Image credit: Onire the General by Dr. Fahamu Pecou (2020), Acrylic on Canvas.
Everyone wants to know more about love. We want to know what it means to love, what we can do in our everyday lives to love and be loved.
—bell hooks, All About Love
We cannot effectively resist domination if our efforts to create meaningful, lasting personal and social change are not grounded in a love ethic.
—bell hooks, Salvation: Black People and Love
I was born in love. Black love. Told I was loved. Reaffirmed in it. I was never told to amend or contort to some notion of inferiority regarding my Blackness. As a matter of fact, my grandmother reaffirmed my positionality as a tall Black boy in the all-Black city of Detroit where I attended all-Black schools. Even attended a Historically Black College/University. Fisk University.
In my neighborhood we shopped at the corner stores and patronized restaurants ran and operated by Black people. My grandmother would tell me, “Stand straight. Lift your head. Don’t walk with your head bowed.”
And I did as she commanded. My grandmother was my first teacher. The library in her house, yes, her house, she owned that too, the bookshelves were filled with Black books by Black authors. The summer after my first year of high school, I was encouraged by my grandmother to take up a book and read. “Fill my head with something,” she said. I randomly chose Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. My life forever changed.
I wanted to know more about Black men telling Black stories about Black life in America. I came upon Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and my favorite author, Iceberg Slim. I couldn’t get enough of Slim’s novels, Pimp, Trick Baby, and my all-time favorite, Mama Black Widow. I was hooked on his storytelling about Black pimp life, drugs, violence, and sex. It was much for a young Black queer boy discovering his own sexuality and place in the world to digest.
But I fell in love with Black writers who were telling me their variations of Black love. How it showed up. How it looked. How it engaged, fought, struggled. Black love about the streets reminded me of my family members. I saw them, regular Black folk loving, cursing, drinking, and sinning. They loved one another.
And it spilled on to me. Into me. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin reminds his nephew, James, as well as us, because I do believe that Baldwin is writing to us, the seeds of the ancestors, of how to love. He wrote, “To be loved, baby, hard at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world. Remember that: I know how black it looks today, for you. It looked bad that day, too, yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived. And now you must survive because we love you, and for the sake of your children and your children’s children.”
We are those children. Benefitting from the love before us. Even before our parents and grandparents. Our people, back in Africa, loving each other is what made life bearable. Possible.
I am quite adept at seeing Black love when it shows up. I can recognize it. Theorize it. I came upon it while in grad school. Black professors, men and women, were my teachers. Holding court in the academy. I believed the gods had looked down upon me. The Black skies opened up and the stars, moon, and universe were in sync.
To see all these Black folks in one place blessed my soul and baptized my intellect. I saw my family. Those who loved and poured into me were looking back at me, ghosts . . . or haints, as Toni Morrison calls them, but with a physical form. I re-encountered Black love coming to save me. I was in a veritable Mecca of the south, a conclave of Black professors and Black students in a close-knit family. Tied together by our Blackness.
We recreated a Historically Black College/University in the middle of the campus of Vanderbilt University. A renaissance had taken shape when the university recruited Black scholars and leaders in their respective fields to teach at the southern elite institution. Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, Gilman Whiting, Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Hector Myers, Alice Randall, Houston Baker, Hortense Spillers, Lucious Outlaw, Victor Anderson, Emilie Townes, Stacey Floyd-Thomas, Juan Floyd-Thomas, Herbert Marbury, Forrest Harris, Phillis Isabella Sheppard, Dennis Dickerson, and the late Dale Andrews.
Black love in one place. I saw it. Sat at the feet of it. Listened to the voices. Experienced it. Engaged it. And allowed it to be poured into me. Again. I had a new family: Black academics. Black folks with PhDs. Look at God, as the church folks say. All that Black brilliance in one place. Those of us who were there, for that time, that moment, had the honor to engage with all those Black professors, teaching us while Black.
With Hortense Spillers I learned about Black bodies and Black flesh. I explored the Idea of Black Culture in her classroom. Spillers holding court . . . she is the LeBron of academia, while looking like Nina Simone. I once told her that. She smiled broadly.
In another course, we discussed Black Male Writers Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Spillers led us, but we, the students, forged into the railroad, now above ground, as she listened and gently nudged us about the awareness of Blackness. How it shows up in text, brilliant, bold, and in danger, but mostly in love. We became ever-present to the texts, living between the lines, and moving on down the line. Spillers pushed us. Tilted her head when something sounded off.
Grad students reflecting on their critique, we would shift ever so slightly like Spillers’ head. I was her research assistant for over two years. We talked about her short story Brother Isom, which won her a monetary award from Essence magazine. Published in May 1975, the story is about Thomas Isom, the patriarch of his family, and the legacy of his life in relationship to the Black Church. Spillers is fascinated with the Black Church and Black preachers and their preaching style of the oral tradition.
