In this life, I am making an effort not to act as though, in just my 21 years on this earth, I have come to know it all. In fact, if there is one thing that I know with unmatched certainty, it is that there is so much that I don’t know. In no way am I suggesting that I am clueless––though that is more often the case than I’d like to admit––or that my experiences thus far haven’t taught me much. The amount of things that I actually do know, however, are minuscule compared to the things that I wish I could know, and intend to, one day. One of the things that I wish to know more about is love.
When you think of the word, maybe you are overcome by vibrant imagery, pleasant thoughts and strong sensations which flood the mind; or maybe, you’re like me, in that you have little understanding of what it could be. I’m aware, however, of what it’s supposed to be. From what I hear, it’s a “special feeling” that means I have a strong attachment to some “thing”. If anything, love is made out to be a looming feeling, always slightly out-of-reach; constantly pursued but never caught. I have, I believe, experienced the after-effects of love. You know, the heartbreak, those inexplicably dark emotions which weigh upon the mind and body like an anchor, implying that love was there, but is no longer.
It is possible that your experience with the four letters: l-o-v-e, whom, when together, represent this enigma, are different; perhaps somewhat similar, or nothing alike at all–and that’s okay. My idea on what it means is based on what I have both heard and experienced, and are mine and mine alone. I find joy in deciphering the meaning of such obscure concepts, and I recommend that you do the same, if you don’t already; and use others’ ideas only as a basis for formulating your own, nothing more nothing less [there are, already far too many who let others think on their behalf]. And, of course, I urge you to do the same with me and my beliefs. This essay is meant to serve, not as an argument, but a conversation, between you and I, but more importantly, between you and yourself. Let’s talk about love. What is love? What is not love? What is made possible through love? And how does one go about achieving love? As you read through this paper, I want you to question the things that you read, internalize the concepts that I portray, and reflect on how they apply to you and your life; and hopefully, in doing so, we can begin to build an understanding of the term, and of ourselves.
My desire to have this conversation was inspired by the conversation that I had with the ideas laid on paper by the late-great James Baldwin, in his essay The Fire Next Time. This fascinating text, which was released at a crucial point in American history, just 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and just before Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic March on Washington, provides invigorating insight to the American––specifically the Black Americans––experience in twentieth century America. Baldwin offers discourse on concepts such as Blackness, racial identity, and religious manipulation amongst many others; in a way that is both stunning and awe-inspiring. One of the major themes throughout is love, not the romanticized, head-over-heels love like in movies, but a love which “takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within” (Baldwin 341).
The last emotion that comes to mind when I think about the state of America in the 1960’s, or just throughout history in general, is love. Hate almost always, fear, yes, but love? Where was love? Was love in Rialto with Rodney King, or in Greensboro as students were dragged from the restaurant counters? Was it in New Orleans with Ruby Bridges or in Chicago with the rioters after we lost, yet another, true American hero? Throughout the history of genocide, murder, hatred, and oppression committed on this continent, and every other, where was love? Just the thought of such incidents, such atrocities, is enough to muster any and every emotion other than love; but, maybe love, in its anonymity makes the case for its value. Maybe we can’t pinpoint its location because we’re still unsure of its meaning? But still, I seriously doubt it was there––but if it was, did it look on with disgust, with shame, did it look at all? But, as Baldwin suggests, it is easy to internalize hatred and thus be fueled by it, and to reciprocate that negative energy with added interest. To live like that is to live like them [those fueled by hate]; is to live a life absent of love; to be ruled by fear, fear of change, fear of losing, fear of oneself–that hardly seems like living at all.
Fear is something that I am all too familiar with. I do not have to question fear, whether I know what it is or not, or what it can be, because it is something that I have experienced, and will continue to. Fear, like love, is something that we all encounter at some point, as it molds itself to fit perfectly in all of our lives. The fear that I experience can be similar to the fear that you have, but there’s a limit to the similarities, and that is because my fear is tethered to my own life and to the things that I have experienced. Since I was a child, I have been operating out of fear. I was scared of so many things: spiders, anything slimy and alive, upsetting my parents [beatings were in fashion during my upbringing], and making others uncomfortable. In fact, I feared unsettling others so much that I often sacrificed my own happiness for theirs; and I don’t mean that in any virtuous way, but in a dangerous one. In sacrificing myself, I lost a sense of who I really was, and it took 21 years for me to realize that that fear actually had nothing to do with anyone else. This fear was actually a fear of not being accepted, not being “loved”, not being liked; and that’s on me. I feared it so much that I did everything in my power to keep that from being the case. I forced myself to like what others liked, to do what others did, and to be, what I knew in my heart, I was not. This fear was learned, taught by my surroundings and our society. To be a child, Black, in a seemingly White country, meant that I didn’t fully understand the fear that I saw all around me, but it had so much to do with who I am. The fear that my father had which required me to come straight home after school, the fear that my grandparents had as I attended a predominantly white school, the fear I felt watching other children, as Black and as young as I, die on the news shaped me into who I am today. I didn’t understand the fear that was all around me, but I knew that there was something about me, something so apparent to others yet invisible to me, that was the cause of this dislike, this hatred; so, I made it my mission, for my own survival, to be liked by everyone.
