Invitation to Love
BY PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR
Come when the nights are bright with stars
Or come when the moon is mellow;
Come when the sun his golden bars
Drops on the hay-field yellow.
Come in the twilight soft and gray,
Come in the night or come in the day,
Come, O love, whene’er you may,
And you are welcome, welcome.
You are sweet, O Love, dear Love,
You are soft as the nesting dove.
Come to my heart and bring it to rest
As the bird flies home to its welcome nest.
Come when my heart is full of grief
Or when my heart is merry;
Come with the falling of the leaf
Or with the redd’ning cherry.
Come when the year’s first blossom blows,
Come when the summer gleams and glows,
Come with the winter’s drifting snows,
And you are welcome, welcome.
Her name was Charmaine. With her round brown face, she looked like a candy teddy bear made from Sugar Babies.
I never knew where she lived. She always came to get me to go out and play. I always went. We always had fun. We ran the streets in North Philadelphia. Sometimes, I chased her. Sometimes, she chased me. We ran as if propelled by laughter. We laughed all the time.
And one day, we stopped running and laughing. I don’t remember why. We stood under the stairwell of an old row house that had been converted into an apartment building. Charmaine spoke in a soft and insistent voice. She told me to close my eyes. I did. She was just a little older. She told me she was about to give me a kiss. I braced myself. Then she gave me one last instruction: “Close your mouth, silly.”
I did. Then Charmaine gave me my first kiss. I was 5.
And if I saw her again, I don’t remember it. But I’ll always remember our magic moment, my closed eyes and the world of romance our sweet and fleeting kiss opened for me.
Nearly 60 years have passed, but telling that story always puts a smile on my face, just as seeing young couples running in the rain or older couples sitting and rocking always does.
Indeed, I love hearing romantic stories, especially those featuring black people, real-life stories that African-Americans star in more than they do in Hollywood movies, books or music — even those produced by black people.
And that’s too bad: When the popular culture omits black people from depictions and celebrations of romance, it dehumanizes us; it lies about who we are and how we live. Like faith, romance bolsters and redeems, heals and protects. During the 1960s, when our elders stood up to the high-powered water hoses and burning torches of hate, songs declaring black love and romantic devotion filled the jukeboxes and airwaves, a balm of Gilead rooted in hope.
Times change, but the need for black romantic love to take center stage endures.
Consequently, black America has two choices. It can bemoan our absence on the romantic stage. Or black America can take action to improve things. Among the things to do: promote writing contests where middle schoolers earn prizes for writing about the first time someone showed a romantic attraction to them and how that made them feel. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) can hold arts symposia in which black romance in pop culture is explored and celebrated. And our rich, black rappers, some involved in very public romances, can fund contests where aspiring rappers can win money and recording contracts by producing great love songs.
Rap’s contribution to pop culture has been vast and deep. But for too long, black rappers have done far too little to celebrate black romantic love or black women, who often give black romance its beauty and poetry.
That must change.
Furthermore, when African-Americans and others produce more art that’s centered on black romance, let’s patronize and promote it. It will be just as important to take our children to see movies where black couples embrace love as it will be to take them to see movies where black superheroes repel bad guys.
At holiday gatherings, let’s tell our children and grandchildren the romantic stories that are at the foundation of our families, how grandaddy met nana, how their everlasting love began.
As we close in on another Valentine’s Day, I’m reminded of something my wife told me a week ago. When it comes to romantic gestures, I have something in common with Stevie Wonder’s music career: My greatest and most enduring hits took place in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Still, this week, I plan to tell my wife of 36 years a story, one she might not have heard for a while, one she might have forgotten, but one I never will. We were young and in love. We stood at a bus stop in Philly. It was time for me to go home. We were the only two people in the world, or so it seemed. Snow fell.
I looked at her. She looked at me. One last kiss, and I began to float among the snowflakes.
I still haven’t come down.
Happy Valentine’s Day.