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Black Love As a Historical Force

Issue 277

Black love heals. It’s a force that's transformed lives and a nation.

Nicholas Powers Feb 7, 2023

What shapes the world? Ideology? Religion? Nationalism? What if one of the most powerful forces in history flows right in front of our eyes and we don’t see it? 

Black Love. You taste it, kissing bae on the train before saying “bye”. It makes you look through closing doors to get a last glimpse of her. You feel it in a hand slap, half-hug with your boyz. You see it in a girlfriend corn-rowing her girlfriend’s hair on the stoop, eyes guiding fingers in a new pattern. 

Black Love is everywhere. Tupac praised it as the “rose that grew from concrete”. Black Love does more than survive. It defined our world as much as the Enlightenment or Democracy or Jesus. It is an unstoppable force that broke Western slavery, smashed segregation and apartheid, rewrote Islam and Christianity, rewrote the U.S. Constitution and now challenges the prison industrial complex.

Who knew that a kiss was stronger than a gun? If you look at history or art or just look at life, you’ll see that love, the most natural instinct, becomes political when trapped by a system that chokes it for profit. Then love becomes dangerous. It saves us by destroying the world we believed could never change. 

Learning to read

“I never saw my mother,” Frederick Douglass wrote. “She made her journeys to see me in the night, traveling the whole distance on foot…she would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.” The scene is from his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. When he was seven, she died and he felt as if was, “…the death of a stranger.” 

Black Love is so strong, so connected to the very force of life, the very first cell in the primeval ocean, splitting and fighting to recreate itself, multiplying over millions of years into human bodies and human consciousness.

I taught it for years to students, in order to show how American slavery wrung money from flesh as plantations sold families. The follow-up was how Douglass freed himself through literacy. For the first time, I read it as a parent and put myself in his mother’s shoes. 

I knew what drove her. I felt the heart’s hunger to smell the top of my baby’s head. I knew the need to kiss your child’s fingertips, to spoon them at night and wrap your warmth around them like a blanket. Like her, I palmed my son’s chest to feel his pulse. 

Douglass’s mother is a minor character, flashing briefly in the pages before dying. But for me she was lit by a fantastic light. I imagined while she cradled him that a vast number of people, like her, snuck away from plantations. Parents, lovers and friends, tip-toed through the dewy night to see loved ones, whose smell and touch and face was worth risking death. How many jumped at a noise and then, a shadow stepped into a moonbeam. The one they hoped to see was here! How they embraced wildly. And wept. And held on. 

Love drove them to risk life to reunite with who they lost. Love also drove them to reunite with their lost bodies. 

I flipped pages in Douglass’ autobiography to where he learned to express through words, his hunger to be free. He bought a book, The Columbia Orator and found anti-slavery arguments. He wrote, “It gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my soul that flashed through my mind but died away for want of utterance.” Later he said literacy brought, “torment to sting my soul to unutterable anguish.” 

What he learned to read was his own body. Anguish came from being cut from his true self. His body was to him, what he was to his mother, someone deeply loved but missed. 

Looking at the book shelf, the whole Black Literary Canon seemed upended. I was taught that literacy, specifically historical literacy, set us free. The iconic scene in Slave Narratives and Neo-Slave Narratives (books written after slavery) from Douglass to Malcolm X, Celie in The Color Purple to Precious in Push is where the protagonist struggles to mouth syllables and etch letters until by long hard work, they can read. 

Touching the books, I realized what they read was the truth of a silenced body. Black love is a reunification with oneself, with the desire to move and think freely, with ancestors, with those living right now. Black Love rises from the past, sorrow too, and responsibility. It means to fully love we have to destroy the racism we internalized to get by, destroy the laws, governments and economies that profit from our imprisonment, our separation. 

Now when I read Douglass’s mother, traveling at night to find her son surrounded by plantations, filled with armed men, I know she’s not alone. Time connects past to present. After she walks by, another mother calls for Emmett Till. A father and mother search for Sean Bell. More parents come looking for Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and George Floyd. The small dirt path is filled with millions of families, searching for those they loved and lost to racism. Some seek the parts of themselves they hid. Some for a dream. Everyone, everyone is driven by love. 

