Finding Light in Shades of Black

What Elizabeth Alexander's The Light of the World taught me about love across the diaspora.

love stories

I am my mother’s daughter, and so the gentle thrill of romance has always comforted me. Romance novels—whether Young Adult or Harlequin—tucked me into bed with a whisper on the nights when I felt most isolated from the world around me. They calmed my nerves, soothed my stomach. No matter what chaos brewed outside their pages, the love stories graphed human motivations onto neat planes. The equations made sense, even if I never saw myself as a variable.

But when I first read an excerpt of Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, my heart nearly leapt out of my chest. At first blush, her words, dazzling and poetic in their cadence, seemed to paint a familiar picture: love as a destination, some rare palm that two people chase separately until one day, by some stroke of luck or good fortune, they happen upon it together:

Or it begins when I meet him, sixteen years before. That was always a good story: an actual coup de foudre, a bolt of lightning, love at first sight. I felt a visceral torque, I would tell people, a literal churn of my organs: not butterflies, not arousal; rather, a not unpleasant rotation of my innards, as never before. Lightning struck and did not curdle the cream but instead turned it to sweet, silken butter. Lightning turned sand into glass.

The rest of Alexander’s transcendent memoir magnifies the micro-reactions that compose that one moment. The result is neither perfectly linear nor altogether spontaneous; it resists graphing along neat coordinates. The Light of the World, a heartrending dedication to Alexander’s late husband Ficre Ghebreyesus, has haunted me since I first read it. The prose is stunning, the portrait of her loss all-consuming at times.

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Alexander writes of love as singularly transformative, its loss uniquely agonizing. In her prose, the alchemy of love is a process—definitive and also evolving—that changes its components as they come together. That the literal translation of her husband’s first name is “my love” in both Tigrinya—the language of his native Eritrea—and Amharic, the language of my parents’ native Ethiopia—only deepened the memoir’s effect on me.

The Light of the World, unlike all the souped-up fairy tales I’d once read, didn’t posit love as an endpoint. As I read and re-read Alexander words, I found myself struck not just by the depth of her love for her late husband, but the process of discovery that love catalyzed. The Light of the World mapped a journey I’d never seen in text: the winding, uncharted process of learning the histories that have shaped a lover who shares your hue but not your heritage. I’d read countless accounts of love across racial lines, but here was an exploration I’d never had words for.

Alexander, who was born in Harlem to American parents, writes of her Eritrean husband’s background with tenderness and curiosity. He is not an oddity, no specimen to be studied. Still, she writes of learning to say “hello” to his mother in Tigrinya, of eating injera and tsebhi, of the pain she felt hearing her husband recount memories of his own migration. These are deliberate choices, decisions to learn instead of operating on assumptions. Reading The Light of the World was the first time I understood that love could be a map across the diaspora.

Every man I’ve ever loved with the full force of my strained, hopeful heart is a child of the African diaspora. I feel most at home when I can share jokes without explanation, trade recipes without attenuating spice, unwind from the trauma of existing under a white supremacist onslaught in the arms of someone who knows all too intimately how those attacks affect us both. I love the kinks of our hair, the smoothness of our skin, the shades we inhabit. But blackness contains multitudes. The label itself is imprecise, a product of the sharp white background that is America.

When my parents met in Ethiopia’s capital, they would never have thought to consider their union an illustration of #blacklove; the designation would’ve been silly in a country whose populace most often divides itself by ethnic allegiance and class. I am their child—Ethiopia’s child—but I am also the child of a country whose histories of racial violence I inherit by the accident of my birth. My life—and my loves—have reflected that. If love and literature are both mirrors, then The Light of the World refracted my image, pointing out things I’d never thought to explore within my own heritage.

To read is to be in relationship with both author and oneself. The Light of the World taught me to apply that same diligent, scholarly inquiry to the history of those I have loved, to humble myself when asking about their experiences within realms of blackness I have not occupied. Alexander’s humor and gentleness reminded me that I didn’t need to always have the answers—I need only to be willing to ask questions, to trust that the journey is worth pursuing if I’m not wandering alone.

This is the Part 2 of our Love, Stories series. Read the others here!

Illustration: Ashley Jihye

HANNAH GIORGIS is the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants and a child of the African diaspora. She is a staff writer on the culture desk at The Atlantic, and her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The FADER, and Pitchfork.


Hannah Giorgis

HANNAH GIORGIS is the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants and a child of the African diaspora. She is a staff writer on the culture desk at The Atlantic, and her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The FADER, and Pitchfork.