I made a recent Facebook post affirming our constitutional and human rights as Black people to defend ourselves in the face of unrelenting brutality and murder by racist police, white vigilantes and predatory members of our own communities.. Many respondents agreed (it’s difficult not to) and some explained that our capacity to “police” our own communities increases when we cultivate revolutionary love for each other.
I agreed completely. I often quote the iconic Argentine revolutionary Che Guervara who once wrote: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”
Our powerfully insightful intellectual James Baldwin noted, “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
Moved by this response to my Facebook post, and by the above quotes, I began thinking deeply about the phrase. I asked myself, “What does revolutionary Black love look like, how do we cultivate it, and how will its existence impact how we relate to each other as Black people?”
What Does Revolutionary Black Love Look Like?
I begin with the following premise: “Revolutionary Black love is a redundant phrase. For In a society that has spent and continues to spent countless effort and energy teaching Black people to hate themselves, the very existence of Black love itself is by definition, revolutionary.” Yet this point still doesn’t help us understand or describe Revolutionary Black love. To accomplish this, I dive into my own life for answers, and the larger ocean of Black experience itself.
- My mother demonstrated revolutionary Black love when she sacrificed stylish clothes, a graduate scholarship to New York University, a larger apartment, and having additional children, in order to finance a private education for me from elementary school to high school (and compelled my dad to agree with her decision). This twelve-year commitment demonstrated that she prioritized her child’s education over personal comfort and other interests.
- My dad was a native New Yorker and Harlemite who regularly played for basketball powerhouse Benjamin Franklin High School alongside the legendary Earl “The Goat” Manigault (He also regularly played in the famed Rucker’s Basketball Tournament with the likes of Nate Archibald, Lew Alcindor a.k.a. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charlie Scott, “Pee Wee” Kirkland, and a number of other Harlem basketball icons). He told me that his high school coach – who was also the assistant principal – let he and other ball players skip class. The coach would unethically assign them undeserved good grades to keep them eligible to play basketball. Consequently, my dad’s academic skills suffered and he struggled with reading. Nonetheless, he later got help and became a prolific reader (his collection of books on African civilizations, Benin art, slavery, and Malcolm X became my first library on the Black experience). When I decided to apply to Syracuse University for undergraduate study, my dad learned about the H.E.O.P. program, contacted the assistant director, and arranged an interview with her. He told me to write an essay explaining why I wanted to attend (despite my protests that I had already done son as part of the application process). He rented a car and drove me 4 hours to Syracuse, New York where we met with Mrs. Betty Boozer. She, no doubt awed by my charismatic and determined dad, and by my essay and eagerness, pulled strings and got me into the program. Later I became a radical and controversial student leader at the university, helping to lead several months of protests, building takeovers, and meeting disruptions. A university official called my house on behalf of the university, explaining that my political activities were causing great embarrassment to the school and might end with me getting expelled. My dad later recalled the incident to me. “This administrator from Syracuse University called, saying you were a trouble-maker and you were embarrassing the school with all those demonstrations, taking over buildings, and rallies. He said to tell you to resign from president of your organization or they might kick you out. I told him, that your mother and I were proud of you, and that you have our full support. If the university doesn’t like your protests, they should make sure you have nothing to protest about. I told him the next time he calls me, it better be to apologize, and I hung up.” My dad demonstrated revolutionary love by doing all he could to get me in college, and then supporting our Black student movement and my role in it, even with threats of me getting kicked out. Through action, he taught me to stand up for our people and stick your neck out, even at expense to yourself.
I can continue with countless examples from my personal life, but revolutionary Black love is well documented in our collective experience as Africans in America. Harriet Tubman who made dozens of trips to and from the South, rescued 3000 Black people from the horrors of chattel slavery. She did this at great risk to herself and a $50,000 bounty on her head; Ella Baker was a tireless and brilliant organizer dating back to work with the Young Negroes Cooperative League in the 1930s. She later worked with the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC and a host of other organizations for almost five decades, up to her death in 1986. Hear her for yourself in the clip below.
