Listening to Otis: The Necessity of Tenderness

[Written April 15, 2015]

A few days (or maybe several days) ago, my Twitter timeline included a post (deep apologies for no longer remembering who it was by) that referenced a quote from Dr. Cornel West: “…tenderness is what love feels like in private…” It moved me that day and must have inched its way down into my soul because it rose back up into my consciousness earlier this afternoon.

I meditated on that word, tenderness, until snatches of a song rose up in my soul as well…

It was the right time for me to listen to Otis Redding today. I played the song twice, let the chorus loop on repeat in my mind for quite some time. “Try a little tenderness…!”  The urgency of his voice makes it clear that this is a command, a demand even, not a wistful suggestion. I had been thinking about community and kinship when West’s quote rose up in my spirit today. In fact, community and kinship have been recurring themes that Z Nicolazzo and I have been exploring together of late. I wanted to dig deeper into this notion of how tenderness and kinship might be related, so I found the context for Cornel West’s quote in this essay, “A Love Supreme.” In talking about how we might fully engage the promise and possibilities of the Occupy Movement in 2011, Dr. West wrote the following:

We must recast old notions of empire, class, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and nature into new ways of thinking and being. Our movement is a precious, sublime, messy and funky form of incubation. Again like jazz, we must embody and enact a loving embrace of the art of our collaborative creations. We must embody a universal embrace of all those in the human family, and sentient beings, and consolidate an unstoppable fortitude in the face of systems of oppression and structures of domination. We will suffer, shudder and struggle together with smiles on our faces and a love supreme in our souls. Just as justice is what love looks like in public and tenderness is what love feels like in private, deep democratic revolution is what justice looks like in practice. (para. 3, emphasis added)

I have seen the first third of that last sentence a great deal, the second third only a couple of times, and I have never seen that last phrase quoted by others at all. I think it’s easy for those of us invested in social justice to focus on that first phrase. We are eager, thirsty, for justice. We want self-identified allies to show their love in tangible ways. Justice makes love tangible. Justice enacts human dignity. Justice brings transformation.

However, it’s that second phrase that has been rooting itself deep in my loins (as in the seat of physical strength and generative power) since I saw that tweet several days ago. Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

As a member of multiple marginalized communities, I notice that I expend a lot of energy external to those communities. Energy that is swallowed up in protesting, in education, in ranting, in recovery and healing. It is far easier I have noticed to use our community gathering time to vent and strategize and waste away in our exhaustion with struggle. After all, it is often other marginalized people who actually understand why we are so worn out and exhausted, angry and hurt. We can share without undue explanation, receive validation and support.

That validation and support is critical. However, moving beyond validation and support to building each other up through love’s tender embrace is also fundamental to healing and wholeness.  I appreciate that West’s essay here is inward-facing. He is addressing those within the movement, not those who are the objects of the movement’s resistance. We must carefully consider how we will be with and for each other in order to truly realize the radical vision of a “deep democratic revolution in practice.”

Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

Within communities of marginalized and oppressed people, we are well-acquainted with all the ways in which we are unlovable, ugly, and generally considered to be less than. Our mis-education, as Carter G. Woodson opined in 1935, has been thorough. As Reina Gossett shared in her interview with Rheem Brooks for Bluestockings Magazine, living out an abolitionist movement is not necessarily an action, but rather the persistent engagement in a “deep process of unlearning or learning again.” I strongly believe that this is why we need to consciously and doggedly practice tenderness among ourselves, in our private affinity spaces and community gatherings. Within the spaces we create with and for each other as marginalized and oppressed peoples, tenderness should be, must be the primary agenda.

When I think of tenderness, I am reminded of the careful, gentle touch of lovers, of a parent toward a child, of a child toward their aging parent. Tenderness is the soft touch, the sweet kiss that stirs the soul before it is felt upon the skin. Tenderness is the tone of voice that calls the name of its beloved and instantly brings calm. Tenderness is the hand held without a word needing to be spoken. Tenderness is holding close in the dark with just breath between bodies warm from shared energy. Tenderness. The gentle panting of a heaving chest that finally feels at home, loved, at peace. Tenderness has emotive power and is fierce in its quietness. It is no mistake that West chose the verb “feels” instead of “looks” when he talked about tenderness. Tenderness provokes an emotional response.

Tenderness is not for public consumption.

Contrary to what you might be envisioning now, I am not talking about sexual romance. I am talking about love as action, as imparted. How do we act out such a tenderness for and among ourselves within the private spaces of our marginalized communities?

I just said I wasn’t talking about sexual romance, but maybe I am talking about a different type of sexuality. Maybe it’s a sexuality that is not restricted to and which subsumes sexual romance. Perhaps, this is a communal sexuality focused on deep emotional intimacy and mutual valuing and investment. And despite our society’s religiously-informed body- and sex-shaming (condemnations of the flesh as inherently sinful), touch is also a part of showing tenderness to other people. I think touch is one of the first things that is withdrawn from bodies deemed undesirable. They are marked as untouchables. The experience of tenderness ought to be multisensory: seen, heard, felt – visual, aural, and tactile – and even smelled and tasted (I am remembering now the tenderness given and received in a loaf of home-baked bread). For crying out loud, touch each other with tenderness – because ours may be the only arms left to hold our socially unmentionable, publicly undesirable bodies.

Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

In as much as sexuality is multifaceted (emotional, romantic, and sexual), the communal sexuality that I am proposing is also multifaceted — it is epistemic, affective, and behavioral.

[My sexually conservative religious upbringing is screaming in my head, but I am going to press on.]

Thinking, feeling, and acting toward each other with tenderness within and across our multiple marginalities is fundamental to the unlearning and new learning that Gossett recommends. As Nicolazzo has written in an earlier blog post, we must practice a collective love (citing Lani Guinier). We cannot always simply love ourselves without being shown that love within and from our communities. In fact, I would argue that an intersectional ethic requires a commitment to a political (as opposed to a romantic/relational) polyamory*, in which marginalized people are able to practice this communal sexuality within and across multiple marginalities for the purposes of deep democratic revolution beginning from within.

So, listen to Otis. Let’s try a little tenderness.

*I am grateful to my doctoral student, Liane Ortis, whose dissertation study of polyamory in college environments is teaching me a great deal about polyamory and has reshaped my thinking.

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An Up-Close View from the Middle at 30,000 Feet

They are already coming from my daughter. “They” being colleges and universities. Ever since the results of her PSAT scores came in last fall, my child’s email inbox has been filled with another imploring note from institutions far and near, of all stripes and pedigrees.  They are asking this soon-to-be-but-not-yet sixteen year old high school sophomore to consider their institution as the place where she should seek to spend the next 4 years of her life after high school. Many of these institutions also email me in hopes that I will use my parental influence to sway her decision (they do realize she’s a teenager, right?).

This is my only child. I get one experience with being on the parental end of the college search process. Since I was my mother’s only child, I also only had one view of this from the prospective student’s point of view as well. There was no older sibling to watch first. My mother, the next to last child and youngest girl, did not have the opportunity to complete college, attending only one semester at Hunter College before having to prematurely end her college education to stay home and help her widowed mother take care of her younger brother, who had both physical and psychiatric disabilities. My father, though possessing both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from North Carolina public universities, was not really part of my life at the time and I had no access to his knowledge about higher education. I had been helping to fill out our family’s FAFSA forms since I was in high school due to the opportunity extended to me to attend a private, independent all-girls Catholic high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (I was born and raised in Harlem, north of Central Park, in the same burrough of New York City). I was a first-gen college student; one of the “privileged poor” as Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack, a researcher featured in this NYT article on first-gen students at elite colleges, names those first-gen students who attend private schools and therefore have a chance to get somewhat used to the massive class differences evident at elite institutions.

Although I am told not to worry about where my child will go to college, I am concerned because I know that as a young adult perceived to be an African American woman, she will be judged in the context of this White cishetpatriarchal society as inferior, less than, a collection of deficits to be overcome – despite her class schedule being filled with honors classes and maintaining an over 4.0 GPA. So, for my child, and others like her, it does matter where she goes, what institution’s name is listed on her resume as the place where she received her bachelor’s education. To deny that this does matter for some students and their families considering college is to accept the myth of meritocracy and deny the reality of systemic bias that continues to confront graduates from minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and small, regional public colleges. Yes, the conclusions drawn by Pascarella and Terenzini (How College Affects Students, 2005) based on the weight of hundreds of research studies suggest that the biggest differences lie between students in different educational programs (e.g., honors colleges, living-learning communities, summer bridge programs, etc.) at the same institution instead of between students in comparable educational programs at different institutions.

And yet, hiring managers and graduate school admissions committees don’t think of that research when they make assumptions about the quality of education at Spelman versus that at Mount Holyoke, or a graduate whose undergraduate career began at Terra State Community College versus the one whose college years were all spent at The Ohio State University’s main campus in Columbus.

So, I want to help my daughter, who I’ll refer to as “M” to preserve her confidentiality, to make the best decision for her and encourage her not to “undermatch” (see the NYT article linked above) based on false perceptions of her competence and ability to succeed.

I was a first-gen college student, but my daughter is not. M is the child of 3 parents across two households who possess 3 bachelor’s degrees and 4 advanced graduate degrees among them. I am an associate professor with tenure in a doctoral-level research institution teaching, of all ironies, in a higher education and student affairs department. Going to college is not just where I go to work, it is my work. More than anyone, I should know all the ins-and-outs of college admissions, all the tips and tricks for getting M’s application noticed, have all the access to the test prep strategies and essay writing tutors that my educational station and social class privilege should afford, right? Right? Wrong.

Yes, I do know a lot more about navigating college than my mom did when I was in high school. I have attained no small amount of cultural and social capital due to my education and profession. However, I am still wide-eyed and overwhelmed in much the same ways as I was when I was on the threshold of 16 and beginning to consider where I would go to college. The problem with that is that no one expects me to feel that way. M – who has been on college campuses since she was literally in the womb – and I have an up-close view of college life from the middle, stuck in the DMZ between first-gen status and the privileges accruing to generations of college legacies. I can step out from that place and look at all this happening from 30,000 feet in the air, with the benefit of a command of the college access and choice scholarship. But this is my kid. My only child. My only chance to do this well. Yes, we have a village and thank goodness for it – the same village that appeared when I was 16 is the same village (not the same people but the same presence of support and capacity) that will help M to enter this familiar-unfamiliarity on her own terms.

As I become the parent of a matriculating college student, I’ll continue to share this unique up-close view of the middle from 30,000 feet up. I hope you’ll join me at #MsCollegeSearch.