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  • Writer's pictureJulie Early Sifuentes

Honoring the Legacy of Love

Updated: Jun 16, 2019

by Mariah Cissé

It was 2007, I was 25 years old and living in my home state of Alaska. I had returned the prior year from serving in the Peace Corps in Senegal, West Africa and had unexpectedly fallen in love with a man from there. El Hadji, now my husband, and I met during my first few days in Tambacounda. We became fast friends and were inseparable from the beginning. It had taken me by surprise, yet I came to realize that I wanted to spend my life with this man who had the warmest smile and most generous heart.

Reunion in the airport in New York

It was a tumultuous year for me, acclimating to being back home after such a transformative experience. I was working two jobs to save money, reestablishing myself professionally, and was both nervous and excited to start a new chapter of my life. It had taken a year to complete the in-depth process to get El Hadji’s Visa approved and the day finally came for him to fly across the world so we could start our lives together. I decided to meet him in New York City and accompany him to

Alaska since at that point he had never flown in an airplane and did not speak much English.

We arrived back to Alaska late at night, both excited to be together, yet exhausted and a bit overwhelmed by so much change. Since I had already taken time off of work to travel, I had to go into the office the very next morning. As I was driving home later that day I called him to let him know I was on my way. When I approached our house I immediately saw that it was surrounded by three or four police cars, and then I saw El Hadji in handcuffs. I got out of my car in a panic, confused as to what was going on. I soon learned that he had gone outside to wait for me to get home and a neighbor decided that he looked suspicious and called the police. He later recounted that the police pulled up to the house with their sirens blaring, pointed their guns at him while yelling commands he could not understand, and then forcefully put him in a chokehold, bringing him to his knees and securing handcuffs tightly around his wrists. He did not resist, he did not run, he was not armed. He had just been standing there waiting for his fiancé to come home from work. This was his first day in the United States of America.

This was the memory that instantly came to mind when asked to reflect on an awakening experience around racism and why it was a transformative moment in my life. It was part of a session at the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity (NCORE) in Portland, Oregon this Spring. This conference serves as the leading national forum on issues of race and ethnicity in American higher education.

As I sat there quietly surrounded by people of various backgrounds, races and experiences reflecting on this question, I thought about this experience and the awareness of my white privilege was heightened. I looked around the room filled with a diverse audience and knew that I had been blind to these injustices for much of my life. I knew that many of the people there had to deal with blatant racism, micro-aggressions and discrimination their whole lives simply because of the color of their skin. And I also knew that some of the white people in the room did not necessarily have an awakening experience around racism to share.

Before this incident with my husband and the police, I knew cognitively that racism existed, yet I was naïve and didn’t realize how deeply ingrained in our culture and systems it truly is. I didn’t understand the deep pain and trauma that comes with it, and obviously I still can’t fully comprehend the lived experience of black and brown people in this country. This happened before the shooting of unarmed black men by police officers made headlines in mainstream media. It terrifies me to imagine what might have happened if my husband had put his hand in his pocket to show the police that he had our house key in an attempt to prove that he was not breaking in. The life we have built together, our three beautiful children may have never been a reality because the man who called 911 and the police who responded decided my kind, gentle, brave husband looked like a threat.

I am not sure that the magnitude of this experience really hit either of us at that time. I think we are still processing the trauma of it to this day. It was new to both of us, me as a white woman growing up in the U.S., and him as a black man who did not grow up with the same systemic racial discrimination in Senegal. It plays into our fears of our ability to raise our beautiful multiracial children in this country. How do we prepare them for what they might experience in their lives? How do we keep them safe? How do we foster love of their heritage and confidence in themselves? It can be overwhelming, yet I will not put my blinders back on. I refuse to sink back into the comfort of my whiteness just so I can avoid the discomfort of reality.

El Hadji and Mariah - 2019

The facilitator of the session said something that stuck with me, “We win not by fighting what we hate, but by focusing on what we love.” Our story started with love and love has kept us going through all of our difficult times. I love my husband, children, family, friends and community. As I have reflected on my experiences, learned from others, and deepened my understanding I have

wondered what it would be like if we all used our love to focus on what we value to influence change. Could this be the bridge to start building consciousness in others and influencing change in our country? How can we be brave and bold in the face of racism and become more united as a society?

El Hadji and Mariah's three beautiful children.

I fully realize that I am not the first person with this thought. Love is often at the very heart of the fight for equality. Martin Luther King Jr. focused on the role of love as a key to building healthy communities and its importance of being at the center of our social interactions. During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Diane Nash coined the phrase “agapic energy” stemming from the Greek word agape, which means love of humankind. The author bell hooks wrote, “love does not bring an end to difficulties, it gives us the strength to cope with difficulties in a constructive way.” So many people before us have had the strength to continue to love through all the terrible things that they have endured. We must continue to honor and respect that legacy. As a parent I know I must teach my children that love is powerful, it takes courage and strength, and has proven to be a driving force throughout history. I believe that through our love we can and will play a part in building a more inclusive and just society.

El Hadji and I discussed the content of the post and he is supportive of me sharing this story.

The session at the National Conference for Race and Ethnicity that I referenced was titled, “Anti-Racist Work with White People for Collective Liberation,” and was facilitated by social justice educator, author and speaker, Chris Crass.

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