power, love and jo

“Practice.”

Not much else came to me as I sat in my car near the arboretum. It was a cold, rainy Monday night. The rain tapped on my windshield and all thirty one movements flooded my thoughts. It had been weeks since I had last been in practice. What would my form look like? Would I remember the motions? Jo Kata had been a collective practice until now, what would it mean for me to engage in a practice alone? Headlights hit my eyes through my rearview mirror. Fog began to cover my windows and I sat there thinking through all of the reasons why this wouldn’t be a great idea; why it just isn’t the time to begin. The car behind mine slowly moved down the road and, seeing this as my opportunity to move into the night unnoticed, I grabbed my Jo, left my gloves and set off onto the dark and damp dirt path.

***

Jo Kata is an art form which allows one to move with meaning. The Jo is the actual wooden staff used as an extension; the way I learned to be in practice with my Jo is to practice the fact that the Jo is not a weapon, but an extension of yourself. Practitioners need not be concerned about dominating or humiliating an opponent, but concentrated on how both purpose and tenderness show up in their own form. In fact, the martial art itself (influenced by Aikido) focuses on moving with love and power. It was these two concepts, love and power, that I kept coming back to that night.

A few years ago I rejected liberalism as an appropriate way to struggle with the world. My loved ones losing all they had to the Great Recession and Mass Incarceration was never placated by liberal calls for a better managed society. And I had put it in my mind, to appropriate one of the G.O.A.T.S., that no matter how bad they wanted me to be a liberal in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a liberal in fact.  With that declaration came a rejection of the Democratic Party and end to my personal pleas to a non-existent American Soul. However, I also rejected the idea and practice of vying for any power in this hellscape of a country. I had determined that power was what was done to me and my kindred. Power was cold dinerless nights. Power was the conglomerate of state and corporate entities putting all pressure on me to stop breathing. And the conglomerate never yielded. For me, power was not something to be embodied, it was something to revolt against. This was why I was attracted to Foucault after I had rejected liberal politics but also mistakenly eschewed any form of meaningful political power.

Foucault wrote with such a palpable skepticism. But one quote stood out to me the most. In a 1975 interview, Interview on the prison: the book and its method, Foucault states that “…the exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and, conversely, knowledge constantly induces effects of power.” To me this was spot on. But as I began to actually be in practice around vying for political power with incarcerated peoples and began to grasp for a more radical politics, I began to see that power cannot really be understood as a simplistic dialectic between knowledge and power. Power must also be understood to have a concrete material basis. Today I am much closer intellectually to Cornel West than Michel Foucault. In his 1985 piece titled The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual, West argues that one of the four models most contemporary Black intellectuals fall into is the Foucaultian model. This model represents what West refers to as “historical nominalism,” a critical engagement with the life of the mind that, while very interesting and stimulating, ultimately “promotes a leftist form of postmodern skepticism…” which “…encourages an intense and incessant interrogation of power-laden discourses in the service of neither restoration, reformation or revolution, but rather of revolt.” Revolt for Foucault is not revolution. Revolution is the process by which masses of people began owning and democratically controlling all aspects of their own lives. Foucault’s revolt then is predicated on a rejection of materialism and provides for a “sophisticated excuse,” as Dr. West says, “… for ideological and social distance from insurgent Black movements for liberation.” In short, Foucault was interested in the aesthetics of critical theory, not the science of historical materialism.

The Foucalutian elevation of critical consciousness over deep care and compassion struck me. I abandoned  both my absolute aversion to and rejection of power as well as my raw focus on consciousness raising in favor of a more protracted and material struggle: love.

In his 1967 speech to the 11th Annual SCLC Convention in Atlanta, Ga., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rejected the false antagonism between love and power. The quote is so dope that it is worth quoting at length.

“You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused the philosopher Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love. Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. (Yes) Power at its best [applause], power at its best is love (Yes) implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. (Speak) And this is what we must see as we move on.”

For King, the fight against oppression and for liberation, the struggle against neoliberalism and for socialism must unequivocally be grounded and rooted in love. This love has to go beyond Nietzsche’s claim that love is similar to avarice in that the goal is possession. Nietzsche is wrong  here. We must love the people, not because of selfishness and greed, but because they are worthy of all of the love in the world. Our love has to go beyond Albert Einstein’s statement that ” Where there is love, there is no imposition,” because we know that love stands for something, not merely against force. Einstein is wrong here. Love needs power to bring about justice.

This was King after he denounced U.S. imperialism at the Riverside Church. West wrote his piece during the entrenchment of the hyper right-wing politics that Reaganism embodied. I ultimately do reject Cornel West’s post-Marxist prophetic pragmatism and Dr. King’s non-Marxist religious nonviolence, absolute social integration and political wobble between democracy and Black nationalism. However, both West and King call for a loving power and a powerful love. This is indispensable.

***

My new shoes were sunken in mud, and my toes were cold and wet. Yet I was determined. I took a deep breath. I extended into my length to embody dignity. I extended into my width to embody the longing  I have for meaningful relationships and beloved communities. I extended into my depth to feel into the beautiful Black radical tradition that has so graciously been bequeathed to us all.

I speak my commitment. My purpose.

“I am a commitment to moving bone deep towards Black Emancipation.”

I begin.

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