One summer we drove roundtrip from Nashville to Dartmouth University for the Futures Conference. A road trip. We laughed. Talked intensely. Deep conversations about her collected essays, Black, White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. We engaged Blackness in the world. Us. Manhood and womanhood. Black people. Spillers was patient, generative with me. Her classroom moved where she moved. I understood the lesson.
I was also a teaching assistant for Tracy Sharpley-Whiting during all of my grad years at Vanderbilt. Her work in Black Feminism, France, Frantz Fanon, and Black critical theory molded me in ways for which I was not prepared. I listened intently as she interpreted and analyzed texts, shifting in and out with such a fluid gracefulness.
Sharpley-Whiting is the type of brilliance one dreams about. She reads voraciously. She helped me to locate my blind spots, guiding me on how to locate them using the scholarly compass of analytical thinking. Sharpley-Whiting introduced me to the annual conference she leads, “Black Feminist Methodologies,” in the company of profound women such as Crystal Fleming, Courtney Thompson, Shannen Williams, Robin Mitchell, Nikol Alexander Floyd, Charisse Burden-Stelly, Deborah Gray White, Kesha-Khan Perry, Anastasia Curwood, Tamura Lomax, LeRhonda Manigault Bryant, Alexis Wells, Jennifer Wilks, and Diane Stewart.
Black women politicking on Black women, and when and where they enter.
Audre Lorde wrote in her essay Scratching the Surface, “When Black women in this country come together to examine our sources of strength and support, and to recognize our common social, cultural, emotional, and political interests, it is a development which can only contribute to the power of the Black community as a whole.”
At this annual gathering, I learned. Yet, it was through the invitations to Sharpley-Whiting’s home for Thanksgiving and Christmas that I became family. The student invited into the scholarly table of Black academia. She saw me. Saw into me. Welcomed me home. “Come in. Sit a spell.”
What she gave me, she also gave to her undergraduate students. She leaned into them, pushing them into their excellence. Introducing young budding minds to Black texts, authors, and experiences throughout the African Diaspora and into the Americas. You see those people in the text? Those are your people. They are your lineage.
Teaching us while Black, Sharply-Whiting hand-delivered Black literature, history, theory, and critique from such scholars as Derrick Bell, Audre Lorde, Frantz Fanon, Aime’ Cesaire, Nell Irvin Painter, Barbara J. Fields, and Karen Elise Fields.
And, then there is Victor Anderson. A man who shows up boldly as a gentle, yet stern thinker. A vibrant force of academic excellence. A theorist. A critic. Part of my learning included reading out loud with him. We read W.E.B. DuBois, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Hand Georg Gadamer, and Baruch Spinoza. He reminded me to slow down and pay attention to the text, the sentences, the words, the writer.
I heard the words, and noticed the moves taking place on the pages. Anderson’s ear trained us, individually, to hear our own voices and to trust ourselves. He encouraged us to think out loud, engage with other scholars, challenge when needed, but most importantly, support and show love for other Black scholars. We are all out here writing and thinking out loud. It takes courage to play, as Anderson would say. I sat in awe of him because it was effortless for him to rattle off theory, and critical thinkers, but he especially wanted us to know the Black thinkers. They were us, looking at us waiting for us to discover them.
These encounters in grad school prepared me for my own classrooms. Those acts of Black radical teaching gave me permission to be the same with my students. They reminded me, “Pay it forward. Love into the babies. Love them hard.”
And I do.
Students smile when they see me in the classroom. The tall Black man from Detroit is now in the academy with his PhD. I lean forward and whisper to them through the syllabus, This course is for you. Designed with you in mind. I find myself nudging students toward excellence. Giving them theory. Spoonfuls. Carefully, yet fastidiously allowing them to taste the words in their own mouths.
Listening for how it sounds when they use their voices.
They find themselves in the words and pages, and in the writers and thinkers. The scholars. Theorists. Telling them that they are beautiful. People to be heard and admired. Seen. In body and in flesh. As Spillers writes in Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe, “before the ‘body’ there is the ‘flesh,’ that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse or the reflexes of iconography.”
I coach students toward remembering the ways in which flesh operates, and shows up as a reminder of branding, lynching, grabbing, and thrashing. We celebrate the flesh of us. I move students through mediums of expression of what loving one’s flesh looks like. Toni Morrison writes in Beloved, “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick ‘em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!”
I stand in the formation of academic excellence, but before that it was my grandmother in Detroit. My people, my family. Those Black folks who showed me how to be in love with self so that I could love others. I give my students the possibility of being liberated in their bodies as they come to terms with themselves. I implore upon them that it is necessary to speak loudly, and to have their voices heard. Think boldly and unashamedly. This is your space.
Your place to be free.
Terrance Dean is an Assistant Professor in Black Studies at Denison University.