“What if?” asks Valarie Kaur in her talk on Revolutionary Love. “What if the darkness in our country right now, in the world right now, is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born?”
What if, she asks, we filled our imaginations with the metaphor of birthing, if we used that metaphor to replace metaphors of war and conquest, and embraced the idea of laboring through stages of transition — even the most difficult transition — with the full force of love? Not all women go through the physical experience of labor, but not all men go through war, and yet we fully understand the idea of battling something, or soldiering on. In this moment, in particular, there’s something rich about thinking about the current challenges as inviting labor, rather than battle.
We just celebrated Labor Day, but the irony is that we don’t celebrate labor. When we’re not using the word to describe the process of childbirth, we usually associate labor with a certain kind of work — day labor, manual labor, emotional labor — that is (like childbirth) done out of necessity, rather than choice. Which explains why we devalue it — because it’s usually not done out of choice, we consider it not choiceworthy. We attach the word labor to things that we don’t want to do or wouldn’t freely choose to do. It’s no accident that it’s the word usually associated with the work of women and of other underestimated and undervalued communities.
But what if we reclaimed labor, in the sense that Valarie Kaur emphasizes — the labor of birthing, of moving through transition (the most painful part of birth, as she reminds us) — and in the sense of necessary, obligatory work? The most important work that we do as human beings is, arguably, labor understood in exactly this way: as the necessary and often painful transitional work that carries us through our most difficult but most fundamental challenges. The labor of survival. The labor of birth. The labor of love. The labor of justice.
In this way, perhaps, we can reframe the work in which we are currently engaged, this work that can feel like thankless struggle, as necessary and transformative labors, labors that we have always pushed through. The work of justice is hard and it is burdensome, but it is work that we are obligated to undertake, as a matter of both moral and (very probably) literal survival. We can push through this labor, too, and birth something new in the process.
This is not to — and should not — romanticize labor. Labor is hard. And because it is born (!) out of obligation rather than choice, its fruits are often received with ambivalence — or taken for granted. (This is why poets and thinkers and filmmakers have long arched eyebrows at Matthew 6:28 — “consider the lilies of the field… they toil not, neither do they spin” — those who do not labor often fail to recognize that it is not God who provides the stuff of our survival; it is those who do labor.) Sometimes labor produces joy, sometimes labor produces real, screaming new life, and sometimes it produces both. But sometimes labor just allows us to survive and keep being human. This, arguably, is no less worthy of celebration than the most poetic and joy-filled outcomes.
“I believe that you are the midwives in this time of great transition,” says Kaur, “tasked with birthing a new future for all of us.”
We are those midwives.
Let’s birth that future. Why are we going on about Valarie Kaur and Revolutionary Love?
Well, it’s amazing stuff, obviously, so there’s that. But the particular inspiration for this dive into Revolutionary Love came from an interview that Valarie did with Baratunde Thurston for his new podcast, How To Citizen. We had the opportunity to participate in a conversation with Baratunde about this interview and about the labor of citizenship more broadly, and it yielded this bounty of reflections, and many more that we’ll pick up in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out his podcast — and especially his interview with Valarie (the link includes resources, but more importanly, actions — scroll down past the recording to get to Baratunde’s recommended actions. And then do some.)
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