“Never forget that justice is what love feels like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private” – Cornel West
Depicted in Nolan Oswald Dennis’ Radical Empathy is a four- or five-headed humanoid creature of many arms, many legs. Or maybe, many beings, one atop the next, layered on top of one another, creating one mass out of many. Or maybe just many pieces of many people. Maybe just waiting to be put together. The lines seem to breed and birth one another. A crooked limb, bent at the elbow. Or maybe a million. One leg. One curved line, hinged outward at the knee. Or maybe a million. The faces look as though they are at rest, perhaps caught in a moment of prayer. Some of the arms point up and out, some reach towards the mass being in the centre. Supplication and surrender. Embrace and empathy.
In the centre, the lines and limbs over-lock, entangle. You imagine at each intersection, at every point that the lines touch and cross each other, a negotiation. A confluence. With the tenderness and sentimentality of lying together in bed, legs crossed (a promise, a vow sworn only to each other) at the ankle. With the power and assuredness of a fist raised in the air.
It is said your clenched fist is roughly the same size as your human heart.
The night you decided for yourself that love was political, you also knew that your personal politic was Black Love. You felt so smart then, didn’t you? Prostate next to a body whose warmth you should’ve never felt, tracing with sweat and spit the value and the promise of love in the Black Radical Tradition.
Tap the body on the shoulder. Tap till there’s a shudder in the body, a stutter in the breathing. Till the eyes flicker open so you can share your eureka moment. Everything is everything and it’s all in this moment. Everything is everything and it’s all love. They’re awake now. You’re seated on the bed, legs folded underneath you, a cup of coffee cradled in between two palms. You tell them, while passing the cup, that you’ve figured it out, that decolonial love is the only salvation.
He’s nervous. He thinks you’re talking about him. But you’re talking about Madikizela-Mandela and Limpho Hani, and Sobukwe and Sankara. You mean Biko and Malcolm X. Betty Davis and Betty Shabazz. You mean Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone. You mean all the women who say no. You mean all the no’s that matter.
You think you’re so smart, don’t you? You ask, “So has it ever happened? Has it? Where in the Black Radical Tradition has there been a movement built on love? On Black Love?” He turns to his side. He’s facing you now. Relieved that its not him you love. Confused that you don’t love him. “Of course there has,” he replies. “All of them.”
The term “Love Ethic” within activist circles and the Black Radical Tradition was popularised by Cornell West. In the Christian Bible, where he lifts this teaching from, it is the love of forgiveness. The love of your enemy, unconditionally. The love that says an “eye for eye”. The same that encourages one to turn the other cheek.
The Black Love Ethic is a discipline. One that seeks not revenge but justice. One you must learn and re-learn everyday. It is a practice. It is praxis. It is a commitment that requires not a victory at every turn, but sustained effort to dismantle white supremacy and it’s first deceit, that you and your untribe are sub-human, unworthy of love and the things that flow from it. But if this commitment is one that that you seek to introduce to the world, without it passing through the the prism of you first, and them filtering out and colouring the world with its spectrum, then it is not a discipline. It is just an exercise of narcissism.
During a keynote speech at the Facing Race Conference held in 2012, author Junot Diaz makes a damning “post-apocalyptic prediction”. He says: We are never going to get anywhere as long as our economies of attraction continue to resemble, more or less, the economies of attraction of white supremacy.
In the same year, he sits for interview with Paula M.L Moya, and speaks of love through the wroks of Fanon, Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison. And love in his work. “In Oscar Wao[‘s novel The Brief and Wondorous Life of Oscar Wao] we have a family that has fled, half-destroyed, from one of the rape incubators of the New World and they are trying to find love. But not just any love. How can there be “just any love” given the history of rape and sexual violence that created the Caribbean – that Trujillo uses in the novel? The kind of love that I was interested in, that my characters long for intuitively, is the only kind of love that could liberate them from that horrible legacy of colonial violence. I am speaking about decolonial love … Is it possible to love one’s broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power self in another broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power person?”
Black Love is Radical Empathy. It is decoloniality in praxis. It is critical compassion.
You are thinking, a dedication to Black Love is a dedication to dismantling the construct of love and the ideas around it. You are finding then, the more you try to root out the rot within, the harder you become to love. Who can understand it? Who can want a love that means you will never worship at someone’s feet? A love that means you will never again feel those fingers, on that hand, brush against your cheek? When was the last time you even wanted to?
Who can want it? A love like insanity, that makes one unloveable. A love that holds you to your highest standards, even in your lowest moments?
Sometime love is a scalpel carving out and discarding all the decaying parts of a people.
“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov