How Black Revolutionaries Revived Love & Romance for Me
In a world built and sustained on cruelty, love is the only possible intervention.
I was sitting at the piano of one of the most successful pop songwriters in history, feeling so embarrassed I wished could just evaporate.
He’d invited me to their posh summer apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to tell me about a music video they’d planned for one of his artists. He wanted to cast me as an extra, playing the role of an unhoused person that channeled “the benevolent spirit of Bob Marley.”
As tends to happen when musicians come together, the songwriting legend asked me to share some of my new music with him. I played several songs for him, including one I was very proud of called “Don’t Give Up On Love,” where I tell the story of a struggling single mother and her rolling stone of a boyfriend.
Even back then, I was trying to connect the personal to the political in my music: this time by tracing the frame of racial capitalism and patriarchal discourses around the story of my imaginary protagonists, though I had neither of those fancy terms in my vocabulary at the time. My lyrics, set to jazzy chords over a beat reminiscent of Ye’s Gold Digger, explained that although the couple seemed to be in an impossible situation, there was hope for them. Love would get them through.
My voice spilled out of the iconic songwriters' speakers, all over his gorgeous, dark hardwood floors:
Don’t give up!
Don’t give up on love!”
He stopped the track and explained the lyrics were cliche and wrong.
“There’s no sense of irony,” he sighed.
Besides, he continued, love won’t solve the world’s problems — that the notion that love can intervene against the roaring river of human suffering that floods our world isn’t useful.
I was too young to know if the way my temperature rose in offense at his feedback was justified. I was a hopeless romantic in every sense of the word at the time. I still believed in love at first sight and that enough random acts of kindness could change the way society operates. I wanted to vanquish his fire-breathing cynicism in that moment, but I wasn’t yet a student of social progress. I didn’t actually know he was wrong, I just felt like it.
So, I just sat there, sniffling, staring at his piano.
In the years that passed since that meeting, many people would echo his sentiments to me.
Eventually, I’d come to agree with them, until I began to study social progress and get involved in the struggle for Black Lives.
Turning the Other Cheek
I betrayed the melodic instructions of my younger self in the summer of 2016, after the trauma of watching the police execute Alton Sterling on video and the aftermath of the killing of Philando Castile on Facebook Live within 48 hours.
I stopped writing love songs around that time, intentionally, whereas before romance was 90% of my catalog. I didn’t have room for it anymore, for reasons personal and political. I decided to devote my pen to the struggle, assuming the two were mutually exclusive.
Viral police killings sent me into a deep exploration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings, and his nonviolent praxis inspired me, but I found his emphasis on love too a high a bar to clear.
His sermon on loving your enemies was especially challenging, where he wraps up his message to a congregation living under Jim Crow terrorism saying:
“So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’ And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed.”
I wanted to believe in the power of turning the other cheek, but at the time, it didn’t seem that strategy would do anything but make Black people easier to kill.
Others echoed my sentiments, saying all this time white America has enjoyed slapping us in the face has yet to yield the transformation King believed in. To love them, as they abused us and gaslighted us about the abuse, was too much to ask.
In those days, I heard many white Americans invoke Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek at us, with a tone that smacked of entitlement. Every time there was a riot in response to systemic, state-sanctioned, anti-Black violence — a rational and healthy response to being attacked — white America responded with anger that we didn’t just take the blows. They tried to tell us that Jesus’ teaching to love your enemy means one must become a doormat.
As an evangelical Christian at the time, I heard many white pastors say things like “Jesus didn’t lead any protests against Caesar. In fact, he let them kill him.” They didn’t seem to notice how their comments betrayed their desire to see Black crucifixions.
It began to feel as though to love our opponents was to enable them. So, I began to doubt love as a serious end or means of political struggle.
History also played a role in my disillusionment. It was sobering to learn how Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s 1964 Freedom Summer project imploded because of the racism of so-called white allies. It radicalized Black activists to forsake the vision of a future interracial “Beloved Community” for a more separatist vision of Black autonomy.
