What Black Love Is . . .
The concept of Black love is how this book came to be. Yes, so many of the stories are about overcoming and succeeding against the odds. But the real and true theme underlying the book is Black love.
I came up with the idea of putting together this book after I was fired from Black Entertainment Television (BET). Prior to being fired, I thought I knew something about Black love. But after I lost my job, the outpouring of Black love shown to me, from California to the Carolinas, was phenomenal. It was Black love that lifted me during the darkest moment of my professional career. It was Black love that lifted me out of my despair. I discovered that, outside of God’s love, nothing is more powerful.
One of the greatest challenges we face as Black people is whether or not we can take the notion of Black love and use it proactively, as opposed to reactively. Black love is a powerful force. The Black community has a way of coming together and rescuing each other and lifting each other up when someone has been attacked, undermined, or otherwise disenfranchised. But the challenge for us as African Americans is to act proactively with regard to the important issues in our community. If we could harness this notion of Black love and demonstrate it on the front end of our life experiences, as opposed to the back end of our struggles, we would become an awesome force to be reckoned with.
Using Black love, we could eradicate Black-on-Black crime, Black nihilism, and Black powerlessness, all of which exist in our communities because of a lack of self-love. We could even strengthen Black male-female relationships.
For me, what was so uplifting and rewarding about my discovery of the genuine meaning of Black love was the relationship between one’s “value” and love. Value, I learned, is not what you think of yourself, but rather what other people think of you. The outpouring of Black love that was shown to me across this country after I was fired from BET made a clear statement about my value to African Americans--who I was, what I was about, and the way that Black America perceived me. I learned that my real value wasn’t what BET thought of me or even what I thought of myself. It had more to do with what other Black folks thought of me. I didn’t realize the powerful force of Black love that I became the beneficiary of. I was completely overwhelmed.
Of course, I knew that people watched my show, that they would buy my books, and that they would come to hear me if I was speaking somewhere. So I was aware that I had some followers. But when I got fired, it became clear to me that Black people saw me as someone they cared about, someone who tried to represent their best interests, someone who was genuinely concerned about the plight of Black America. Their immediate response was “We’re not going to stand for this.” That’s what I love about being Black: when our backs are to the wall, we come together as a people. When one of us is targeted unfairly or unduly, we go to bat for one another.
Consider the reelection of Marion Barry as mayor of Washington, D.C. Here was a man who had been caught on videotape smoking crack and trying to bed a woman who was not his wife, attempting to run for another term as mayor of a major U.S. city. And he won! Many said the reason he won was that Black folks were crazy--how dare they vote Marion Barry back into office. The more sophisticated, however, realized that Black folk in the D.C. area saw the government create an elaborate sting operation to nail Marion Barry--and use their taxpayer dollars to pay for it. And they suspected he was nailed because he is Black. So their vote became their voice and they reelected Marion Barry.
Black love is Black citizens reelecting Marion Barry as mayor of Washington, D.C., when he didn’t necessarily deserve their votes. Black love is Black people cheering and rejoicing the day that O.J. Simpson was found not guilty, even though O.J. hadn’t done much of anything for Black people. Black love, in its essence, is the awesome capacity and the uncanny ability to love someone in spite of themselves—in spite of their shortcomings, in spite of their mistakes, in spite of their lapses in judgment, in spite of their deserting their community and not giving back to it once they leave. Black love is forgiving.
When I say that Black people have a tremendous capacity for loving others in spite of, I’m not just talking about their ability to love their own, but also the ability to love others in spite of. One can make the case, given the historical relationship between Blacks and whites in America, that Black people love white people in spite of all the things that have been done to us. Think about how Black folks had to love America, in spite of the fact we were considered three-fifths of a person, when we fought alongside whites in the Civil War to help America resolve the issue of slavery, even though many of the soldiers were enslaved themselves. We fought in both world wars as well as the Vietnam War; sometimes we came home missing leg and limb, only to be treated like second-class citizens. Yet we learned to love this country in spite of this. To this day, we are still, through amendment, through protests, through boycotts, and through the ballot, trying to make America live up to her truest ideals. We love this country, we love our people, in spite of and not because of. That’s what Black love is.
