Self-love: a term that we love to throw around that is defined as regard for one’s own well-being and happiness.
Or as Aunty Audre calls it: an act of self-preservation.
While there are millions of examples of black women and men who have modeled self-love that we can all benefit from, when reflecting on the actions of one of my former student’s, Muhammad Ali and (pre-breakdown) Kanye West came to mind. These two celebrities have given us a front row seat to lessons in self-love and how society responds to it when it comes from black men and women. They have both been recognized as the greats in their respective industries. They have trained, trail-blazed and transcended art forms before our eyes all while disrupting any perception of a subordinate black man that the world may still have.
“I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want.” -Ali
My former 2nd grade student, who we will call Derek, is nowhere near subordinate. He had behavior issues due to problems outside of school as well as the school’s ‘zero-tolerance’ discipline policy. I will not deny that he could be a hyperactive, silly, smart aleck but he is also a smart, caring and determined young man. Overtime his behavior improved immensely, but when being punished by other teachers for age-appropriate behavior, instead of showing self-doubt, his self-love (perceived as cockiness) shined through.
Teacher: “Derek, stop talking.”
Derek: “I’m just asking her how to spell broccoli.”
Teacher: “Sound it out and stop talking.”
Derek: “But miss, you’re my teacher, I can’t spell everything, you won’t help me and if I get it you still gunna be mad and mark me wrong.”
*Color change to red, meaning third offense for that day, no recess*
Derek: “I don’t care, I still need to know how to spell the word. You can take away my recess. I’ll play when I get home. I don’t care. Y’all don’t ever let us talk or move but expect us to learn like c’mon we’re kids.”
Or when he had to sit out “choice time” the replacement for recess, for being too loud and proceeded to laugh about it and found something to play with at his desk, completely unbothered.
“I refuse to accept other people’s ideas of happiness for me, as if there’s a ‘one size fits all’ standard for happiness.” -Kanye
Why do you think he found it necessary to exhibit that immense self-love in those moments? Likely because he was not getting the love and respect he needed from adults hurling directions all day, but he’s built to survive so he looked within. Meanwhile his teacher took away an educational opportunity and chose power over purpose. Well, that teacher is essentially the society that we live in, and Derek is every black person that loves her/himself a little bit too much for society’s tolerance level.
"I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky, my name not yours. My religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me." -Ali
A tolerance level high enough for your blood, sweat and tears to build the nation, but too sensitive for these external displays of self-love aka arrogance aka conceit aka the nerve of this black man to love the hell out of himself in a world that refuses to acknowledge his sheer humanity.
The nerve of a man to declare himself the best before the world did.
The nerve of a man to refuse to protect a country that is not protecting him.
The nerve of him to call you out on not cleaning up your house before you go and try to clean up someone else’s, not stopping oppression on your soil before you go play savior somewhere else.
The nerve of a man to deviate from our “go to college” mantra by dropping out, following his dreams, still becoming successful and being fully aware of his greatness.
The nerve of a 7-year-old boy to call out classroom rules that don’t meet his needs without concern for consequences.
The nerve of a man to speak his unperturbed mind.
How dare he not let the world interfere with his goals and perceptions of self?
The alternative here is timidity and fear, which does nothing for us as a people. That is exactly why our preservation in the midst of these conditions that aim to create the aforementioned traits is crucial. That is exactly why so many have laughed, smiled, swung, sung, rapped, educated, delegated in the face of oppression and done so without blinking an eye.
Don’t get me wrong now, I’m about as introvertedly confident as they come. I love myself thoroughly without announcing it to the world and I also feel the pangs of annoyance when folks feel the need to do the most with their external affirmations, but that’s why we’re having this conversation. What qualifies as the most? What is the fine line between doing the most and loving self? Who decides that? Clearly, I don’t but I tend to boil it down to substance. Is this your regular reminder of your dopeness after knocking out another goal or obstacle or is it simply a means of attention and likes, trying to land yourself a spot on the next series of Love and Hip Hop? The latter doesn’t do us any good as individuals or as a community.
My student’s natural reaction to his situation was one that validated himself at any cost because without that he could not flourish. Instinct. This is the same survival instinct Kanye West showed after the loss of his mother, the same as Ali’s reaction to the government’s attempt to draft him…and we only know the publicized aspects of their stories. I’m sure there are plenty more events in their personal lives that summon this immense self-love.
“People always tell you ‘be humble, be humble.’ When was the last time someone told you to be amazing? Be great, be great! Be awesome, be awesome!” -Kanye West
We are the unrecognizable America, but through our affirmations of love for self and community we come to recognize ourselves. We come to celebrate ourselves. We come to own ourselves. Not at the cost of humility because it’s a hell of a trait, but through a realistic assessment of our very own greatness... because it’s not just limited to Ali and Kanye.
Like Ali said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
By: Naa-Shorme, Creator of Write to Live