It was the summer of 2016 in Baton Rouge and the month of July felt like the longest eulogy for my hometown. But, it didn’t begin that way. The first weekend of July 2016 found me and my wife taking our annual trip 80 miles east to New Orleans for the Essence Festival. And after a weekend of enjoying some of music’s best talent, indulging in amazing food and absorbing the beautiful mosaic of Blackness that is Essence Fest, I was ready to get back to my job as a teaching artist, assisting a group of young poets who were preparing for a large international youth poetry slam festival in Washington, D.C.
Then, in the wee hours of that July 5th, my hometown was transformed in an instant when Alton Sterling was shot to death by two Baton Rouge police officers. The shooting, caught on camera, rapidly spread throughout local, national and international news outlets. And after years of using my public platform as a poet, writer and community organizer to speak against injustices around the nation, suddenly a grave injustice of global impact was in my own backyard.
My wife, who was an editor of a newspaper in a neighboring parish at the time and a seasoned journalist, was more or less stifled in what she could opine publicly, but was well aware that I would be vocal, vigilant and completely engrossed with what was happening in my city in response to the shooting. There were times she reminded me to eat when my eyes were glued to social media accounts. Times when she intercepted messages coming from family members who were concerned about dangers my public advocacy might bring. Times when she sternly and fearfully told me to be careful when heading to a rally or community meeting in response to the incident. At the time we were seven years married and ten years together. And though she had resided as the primary occupant of my heart, in that moment of civil unrest in the only city I ever held a permanent address in, my heart was split between the love at home that sustained me, and the love and care of a city that raised me and was in desperate need of all engaged voices to help it navigate a horrendous moment and other traumas the immediate future would bring.
I can only imagine the divided heart conflict I experienced to be miniscule in relation to the agents of change who spend a lion share of their waking hours walking the tightrope between the love of a partner and the love of community. Revolution theory suggests that at the core of social change is an unyielding love that drives it. But what does it mean for a leader of a movement when the person they dedicate their life to finds themselves in a position of compromise? What’s the endgame for the change agent who is trying to find a way to equitably distribute passion between the center of their world while also centering the concerns of a world that requires their fight? What does it mean for children born of a loving parent who may end up burying the same person that is trying to cultivate a better future on their behalf? And how heavy is the burden of the parent engaged in social change when the reality that the same world they are trying to better for their family, may be the same world that permanently separates them from their loved ones?
History has proven this all to be a delicate dance that has found lovers of beloved (and vilified) change agents subjected to isolation and loneliness they did not sign up for, or in worst case scenarios, grieving a stolen life. History has also shown us that many of the greatest love stories were accented by adjoining hearts that mutually prioritized the greater good of humanity, and struggled together for the advancement of their people. It is not possible for one to earnestly love their community without loving their partner fully. Because to earnestly love the community is to desire for it to be the beneficiary of the most this world has to offer and a romantic partner is a member of that beloved community.
They are, in fact, the most beloved member.
About the Author
Donney Rose is a poet, educator, essayist and Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow from Baton Rouge, La..