What’s love got to do with it? 

“Yo,” I yelled at my son, “Get back here!” My kid and his friend, two trouble-making toddlers, ran to the Von King Park exit like escaped cons. Cars speed at the corner. Drivers don’t look. I dropped the water bottle, ready to turbo-sprint when a brother saw what I saw, he scooped them up. I sighed. They tried to squirm but he had them locked. 

“Yo thanks.” I stared hard at them like what-the-hell-are-you-thinking. “Get to the playground. NOW.” My son and his wingman sulked back to the jungle gym. 

“All good.” He gave me dap. “I got kids, they be trying to escape like Shawshank Redemption.” 

I laughed. “Just thinking the same thing.” We re-enacted the Tim Robbins scene from the movie, arms up in the rain after he crawled through a shit-filled prison pipe to freedom. We fell out. 

“Gonna be the death of me,” he smiles, “These fucking kids.” 

Two dads. He from Section 8. Me, a professor down the block. Two men of color, united over fatherhood. Black Love fills Von King Park with its lawn, playgrounds and amphitheater. Here gentrifiers and hood parents, the Rasta soccer coach and Muslim moms, the hipsters and new divorcees, the daycare staff handing fluorescent jackets to the kids and the Mr. Softee ice-cream truck come together. 

Magic happens. As toddlers squeal, play, fight over toys, splash in water — we feel love through them — their innocence rescues us. They pry us free from the classism, colorism, judgy mindset. We teach them to share, we buy everyone ice cream, watch out for each other. It’s playground socialism. We can’t help but want for other kids what we want for our own; safety, love, a real chance at life. 

As kids played, nearby at the amphitheater, a Black church held a revival to a giant congregation. It was packed, standing room only. They swayed, hands up, palms splayed like tiny radar-dishes to receive divine energy. We caught the vapors. 

In my pocket was the 1975 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow was Enough by Ntozake Shange. I was teaching it and at the end the women sang, “I found God in myself and loved her fiercely.” My mom performed that play. I remembered how it transformed the Black and Puerto Rican cast, it gave them a voice, a vehicle for their needs. I was just a kid during her performances but I felt them recreate holiness. 

Integration. Upward Mobility. Getting that Bag. Nationalism. Jesus. Allah. Real Estate. Melanin Theory. Respectability politics. 

Black Love’s need to return to our bodies, ourselves transformed even God, white Jesus became Black Jesus, the master’s Bible became Liberation Theology, or Rastafarianism or Martin Luther King’s Soul Force. Black Love remade Islam into the Nation of Islam; it re-shaped nationalism into Garveyism, socialism into the Black Panther Party. Black Love channeled the Civil Rights Movement into Black Lives Matter and finally, embraced gay and trans-Black people, and now, we’re turning again to jails and the poverty that prepares us for jail, girding up to fight because even if it’s too late for us, it’s not for our kids. 

Black Love is so strong, so connected to the very force of life, the very first cell in the primeval ocean, splitting and fighting to recreate itself, multiplying over millions of years into human bodies and human consciousness. Itself splits into thoughts upon thoughts, to live on the edge of space and time, that it tosses aside Gods and nations like toys. 

Watching kids play with Hasbro figures, I think of Jesus saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, for such is the kingdom of Heaven.” Maybe Heaven comes when adults realize we can frolic with reality, break taboos for the sake of communion. And relearn how dangerous and beautiful love is. 

Later, the man who scooped up my kid set up speakers and deep house music thumped the night. The shadows paint us shades of blue. The dads are buzzed. Moms too. Weed smoke curls from laughing half-moon eyes. “Follow Me” by Aly-Us hits and old heads drop so hard I can hear knee replacements, pop. 

“I’m hoping to see the day, when my people can all relate,” Aly-Us sang from speakers, “We must stop fighting to achieve the peace that was taught in our country, we shall all be free.” Maybe it’s the hopeful lyrics. Maybe it’s 90’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s weed and drink. A late-night deep house party in Von King became something hood and sacred at the same time. We showed the kids our best moves and then the kids lead the way.  

