Come As You Are
What is self love? For the past two years, I've delved into the idea of unrestrained self love and expression, something that was new to me as an individual who was ashamed of her brown skin and foreign-ness. Over these two years, I've learned to love the brownness of my skin, hair, and eyes, things that I’d always wanted to alter. More than that, I've learned to express myself, and I now want to express myself, to shed life on my own experiences as a Muslim woman of color. Before learning of African American history, I'd never thought that my own affinity for self-love and self-expression could be used to generate cataclysmic change in a society’s racial hierarchy. However, after studying African American history and literature, it is clear to me now that unabashed self-empowerment from within minority groups, specifically the African American community, has been and will continue to be the key to bettering racial tensions in the United States.
Firstly, the study of works originating in the Harlem Renaissance, specifically the poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes has showed me that taking a pride in your cultural identity and self will lead to a betterment in racial tensions. The Harlem Renaissance was a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that spanned the 1920s and 30s in Harlem, New York. It was a result of hordes of African Americans moving to the freer North after being liberated from the shackles of slavery and oppression in the South. The Harlem Renaissance signalled a start of a new black cultural identity, one in which being black was something to be proud of, and one in which the everyday black experience was realistically portrayed in American literature. Many black authors wrote unabashedly of the restraints holding African American's back in the early 1900s, but also discussed what it meant to be black and delved into discussing black culture and heritage. One such poem that exemplifies this is The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes. In the poem, Langston Hughes revels in the greatness of his ancestors, and of the average African American's ancestors too; "I've known rivers / I've bathed in the Euphrates when the dawns were young. / I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. / I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it." Langston Hughes mentions these rivers and these actions he's taken with them to instill a sense of pride into the Black community, who would've been the primary readers of such literary works. Works like these that were a result of the self-empowering Harlem Renaissance were important in bettering racial tensions because they allowed African American individuals to feel a pride in themselves and who they were, and to thus dispel any thoughts that they were inferior to white Americans. This pride, and realization that there was no justification for them being treated as second class citizens is what led to a push for greater racial justice, and eventually the civil rights movement.
A key figure in the civil rights movement who promoted self-empowerment and self-love was Malcolm X. Malcolm X was a black Muslim from Michigan, who became a prominent leader of the nation of islam. X promoted a radical pursuit of integration and racial justice in the US, and was notorious for his opposition to Martin Luther King Jr.'s peaceful, nonviolent approach to integration. Besides empowering the black community to use radical methods to fight for justice, and to defend themselves "by any means necessary", Malcolm X was also a charismatic public speaker. Several of his most famous speeches deal with the idea of self empowerment, and the idea that black people should celebrate their own culture and shouldn't let the white hierarchy of oppression let them believe that the were lesser than white people. An example of one of these speeches is Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?, in which Malcolm X addresses the self-loathing the black community harbors because of whites presiding over the social hierarchy of the US, and how they needed to realize that being black wasn't bad - it was actually great. In his speech, X questions "Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? To such extent to bleach, to get like the white man. Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much that you don't want to be around each other?" Although in this speech, Malcolm X is clearly using rhetorical questions about self-hate to state that white people are the cause for this self-loathing, these questions brought Black self-hate to the forefront of the black community, which was key in reaffirming the justification for civil rights movement - that Black Americans were equal.