Fear is an interesting thing, because the actual crux of our fears may be very specific, very small, but the way in which it can influence everything else is anything but small. It courses through the mind, the heart and the body like the winds of a hurricane, shaking reality and flooding our very being. Fear is dangerous, because it is too similar to what I had imagined love to be. Fear, alone, can be the driving force behind everything we do, affecting others, and ourselves, in strange ways. My father’s strictness––derived from his fear of losing my brothers and I to this cruel cruel world––was something I despised, and like all children eventually do, led to my rebellious attitude [ignorance truly is bliss]. The fear that drove my grandparents, which they accrued from a life spent in the very time that James Baldwin writes about, was my endowment, ingraining a sense of distrust so historic, I couldn’t not acknowledge it. The empty void, which filled my heart as I saw, in Treyvon Martin, myself, or any of my friends, reinforced that looming fear of the world that I had as a child, and have yet to shake. My understanding of fear, my experiences with it, are what have allowed me to see eye-to-eye with James Baldwin when he says: “it demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot [or knee] is on your neck”. Through my dealings with fear, both in my life and within those around me, I have come to see how hatred can be an outcome of fear; a fear of oneself, of one’s supposed identity––or lack-there-of, of losing the things that make you, you. To hate, or live in fear, as a result of my own fear, seems contradictory and a complete waste of time and effort. Fear is capable of everything that love is not, and when coupled with power, fear can––and has––bred destruction, manipulation and death. But, maybe fear can carry with it, love. Maybe love is like a rainbow, which shows itself only after the storm brought about by the lashings of fear, signaling something beautiful to come; but only attainable by those who pull through, injured but strengthened, having survived the worst of the worst.
Baldwin depicts love as something tough, graceful, daring, and growing (Baldwin 341); love is faith, to commit to something that cannot be rationalized, to have the courage to achieve the impossible. Love is, to throw caution to the wind, and dedicate oneself, completely, to the improvement, advancement, and enhancement of yourself and the larger society, for the sake of our survival. This love is not conditional, only extending to those who desire it, this love is not selective, only given to those deemed worthy, this love is not selfish, only surrendering some, this love is not––easy. It is difficult to go against the status-quo, or the fears which drive us, but nothing easy is ever worth having, or keeping for that matter. How exactly does one go about “achieving” this kind of love? As I read The Fire Next Time, I posed this question to the text, and it responded, saying “power is real, and many things, including, very often, love, cannot be achieved without it” (Baldwin 328). If love is the weapon that will slay our fears, then we should wield it with pride, but it cannot be thrusted without power. Power, as I have seen and grown to understand it, isn’t money, fame, or anything of the sort; power is the ability to influence change.
How exactly, does one achieve this power? It is easier said than done, for sure. Change is only truly had by changing everything, by grabbing the “now” by its branches, upheaving its roots, sweeping up the leaves, leaving space for the seeds of the “new” to flourish unbothered. To do this on a personal level, within your own life, may be your hardest challenge yet, as it would require the removal of those metaphorical masks that we “fear we cannot live without”, rendering us exposed. To make change on the larger stage, the societal stage, requires the deforestation and reforestation of everything. In the process, the have-nots would find no issues in letting go of a system which was never meant for them; but those who do have, those who cling the sense of safety, of money, of power “by which one can only be betrayed” (Baldwin 339), will be hesitant, and will be fearful of these changes. But the only way to achieve love, within ourselves, and with and for everyone else, is to take everything that we know now, and place it behind us, building instead toward what lies ahead.
So I ask again, both to you and myself, what is love? It seems, to me, that the answer can really only be found within myself. Not because I already have it, but because the process by which one––you and I, separate and together––achieve love, begins inside us. Love, as I understand it, is achieved through the process of confronting the fears that live within each of us, with the intent to no longer hide from or be controlled by them, but to accept them. To accept, and in that moment, be courageous enough to commit to changing them––eradicating them, completely. When I look at love in this light, I think that it was indeed present in Rialto, in Greensboro, in New Orleans, Chicago, and anywhere else that fear rears its ugly face; because these instances of fear, have inspired a movement of love within the survivors. A love that has dedicated itself to changing the world for the better.