Letters of Love and Struggle
By Imagining America | January 30, 2015
My heart hurts. I want to write everything and yet, when I start to type I don’t know what to say. Racism is crazy, and undermines rational thinking because you can never predict the reach of its irrationality. As a teacher, I didn’t know what to tell my students, especially the Black young men in my classes, when they voiced how unsafe and vulnerable they felt. Like their lives held less value and their right to live mattered less. And I feel scared, because I can continue to tell them that their lives matter, but what our society continues to show us does not reflect their lives as valuable. The deaths, the incarcerations, and the sentiments in online comment threads—we can go on. I sometimes feel hopeless.
What can we do?
As Grace Lee Boggs says, “These are the times to grow our souls.” I have to choose to not be paralyzed by fear, but instead trudge forward into an uncertain future leading with radical love. Love that hurts. Love that feels scary. Even when they push you away. And that means breaking down the societal constructions of worth that have people of color fighting for the crumbs. In a MLK day protest in Oakland, I saw a photo of people bike locked together with signs that said “Palestine for Black Resistance”; “Vietnamese for Black Resistance”; “Mixed Folk for Black Resistance”—and more.
To understand that my liberation is tied to Black Liberation. And yes, all lives matter, but all lives were not afforded 3/5th s value and all lives’ enslaved labor did not build the foundation of the United States. Now is a particular moment to continue to love and find joy in these times is a revolutionary act. And I struggle with it.
Alex’s thoughtful letter reminded me of a lecture that Ta-Nahisi Coates gave in Ann Arbor this week. One of the most striking things he said was the idea that racism is not a kind of “madness,” but rather that it has a functional purpose in American society. That purpose, as Coates argued here (and in his long article for the Atlantic “The Case for Reparations”) was to justify the economic, cultural, social, and political subjugation of Black Americans by white Americans. I agree with you, Alex, that this is a moment when we realize that any kind of anti-racist struggle in the US is bound up with the inextricable fact that Black Lives Matter, and that they must matter in order for any kind of systemic change to happen. Still, Coates’ point continues to resonate for me perhaps because it has a kind of explanatory power that transcends even the particulars of his own argument.
I’m thinking about this because Alex’s letter reminds me of the ways that racism is experienced as heart sickness, as madness, and irrationality. But what happens if we, as Coates suggests, call attention to the inherent logic behind racist policies and actions? If racism is not simply a problem of not enough love, but rather a cultural framework built to justify economic and intellectual exploitation, this highlights the ineffectual nature of multicultural projects led by white liberals that seek to get people of different races to tolerate one another. Bringing Grace Lee Boggs into this is so important Alex, precisely because she speaks to these issues so powerfully. As Grace argues, racial justice is wrapped up with economic justice, always and forever. This is not to say that problems of race can be subsumed under the umbrella of class, but that these two concerns are irrevocably linked.
I say all this because I think this approach calls for a clear-eyed assessment by white Americans of the ways that we materially benefit from racist logic. Tellingly, one of the most effective teaching tools I have for helping reticent students to see the lasting effects of white supremacy in America is not the absurd hunt for Obama’s birth certificate (which should be plenty!) but, rather, discussions of mid 20th century housing regulations (redlining). Not coincidentally, these regulations are also a centerpiece of Coates article, as well as the work by a whole laundry list of scholars working on these issues.
All that said, I don’t know how to address the heartsickness, the knowledge that regardless of the cold logic behind racist thinking, the experience of it is anything but logical. As James Baldwin, Lorde, Morrison, Finney, Biss, Rankine, Alex and so many others have demonstrated, this is not just a problem of racist logic underpinning policy, but it is a problem of feeling, in that generations of people of color have been told in a range of ways that their lives do not matter. For me the personal challenge here is to figure out how to enact the kind of radical love that Alex discusses with the knowledge that I have benefited from an imbalanced system. This is mostly about listening, I think, and mostly about seeing where my words and work can really be useful, and giving others space to do their own work. This is scary, not only because it requires a kind of deep-self interrogation, but because it also means acknowledging in a very real way that I do not understand the emotional landscapes that my friends, students, and neighbors face every day. To deal with this, Alex, I’m taking up a line of your email as a mantra: “I have to choose to not be paralyzed by fear, but instead trudge forward into an uncertain future leading with radical love.”
In this time of fear, anxiety and uncertainty, I can’t help but remind myself that this is not a moment. This is America where the lives, bodies, minds, gifts and love of Black folks is constantly up for death. What I know about being Black and girl is that this life has always felt like a fight. Racism is not a moment. Black death is not a moment. White supremacy is not a moment. I love so much of what Alex has started us off with- a love letter. Something filled with the hurt, pain and uncertainty that we feel about having to request that Black lives matter. That we must remind ourselves to love. That it is a struggle when fear is so radiant. Katie- radical love looks like calling on folks have talked to us about this- mentioning Morrison, Finney, Biss and more, is the kind of showing of loving Black lives that matters so much. Love in the midst of fear is where we are standing. It hurts. Its painful. We’ve been here. These moments remind us that the myth of modernity is right in our faces. That we must push to not be paralyzed but to act from our love.
Hugs & love