The return to the body

Black Love is a force that returns us to ourselves, through each other. Every generation rediscovers it and forgets it, or loses it in order to keep its temporary name. Integration. Upward Mobility. Getting that Bag. Nationalism. Jesus. Allah. Real Estate. Melanin Theory. Respectability politics. 

It doesn’t matter. Black Love is powered by life. It plucks those precious and throws them like litter. What remains is the return to the body in all its profane glory, all its scars like a language only we can read, all its weight only we can carry. 

Black Love leading back to the body is a recurring scene, I now saw it in Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni. In Assatta Shakur’s 1987 autobiography she wrote, “My friend asked me why I don’t wear my hair in an Afro …I always hated frying my hair…afraid my hair would go back. Back to where? The devil or Africa? To make it natural I cut it myself and then stood under the shower for hours melting the conk out. At last my hair was free.” 

When you flow with Black Love, you can’t carry “isms”, the colorism, the classism, the sexism with you. No way you enter into its deepest treasure with that. Why? Because Blackness is everything. It is gay and straight, trans and cis, poor and rich. It is big boned and slim. It looks like Akon. Looks like Alicia Keys. It speaks Spanish and Creole, English and Swahili. It is monogamous and poly, able bodied and disabled, patient and short-tempered, curious and cautious. It’s kinky and nappy, wavy, soft and tender headed. It is anxious and secure. It’s on the spectrum. It is genius and dumb. It is from the islands and the motherland, the hood and the Hamptons. 

If you follow Black Love, then your politics have to be one that creates a world where everyone can live with dignity. 

The great intellectual gift of Black Love is that it is the Rosetta Stone to other movements. Seen through Black ventricles, the Gay Liberation Movement, Feminist waves and the worker’s movement, especially Marxism, all return people from the hall of mirrors that is the scaffolding for a hierarchical society. Home is the body, the end of “alienation” where we own the means of producing material life and consciousness itself.

Here is the reward. Here is the end of history. In a kiss.  

The heart is the size of a fist

“Mama”, George Floyd cried out. Officer Dereck Chauvin kneed his neck as bystanders begged him to let the man breathe. We all saw it. We marched to the edge of flipping the nation upside down. 

Friends told me repeatedly that hearing him call to his mother sliced them like a razor. It just cut. It never healed. 

Hearing a grown man cry out like a child hit home. We all became his family and marched to rescue his memory so even if he was dead, the lesson of his life lived on. Floyd was our brother, uncle, son and nephew. Black Love grew exponentially, enlarging us through each other and it returned a vision of our power in the burning police stations and street-shaking protests. 

If we fight to live, if we practice Black Love, years from now they’ll wake up and look around. They’ll see the new world we built.

Black Love destroys what is in the way. One heart is roughly the size of a fist. Think of the marches and the countless fists in the air, each a heart ready to explode. 

“Mama” Tyre Nichols yelled as police struck him so hard that he died. She stood at home, a hundred yards away. The path between them is centuries long and worn down by millions of feet.

The protests calling for justice for Tyre gather force. Again, we follow Douglass’ mother, who walked through the night to protect her child. I know what I’m about to say is speculation. He did not write it but in the way, you just know that you know, I am sure, some nights Douglass went to the door and called for her. 

“Mom?”

Think of who you kiss. Who do you hug fiercely? Our children call to us here and now for help. Look into their eyes and you can hear them calling from the future. In their time, the Earth will become hot, droughts will kill crops, cities battered by storms and people will die in slums as floods sweep them away. Black faces in high places won’t help. They’ll be paid off by the rich with exclusive homes in safe zones. 

“Dad?”

Right now, we have to lift them and say, “I love you.” And that means loving the world that makes their lives possible. 

If we succeed, if we do this, if we fight to live, if we practice Black Love, years from now they’ll wake up and look around. They’ll see the new world we built. The stronger democracy, the end of poverty, the abolition of prisons, the return to our bodies enshrined in rights. 

They’ll feel us in everything they touch. They’ll know we came in the darkest night. And they’ll know every sunrise, we stayed.

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