The Substance of Love

"Well, you know, I prefer to see black people with other black people because we need more strong, black families." 

Me: "Are black people the only ones who talk about love in terms of race and color?  Like is there 'brown love, yellow love, red love?"
My Husband: "I don't know."
Me: "Do white people talk about 'white love'?"
Hubs: "No."
Me:  "Hm.  I wonder why?"
Hubs:  "Because anytime you put 'white' in front of a noun, like White Love, White History Month, White Pride, White Law Students Association, or the Massachusetts Association of White Attorneys, people assume it's a white supremacist organization."

I must admit, when the topic of conversation is "black love" I feel a little left out.  In its most basic form, black love is the emotional connection shared by two black people.  Period.  It doesn't matter if one of you is black.  It doesn't matter if you are a white African.  It doesn't even matter if you think your dog is black.  Black love = two black people.  Usually black love refers to the romantic relationships between black men and black women, but the concept embraces a "wide" range of relationships like black parents and their black children,  members of an extended black family, black neighbors, black church members, and a type of mystical ethos shared among the entire Black Diaspora.

Valentine's Day fuels many conversations about black love and last year this backfired on Essence Magazine when it featured professional football player Reggie Bush on its February 2010 cover.  At the time Bush was dating Kim Kardashian, a non-black woman.  A number of Essence readers found Bush's selection for the cover of "the black love issue" as an affront to black women everywhere.  I didn't (and still don't) understand the reaction for a number of reasons (besides the obvious).  The cover said nothing about an article on black love and I wonder why reader outcry was louder about the race of his girlfriend than his Heisman Trophy fiasco.  But in case you are wondering, the February 2011 cover of Essence features actress Regina Hall and she is indeed dating a black man named Theo (otherwise known by his government name, Malcom-Jamal Warner).  As a woman who self-identifies as black, and fully embraces the myriad of experiences that embody my unique black experience, I find it hard to accept the idea that love is more or less worthy of celebration based solely on the skin color of the parties involved. 

Among my friends and family, I have a reputation for generally treating people the same, regardless of their station in life.  I am just as likely to crack jokes with a Senator as I am with a friend's two-year old.  My parents find this mindset particularly unsettling because Yoruba culture has a pecking order.  It values honor, respect, and status, especially with regard to age, gender, education, occupation, and especially title (my husband and I often chuckle at the sight of: "The Most Excellent Reverend, Doctor, Pastor, Engineer, Evangelist, Teacher, Bishop Chief  Tyrone Olu Johnson III, PhD" listed in programs at Nigerian functions).

But as I got older I began to question some of these notions:  Why should any adult I come into contact with recieve respect by virtue of being old enough to be my mom or dad?  What if I know he mistreats his children or his wife?  What if I feel uncomfortable because of the way he looks at me or because he hugs me a little too long?  What if she calls me stupid or fat or ugly when my parents aren't around?  So I concluded that the labels might make a difference, but that's not all that mattered.  The labels without the substance weren't enough.  It wasn't enough that the person was Yoruba, or a Doctor, or Nigerian, or African, or Christian, or Black, or a Pastor, or rich, or from my father's village, or royalty, or went to Harvard.  Who are they?  What is their substance?  What are they really made of?  And in the same way I'd hope that any love worth celebrating is because of its substance, not merely its color.


  1. Great post! Some of your stories are too funny!

  2. @Anonymous
    Thank you so much. Yes, at times I think my life should be a movie.

  3. I think the black love thing is just another facet of black unity that's being sold by modern day carpetbaggers. But since blacks usually marry other blacks (much like other races and ethnicities), I'm not sure why it's deemed so special. Maybe because marriage isn't widely valued in (recent) black American culture? I don't know - I don't remember hearing about black love until college.

    As far as the Essence post, I think it's symptomatic of a tendency to raise hayel over certain slights. After all, I THOUGHT Essence was a magazine targeted to black women, so why was a man on the cover at all? Meh.

  4. @daphne
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yeah, I don't quite remember the first time I heard about "black love" either. I know Tavis Smiley has written a book that delves into the concept a little further (drawing from his experience being fired from Black Entertainment Television and the outpouring of support he received from his largely black viewer base).

    Men on the cover of Essence? The only thing I can think of is that maybe "eye candy" sells?

  5. Hi Tinu! I'm a first-time poster... love the blog.

    I agree with Daphne on this curious phenomenon of "black love." I never heard this term used until college either -- I grew up seeing married black couples all the time, and never thought anything was unusual or special about it. I always believed that most people grew up, met someone they liked, dated, fell in love and got married.

