The Book That Made Me is a series about the books that have changed our lives. In this inaugural installment, a National Book Award–winning historian considers the power (and absence) of love in America today.
- When did you first read this book?
I think I first read All About Love sometime in 2010. I had just earned my doctorate and was stepping into my career as a professor. At 28 years old, I was also stepping into a conscious understanding of who I was: I was consciously trying to understand who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to be. Every draft of myself contained the chapter of love. But after being mistreated in a series of romantic relationships with people who professed to love me, after learning an American history of mistreating people who Americans profess to love, I could not understand or even draft love. I could not understand or draft myself. I felt stuck in the quicksand of a crossroads, and felt I needed to read up on love for direction. I came across—and was forever changed by—bell hooks’s All About Love.
- What surprised you about the book? Was this reaction immediate, or delayed?
I was shocked by hooks’s conception of love not as a noun, or a strong feeling, or three words we say to another. We would “all love better if we used it as a verb,” she penned, immediately freeing me. Love is all about nurturing one’s own or another’s growth, she instructed. She solved for me the incarcerating conundrum of professed love, as well as mistreatment in society and in my personal life. That was not love. I learned that to love myself, to love people around me, to love humanity, I had to dedicate myself to nurturing myself and nurturing humanity. I decided to live a life of construction—of building a better me and a better world—a life of love. My antiracist work has since been love.
If only Americans were nurtured in antiracist ideas, then Americans would love.
- What did you misunderstand about the book? If anything, when did you realize your version of the book differed from what others read? Did this matter?
I don’t remember misunderstanding anything about the book. I only remember the book freeing me from my own misunderstanding about love, about life.
- Do you have a favorite quote from the book? Is this the same quote as when you first read it?
This quote is from the final chapter.
LOVE REDEEMS. Despite all the lovelessness that surrounds us, nothing has been able to block our longing for love, the intensity of our yearning. The understanding that love redeems appears to be a resilient aspect of the heart’s knowledge. The healing power of redemptive love lures us and calls us towards the possibility of healing. We cannot account for the presence of the heart’s knowledge. Like all great mysteries, we are all mysteriously called to love no matter the conditions of our lives, the degree of our depravity or despair. The persistence of this call gives us reason to hope. Without hope, we cannot return to love.
This was not my favorite quote when I first read it. But this quote speaks to me right now in this political moment, when so many Americans are leaping out of the car of hope. It reminds me—it should remind us all—that whenever we give up on hope, we guarantee that the United States will crash. We guarantee that the United States and the world will not reach love. I want a world, a United States of love, where black lives matter because humans love.
I recognize now, through All About Love, that Americans have an intrinsic longing to love black lives (to love all lives), even as Americans hardly love black lives (hardly love any lives, including their own). I recognize now that Americans do not love because Americans do not know how to love. Americans do not love black lives because Americans do not know how to love black lives. As I show in Stamped from the Beginning, Americans have long been surrounded by racist ideas that lead to hate and lovelessness—and not the other way around, as we are commonly taught. Instead, Americans hate because they have been nurtured from the beginning by racist ideas.
If only Americans were nurtured in antiracist ideas, then that would unleash what hooks calls the “healing power of redemptive love.” It is a line I hold dear to my heart. If only Americans were nurtured in antiracist ideas, then Americans would love.
I am not only on a mission to create an antiracist America and world. I am on a mission to create love—a mission that I drafted after reading All About Love.
- Is the book something you hide from others, display proudly, or have left behind?
I still display it proudly. I included it recently in a piece on my favorite books. My bride and I gave the book away as a gift to all of our guests at our wedding. I have taught the book in classes on social and political thought. I don’t think I will ever leave behind the book because I will never leave behind love.