In a post-60's cynical world the phrase "All we need is love" by John Lennon goes over like a feather in a windstorm. It can't land. Today, it just sounds naïve. We envision longhaired hippies singing Kumbaya, laying in a field of flowers. But trust me, "All we need is love" was and is a very profound concept, especially if taken out of the romantic realm and placed front and center in addressing seemingly insurmountable social/cultural issues around the world. In these areas love does not overtly challenge power or beliefs. It is sublime and stealth. It's like a pebble dropped in water, rippling, expanding until we notice from the corners of our eyes.
This is about love, not dressed in a push-up bra or stilettos. But dressed in commoner's clothing. This is about crossing a thin line, choosing whether to go with the flow or to swim up stream against currents of dogma and long held cultural/ religious biases. Do you see where I'm heading with this? It's over there, in India or China, where a farmer when confronted with the idea of female infanticide does the opposite thing. According to a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) State of the World Population Report, there is at least 60 million "missing" girls in Asia as a result of infanticide. So it is no small act of love for someone with meager provisions and an uncertain future to cross that thin line and decide to raise and cherish a daughter.
At that very moment, the clock starts ticking and ripples spread out. It will not go unnoticed if this child is bathed in love, that sacrifices are made for her to go to school, that she is not sold off for marriage or to traffickers. A girl child nurtured, protected, and empowered in a climate that says girls are not valuable- that is heroic love. Her parents might not have wealth or social status, but they have courage and an abundance of love. This makes all the difference in their daughter's life. Literally. To be allowed to live when threatened by an ugly practice, to have parents who instead will be kind, who will not abuse or traumatize her because she is female... Yes, pass the box of tissues, because that love is revolutionary. The parent's names will not be written in history books, they won't make the 5 o'clock news. But what matters is that they held the pebble in their hands and dropped it in.
It's that simple. It demonstrates that a simple idea like "all we need is love" can carry enormous weight. It is not the feather, but the effect of the pebble that motivates other movers and shakers such as social entrepreneurs. It's at play in the deeds of a new breed of trust fund babies, those who open small businesses, who step up to the line and make daring decisions. For example, choosing to ignore all their training at Harvard Business School about cost to profit margins to create businesses that improve the lives of its employees. For the love of country, of the American dream, these mavericks commit to pay employees a living wage, provide health insurance and periodic bonuses.
If you are ever in Harlem, NY, stop by a bakery called Hot Bread. The idea behind their business is ingenious and inspiring. I won't tell you what that idea is, because if I leave a bit of mystery, you may seek them out or look them up. I don't know the exact financial arrangement with their employees, but I can tell you that not only are they changing lives, but, their breads are insanely delicious.
I have lived in New York for 10 continuous years. At times the city feels like a scene from A Tale of Two Cities. Among the bright lights, swerving taxis and hot dog stands, there are the "beautiful people" and then everyone else. The idealized vision of the noble poor pulling themselves up by their bootstraps is dead and gone.
I sense contempt for the poor in this city. They are seen as somehow being in the way. Generosity, the acknowledgement of the plight of ones employees is actually an act of love for ones fellow man/woman and is a supreme example of "courageous love". A living wage with benefits makes a difference in paying bills, having savings and planning for a future. It is decisions like this that will strengthen America. This is true patriotism, not loud like the rhetoric of political pundits. It is quiet and ripples patiently in the waters of time, glanced at ever so meekly by other business owners.
It is not only peasant farmers in India or socially conscious entrepreneurs that have had to make moral decisions. And, if you think about it, " love" isn't only something that is given to others to effect social change. Sometimes it is simply the act of loving ones self. This is the age of hyped- up individualism. Every sentence in the new age universe seems to end with "love oneself." Motivational speakers grip microphones, their mouths turn up in smiles, delight bubbles up in their bellies as they anticipate delivering these final words. We wait for these words, spellbound, ripe and ready. There is always a final pause before they are delivered. Yes, a pause. We know it's coming... one, two, three... wait for it, wait for it... four, five, six seconds pass, then the smile... then the closing... "until you learn to love yourself. Namaste" They bow and we go berserk. The room explodes in applause, thunderous applause.
This is not that kind of party. I am not taking about self-love as a soft and cushy ideal with pink frosting and a cherry on top. I am talking about self-love as an act of defiance, self-love with a machete, a hand grenade, and a pistol hanging from its belt. This love summons the strength to face down a hierarchy measured by physical appearance and ones own genes. I have personally grappled with this in terms of skin color, facial features, hair texture and presumed racial ideals as a Black woman living in the United States. I have had to reach for a little something-something hanging from my belt from time too time.