Baker organized a conference at Shaw University in 1960 to coordinate the efforts of student activists around the country. SCLC hoped this would lead to a student wing of their organization. Baker instead encouraged the assembled student activists to form their own independent organization and use their own voice and ideas. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born and went on to radicalize the Civil Rights Movement, and make it more inclusive of Black women. Rather than emphasizing charismatic male leadership, SNCC focusing on grassroots organizing and inclusive leadership. They went all over the south teaching leadership and organizing skills to poor Black folks, many of whom were previously inactive until SNCC’s contact. We might not know the names or benefit from the activism of Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Dianne Nash, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Marion Barry, Bob Moses, James Foreman, or H. Rap Brown were it not for SNCC and Baker’s political mentorship. Baker demonstrated Revolutionary Black love by spending her life in service to Black people and by mentoring youth and allowing them to make their own decisions and determine their own leadership. Bernice Johnson Reagon was so moved by Baker’s mentorship and tireless service, that she wrote a song in her tribute entitled “Ella’s Song,” which she performs with her group “Sweet Honey in the Rock.”
We can summarize that revolutionary Black love involves:
- Fearlessness: Not allowing fears of persecution to stop us from taking principled stands.
- Agency: A willingness to roll up one’s sleeves and get personally involved in listening to others and working with others to address day-to-day issues and larger community concerns.
- Selflessness: Putting community needs over personal comfort.
- Empowering and supporting those in our immediate and community family and making this a priority.
- Being patient and nurturing with our young people, providing them with mentorship and skills-building, then trusting them to develop their own leadership and ideas.
- Acting immediately to address current issues, but planning to bring future visions into fruition.
How do we cultivate it?
The answer to this question is simple, but practicing it takes patience and consistent work. To cultivate Revolutionary Black love, we must begin by valuing and loving ourselves. This includes loving our bodies/physical features, our history and heritage, and our freedom and empowerment. We must through knowledge and education, break through artificial layers of self-hate and devaluation created for us by those who mistreat and exploit us. We must also be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings, contradictions, and self-defeating behavior. Then we work hard to be and do better. In the process, we gain humility, as we recognize that we are fragile, prone to mistakes and errors in judgement like anyone else. This leads us to apologize when we violate another member of the community, without feeling inferior or weak for doing so.
The next stage involves extending that personal love, honesty and humility to our people. We begin to want for our community what we want for ourselves and our families. We put ourselves in position to render excellent service to our larger communities, and we do so not with a sense of entitlement or arrogance, but with a sense of humility. As we begin to help others without strings attached, we develop trust. As we provide constructive criticism without condescension or judgement, we become community mentors whose advice people trust and actively seek. We empathize with the challenges, pain, and frustrations of our community members. We develop a capacity to solve personal and collective problems and work together despite differences of opinion. We listen when others speak and don’t take offense because we know they have only positive and loving intentions. We also learn to disagree without attacking or insulting one another in doing so. We develop the empowering capacity to forgive our brothers and sisters, and to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. In other words, we become “Our brother’s and sister’s keeper.”
How will Revolutionary Black love impact our community?
As we begin to value ourselves and our people, as we begin to show empathy, compassion, and concern, as we become fearless, community service-oriented, and selfless, we can expect to notice the following:
- Black people willingly share their knowledge, money, and other resources to help each other in noble and authentic efforts.
- We protect and stand up for each other even if we ourselves have not been mistreated.
- We unashamedly identify and expose those in or outside of our community who work against our common interests, or who are fraudulent.
- We support noble Black organizations, movements, and leaders who work to improve conditions for us, even if we don’t fully agree with their methods or ideas.
- We take positions or create projects to empower our people, even when doing so causes controversy, or persecution to ourselves.
- We empower and mentor our youth and give them opportunities to lead and solve problems.
- We state our disagreements with policy, methods, and people clearly and respectfully because doing so makes our movements, organizations, and communities better.
I thank sister Loga for sharing the phrase Revolutionary Black love, and I encourage us to really think about the information/ideas put forth in this article. In conclusion, remember that hate, envy, apathy, distrust, and cynicism are choices. So too is Revolutionary Black Love. It, and the various expressions of it, are indispensable and unavoidable if we truly desire to be fulfilled, successful, and FREE. The doors of Revolutionary Black love are open…..who will come?
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.