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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4 thoughts on “Listening to Otis: The Necessity of Tenderness

  1. I have so many thoughts in my mind that I’m not sure how to express so at this point I will just say thank you. Thank you for introducing a new perspective that I hadn’t considered. The idea that “tenderness is what love feels like in private.” is one that has permeated my heart. Thank you. I have lots to reflect on.

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  2. Thank you, Dafinia-Lazarus. As always, you have a way with words. I had not heard (or used) the rest of the West quote before, so first, thank you for that. And, thank you for pushing me to think about the role of love in social justice work and community. My, too, religiously conservative upbringing and socialization around traditional notions/expectations of romantic relationships (even as a queer person!) often scream in my head when I think about and express love in contexts outside of romantic and immediate family relationships. Thank you for giving me some more language and new ways to think about this. I needed this right now.

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