“The Enemy of Self-Love”

by Ian Kennedy

Right now, as the 2016 presidential election ticks closer, the world needs love. We especially need love for the people who disagree with us most. They are also people who we will live with on November 9th, they will vote in future elections, they will sit with us on buses, around thanksgiving tables, next to us in airplanes. It is, however, quite difficult to muster love for them, and one reason might be that times like this make it hard to love ourselves.

The difficultly of loving himself is a key theme in Mychal Denzel Smith’s Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching. Sometimes that is because of race. In that case there is a hegemonic cultural system he has to work against, “Malcom taught us that white supremacy was the enemy of self-love.” That struggle is intertwined with other parts of life: with gender and sexuality, with mental illness, with being a son and a friend.

White supremacy does not take me as its object of hatred, though by making me its subject, I’d say it is still the enemy of my self-love. More specifically, it implicates me in its system of hate, pulling me along like a rip tide; if I don’t keep my guard up, I’ll be swept out into a sea of violent thought. For Malcom X and millions of others, resistance to white supremacy cost them their lives. For me, the cost is much smaller: I have to admit to and recognize the truth that I am a subject of that system. I have to see the thoughts that show up for me when I don’t expect them. And I have to love enough to stand in their face and not let those thoughts dominate my activity.

That process, while not life-threatening, is not comfortable. And comfort is what White America (and maybe most of the world) seeks most. As Smith argues later on, Reverend Wright’s blackness seemed threatening and angry, while “Obama’s black needed to make white people comfortable enough not to see his blackness.” Certainly Obama wasn’t threatening to me, though maybe we can’t say the same for the whole US electorate.  Maybe I can’t say the same for the people who I’ll share buses and tables with later this month. And that, bringing that up in a way that is both loving and strong, that makes me uncomfortable.

Smith regularly speaks about his constant quest for refinement, not (at least not by the end) in search of an achievable perfection, but “recognizing that the process is never complete. It’s knowing the fight won’t be easy but will be worth it… It’s wanting to give up every day. It’s loving yourself enough not to.”

I believe him. I’ll strive to live up to those words. To love what is right here enough so that that love spills over and infects the people around me. Maybe I can fill that area up with so much love that even hegemonic white supremacy won’t be able to find a way in.

 

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