But for the sake of argument, I want to talk about my experience in Mexico as a final illustration of love as a political act. I spent a summer in Mexico by way of a student exchange program when I was 19 years old. I was an anthropology student in a city blanketed with ruins and museums. It was heaven. But just like everything that is going smoothly, someone had to throw a wretch into it.
On an ordinary day in a classroom at a college formerly known as Ibero Americana in Mexico city. I was listening a lecture when I was suddenly struck dumb by comments made by the professor. It was startling. Her talk started out as normal until she began to brag with pride that she had no Indian blood whatsoever. Her statements changed the way I saw Mexican society. It made me see color. Her racist comments about their poverty and fertility were unsettling. Indians were on the bottom of the pole, and as I later learned to refer to someone as Indian was an insult. This was confusing because the majority of Mexicans looked "Indian" to me. A sinking feeling overwhelmed me. It was back, how many times have I had this feeling in the Virgin Islands or New York with black people meticulously informing me how I measures up on society's color wheel. By age 5 black children far and wide used to recite the color wheel "If you are black stay back, if you are brown stick around, if you are white, you are alright". And yes, to be called black was an insult, and much worse, if you really wanted to strike the deathblow; you dared to call someone's mother black. We were supposed to be ashamed of our own mothers.
It was for this reason, that when a few blacks started to play with the very notion that black was beautiful in the 60's, it came across as an act of rebellion. During Obama's first presidential campaign The New Yorker magazine took a jab at Mrs Barack Obama, to stir up fear that she might be a radical, they depicted her as a cartoon with a head full woolly hair, an afro. Mrs Obama sporting natural hair was a jab, not a thing of beauty.
So what about the issue of being an Indian? How does it feel to be identified as Maya or Zapotecan? I had the opportunity to travel to Oaxaca that summer. There were ruins at Mitla and Monte Alban, delicious mole and lots of clothing to buy. Where would the average villager fit on the racial pyramid? Nestled neatly at the bottom based on race? In this game of conquer or be conquered, to the victor goes the spoils, land, gold, and the losing team's dignity. But aren't there individuals who resist? What about the woman from whom I bought several a hand-woven dresses? Would she tear down such a pyramid and construct her own. In my mind, she sits at her loom each day with a pebble that is burning a hole in her in her pocket.
Then the day arrives, when she gets up from her loom, takes out her pebble and comes up with an idea that sets the Mexican socio-racial hierarchy ablaze; 4 feet 9 inches tall, thick torso with short arms and legs, caramel-colored skin, black-eyed, with a bone-straight black shiny braid falling to her waist- magnificent! She gets strength in her legs, walks up to the thin line and tells her family and friends that Indian is beautiful, Indian is good, and that she is Indian and proud. Now, in the movie version of my fantasy, she would use a few little curse words, be wearing high heels, carry a mean black whip or a grenade or two.
Despite all the images of blond descendants of Europeans on the majority of newsstands, billboards, and novelas in Mexico, my brown warrior princess makes an internal shift in her thinking and drops her pebble in the pond and says, " I am, I exist, I am radiant." Her ethnic pride and self-confidence could set the bar for all victims of racism, prejudice, and colorism. The words she utters about herself and her identity are the very words that may empower an aboriginal woman in Australia, or a girl from the untouchable cast in South India. This self-love takes strong legs. It is a psychological feet to love oneself when the people and images that make up your daily life force an inferior identity upon you.
Under these circumstances, when one straightens one's back to love one's race, one's history, and one's culture love becomes an act of defiance.
So when I say that John Lennon was dead on when he sang, "all we need is love, " I don't blink. Loving what society deems as worthless is an act of defiance. It sets a ball in motion so that female infanticide can one day be a thing of the past, so that people are valued in the work place, so that the wonderful variety of humans that exist on the planet can be valued for their uniqueness. Societal change does not occur without risk takers. Lennon was a risk taker. He dropped a pebble into the pool every time he wrote a song that talked about social change.
We need people who will take a leap of faith, who will challenge authority by making small decisions in their daily lives, who will carry out small acts of love even if they go against prevailing beliefs. We should all go for it. It's painless. Blurry vision, runny noses, bouts of vomiting is not associated with this feat. So let's all find a pebble today, put it in our pocket and wait until it's our turn to toss it.