Last year was incredibly difficult. There was something that seemed more painful than usual about the deluge of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. Although many could rightly argue that last year was just more of the same school shootings, police violence, and the deadly effects of American imperialism and indifference globally, last year was a hard pill to swallow. To cope I decided to look away from the world when I could, which meant reading more fiction as a respite and a challenge. One genre of literature that I found particularly inspiring was romance novels, especially the work of prolific romance novelist Beverly Jenkins. Jenkins’s robust catalog fashions forty or more stories of Black love and after a while her stories brought me back into the world of my current research on the activism of Black British parents. For me, the connection between Jenkins’s work and the activist groups that I study is simple; both are built on a foundation of love.
In Blacks Britannica, an often forgotten 1978 documentary about Black British life, an incisive moment comes when activist Courtney Hay asserts, “I learned my politics in my mother’s kitchen.” Hay’s words changed the general direction of my dissertation. His statement perfectly encapsulates a reality that many scholars of (global) Black social movements know (i.e., the familial bonds that often connected ordinary activists). However, the scholarship rarely interrogates how activist relationships were not simply a consequence of their work, but part of the social justice ethos. Putting Hay’s work and words alongside the work of the Black Parents Movement (BPM)–an organization that Hay and his mother were both a part of–highlights that the interpersonal relationships in activist organizations were just as important as the political work enacted outside the group.
There are many kinds and expressions of love. Romance novels often speak to many types of affections, even if the romantic is the most primary. It seems easy, at times, to dismiss romantic love as frivolous, especially in moments of struggle. But as scholars of the enslaved remind us, being able to love in the midst of history’s atrocities was a form of resistance against the violent caprices of slaveholders and the dehumanization of the system. For instance, in a letter written from Ann—enslaved in Missouri—to her husband Andrew Valentine—fighting in the Civil War—she writes of worsening treatment by those who claimed ownership of her and her child’s bodies, but not their spirits. “Do the best you can and do not fret too much for me for it wont [sic] be long before I will be free and then all we make will be ours.” Love is at the very heart of Black life and resistance.
In A Love No Less: More Than Two Centuries of African American Love Letters, Pamela Newkirk compiles rich examples of Black love and longing from the enslaved and free, the privileged and disadvantaged. Throughout many of these letters, one can see that the romantic love that Black people express for one another helps define and direct their worldviews. For instance, in a letter from surgeon Charles Drew to his wife Lenore, he tells her that she changes his understanding of his place in the world.1
For years I have done little but work, plan, and dream of making myself a good doctor, an able surgeon . . . then I met you and for the first time mistress medicine met her match and went down almost without a fight. Life suddenly widened its horizons and took on new meaning. I knew clearly just how lonely I had become, just how badly I needed someone rather than just something to cling to, someone to work for, rather than just a goal to aim at, someone to dream with, cherish from day to day.
What Charles offers is a radical reimagining of his life, made possible only through his bond with Lenore.
In my work on the BPM, I see love at the heart of activists’ struggles for citizenship rights and justice. As bell hooks states in Salvation: Black People and Love, “love does not bring an end to difficulties, it gives us the strength to cope with difficulties in a constructive way.” hooks’s work on love situates it as a living thing, something that must be strived for, and something that motivates us to action. Often as I fell down the rabbit hole of romance novels, I encountered a sentiment that romance novels are not literature. But what I found in the offerings of Black romance novelists was exactly the kind of love I found in my scholarly research. These were representations of Black people loving one another through their flaws and shortcomings, and letting that love buffer the hurts inflicted on them by the outside world. As one woman wrote to her fiancé: “Ted, for Heaven’s sake don’t idealize me. I have not idealized you. Because in spite of my love (which is not the blind kind) I can see you with all of your faults. . . . You must love me because I’m so human, and weak and full of faults.”2 Loving one another is a reaffirmation of Black people’s humanity; and as humans, we could be wrong or afraid or enslaved or disabled and still be worthy of love.
How Black people have loved one another, romantically and otherwise, speaks to the ways in which a “love ethic,” in hooks’s terminology, is about so much more than emotion. Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote in a letter to his wife Alice Ruth Moore of his hopes for their future. “I know that I wish to shield you from all the severities of life and take you into the warm shelter of my heart.” The protection that Black people offer one another through their love is at the crux of my research and these works by the authors cited here.
In my favorite Beverly Jenkins novel, Indigo, she tells the story of Hester Wyatt, a freed woman who grew up on an indigo plantation and runs a house on the Underground Railroad, and Galen Vachon, a free man of color from New Orleans, working to emancipate his people one fugitive at a time. Part of what makes their story so powerful is their decision to love another despite all of the things that should not make them a suitable match. As a wealthy, light-skinned man from a free family, Galen’s choice to love a dark-skinned, impoverished Black woman, whose hands and feet are stained by the conditions of her enslavement, angers the members of his family who value their privileged social and economic position. But Hester and Galen’s love is grounded in mutual affection and service to their people. hooks asserts that “we cannot effectively resist domination if our efforts to create meaningful, lasting personal and social change are not grounded in a love ethic.” This sentiment is also present in the love letters Newkirk curated. “Dearest, we are the ones who must largely decide whether our lives shall be happy or not, let us make them full of joy and gladness. . . . And, dearie, let’s do all in our power to make others happy. Let us not be selfish in our love.”3 This is what Jenkins has seeded right at the heart of Indigo and so many of her other novels, which I believe is as true a reflection of Black history as any other: a love that moves us to action and toward justice.
Each Black history month in the United States, a discussion of love as a legacy of the Civil Rights Movement re-emerges, which I always find to be a frustrating distortion of the historical record, heavily predicated on Black people loving white people through the latter’s racism. This is not the love that I have been researching. Instead, I have been looking for Black love, in all of its forms, to understand how it has allowed Black people to struggle against oppression. The love that Black people have for, and extend to, one another seems an appropriate endeavor in Black history month and beyond.