Love and “Because I Love You”

I don’t hide my affinity for Lenny Williams iconic 1978 love song, “Because I Love You.”  It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t born until a decade later, songs like this touch me when I hear them because he has sung his soul into this song.  Hearing it and thinking about past loves, conversations I’ve had with many people about their love lives, and the nature of love itself just gives me chills.  As the song progresses, he’s just totally wrapped up in the experience of loving someone and just how profound an impact it can have on a person’s life.  Lenny is not the same Lenny when the song ends.

When I was in high school and had learned to drive, I remember making a CD with this song as the first one on there because even then, at the feeble age of 16, I might not have experienced romantic love but I knew that whatever he was feeling, that’s the effect of romantic love on you.  When he had it, he was on top of the world.  When he lost it, he said he “watched television until television turned off.”  When I first heard the line, I thought it was totally metaphorical – that he was so distraught and heartbroken that he watched TV as an escape until there just wasn’t anything left to watch.  A friend of mine told me that in the past, TV would just end at night because there was no programming scheduled.  I quickly remembered these moments from my youth, and that put another spin on the line – he just sat there until TV went off.  The downside of love, I suppose.

The upside?  Check out the last bit of the song.  The help that he got from the new love pulls him up from his bootstraps and leads him into a bright future.  At the very least, he knows that he loves this woman and will love her.  He seems pretty sure of it since he does sing multiple times, “I’m gon love ya!”

I can’t think of many other songs that have really made a deep impact on me like that.  He’s got a resolve about relationships that wills him through the entire song.  Meanwhile, he’s singing his life into the song about the woman he loves, all the while still acquiescing to fate (“If it’s in God’s will”) and hoping for the best…because he loves her.

I’ve written a few times here about love, but never about its transformational power.  Like I said, Lenny isn’t the same Lenny when the song ends.  His love experiences have really changed him by far.  And I don’t know what to make of it.  I can think back to my own love experiences and how different I was during them and how different I am now because of them.  There’s something certainly that changes about you when you love somebody.  I don’t want to just say behaviors change because that’s only how we can recognize if something has changed.  I doubt most would want to say that love is only noticeable in one’s behaviors (though that’s a pretty interesting stance), but I’m not even willing to hazard a guess about what changes.  Something definitely does though.

That CD I mentioned above?  I left it in the CD player in the car once, and my mom drove the car, and heard the CD.  She thought I was in love with somebody because I was playing the song.  Truthfully, I wasn’t, but it might have been the first time I’d been introduced to loving someone via a song.  He sings his damn heart out.

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What It Means to Be A Black Philosopher

It doesn’t mean many good things, not immediately at least.  It means the same men you study openly hated your kind for most of the history of philosophy (especially once you get into the modern period – Hume and Kant, famously).  It means there are colleagues in departments all across the country who cannot understand race in America and yet study it in order to be able to put it on their vitae because race is the newest hot topic in philosophy.  And you watch them do this, all the while when you read this work on race and notice just how bleak it’s been for so long, how far the wool has been pulled over our eyes in many ways, and you feel that wrench in your gut about how difficult it’s been made to be Black in any form…the colleagues cannot even comprehend what they read, just try to get down the arguments made.

A Black philosopher friend of mine told me that she was talking to a white male colleague of hers in her department who has been  increasingly studying race and philosophy.  He had told her that he didn’t understand institutional racism, even though he’s read about, studied it, believes it exists, but he just doesn’t understand what it is.  For all of his studying, he couldn’t comprehend institutional racism.  He just could not understand it.  In a few years, he’ll be teaching a class on this very topic, which has many more real ramifications than not understanding Hegel’s phenomenology of right (another famous racist in the history of philosophy), and it leads me to two disturbing questions: If this man, somebody who actively studies about this stuff and who is likely fairly intelligent, cannot understand institutional racism, what does this mean for most white people?  And if he can’t get it now, what hope does his future students have to grapple with this stuff (assuming he’s teaching at a mostly white institution)?

On the first question, I know this might be a tough generalization, but this is like somebody studying to be a scientist but doesn’t understand how to use a Bunsen burner.  Institutional racism and its resulting social, political, and even phenomenological effects are a core part of the intersection of race and philosophy, and my friend knows that he’s read this material and written on it.  Again, if he “knows” this stuff, but doesn’t understand it, what in the world kind of hope should I have for most white people?

I recognize this looks off topic, but these are the kinds of questions that go through a Black philosopher’s mind.  When I hear stories like this from my Black colleagues, these questions pop up.  For our other colleagues, I just don’t think these questions would naturally come to them.  And it’s no fault of their own – being Black is part of my life, not theirs.  By the way, hearing these stories, stories about the racism in departments where the Black students are ridden harder than the white students, the white students talking shit behind your backs (and then not finding out that we find out), the general dismissal of Black students by professors, and in a few departments there are known racists who Black students essentially have to deal with – which means being intellectually insulted, metaphysically ignored, and demeaned, not as a student, but as a Black student.

We have to support each other because we all know the same battle – there are plenty of philosophers around who don’t think you’re capable of doing philosophy because you’re Black, and think the same of other Black philosophers (I have heard a story of a professor telling a Black graduate student that Frederick Douglass wasn’t a philosopher.  Are you kidding me?!  The Black student was also stunned, and then explained how there’s plenty of philosophical material within Douglass’ writings, from the political situation of African-Americans to the lived experience of having been a slave, which shut the professor up.  That the student even had to go through that is exactly what I mean).  There are plenty of colleagues who question your ability to do high quality philosophy because you’re Black.  There are plenty of professors and colleagues who don’t want to deal with the question of race because they’ll have to deal with their own…predilections.  Amidst all of this, you have to perform.  And of course, perform well.

It means that events like the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers has to happen because they need to support one another to get through this process.  Professionals and graduate students come together there, sharing stories and offering support and doing philosophical work the entire time.  That these women opted to band together speaks volumes about the sort of isolation many of them have to work in.

To this point, it appears pretty rough to be a Black philosopher.  Seems like nobody gives a damn about you except for your fellow Black philosophers.  Truth be told, sometimes it does feel just like that.  Other times, it might feel like nobody gives a damn about you.  I don’t just mean in the personal sense, but also in the professional sense.  I suppose the hidden caveat about all of this is that those of us who make it through the turbulence of graduate school and achieve their Ph.D’s generally find employment.  They go get jobs.  Black philosophy Ph.D’s are so rare that when one comes up from a half-decent department, expect him/her to get a job.  Just one Black philosopher in a department represents ethnic diversity in a department.

While on the subject of diversity, I earlier mentioned the Black woman philosopher’s experience.  I’ve had conversations with some people on this matter, and a few (white) women would mention that it’s also difficult to be a woman in philosophy, with the sexism, likely unreported sexual harassment (and trust me, after my TA training and learning just how wide the scope is to even accidentally sexually harass, it’s likely), the mistreatment of gender studies, feminism, and even female philosophers being introduced to the canon, amongst plenty of other issues.  I’m not downplaying the struggles of being a woman in philosophy.  I’m only highlighting the issues Blacks in philosophy face.

Are there positives to being a Black philosopher?  It’s kind of like the positives of being Black in America.  Can someone name some of those?