A series named in tribute to Bell Hooks. Love is a subject that is often discussed in the most trivial and superficial terms. Love, as a subject matter, especially from a Black perspective, hardly ever includes discussions regarding the nature of love, the function of love, the purpose of love, or the relevance of love. All we ever talk about is how we want it, have it, never had it, or keep losing it. We are right to see lack of love as a concern; we just have to choose the right angle for exploring solutions. Here is where that happens.
Time and time again I have seen Black people maintain lifelong friendships but fail to accomplish this is their romantic connections. Friendships are a type of relationship. Friendships, like any relationship, require honesty, autonomy, and love to flourish. If friendships are so similar to romantic relationships, then why does this happen? The sustained commitment that we exercise in our friendships is lacking in our romantic relationships.
Friendships are approached differently than the way we approach romantic relationships. I have often likened our approach to romantic relationships to a job interview. We engage romantic opportunities with a hidden agenda to impress, convince, and get the most for having given the least. When we approach friendships, however, we come with less of an agenda and more of a willingness to explore a connection and take it or leave it. We don’t expect to get more than we give nor do we allow ourselves to give more than we get. It is off of this mutual respect and understanding that friends begin to develop their connection.
When our friends first disappoint us, we often do not immediately think that they should be disposed of. We may distance ourselves or spend some time apart to allow heightened emotions to subside but we are usually more willing to come back from those offenses or hurts. We also are more candid about how we feel and do not feel guilty saying, without ultimatum, ‘that wasn’t cool.’ It is this honesty that draws us closed to one another.
Something special happens in a connection between two people when there is an understanding that every mistake will not be held over their head and every offense will not spell the end of the relationship. The removal of that bondage liberates a person to be who they are, with whatever attributes and flaws they possess at the time, and learn and grow in a space of love — knowing that their loved one is not looking for reasons to deny them love.
My godmother and my mother had one of the best relationships. In one moment they could be cursing at each and telling each other “shut the hell up” and “I’ll do what the fuck I wanna do.” And the next minute they would be agreeing to see each other for a cup of coffee. One conversation with either of then will reveal how well they know each other (flaws and all) and how they have never had a better friend. That’s love.
I often think of my sister’s relationship with her best friend. The two found each other during their turbulent teens. My sister having growing up in the suburbs that my mother had left the Bronx to offer her and her friend from the grit of the projects that her mother was unable to save her from. What seemed an unlikely pair developed a bond so strong that years later after love gained and lost they would witness the birth of each other’s children (with and without the fathers present).
What stands out most to me about their relationship is the honesty (sometimes brutal) that they have with each other. Neither coddles the other with superficial evaluations of their actions. When one thinks that the other us wrong, she will look her friend in the eye unflinching and without any sugar coating lay her thoughts before her friend. I have seen these conversations become yelling and cursing matched ending in one going one way and the other going another way. Within days or hours you can find them laughing and talking as if nothing had changed. The truth, nothing had changed. They’d simply disagreed. And that’s bound to happen between any two individuals.
My father had several close friends. I’m not sure which one if any or all were my godfather but I considered them all to be. It always fascinated me that although he and my godfathers were just as candid with each other as my mother was with my godmother, they disagreed differently. As men they didn’t have the same banter, when they disagreed it was often with a sense of humor and kept a light note which one would end the conversation saying “Aw man get the fuck outta here.” Usually the banter would stop then unless the argument was serious at which point it escalated and both made gestures and used tones that let it be known that the argument had gone to the next level. As friends they usually parted physical presence and may not speak for a day it so but with the certainty of a sunrise, one would eventually show up and start a general conversation and the return of their normal jovial interaction would signal that all was okay.
One of my best friends and I often have silent arguments. We might disagree verbally and at a certain point in the disagreement we would walk away from each other. Depending on how angry we were we might not speak besides exchanging cordial greetings. Then one day one of us would call the other and begin a conversation and the other would respond and before we knew it we would be back to normal. Rarely have these disagreements needed any further discussion. When they did we approached them fairly diplomatically beginning with “Yo, that shit wasn’t cool man…” From there we would have a less heated version of the conversation that we both could approach objectively. If nothing else we could always commit to coming back to one another and being willing to continue the friendship.
Romantic relationships have more levels of intimacy. We also bring more baggage and insecurities into romantic relationships which often make disagreements feel heightened. We take what our romantic partners say and do much more personally (which is understandable); however, we are also quick to dismiss and push those people out of their place in our lives. Unlike our friendships we are less forgiving and willing to maintain the relationship when we are offended.
I would argue that it is both revolutionary and courageous for any two Black people to engage in a romantic relationship. Black folks have layers of insecurities that range from complexion complexes to class concerns as well as general romantic fears of abandonment and cheating. It is a task to allow another person so close to you without attacking them at every turn when you are existing in a society that makes defense you best method of survival (and the best defense is, ofcourse, an offense). It is no menial task to merge with another individual when you’re own identity and self esteem has been made fragile from living in a world that constantly defines itself but why you’re not.
This is why I shake my head when I hear amateur lovers say “it shouldn’t be this hard,” “love isn’t supposed to hurt,” or “I’m not going through all that.” Because essentially they have condemned themselves to a life without beauty of a sustained committed romantic relationship. In a truly loving relationship both parties values the others’ esteem and perspective as much as their own. Together merge with a measure of give and take and develop a standard for their relationship that may be different from their individual standards but is mutually adhered to and works for the dynamic of the two personalities working together. This is how most friendships work. We often will take a fair amount of crap from our friends that we cherish that we wouldn’t dare accept from anyone else; however, this is a loved one and the value of that connection makes them not anyone else.
Part of the reason we have developed these false superficial ideas about love is because of the self-esteem overdose of popular opinion that seeks to empower our internal value through an excessive emphasis on individualism and selfishness. Instead of being assertive and confident we become demanding, dominating, argumentative and judgmental. Anything our romantic partner brings to the relationship that challenges out self-esteem or pushes against our insecurities, we find offensive and defend ourselves to the extreme.
So instead of having healthy, confident self-esteem, these individuals become emotional tyrants that dominate relationships with their overbearing insistence upon themselves. There is absolutely nothing wrong with loving ones self and having standards for ones self; however, relationships aren’t about one individual. Therefore, it’s no longer just one person’s standards and one person’s self-esteem. When we should let some things go, we hold onto that painful moment. When we should allow them to come back and make amends, we belittle and demean them for their mistake. We are ruthless in our defenses and merciless in our reconciliation.
Commitment isn’t about right and wrong; it isn’t about fair; it isn’t about our self worth; and isn’t about what we deserve. Commitment is about the willingness to sustain a relationship. Sometimes that means swallowing our pride and asking forgiveness (in any manner) and sometimes it’s about keeping our arms open to those we love despite the lack of guarantee that they won’t hurt us again. Commitment is about “stick and stay” as my grandmother called it. It’s about valuing a connection beyond our insecurities, pain, and fears.
Sustaining that commitment takes understanding, forgiveness, and, most of all, genuine care. When are committed to sustaining a commitment we make sacrifices, we let things go, we forgive, and we move forward. The willingness to sustain a commitment does not come from love. The willingness to sustain a commitment comes from a personal value of the trust in the relationship that tells us that this person has never intended to hurt us and that given the chance they would not hurt us (this way) again. That is all that one can ask of person: to understand that we are all spirits on a physical journey of learning and loving and that they give us the chance to learn and never stop loving us.
I’m not sayin, I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man