Although so many Black folks in America detest the programming offered by BET, they have shown their love and support for founder Bob Johnson because he was the only one out there attempting to bring certain issues about Black people to the forefront through the use of mainstream media. So they loved him in spite of and not because of.
When your back is to the wall, there is nothing like the power of Black love to pull you through. And that’s why I believe that beyond God’s love, Black love is the most powerful force in the universe.
The fact that we can love under such dire circumstances--in spite of and not because of--is, I believe, what makes us special. For all the torture, pain, and disenfranchisement that we have had to endure--when we are racially profiled, when we can’t get a home loan, when we are the victims of insurance redlining and predatory lending, when we are the last hired and first fired, when circumstances are created to make it more difficult for us to get into college in order to receive a quality education--Black people find a way to love this place called America. That’s what Black love is. Other races might have said, “To hell with all this confusion and pain and heartache.” We kept right on loving, trying to make America a better nation.
This book represents the very best of what Black love has to offer. To love in spite of and not because of.
LOVE LIFTED ME
Dr. Cornel West
The fundamental theme of Black life and history is freedom, a freedom that is rooted in a deep courage to love. The power of Black love not only sustains our struggle for freedom; it is the prerequisite of our sanity and dignity. If you examine Black literature, you will find that our greatest text is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Her book reminds us in many ways of Berry Gordy’s autobiography, To Be Loved. In many of the Black texts we find a kind of Black ontology that puts a high premium on love, in part because we have been such a hated, haunted, and hunted people.
This same theme is represented in Black music, particularly when we look at the talented and gifted artist John Coltrane. In one of his greatest Black musical texts, “A Love Supreme,” he wrestles with pain and anguish as well as joy and ecstasy. Even though love is very much about ecstasy, Frankie Beverly of the popular recording group Maze also reminds us that Black love includes the dimensions of joy and pain, “sunshine and rain.” This Black love has been forged in the face of American barbarism (slavery) and American terrorism (Jim Crow, lynching)--over against violence and death.
I experienced the power of Black love in a fundamental way when I confronted three recent crises in my life. This past year I experienced a physical crisis when the doctor told me that my body was nearly incurably infected with cancer. Because of the magnificent and successful surgery performed by Dr. Peter Scardino, all of the cancer has been removed. Looking back, there is no doubt in my mind that what lifted me and what sustained me was the power of Black love. The power of Black love was demonstrated to me in a very deep way by my family, including my mother, my two sisters, my brother, and my close friends (including loyal, non-Black people). My mother and my friend Leslie waited on me hand and foot every day for seven weeks. It was the overwhelming demonstration of Black love, including the prayers of supporters around the world, that constituted the pillar upon which I stood. It became my rock and my foundation as I struggled against the deadly disease that threatened my body. It is hard to put in words the kind of love I felt. It went far beyond any kind of glib formulation of mere family, friendship, and companionship. It was, in fact, a love that was supernatural and translunar and, I contend, unexplainable through mere words. To take it a step further, I believe that all forms of love are unmistakable and indefinable at the same time and this love is clearly what I experienced and what lifted me. Within the history of the Black church, as well as in the history of Black mosques and Black synagogues, there is, at the center of their teaching, the fundamental need to dignify Black people by making us view ourselves as worthy of love. This love can be God’s love, the love of significant others, the love of children, or the love of our friends.
The second crisis I experienced was a professional crisis--my struggle with President Larry Summers of Harvard University. Summers attacked my integrity and insulted my character. Because I felt so deeply disrespected and dishonored, it created a sense of rage within me. In many ways, the notion of rage has always been an integral part of Black existence. However, if rage is not channeled in such a way that it is influenced and shaped and molded by love, it can become self-destructive. I was able to deal with the rage I experienced in a way that allowed me to retain my sense of self-respect and integrity, as opposed to allowing the experience of being disrespected and dishonored to cause me to self-destruct. Here again, it was the power of Black love that lifted me and enabled me to maintain my self-respect and to keep things in perspective. Without the love shown to me by my mother, my two sisters, my brother, and my friends, I would not have pulled through.
