“What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb?”
In December 2016, activist, lawyer, and Sikh American Valarie Kaur asked the above question during a powerful speech that has since gone viral. Then, at TEDWomen 2017, she brought the audience to their feet with one of the most emotionally stirring talks I’ve ever seen: 3 Lessons of Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage. You can watch it here:
She opens with an account of her son’s birth, when her mother whispers a Sikh prayer that means, “The hot winds cannot touch you. You are brave. You are brave.”
In the years leading up to that moment, Kaur became “part of a generation of advocates” — working with communities of color to fight hate in America after September 11th.
She recalls the first person killed in a hate crime post 9/11 was her family friend, a Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi, a man she called uncle. When Kaur grieved with his widow, she asked, “What would you like to tell the people of America?” She expected blame, but her friend replied, “Tell them, ‘Thank you.’ Three thousand Americans came to my husband’s memorial. They did not know me, but they wept with me. Tell them, ‘Thank you.'”
Today, with hate crimes the highest they’ve been since 9/11, right-wing nationalist movements on the rise across the globe, and white supremacists marching in the streets, there seems to be no better time for activism, but love? Kaur insists yes — she has now come to see love as a force for social justice, and founded the Revolutionary Love Project.
Here are several moving excerpts from her speech:
I am an American civil rights activist who has labored with communities of color since September 11th, fighting unjust policies by the state and acts of hate in the street. And in our most painful moments, in the face of the fires of injustice, I have seen labors of love deliver us.
In this era of enormous rage, when the fires are burning all around us, I believe that revolutionary love is the call of our times.
Stories can create the wonder that turns strangers into sisters and brothers. This was my first lesson in revolutionary love — that stories can help us see no stranger.
When we are free from hate, we see the ones who hurt us, not as monsters, but as people who themselves are wounded, who themselves feel threatened, who don’t know what else to do with their insecurity but to hurt us, to pull the trigger, or cast the vote, or pass the policy aimed at us. But if some of us begin to wonder about them, listen to even their stories, we learn that participation in oppression comes at a cost. It cuts them off from their own capacity to love.
I have to reckon with the fact that my son is growing up in a country more dangerous for him than the one I was given. And there will be moments when I cannot protect him when he is seen as a terrorist… just as black people in America are still seen as criminal. Brown people, illegal. Queer and trans people, immoral. Indigenous people, savage. Women and girls as property. And when they fail to see our bodies as some mother’s child, it becomes easier to ban us, detain us, deport us, imprison us, sacrifice us for the illusion of security.
We love our opponents when we tend the wound in them. Tending to the wound is not healing them — only they can do that. Just tending to it allows us to see our opponents: the terrorist, the fanatic, the demagogue. They’ve been radicalized by cultures and policies that we together can change.
For too long have women and women of color been told to suppress their rage, suppress their grief in the name of love and forgiveness. But when we suppress our rage, that’s when it hardens into hate directed outward, but usually directed inward.
Our joy is an act of moral resistance. How are you protecting your joy each day? Because in joy we see even darkness with new eyes.
Revolutionary love is the choice to enter into labor — for others who do not look like us, for our opponents who hurt us, and for ourselves.
According to Kaur, love must be practiced in these last three directions in order to be revolutionary: love for others (training our eyes to look upon strangers and see them as an aunt, uncle, sister, or brother), love for our opponents (seeing the wound in the ones who hurt you), and love for ourselves (this happens when we breathe through the fire of pain and refuse to let it harden into hate.
That’s all easier said than done for most of us, but Kaur reminds us why we strive for revolutionary love.
“Love is more than a rush of feeling that happens to us if we’re lucky,” she says. “Love is sweet labor. Fierce. Bloody. Imperfect. Life-giving. A choice we make over and over again.”