Redefining Radical Love
BY ASHIA AJANI
This article is the first in series on POC culture and politics by our new contributing blog editor, Ashia Ajani.
“Indeed, all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic.” ―Bell Hooks
We need more stories about how people of color relate to one another. More stories about how people of color love one another. Because we can, and when we do it is a beautiful thing. There is no other way to put it.
This is not to say that mixed race folks who are part white do not deserve to have their stories told. These folks have a unique experience navigating our world, especially America, which does not make space for such transnational blood to exists without question. But why is it when we say “interracial” we immediate imagine a white person and a person of color? Probably because as people of color, especially in America, we are always thinking about our relationship to white people. Most of us descend from a colonized people, either exploited or massacred by white hands. As we delve deeper into the “post-colonial” world, we are constantly aware of our positionality, oftentimes centering whiteness in order to better understand ourselves.
And what of stories? I can list off so many books that portray white/person of color romances. On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Kindred by Octavia Butler. How to Seduce a White Boy in Ten Easy Steps by Laura Yes Yes. Most Amy Tan novels (though I will note in The Hundred Secret Senses there is a brief marriage to a mixed race Hawaiian and white man, but this romance ends in tragedy in a way the white love interests in her other books do not). The list goes on and on. And it’s understandable. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a gross amount of erotic novels that center race, but not in a way that is productive. Try fetishitic on both ends, a serious exploitation of women of color, jungle fever, yellow fever, you name it. And if I read another erotic novel that describes a woman with my color skin as chocolate….
Our society is entering an era of increased mixed race identity: in 2013, 9 million Americans chose two or more racial categories when asked about their race, so we can only assume the numbers have increased since then. So what of the stories brewing in the souls of those of Korean and Mexican blood, rapidly growing in number because of the proximity of Koreatown and los barrios in California? What of the Afro-Latinx youth, constantly misplaced, misnamed and misunderstood? The Jamaican-Chinese immigrants, undoing levels of colonial trauma and internalized racism we can only begin to understand? As Americans, whether we care to admit it or not, we are obsessed with dominant-submissive tales. Though horizontal aggression is a real phenomenon and readily needs to be addressed, not only in our stories but in our interpersonal interactions, there are so many things that connect us. And that is not interesting, There is no tragedy to unfold, no plantation dreams to exploit and fetishize, and there are no colonial stories to be told without a center on whiteness.
The first book I read that dared formulate an interracial romance that did not feature white people was The House on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. Jamie Ford himself is a mixed race son, born of a Chinese father and white American mother, so one can assume that the concept of love as a melting pot has been on the forefront of his conscious for a while (he’s also a Cancer, so you know, hopeless romantic from the start). This book told the story of two children, one Chinese and one Japanese, who fall in love during World War Two. The Chinese boy, Henry Lee, falls in love with a Japanese girl, Keiko Okabe, and this experience changes the way he views himself as a Chinese person during Seattle in World War II. His father, who does not speak very good English, makes Henry wear a pin that says “I am Chinese” so he will not face the ridicule endured by Japanese citizens and residents. As he begins to fall more in love with Keiko, Henry realizes that his silence will not protect him, and that he has a duty, as another marginalized person to align himself with her struggles. This is the first introduction I had to the concept of “throwing in” with other marginalized group, a practice that perhaps possesses more optimism Even outside the scope of romantic love, Henry is good friends with a Black saxophone player, Sheldon, a good number of years older than him, exploring transracial solidarity and how we oftentimes inherit biases from our predecessors.
Henry and Keiko are separated by the war, then find each other years later, both in their sixties and their respective partners deceased, and we catch a glimmer of hope. This is the happiest happy ending I have read regarding interracial romance between two people of color.
Granted, I haven’t read many interracial romances solely featuring people of color- I wonder why that is - not for lack of trying. Fast forward to junior year of college. I read White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan. I want to give honorable mention to The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which features the story of Oscar’s mother, Belicia, a dark-skinned Dominicana who loves and loves and cannot make love stick to her in return (I feel you girl). What do all of these stories have in common? Tragedy. In White Teeth, a plus sized Black (young, Caribbean mother and old British father, so levels there) girl, Irie, tries to love two Bangladeshi twins, Mallit and Magid (whose father has an affair with a white woman he finds more attractive than his conservative Bandgladeshi wife, so more levels) into loving her, has sex with both of them and then gives birth to a dual-fathered and fatherless baby. In Beauty is a Wound, the story takes place in post-Dutch occupied Indonesia centers around the life of a mixed race but Dutch passing sex worker, Dewi Ayu, who mothers four daughter by four different men, all of them either Japanese, Indonesian or some mix of both. Most of these girls experiences are shaped by sexual assault and colonial trauma- the youngest daughter, who is black as can be, is portrayed as ugly, unattractive (more levels), yet her name is Beauty, given to her ironically. Though all of the daughter die in some unfortunate manner, Beauty’s fate somehow is more tragic, as she meets someone who finally will love her and he is ripped away from her almost as soon as he is introduced into her life.
Why must we always portray love as tragic? Why must love never work out, never be empowering, but disenfranchising? What does it mean for our general psyche when the only stories we can think to tell are of heartbreak and betrayal?
When we understand each other, we can better understand ourselves and our relation to this earth. Realizing that love is sacrifice, is strength and courage combined with overcoming fear, is an essential part of our spiritual and cultural growth. When we tell stories about our relationships to other brown people, we are affirming that indeed, there is a cultural revolution brewing, and yes, we are capable of looking our differences in the face while simultaneously embracing what connects us.
I myself am a hopeless romantic. I love me some good old fashion love stories. I love imagining romance as supportive, engaging and revolutionary- the way love is meant to be. There is strength in numbers, there is strength in radical love. In the era of Trump, of climate change and automatic weapons and all the other bad vibes floating around our fragile universe, shouldn’t we stress loving each other, linked through ancestral trauma and ancestral strength? Where there is diasporic angst, there is also the potential for a radical love outside the scope of whiteness. Let us demand not only more of our literature, but of ourselves.
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