The third crisis I experienced was a family crisis; I underwent a very painful divorce. This situation was again a crucial occasion in which the sustaining power of Black love was manifested in a mighty and powerful way. I had invested a tremendous amount of time and material resources in my relationship and partnership only to find myself one day having fallen flat on my face. Two things became very clear to me. The first was that I saw myself as I am--a cracked vessel. But the second and more significant thing revealed to me was that I could bounce back. In spite of my faults, foibles, shortcomings, and defects, I was still deeply loved by others. And so, Black love became the impetus that allowed me to bounce back, rather than remain down and out. In all three of the aforementioned crises, the power of Black love was the fundamental factor that allowed me to preserve my sanity and dignity.
I believe there is a real challenge for Black people in general and for Black leaders in particular today. We are currently experiencing a crisis in Black leadership in America, in part because we simply do not have enough Black leaders who have a profound love for Black people. We need the kind of Black love that allows us to criticize as well as embrace, to empower as well as to correct, to listen as well as to speak, and in the end, to ennoble as well as be ennobled by the people. I also believe this to be true for many among our Black professional class. Many have become so isolated and so insulated and so intoxicated with the material toys of the world that they have lost sight of the love that made them who they are and that brought them to where they are. I also believe that we are losing the ability to pass that profound love on to our young people.
The major crisis of our younger generation, in addition to the decrepit educational system, inadequate health care, unavailable child-care, and lack of jobs that provide a living wage, is that many young people have not been loved deeply enough. The major responsibility lies with the older generation. We must bequeath and transmit a genuine love to the younger generation in order to ensure that they will not feel rootless, isolated, unloved, untouched, and simply unattended to.
In the end, I believe that the power of Black love is one of the most precious themes and most significant issues in the history of Black people, past, present, and future. It is Black love, like Black history, that unites these three dimensions of time.
WEDNESDAYS AND SUNDAYS
Elwood L. Robinson
I am the only child of the union of Isaiah and Hannah Robinson. My father spent all his life working for meager wages in rural North Carolina. His highest annual salary was $8,500. We grew up in a small, dilapidated house with no bathroom or running water. It was not until I was a senior in high school that we got a telephone. (The first person I called was the woman who has now been my wife for twenty years.) I never felt ashamed of our living conditions; I always had the feeling of being loved, and the sense that my parents were doing the best they could. I never knew I was poor. The fact is, I was not poor; I was very rich in love. The riches that I accumulated during my childhood are the foundation for my adult perspective on life.
Today I am a professor of psychology at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college and the first person from my community to receive a Ph.D. My beautiful wife, Denise, and I have two children, Chanita, seventeen, and Devin, eight. My life has been so full of love and kindness that sometimes I get overwhelmed with emotion just thinking about it. I have been blessed to have two parents who loved me unconditionally and would do anything for me. They denied themselves many things and sacrificed so that I would have opportunities that they didn’t--and in many ways, were not allowed to have.
My mother had a severe and incapacitating stroke in 1993. Early one Sunday morning, two years later, I received a call that my father was lying motionless in the den of my parents’ home; the rescue workers there were trying to revive him. By the time I arrived, the emergency folks were transporting him to the ambulance.
I waited by my father’s side as he struggled to regain consciousness. The stroke had caused bleeding in the lower brain structures, and in a short period he would be dead. The hospital staff had briefed me on his condition and told me that the chances of his survival were slim. The attending physician informed me that my father would be dead in a short while and asked me if I wanted to have him resuscitated if he expired. That night was the longest night of my life. His breathing was labored. With every breath he took, I was certain that it was his last.
As the afternoon turned to evening, all I could do was watch him and pray. I rubbed his face and looked in his eyes. I knew he recognized me, but he could not speak. This was the man who taught me the “love of the game.” He was a Celtic fan because of Bill Russell, the Jones boys, Sam, and KC. He was a Dodger fan because of Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax. And so I became a Celtic and Dodger fan too. He did not appreciate football, but when I became a Cowboy fan, he became one as well. When I was a child, he would come into my room each morning and tell me the baseball scores. I remember his 6 a.m. voice: “You know, the Dodgers beat the Giants last night.” And that’s all he would say before going to work. But those words gave me comfort, and I immediately felt safe and secure. Somehow, those words told me that everything was right with the world. He taught me about manhood, hard work, and faith by the simple eloquence of his example.