A third famous movement, other than the harlem renaissance and the civil rights movement, the formation of the Black Panther Party, was an additional portion of African American history that led to change due to self-empowerment. The Black Panther Party was a political party formed in 1966, that aimed to empower the black community to take control of their own lives. Their ideology, similarly to Malcolm X in terms of being radical, was one of total self empowerment, where a united African American community would take charge of their own lives, and would break free of the systematic oppression of the American racial hierarchy. As described in the documentary Many Rivers to Cross, a documentary dealing with understanding the history of the black experience, the black panthers were the first movement to explicitly state that they were about self empowerment: "The panthers, some of the people they called "brothers on the block", to realize the goal defined by their black nationalist forebearers , like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X: Black self-empowerment." The Black Panther Party created their own armed community patrol in response to the ongoing mistreatment of African Americans by the government police force. This enraged much of the white community and government authorities, as it showed them that African Americans were now willing to take their own lives into their own hands. The Black Panther Party additionally had free breakfast programs and healthcare programs to assist their own communities. The significance of the rise of the Black Panther Party in the fight for racial justice was that it showed white communities that, essentially, African American individuals weren't going to deal with the crap the white Americans were giving them. They would take matters into their own hands if they needed to - it was key to get white Americans to understand this so they'd finally understand that black Americans had to be treated equally.
A fourth movement that was centered around black self-empowerment through a reformation of black culture was the black power movement, and a sub-movement arising from it, the Black is Beautiful movement. The black power movement was one in which black unity was hoped to be attained through cultural revolution. Black people were finally owning their culture, and were in a way saying "we're done with being left behind and told that we're less. We're going to take pride in our culture and we're going to be unapologetically black." An example of a new cultural event that became prominent in black culture was Kwanzaa, formed by Maulana Karenga in 1966. Kwanzaa was an African American version of Christmas, rooted in Christianity but heavily influenced by the African Americans ancestral west African culture. Karenga explained why he created the movement in this quote, "I created in to reaffirm our rootedness in our own culture, African culture. Malcolm said it: till we have a cultural revolution, we cannot break the bonds of white supremacy, because it begins first in the mind. You've got to decolonize the mind." By allowing black people to feel a sense of pride in their culture and identity, the black power movement allowed unity in the black community. A sub-movement of the black power movement was the Black is Beautiful movement, described by historian Tricia Rose as "an effort to throw the shackles of the way white supremacy constructed black bodies." Throughout American history, black Americans had been torn down for the way they looked - white people made fun of black people for their bigger lips, their noses, their hair, etc. The movement quickly permeated the American cultural mainstream, and blackness, also known as "soul", became the epitome of cool in movies, TV, and advertising., By 1969, there were black characters on 21 prime time TV shows, meaning that black and whites alike were gaining exposure to black people and their identities. A key TV show that was a result of the Black is Beautiful movement was Soul Train, hosted by Don Cornelius. It helped to spread the idea that black was beautiful, and brought black soul dancing, fashion, and more, to the forefront of American culture. For African American youth, it was revolutionary to see people like themselves on TV, as summed up in this quote from Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, "I don't say it lightly when I say for [black children], self-love was the most important topic on [Don Cornelius's] show.". This movement was significant as it actually made blackness "cool" in the mainstream American culture, which allowed for much of the racism plaguing mainstream society to go away.
In modern times, there are many examples of self-love, particularly in the black community, being celebrated and encouraged, and most importantly, being used as a medium for reformation of America's racial hierarchy. Courses at colleges are now being offered on the topic, such as Emory University's course "Power of Black Self-Love", which examines cultural expectations of how black people are expected to think and act. The #Blackgirlmagic social media movement has also been a revolution dedicated to helping black people express and feel self-love. #Blacklivesmatter is an additional movement that advocates for active self-empowerment to cause a cultural shift that's brought police brutality against African American's to the forefront of mainstream American media. As quoted by the three creators of Black Lives Matter, BLM is a movement which is "rooted in the experiences of black people in this country to actively resist our dehumanization, #Blacklivesmatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.
As someone who actively seeks to love myself and what makes me different, and features of my identity that come with negative connotations, I will continue to be unapologetic in my expression of self-love and self-empowerment.
All in all, I've realized that my practice of self-empowerment can actually have lasting consequences. The practice of being unapologetically proud of who I am, my heritage, where I come from, has been something that radically transformed America's racial atmosphere. I will continue to practice self-empowerment, have now realized that I, one individual, have the power to change society through self love, as the hundreds of thousands of brave, justice seeking African American's before me have.