(an argument for the revolutionary power of love during Black History Month)

by Emma Marttinen

Photo: Bell Hooks and James Baldwin in front of Winslow Homer’s, Dressing for the Carnival, 1877. Made By Emma Marttinen

I have always found it fitting that Valentine’s falls within the carefully drawn lines of Black History Month. Or perhaps more fittingly, that Black History Month happened to be chosen for the month Valentine’s day has inhabited far longer. Whether coincidence or not, I imagine the choice to be something metaphorical. Something that draws the two celebrations together. Despite Valentine’s propensity towards consumerism and Black History Month’s neoliberal repositioning, the holidays exist in constant collaboration. It is their shared undercurrent, when stripping them down to their most fundamental pieces, you find an undercurrent of resistance. 

It was All About Love by Bell Hooks that transformed my perspective on love and its importance. In fact, it was Hooks who so poignantly challenged the very use of the word by writing, “The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet all the more astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb” (Hooks, 10). This is all to say that love is not just a ‘thing’ but an action, a state, an occurrence, a kind of magic. It is an energy we return to; it resists normativity; it overcomes fear but propels hate; it can be horribly destructive and so intensely restorative. This energy in all its contradictions is one that runs through all of human history and definitely in the complex histories of the oppressed. 

As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace”(Baldwin, 109). Love is unexplainably, indefinably human in the sense that it is universally humbling. In celebrating the Black history of revolution, resistance, and renewal, we are celebrating that very human desire to be our most fundamental selves: to love.

Love is a risk, and for Black communities in which the bounds of love and human connection have been continuously attacked, an even greater danger. And yet we have sought its sobering influence. In the face of profound suffering, people still seek love. So why do we feel so disillusioned by the very word today? Why is it common for people to consider our modern world loveless and dating hopeless?

The issue may lay in our general disconnectedness. In an article published by Big Think titled “Americans more than ever have no friends”, it said that “according to the May 2021 American Perspectives Survey of over 2,000 adults, 12% of Americans report having no friends, up from under 3% in the 1990s. This data is mirrored in the United Kingdom, where the number of young adults who report having only one or no close friends jumped from 7% to nearly 20% between 2012 and 2021. These numbers are even worse for men, who tend to have more friends early in life but experience a steeper decline” (Gilbert, 2023). 

There is a pervasive sense of loneliness felt most especially by younger people. In university, one of the most commonly heard phrases I’ve become familiar with is “it’s so hard to make friends.” Platonic love connections are only the tip of the iceberg, as conversations about dating often fall into a meandering analysis of a romantic partner’s digitized behavior, rather than engaging with their more intimate interpersonal connection. In a late capitalist world where we are separated by major highways, spaced-out sterile houses, long working hours, a kind of moral apathy, and an increasingly monetized landscape, we seem to be losing our sense of each other. As Mark Fisher put it simply in his late novel Capitalist Realism, “Over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including health-care and education [even romance], should be run as a business” (Fisher, 56). One of the clearest examples of this business ontology is the world of online dating.

In a recent data study with a subject group of 500 participants, 4 in 5 people aged 18-54 said they experienced some degree of emotional fatigue or burnout when online dating (78.37%) over not experiencing any at all. In the playing field of dating apps and online courtship, we are being taught to reduce one-another to easy, quantifiable products. Look at the structure of most dating apps, which require you to commodify a person as more or less valuable, based on a few ungenuine features (curated photos, a brief bio, maybe a few interests). We have turned dating into a project of overwhelming choice and consumption, one that resists the human impulse for connectivity. Jenny Odell observes in her novel How To Do Nothing, “I worry that if we let our real-life interactions be corralled by our filter bubbles and branded identities, we are also running the risk of never being surprised, challenged, or changed—never seeing anything outside of ourselves, including our own privilege”(Odell, 97). Our world is already so incredibly atomized that this new form of treating the human person as a business has only pulled us further apart from one another. 

It was the Black body that, for the birth of Western capitalism to succeed as it did, was commodified. Familial and romantic ties were closely controlled and if aloud, treated by their enslavers as a business opportunity. Yet in this form, love became a tool of resistance. The enslaved sought refuge in community through cross-plantation marriages, adoptive parentage, secret parties, church organization, shared folktale, and more. Over the deeply deliberate attempt to reduce Black personhood into a disconnected, dehumanized product, we created culture, history, and celebration. We somehow continued to love and be loved. In the small human attempts to show ourselves to one another, to make sense of what we most fundamentally are or can be, we made room for a diversity of feelings. We made our way towards freedom. Today, the cultivation of an advertisable identity is seen as freeing but can it actually be blinding us to our aforementioned privilege? Are we diluting the foundations of potential love, whether it be platonic or romantic, by treating it as business rather than a binding revolutionary force?

This is not a call to position love as a ‘fix-all’. It would be hugely ignorant to claim that if only we loved one another more, many of our issues with separation and hate would be solved. But if we re-imagine what the word ‘love’ can embody, if we allow it to be something multidimensional, something in motion, something that requires action rather than being another stagnate ‘thing’ to be materialized and flattened, then perhaps we can better comprehend the attitudes of one another. Perhaps, as Bell Hooks says in Salvation, “love is always there–nothing can keep us from love if we dare to seek it and to treasure what we find” (Hooks, 123). 

Works Cited: 

 Baldwin, J. (1992). The fire next time. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Emotional Fatigue and Burnout in Online Dating – Data Study. (n.d.). Singles Reports. https://singlesreports.com/reports/emotional-fatigue-or-burnout-in-online-dating/

Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books.

Gilbert, E. (2023, April 15). Americans more than ever have no friends. Here are 5 steps to make more friends. Big Think. https://bigthink.com/neuropsych/americans-no-friends/

hooks, b. (2001). Salvation: Black People and Love. HarperCollins.

hooks, b. (2018). All about love : new visions. HarperCollins.

Odell, J. (2019). How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Melville House.

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