This week, I’ve been thinking about revolutionary love.
The first time I remember hearing a call to revolutionary love, I was 18 and I was volunteering at an after-school program in Baltimore City. The school consisted of 97% black students, and it was falling down. There was lead in the pipes. The paint was chipping off the walls. We couldn’t go outside on the playground most days because it wasn’t safe for one reason or another. We didn’t have paper, or pencils, and it was a struggle to find anything we needed to help the children with their homework. This was the first place I met children who were living with rats in their apartments. It was the first time kindergartners talked to me about domestic violence, visiting fathers in prison, and brothers and cousins using drugs. It was the first time I watched a hungry child shove his snack into his backpack, telling me he had to save it for dinner.
When I got home, I printed a picture I had taken of the boy I tutored and I taped it to my wall. I promised myself I would never forget my outrage and fear as I watched him navigate food insecurity and hunger. I felt a desire to numb myself to the pain around me, and also felt myself resist this numbing. My heart – it cracked open, and I promised myself I would stay forever open to these stories because I wanted my heart to know the injustice and be driven towards change.
It is 11 years later, and many, many, many children later, but his picture is still on my wall. I haven’t taken it down because I want a better world for him. I want to remind myself not to grow numb and complacent. I want to always be as angry and indignant as 18 year old me meeting my first hungry child with rats in his kitchen talking about his father in prison, trying to make it through a shitty school with lead pipes and no paper.
A few weeks later, I wrote a story about volunteering that I shared in a small group for one of my college classes. In the course of my sharing, a black student in the group listened. She then held up a metaphorical mirror and showed me my racism. “You don’t realize how racist you are,” she said.
In the moment, I was embarrassed. In fact, I felt humiliated. At the end of the class, I went to a park, and I walked, and I cried, and I thought, and I cried more.
It was the best thing that could have happened. I know this. I no longer feel any shame here.
And yet, this is the first time I’ve ever told that story.
The second time I heard a call to revolutionary love, I was 19 years old. I worked for the summer at Camp Greentop, a summer camp for individuals with physical and developmental disabilities. It was easily the most intense summer of my life and the summer that changed me the most as a person. When I came home, 19-year-old me wrote a 223 page book (I’ll publish it one day) that included these words:
“When we took our small society into the world, we were shocked into the awareness that people no longer knew how to react to us… With this new outsider view, we recognized the inadequacy of society in accommodating its citizens. Bathrooms are not accessible for wheelchairs. There is nowhere to change an 18-year-old, a 33-year-old, or a 65-year-old’s diaper. There is no room at restaurants for wheelchairs. I began to question the definition of disabled and wondered whether it is actually not a physical or mental impairment, but a social construct.
This story is a story of people forgotten, of people oppressed and of people ignored. It is the story of a hidden people— a people we have forgotten are human. How do you tell society about their own? How can you tell someone about their own world and make them see a different reality? If they are safe and happy in their world, should they really be made to look?
It is our obligation to look. To talk with the 19-year-old depressed, disabled, young woman who believes she was not supposed to live. To hold the 28-year-old woman in an almost vegetative state, to view the neglect she has withstood, and to become enraged. To take that 53-year-old who has never walked into the swimming pool and let her feel like she is walking. To talk to the 11-year-old boy about the vampires in his world, and to sleep in a tent with the 65-year-old non-verbal woman.
…It is time to uncover the silenced voices of those who live and those who know. When we listen, it will be discovered: they are not nearly as silent as we may think.
It is time to begin the conversation.”
A more recent time I heard a call to revolutionary love was during the uprising in Baltimore after Freddie Gray was killed. At that time, I wrote these words:
“I don’t have children, but the analogy that keeps coming to mind is that it feels like the difference between knowing that babies cry and hearing your baby cry.
I knew the world was crying. Now, it is my world that is crying. This world — the one that I live in — with you, right here, right now, this world is crying. ….We can no longer just know that babies cry. These are our babies. The ones that we birthed. They are crying, and we have let them cry unattended for generations. Right here, in our very home.”
