Jackie Robinson and wife Rachel

Black love, as always, helps us to thrive and survive

As I read author Ta-Nehisi Coates’s powerful opinion-editorial on how we lose and how we suffer, collectively, as a nation in the wake of the Michael Dunn verdict, the following portion of the piece refuses to let me rest:

Jordan Davis had a mother and a father. It did not save him. Trayvon Martin had a mother and a father. They could not save him. My son has a father and mother. We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of Black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition. 

I committed to writing an essay celebrating Black love from a historical perspective. But after reading Coates’s piece, and after seeing photos of Jordan Davis’s parents (Lucia McBath and Ronald Davis), I don’t know that the struggles we faced in loving one another, all those years ago, have changed. We are still, today, standing defenseless against political and justice systems that seem to see us as only three-fifths of human beings.

Black fathers still stand seemingly helpless in protecting their families, and Black mothers… Black mothers are still performing the rituals that their great-grandmothers did—pushing past a paralyzing fear that seeks to prevent them from allowing their babies to walk out into the world. They are maybe even counting them at night to make sure that they are safe and in one piece before they close their eyes to rest. Their knees are also bruised and sore from praying that this nation will spare the lives of their greatest joys.

This is but one of the struggles we face trying to love despite (and in the constant face of) death and destruction—with no reprieve and no hope for salvation from a system that seems almost designed to see us perish, or imprisoned or impoverished. 

I’m trying y’all…

I want to remind you how far we’ve come; how we were never meant to love one another; how our love for ourselves, for one another, and for our communities is the one thing we could not be stripped of during slavery. After all, we could not legally marry, unanimously, until well after emancipation. Still, today we are combating the residuals of the myriad of ways our love was tested while we were enslaved. Our struggle to love has memory—memory of rape, of forced separations, of our love being used to punish us. But here we are, loving, still.

We often want the sanitized and romanticized version of love that we see in romantic comedies like ‘About Last Night.’ We forget how audacious we are, how magnificent, to attempt to love at all.

Our love brought us out of slavery and into new settlements during a sort of freedom historians now call Jim Crow. Love helped us pack up our lives and hopes as we traveled upward during the Great Migration. Love saw us survive the constant challenges to our manhood and womanhood, for it was Black men (and women) who helped us as Black women reclaim our bodies as safe and ours. It was Black women (and men) who reminded brothers that they were no longer only breeders, that they could also feel safe and establish families and stay and love us without punishment. These are battles we’re all still fighting to realize and overcome, but we’ve come a long way.

Black love saw us hand-in-hand as we pushed past mobs to integrate lunch counters, buses and schools. It was in the kisses we gave as we headed out into the streets prepared to meet anything—even death—so we might have better lives to love one another in. Black love encouraged us to make babies even though we truly didn’t know if we or they would survive being American and Black. 

Our love was beautiful and powerful in the 1970s, armed and defiant. We fought to join our love with our voices. We said, collectively: we are here and revolutionary and women and queer and brilliant and unstoppable. We would need the strength of the love we made in those years for what we would combat in the 1980s and beyond.

As with our struggle to thrive, our struggle to love met and conquered the challenges of campaigns organized to further damage our families and us. Black love survived the crack epidemic and Reaganomics and the christening of the “welfare queen” meme. It has survived a growing prison population filled with Black male and female bodies, and horrid (and often faux) representations of baby mamas and baby daddies. 

A good friend told me once that Black love comes with a component of struggle, and his commentary sent me to a sad place. We often want the sanitized and romanticized version of love that we see in romantic comedies like About Last Night. We forget how audacious we are, how magnificent, to attempt to love at all.

On days like these, where none of us can figure out how we can move forward and continue to love, we must remember that Black love is our litany for survival.

Black love is a struggle, yes, but it’s a beautiful one.

Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.