The evening shift at the hospital came on duty at 6:00 p.m. The attending physician came by to see my father at around 7:00 p.m. As he was reviewing my father’s chart, I noticed that he was wearing a class ring from North Carolina Central University. Since I had been a professor at NCCU since 1984, I thought it a possibility that I knew him. It turned out that he had been a Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) scholar while attending NCCU. I was the current director of the MARC program. I had never imagined that a student trained in our program would one day be taking care of my dying father.
He asked me what I had been told about my father’s prognosis. I told him that the attending physician said that he would be dead soon. This wonderful Black physician would not be dissuaded by the diagnosis of his counterpart. He simply looked at the chart and said, “Let me try something.” I don’t know what he told the staff, but there was an immediate flurry of activity around my father. I later learned that this doctor, who would not give up on my father when everybody else had, had ordered that he be given some experimental medication designed to stop the bleeding in his brain. The blessings are overflowing.
My father survived, but he had a very long road to recovery. He spent a month in a rehabilitation center, and I was now faced with an unthinkable situation. Who would take care of my father? I could not take him home because my aunt was already there taking care of my mother, who required twenty-four-hour assistance. While I knew my aunt would never turn down the challenge of taking care of both her sister and her brother-in-law, it would be too much for one person. And I knew that I didn’t have the room or the facilities at my house for him to live with us. My only option was the unthinkable: a nursing home.
I had a referral from a trusted social worker who urged me to consider putting my father in Mary Gran Nursing Center. It was where all the local doctors put their parents. Just the thought of having to put my father in a nursing center was horrifying, almost beyond understanding. Black folks didn’t put their parents in nursing homes. That was something that white people did. I drove slowly to the center to meet with the administrators to discuss my father’s becoming a resident. After I parked in the lot, I put my head on the steering wheel, unable to get out of the car. I prayed and cried out for God to give me the strength to move, and the courage to do what I knew in my heart was best for my father. I felt so guilty about signing the forms that would admit him to this nursing home.
In retrospect, this was one of the best decisions that I would make regarding my father’s health care. My father received care that exceeded my expectations tenfold. He became the darling of the nursing center. For the last six years, the nursing staff and other support staff have taken care of my father with the greatest love, support, and professionalism. I often asked myself, “Why have I been so blessed?”
Psalm 30 says, “Weeping endures during the night, but in the morning joy cometh.” Since he arrived at the nursing center, my father has developed insulin-dependent diabetes, survived prostate cancer, and experienced the death of six roommates. In spite of this, he approaches each day with a positive attitude. He has taught me more about love and life during his disability than I could have imagined. His attitude about his illness has been inspiring. He still believes that he will walk again unassisted. He still believes that he will work again. And he still believes that he is improving each day and will have a complete recovery. Words cannot express or capture his spirit and resiliency.
The nursing home is approximately ninety miles from my home in Durham, North Carolina. For the past six years, I have visited him every Sunday. He likes Sundays. I take him to see my mother, who has been bedridden for the past eight years. If you did not know him before the disability, it would be difficult to detect how the stroke has changed him. Order and consistency are important to him now. He calls me every Wednesday at approximately 7:30 p.m. We talk for a few minutes about sports or politics, but he always wants to know how I am doing. And he always encourages me, and asks me to be careful.
Today, my father and I are closer than ever before. His motivation and determination are inspiring. He lives life to its fullest in spite of his disability. He often talks of his life now by using the words of Apostle Paul, who wrote, “I have learned, in whatever state I am, therefore to be content.” I get up early on Sunday morning in anticipation of my weekly pilgrimage to Mary Gran Nursing Center. It is not a job, a chore, or an inconvenience; it is very simply an act of love. When I was a baby and could not walk, my parents carried me; when I could not eat, they fed me; when I could not put on my clothes, they put them on for me. The very least I can do for them during this time is to return their love.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Keeping the Faith by Tavis Smiley. Copyright © 2002 by Tavis Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.