Because we did birth these babies, didn’t we? All of them. The babies of oppression, and racism, and fear, and hatred. The babies of silence, and privilege, and anger. We birthed these babies of police brutality, and rioting, and poverty, and systematic silencing and devaluation of entire groups of people. We birthed Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and all of the black men (and women) who have been killed by police. We birthed Darren Wilson, George Zimmerman, Sean Williams, and all of the miscellaneous good, bad, misinformed, scared, naive, and hopeful cops out there. We birthed the good, resilient, hopeful people of Baltimore who started immediately to clean and pray and hope and stand together in community. We birthed the peaceful protestors, and the gang members, and the clergy who walked together. We birthed those who protest angrily, in ways some may see as violent or destructive. This pain — it is our pain. It is our world. It is our community. This pain is mine. It is yours. It is ours. And nothing will change until we recognize that all of these factors — the good, the bad, the ugly — they belong to us, and we must be accountable for them. We must be able to stand up together and face the things we have intentionally or unintentionally been part of creating.
…These people are our people. The crying belongs to us, and it is our responsibility to console, and change, and shape those babies we birthed into the communities, and people, and world we want. The world we need. The world we — all of us, who are so deeply connected — deserve.
I don’t know where we go from here, but I know we belong to one another.
We belong to one another.
As we begin the healing — our own, and that of the community — the first step, perhaps, is just to witness and begin to name one another’s tears.”
I’ve been thinking about revolutionary love.
Two weeks ago, I attended the “Revolutionary Love” conference in NY, where I heard speakers such as Rev. Jacqui Lewis, Rev. Dr. William Barber, Valarie Kaur, Van Jones, and many others speak truth about racism and about a revolutionary, disruptive, necessary love. A love that is the call of our times.
But here’s the thing: I can’t really tell you what revolutionary love is. I just know that those moments – each of them – those were moments when I was called to a larger, revolutionary love that moved me to a place I had not been before. They were moments I was connected to a whole that made me unable to disengage. After these moments, parts of my heart were turned on – woken up, perhaps – and could not be turned off. Those were the moments that grabbed my face, turned me towards the fire in front of me and said, “LOOK. Don’t just ponder the heat. Don’t walk by in a week or a month and wonder about the ashes. Shit’s on fire and you’re going to witness the goddamn flames.”
This does not mean I was given a fire hose. Hell, I didn’t even get a glass of water or a phone to call the fire department.
But goddammit, y’all. I have never forgotten that child’s face. It’s been 11 years and I haven’t forgotten his blue plastic backpack or his dirty school uniform or the way his r’s sounded like w’s. We were sitting on the end of the bench in the cafeteria. The snack was milk and Teddy Grahams. The injustice burned a line from my throat to my stomach. His name was Kendrick. He was 6 years old.
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Once you’ve looked into the fire, you know better the smell of smoke. And friend, I know you might not see it, but we’ve got ourselves a serious fire hazard with smoke, and smoldering, and flames that are taking bodies down.
Last week, Van Jones talked about how we get so concerned about our actions. We want to know what to do: we’re focused on the fire hoses, and the water, and the phones to call the fire department. He suggests, however, that maybe we should be less concerned with what we’re doing and more concerned about who we’re being while we’re doing it. “We’re doing the right stuff,” he said. “We need to be the right people while we’re doing it.”
And that, perhaps, is the real question about revolutionary love. How do we make sure we’re being the right people while we’re doing the work? Because honestly? If I’m going to be the asshole with the fire hose spraying on the wrong house, proclaiming myself good and helpful, I’d rather not show up at all.
So maybe the work is sometimes less fire hose and more remembering and telling the story of the first time you were called a racist. Maybe it’s remembering all the ways that was right. It’s remembering that it’s still right. It’s telling the story of no place to change diapers. It’s telling the story of the 28-year-old nonverbal young woman who changed your life. It’s writing about the times you were supposed to speak for your friend with a disability. It’s remembering the ways you didn’t. It’s remembering the times you did.
It’s about lead in elementary schools and boys without dinner and hearts that break open. It’s about witnessing. It’s starting the conversation. Revolutionary love is belonging to one another. Taking care of these babies we birthed. It’s hearing the cries of our world for the first time.
Revolutionary love is a wholly imperfect radical act of loving the world enough to walk bravely into change and flame. I don’t know how to do this. Most days, I don’t know what it means, what it looks like, where I’m going, or what I’m supposed to do.
All I know is that I have no choice but to keep walking. I can’t keep quiet.
Will you join me?