By the decline of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s, it seemed many Black activists had been disillusioned about interracial harmony by the sobering reality of white backlash to the Civil Rights struggle.
With all these things considered, I adopted a more pragmatic, militant view of nonviolent struggle.
Falling Out of Love with Love
My early days of political awakening were full of studying the history and anatomy of this domination system we live in. The more I read, the more it became painfully clear that every domination system has some romanticized story to cover up power dynamics and violence.
The story of Manifest Destiny is supposed to cover the history of genociding Indigenous people.
The notion that capitalism is the result of a natural evolutionary process obscures the history of seizing public land as private property and forcing people into literal slavery.
I would eventually learn that many of the pillars of romantic love, as expressed in popular culture, often mask the oppressive power related to race, gender, and class. But rom-coms and Tiffany boxes are so damn appealing, the line between our subjection to this system and personal desire becomes indiscernible.
In his book Socialism…Seriously, Danny Katch retraces the historical developments, that Friedreich Engels once summarized as “a historic defeat of the female sex,” as hunter-gatherer societies evolved into agricultural societies. Katch teases out the details of that historic defeat.
He explains that the establishment of private property, to consolidate and accumulate wealth, created a need for inheritance traditions to keep said wealth within wealthy families:
Thus, women’s lives became primarily about having and raising children, which removed them from the status of being breadwinners (bread-growers, really) in the fields. On top of that, the tradition of inheritance increased the importance of being able to determine who was the father of each child. This led to women’s sexual monogamy being strictly enforced in a way it didn’t have to be for men, since it’s usually pretty obvious who the mother is at childbirth. And so began the development of the bullshit hypocritical morality around women’s bodies and sexuality that exists in most cultures to this day.”
As I explored more literature about romance and capitalism, it seemed that the narratives that traditionally accompany romance — sexual purity, monogamy, and gender norms, etc. — have been long been useful to ensure and secure white wealth, though those discourses are almost never delivered to us naked. In her book Love, Inc.: Dating Apps, the Big White Wedding, and Chasing the Happily Neverafter, sociologist and romance scholar Laurie Essig, teases out the thesis:
“…romance as an ideology tells us stories that keep gender and racial hierarchies in place.”
But the most salient part of Essig’s book for me, at the time, was the observation that romance is “a privatized solution to what in fact are structural and global threats.”
Grounded in data from Hallmark channel ratings to romance novel sales in the Trump era, Essig proposes:
“Romance lulls us into focusing on our love life rather than politics.”
The data suggests her point above to be especially true in difficult political times.
I was reading Essig in 2020 and my love life seemed to reflect her thesis. I tried to date amid the novel COVID-pandemic’s first year. But as the pandemic created space for a global uprising for Black lives, and a looming democratic crisis in America, I became more preoccupied with securing my own safety in what felt like a terrifying and unstable political situation.
One conversation stands out. As I packed up my apartment and prepared to expatriate to Jamaica, a woman who lived across the country from me, a mother of four, expressed how she longed that I’d “pursue” her, but was reluctant to talk about the logistics of that desire in detail.
I explained that given the circumstances, I think we should wait out election season to make any serious decisions about our relationship, explaining that I was fleeing the country but might come back if the attempts to overturn American democracy failed.
Her response: “And all of that is more important than me?”
I tried not to just say “yes,” since I could tell by her tone she wouldn’t have appreciated it.
For years, I’d been having conversations like that, where envisioning a life with someone felt entirely detached from political reality: talking about having kids without talking about the threat of climate disaster, talking about buying houses in a country where white supremacists are ready to violently impose anti-Black authoritarian rule.
It just felt like most love interests were inviting me to make my world smaller — to shrink the terrain of my concern to one house, on one plot of land, and one nuclear family. If I had to choose between playing my part in a global struggle for freedom or being a husband, the choice for me would be the movement.
