man was cheating on me with someone he met online and from another state. First, I thought it was me..Partly, but I was choosing the same kind of man and was trying to mold them into something that they weren’t : Real men. Now that I am divorce, I am looking for a man who has his own and I can compliment him. Not a rehab project, that once it is finished, he wants a new owner. I never felt superior but just wanted to help my man to succeed.

    *Ex-boyfriend is in graduate school, married, and has a daughter.
    * Ex-husband moved with his new family to another state, he cleans offices.

  18. Samuel Reynolds Says:

    Again, another excellent post. I am continually impressed by your raw honesty, especially toward the end. As we discussed on your birthday, there is another issue lurking under this one though, especially under the phrase “I was tired of being bougie.” I can relate as a man. As I mentioned, I was engaged to a woman who came from the ghetto and even had a ghetto-fabulous name to boot. She was highly cultured and educated, though. Yet she was attached enough to her “hood” roots for me to be seeking something with her, some authenticity, I suppose. I was afraid of losing something and she became the projection of that. I did lose her, fortunately. But I don’t think I’ve lost the need to keep something of the “hood” with me. At some point, I will write on what that is, exactly, but in the interim, I’m overjoyed that you’re touching on topics like this. We need more. Thank you!

  19. Bridgette Says:

    Carolyn –
    I am glad to see you making progress in the process. By being transparent, you are not only facing your blindspots but you are showing others the ridiculousnesss of our mindsets. I learned early on in my marriage that is is about building a life together. With each passing year, I gain a deeper understanding that we all have our own (individual )paths to follow. It is beyond what we do or who we know. The process is about learning who we are without the titles, roles and responsibilities. When we truly accept and love ourselves, we create an environment of love and acceptance of others, namely our spouses. We then begin to learn that we can not make others responsible for keeping us ‘fixed’ in our own happiness. Change comes from within. Happiness is a state of mind. Continue on your journey to wholeness my sister.

  20. Bretta1975 Says:

    Very interesting post! I’ve truthfully never understood this phenomenon and suspect it’s because I grew up in a household where my mother was more educated than my father, and that created all kinds of problems in their marriage and instability in our family situation. Growing up witnessing all of that, I decided very early on that IF I got married, I certainly would not marry someone who wasn’t on my level. I think a flip side of this issue is the educated men who won’t settle down with more established women because they don’t want to feel like she is supporting them. I HAVE been more than willing to date, even marry a guy who I thought was smart and on the path to achieving his goals (note: actually had well-defined goals that he planned to accomplish), but have found those guys unwilling to entertain the thought until they accomplished something along the lines of what you have accomplished. The male ego is a strange thing!

  21. PE Says:

    I was an “N.I.P” enthusiast and failed miserably at my first and second attempts. I think that the N.I.P says much more about the people trying to institute the changes than their subjects. I was obsessed with looking “Stepford-Noire” and wasn’t being true to myself. Anywho – this post rang all sorts of bells for me so thank you for “keeping it real”


  22. Link Love « A (formerly) unemployed bride plans a wedding on a budget. Says:

    […] up is a set of posts from lawyer/writer Carolyn Edgar on why women should not try to upgrade a man and the real reasons that they do. This is good […]

  23. onefromphilly Says:

    aisha1908 said it best:

    “It’s patronizing and dehumanizing for us to take on the attitude of “fixing” someone who was loving their life just fine before you came along. If you are not comfortable with blue collar work, then you should not mate with a blue collar worker.”


  24. Why Women Upgrade « Carolyn A. Edgar Says:

    […] Carolyn A. Edgar Notes of a lawyer, writer, and single mom « Upgrade Him? Girl, No […]

  25. ju Says:

    Interesting post. This thought: “I realize most of our issues stemmed from a battle for control. He already felt emasculated by my position and salary,” goes along well with a blog by @jonubian about Patriarchy. The roles we establish in a relationship at the outset could determine its success or failure imo.

  26. Smokie Says:

    Thank God for being a regualar 9-5 working woman, who didn’t finish college because a career fell into my lap at an early age (tech writer – which I love). Thank God for a regular 9-5 working husband in IT who repairs computers on the side, makes me laugh, takes care of the lawn, and anything else we need as far as protection and love is concerned. Basically: Thank God that I’m not a Harvard law school graduate trying to find a man on my level because I know the pickings are slim!