    Later, I realized that this path wasn't as common as I once thought for black Americans, and the concept of promoting "black love" seemed to come from this situation.

    The problem is, when people use a specific phrase or term to describe a phenomenon, they do so because it's not the norm. Those of us involved with men of other races have a term describing our relationships -- interracial relationships -- because it's not the norm. No one, however, says, "I'm in an intraracial relationship" or a "same-race relationship" because that is typically the norm.

    My point is that the term "black love" basically signifies that a loving relationship between two black people is seen as something extraordinary -- so much so that it has to get a phrase describing it -- "black love."

    There is no "white love," "Asian love" or "Hispanic love" because those groups don't seem to have the same issue with dating and marriage that blacks in the US seem to have. It's "normal" for whites, Hispanics and Asians to be in love and marry... while black folks, well...

    And I don't think that many black women have really thought that deeply about the phrase. It bothers me though, not because my relationship is excluded, but because it's a sign that healthy love between two black folks IS so unusual that it has to have a term describing it...

    To close, I've only heard black women using this phrase... and often single black women. I attended an event where a BW was getting an award and she thanked her husband. The single BW smiled and said, "Ooh, that's BLACK LOVE!" Another time, a few single friends were commenting on the Facebook pictures of a mutual friend's wedding. Again, there was a lot of "that's how black love is done," kind of comments.

    In both cases, I was happy to see the love that these couples shared, but the "black love" term never crossed my mind. They were acting as I would expect married couples to act, regardless of race... but the mere act of marrying or of having one's black husband at an event where you are being honored perhaps feels like a rarity for a lot of black women today.

  6. @Bunny77
    Thank you so much. Welcome, and thanks for visiting and posting.

    So while I was at the hairdresser yesterday, I happened to come across the February 2011 "Celebrate Black Love" issue of Ebony Magazine (looks like they are a little more explicit than Essence, lol). This issue featured not 1, but 3 covers, featuring couples where both individuals identify as Black (President and First Lady Obama; Beyonce Knowles and Shawn Carter; and Boris Kodjoe and Nicole Ari Parker)

    The issue featured a section on its "Partner Project," an initiative to strengthen "black relationships." Based on what I read, it sounds like it's premised upon some of the issues you've raised, namely, that there is "tension" in black relationships.

  7. Hi again. Very interesting about the Ebony cover. This seems to be a common trend among traditional black magazines (many of which I only see when I'm at the hairdresser also).

    One thing that bothers me about some of the traditional black magazines is how much they highlight celebrity black couples (with the exception of the Obamas -- it's wonderful to have a black president and first lady!) I guess they do this because celebrities are the most visible.

    Oh, and my thoughts on the Reggie Bush thing... speaking for myself and a few friends, I was not bothered by him being on the cover of Essence, but I thought it was hypocritical for the magazine to put him on the cover of the February issue. That issue (because of Valentine's Day) is one that traditionally features a black couple or a black man talking fondly about his black wife. Because Essence is one of the main proponents of this concept of "black love," the magazine came off as violating its own message by putting a man who is not practicing "black love" on the cover of its traditional "black love" issue.

    Essence has had other black men on its cover before, men who I know are not involved with black women. There was never any significant protest about that, and I think there would have been less protest if Reggie was on a different cover. I personally do not care who he chooses to date.

    But Essence can't shout "black love" from the rooftops and then fail to promote it... the editors seemed to be lazy that month in not looking for a black couple to feature.

  8. @Bunny77
    If you can still find the Feb Ebony issue (I know March is already out), you'll see an interesting piece from the Editor-in-Chief honoring her in-laws and their marriage. At the end of the day magazines are a business and consumers probably want to see celebrities more than someone's in-laws, lol.

    I think the funny thing with the Reggie Bush/Essence cover was that some readers said they would have preferred to see a WHITE man married to a BLACK woman on the February "black love" cover (a la Robin Thicke).

  9. I grew up in a Jewish family. And while never directly experiencing pressure to marry within the religion, it was all around me. I personally think it's incredibly limiting and superficial, very "tribe" like and caveman mentality to blindly believe you have some duty to "continue the race".

    And beyond that, saying that you are "black" or "white" or whatever is a collective misnomer. It highlights how we experience the world: visually. What if people who were tall all bonded together and felt they had to stay strong against the "shorts"? Race and religion are just as arbitrary but have been pumped up in our minds to mean more than they do.

    Which is really nothing but what shade of pigment in your forearms. I love it when people can look deeper than that.

  10. @Seth
    Thanks for reading and sharing. Interesting to hear your thoughts about the words we use to describe ourselves.