I wrote this for the Emerging Black Leaders symposium, held at Tufts University on March 9, 2013.
From Richard Bruce Nugent’s insistence in the mid-1920s, “one can love” to James Baldwin’s proclamation in the early 1960s, “Love is a battle, love is a war,” to Marlon Riggs’s 1980s declaration, “black men loving black men is the revolutionary act,” black gay men have advocated for love. Essex Hemphill argues, “It is not enough to tell us that one was a brilliant poet, scientist, educator, or rebel. Whom did he love? It makes a difference.” And even the revolutionary Frantz Fanon said, “today I believe in the possibility of love.”
I want to speculate about what it means to love black men, in general, and what it means to love Christopher Dorner, in particular.
Christopher Dorner was killed a few weeks ago, lynched by a racist system that finds it easier to kill black men than to address structural racism. Christopher Dorner had a life and a story and loved people. I want to spend my time honoring his living and his loving. And I think the best way to honor his living and his loving is to read how he wrote about himself.
In the letter he wrote to America, Dorner says he “always wore a smile wherever he was seen.” He reminds us that he defended the weak and the vulnerable from bullies: he reported a senior colleague when she kicked a disabled man; he defended a fellow police recruit who was harassed for being Jewish; and he defended himself from racist bullies who dogged his life from his childhood playground through his career as a policeman. He writes:
I’m not an aspiring rapper, I’m not a gang member, I’m not a dope dealer, I don’t have multiple babies momma’s. I am an American by choice, I am a son, I am a brother, I am a military service member, I am a man who has lost complete faith in the system, when the system betrayed, slandered, and libeled me.
But this is not all.
He also writes, “Off the record, I love your new bangs, Mrs. Obama.” He believes in “the freedom to LIVE and LOVE.” Addressing his friends, he writes, “To my friends listed below, I wish we could have grown old together and spent more time together. When you reminisce of our friendship and experiences, think of that and that only.” And he ends multiple paragraphs by writing, “I love you bro.”
In fact, the word “love” and the slight variation, “loved,” appear twelve times in his letter. At least four times, he writes, “I love you.” Significantly, he says this “I love you” to the men in his life. Christopher Dorner loved the men in his life.
I dwell on these aspects of Dorner—his life, his loves, his loving—because I want to think about what it means to consider black men as loving. Remember James Baldwin says, “love is a battle, love is a war.” I’m not talking about warm, fuzzy feelings. I’m talking about the struggle to love, the struggle to be recognized as loving, and the struggle to be recognized as lovable.
We hear many negative things about black men—I will not repeat them here. But we rarely hear that they are loving, that they love, or that they are lovable. In fact, when we come to a space like this, we tend to speak of oppression and anger and struggle and violence, to name all the ways that black men are devalued. Often, as we talk, we say that we should fight stereotypes, fight oppression, fight the system, create new opportunities for black men, create new ways of seeing and being.
We rarely talk about love.
We rarely talk about black men as friends and partners. Our best histories of black men portray them as heroic, solitary warriors. And our other best histories depict black men engaged in struggles for power: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois; James Baldwin and Richard Wright; Tupac and Biggie.
You know the names. I don’t need to say them.
What about black men who are friends? What about black men who are partners? What about black men who co-parent with other black men? What about black men who love other black men? Why are black men considered incapable of loving?
Marlon Riggs’s comment, “black men loving black men is the revolutionary act” haunts and energizes me. It makes me wonder how the world might be different if we considered black men to be loving, lovable, and loved. It makes me wonder how the world might be different if black men spoke more often about love and loving.
Because the vocabularies we use change the very nature of the air we breathe, the sounds we hear, the feelings we experience.
Re-reading Essex Hemphill’s claim that who we love matters led me to think about Christopher Dorner: he loved his country, he loved the city he worked for, he loved his friends, and he loved to smile. I am sad that he was not allowed to continue loving these things, because an unjust, racist system obstructs love and loving.
There are many ways to value Christopher Dorner: we can read his letter to America with precision and care, we can ask that the LAPD be held accountable, we can debate what he wrote, and we can take him seriously.
We can also remember that he used the word love at least 12 times in his letter. That he said I love you at least four times. That he loved, was loving, and, I hope, was loved back.