Disillusionment with love as a political means or end mixed with fear of romance as a political opiate for me. It didn’t make me scoff at the idea of love, but to regard it as something to invest little stock in. Love would not, as I once sang, save the day.
Many of the revolutionary voices I knew of at the time had tumultuous love lives at best. And, if I’m honest, a part of me started to feel as though it’s just something rare for freedom fighters. There wasn’t anything revolutionary about love, or radical about romance.
It seemed love — conventionally understood — would not only fail to make us free, it may damn well convince us to collaborate in our own oppression.
It was easier to adopt that posture, of some hardened and enlightened revolutionary too woke for love. Convinced love was irrelevant to the struggle, I could run from the inner work of addressing the wounds from past heartbreaks (and heartbreaking!). I could also dismiss the humanity in my opponents.
But when the movement broke my heart, a story I don’t have room to tell here, I learned that loveless organizing will not make us free.
A Love Bigger Than the Couple
Ironically, the more radical tradition of Black liberation — as opposed to Dr. King or Gandhi — would reclaim love as a political force.
The renowned psychologist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon, the very same Fanon who emphatically argues for armed struggle to liberate Black people from colonial dominance in his classic The Wretched of the Earth, did the most to upset my avoidance of love.
In his book A Dying Colonialism, Fanon writes about how the Algerian decolonial struggle against French occupation altered the Algerian couple.
He writes that the role of women in the struggle challenged normal patriarchal power dynamics:
“The struggle for liberation raised woman to such a level inner renewal that she is even able to call her husband a coward.”
He writes of young girls who vowed to never marry a non-revolutionary man. He writes that the revolutionary struggle transformed marriage from what was traditionally “a mere cohabitation” into a partnership:
“It is also the consciousness of collaborating in the immense work of destroying the world of oppression. The couple is no longer shut in on in itself. It no longer finds its end in itself.”
Fanon put the possibility of a non-privatized romance, a romance in collective struggle with other loved ones, on the table.
Then there was Audre Lorde’s essay Uses of the Erotic — where she breaks down the imaginary barrier between personal pleasure and political action. She explains:
“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.”
I believe self-described pleasure activist adrienne maree brown is echoing Lorde’s idea when she speaks of seeking the “orgasmic yes” in justice work. In a podcast interview with me, brown ruminates on that “internal sense of satisfaction” as “a technology” in our bodies that speaks to us.
She invites us to interrogate the assumption that the connection we feel to that technology when we climax is to be relegated to the bedroom. And if we understand that the personal is political, we understand that oftentimes, the things that stand in the way of experiencing that level of satisfaction with life are rooted in systemic forces. To me, this means that political struggle and personal pleasure are inseparable, including the pleasure of loving and being loved.
Then there is the voice of my father, a retired activist but always philosopher, who simply told me over the phone last year “Black liberation is giving food, shelter, and clothing to Black people.” Black freedom is creating a world where Black people experience the care this world has always tried to deny to us. I don’t think there is a more appropriate word for that than love.
In a world founded on the cruelty of genocide and enslavement, what other intevention could there be than a politics and common sense of communal care and solidarity?
To say that love will not save the world is to misunderstand our predicament altogether. This domination system thrives on conflict and division. The greatest threat to such a system is love.
This is why the authors of Militant Joy write that “Empire’s grip on relationships is being broken by new and resurgent forms of intimacy through which people come to depend on each other, and become dangerous together.”
This is why George Orwell wrote in 1984 that the powers that be fear love because “it creates world’s they can’t control.”
But this love has to be more than romantic sentimentality. Dr. King wrote that love must have political relevance:
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
We’re not talking about love as an empty sentiment that would ask oppressed people to excuse the violence of their oppressors so they can live in superficial peace while oppressive power arrangements remain intact.
We’re talking about a love that is expressed in strategic action against systems of cruelty, and that ensures public safety through deep commitments to the well-being of our neighbors on the personal level.
And that is not the kind of love I’m willing to give up on — not anymore.