    • carolynedgar Says:

      There are plenty of regular 9-5 women who are lonely, unhappy and seeking love wherever they can find it. You are blessed to have found your perfect mate.

    • Christelyn Karazin Says:

      …uhm…Smokie, the pickings are only slim if you limit your basket to black men. I think it’s sad that you’re thanking God that you didn’t achieve one of the most prestigious degrees in America so that you wouldn’t have trouble finding a man. Just my opinion though…glad you’re happy.

  27. Faith Says:

    I’m catching up on blog posts and reading this just make my stomach hurt. I see this indoctrination of black women playing itself out in these situations that are very rarely happening with successful black males choosing a black woman that needs an “upgrade”.

    It can and does get worse with some of these same males physically harming the women, sexing numerous women and abandoning their children and other more distasteful behaviors.

    Sometimes it’s better to be alone.

  28. Faith Says:

    I have to add I had a white girlfriend/co-worker who had a thing for the brothas and vice versa of course who used to be a card-carrying member of the NIC. We’d be in the office and her boss assumed she was working hard for the company when she was writing her latest fixer-upper’s resume or making business cards using our office suplies etc. It killed me the automatic presumption was in her productivity and they never bothered to check. I got to witness some very interesting exchanges and phone calls since our desks were so close such as the time he was pulled over by the cops driving her car w/o a license but I didn’t find any of it remotely amusing. I had to cut her loose eventually.

  29. Upgrade Him? Girl, No Says:

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  30. Christelyn Karazin Says:

    One of my best friends is currently enduring the fallout of her failed Negro Improvement Plan. She works in social work and met her husband while he was serving time for a felony. Ten years ago when she told me she was going to marry this fool, she got mad at me for being ‘judgmental.’ Today, my once vibrant and beautiful friend is 270 pounds overweight (250 of those pounds are her nothing arse husband) who has cheated on her three times, given her a sexually transmitted infection not once but TWICE, smokes weed, curses and listens to degrading, cuss-riddled rap music around their kids.

    BTW, she’s waiting for a ‘sign from God’ on whether to divorce him or not.

    *loads gun, put into mouth, shoots.*

  31. Lena Says:

    What I have a hard time grasping is black women upgrading folks who don’t feel black women are worthy of being upgraded.Black men tend to be very anti golddigger, when the woman is black,but somehow they think it is the right thing for black women to date beneath them.If you as a black woman were only blue collar or worked at some supermarket and had bad grammar and didn’t dress or look a certain way those same men that you all tried to upgrade would look down on you and would NOT have given you the time of day.I think it’s a shame that black women date and marry black male golddiggers when they absolutely do NOT have to.They will not be single and unloved without these men they have plenty of choices.Furthermore I thoroughly believe from the large number of black men who are wealthy who don’t date black, or date and marry women that can claim black but pass for something else,who also date non educated non black women, that when it comes to bm/bw relationships black men are the biggest golddiggers in the bc and they also contribute much less all around goodness to the lives of other black people.This isn’t coming from a hateful place but I would NEVER do for someone what they wouldn’t do for me.So I don’t understand why you and your friends went there no disrespect

    • carolynedgar Says:

      I’d suggest you read my post, “Why Women Upgrade,” for a few reasons why some women choose to “go there.” Thank you so much for your comment.

  32. Bermuda Says:

    This post was right on time for me. Being told tha as a black, attractive, white collared woman that I would have tp compromise my desires since my pool of suitable men were few, I did just that. .twice. Formerly married to a blue collar guy, I allowed myself to look past the obvious and. see the potential. Since I was married, I felt it was my duty as a wife to maintain peace in the home, which generally meant me financially upgrading him at his request. This started to wear on me because I became the provider and in a way, the protector. Fast forward to now, I am divorced but was recently involved with another man who I once again looked past his issues and looked at potential. He wanted to marry as of yesterday, but I held off because I saw the hazards as plain as day, thanks to my previous marriage. His constant persisting the issue of marriage, despite me telling him we need to get ourselves together FIRST before entering a union, was draining. I am no longer a Captain Save a Negro.

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  43. “Upgrade you” only sounds good when Beyonce sings it” or, “Why the Negro Improvement Plan is a waste of time” « Homespun Wisdom Says:

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