by We Are Sikhs — August 20, 2020
"America is a nation that is still waiting to be born. It is a nation whose promise lies in its future."
Valarie Kaur is a lawyer, filmmaker, activist, mother, and author of the new book See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. She joined the Sikh Meets World podcast to discuss current events, her new book, and the revolutionary love project.
The following interview occurred between Valarie Kaur and the National Sikh Campaign co-founders Gurwin Singh Ahuja and Shawn Singh Ghuman.
This post has been edited down for brevity. The full podcast episode is available below.
SG: We just watched your famous Watch Night Speech which was given shortly after Trump’s election. You said that America may be in a womb instead of a tomb, and this is our time of transition. It’s been almost 4 years now. How far along are we in our transition and have we made any progress since that speech?
VK: Every single day, I have asked myself the question, “is this the darkness of the tomb or the darkness of the womb?” The answer that arises in me now is that it is both.
When 135,000 people have been killed by a virus whose scale and scope was preventable and we see people continuing to die from hate violence, and state violence, and police killings in a culture of white supremacy it feels like the darkness of the tomb. There are times where I feel like I could taste ash in my mouth.
The story that we have been telling ourselves about America is dying. We are waking up to the reality that white supremacist violence helped found the country and runs all the way through. This president is not an aberration. He is a continuation of what we just couldn’t see before.
SG: Your family has been in America for more than 100 years. Can you share with our listeners, your American story and how your life in America has shaped your activism today?
VK: My grandfather settled in Clovis more than a century ago. He gave us a deep connection to the land. I felt my deep roots in California and in American history.
My Dadaji (paternal grandfather) survived the Spanish Flu and decades of racist laws. He survived that, in my mind, so that we could live free.
But, that is the lie about the America that we thought we were living in. The lie is that America is already the land that we dream it to be. America is a nation that is still waiting to be born. It is a nation whose promise lies in its future.
It wasn’t until I was 20 years old, a college student, and September 11th happened. Acts of hate violence broke out on streets across America. That was the first time the story began to shatter in my mind; and it has certainly shattered since 2016 when this president took power.
But there are moments when I believe that we are in a revolutionary moment. We have millions of people flooding the streets, like never before. In our grief, in our rage, we are rising up for black lives and racial justice. We have never seen this before in the course of human history. A global uprising in solidarity for black lives and social justice.
GA: When I read the book, what struck me is how close you were with your grandfather. Could you articulate how some of his teachings continue to guide you in your life?
VK: I feel like if there is such a thing as ancestral trauma or intergenerational trauma then there’s got to be such a thing as ancestral wisdom or intergenerational resilience and bravery. And we, as Sikhs, have inherited the bravery of our ancestors, of all of our papajis (grandfathers) and mamajis (grandmothers).
My earliest memories are these from See No Stranger:
“At night Papaji would tuck me into bed with his hand on my forehead, stroking my hair. He recited his favorite shabad Tati Vao Na Lagi (The hot winds cannot hurt you)...And Papaji would always tell me his stories. He had worlds of stories in him, ancient stories he would bequeath to me in slivers. Stories of gurus and saints, warriors and poets, soldiers and farmers and these stories formed the long shimmering history that spans centuries from India to America and ended with me. “Waheguru, Waheguru,” Papaji would say. It was our word for God but he would say it throughout the day like it was a deep breath. "Wahe" is an expression of awe and, "guru" is the light that dispels darkness. So even God’s name was an expression of wonder at the divine around us.”
Papaji died a decade ago, but all of these years later Papaji’s prayer fills my lips. It returns me to the sense of Chardi Kala and that we are more than just who we are, we are our ancestors greatest dream for us. We can feel them now. I think that’s what can make us, the Sikhs, and anyone that can draw upon that strength so brave in this moment.
Papaji also would say, “Love is dangerous business. In America we say ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ all talk. No action. Love is about action.” and he was teaching me what Guru Nanak said, “If you want to play the game of love with me, come forth with your head on your palm.”
This is not some kind of soft mushy, feel good love. This is risky because if I believe in oneness, Ek Onkar, then I am committed to looking upon the face of everyone around me and saying, “you are a part of me I do not yet know.” If I see you as my brother then I must be willing to let your grief into my heart and I must be willing to fight for you when you are in harm's way.
That’s why we became Sant Sipahi, sage warriors. The warrior fights, the sage loves. I call it a path of revolutionary love. I believe that what our gurus called us to do is to practice that kind of love for everybody.
Think about all the black people, the brown people, the indiginous people in harm's way right now. What does it mean to love them with that kind of ferocity? What does it mean to fight even our opponents with love and refuse to let anyone make us hate them? What does it mean to love ourselves? We too often neglect taking care of our own bodies as if they were our own precious babies.
Loving others, opponents, and ourselves. That’s what I call the practices of revolutionary love. Sikhi gives us the vision for how to do it.
When I was a kid I loved the story of Mai Bhago. In the 1700s there was a great battle, 40 soldiers abandoned their post, they returned to a village. A village woman turns to them and says “No, you will not abandon your post. You will return the fire, you will return to the battle field, and I will lead you.” She dons a turban and she mounts a horse and with a sword in her hand and fire in her eyes she leads them where no one else will. She becomes the one she is waiting for.
Papaji would tell me that story every time I would feel like giving up.
GA: How can we draw on some of the things that you are talking about? I think a lot of folks are going to struggle with how to even begin practicing this revolutionary love.
VK: I remember the day of the memorial in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In the wake of that horrific mass shooting in a Sikh Gurdwara at the hand of a white supremacist. I had spent my entire adult life trying to prevent an Oak Creek, along with a generation of advocates. I saw Amar Bhalla, as I was coming back from seeing the caskets, and I just lost it. He caught me and we just wept together. I asked him, “What was it all for, if not to prevent this slaughter?” He looked at me and he said, “We may not live to see the fruits of our labor in our lifetime. But our task is to keep showing up and to keep laboring and to be faithful to the labor.”
I believe that hope is a feeling that waxes and wanes. It is like the moon, I know it is there but I can’t always see it. On those nights I think about what Chardi Kala really means and what I saw in Oak Creek.
SG: Our motto at the National Sikh Campaign is to call people in and not call them out. Our Funny or Die video in many ways was a commentary on that overt political correctness that really can be problematic. What do you make of these debates regarding social movements and whether they can be inclusive to people who are just not necessarily plugged in to that jargon, who are trying to be better but don’t know necessarily what to ask?
VK: I think, especially among progressives, that it’s not always a welcoming place for people that have sincere questions and earnest desires to try and stand up for justice in more meaningful ways. I think that we can do a better job of not demanding perfection, but accountability.
When Dr. King talked about the beloved community it was not free of conflict. We can still wrestle with each other and disagree with each other and hold fast to our principles. I think if we anchor our discourse in the ethics of love we will be able to see that lived out more and more.
GA: I would love to get your sense of how you came to that realization of revolutionary love and why you think it's so effective.
VK: When Guru Nanak said, “I see no stranger.” He expanded the circle of who counts as part of our human family to not leave any one of us out. That was the revolutionary path that he called us on and it's an ancient path. It echoes down to us on the lips of indigenous leaders, spiritual teachers, and social formers through the centuries. Guru Nanak called us to see no stranger, Buddha to practice compassion for all, Jesus to love our neighbor, Mohammed to take in the orphan, Mirabai to love without limit. They all expanded the circle of who counts as one of us and therefore who was worthy of our care and concern.
This is a difficult thing to practice. To love beyond what evolution requires. It has always been a hard thing to ask people to do. I am so inspired to see our generation of Sikh Americans really living into this in ways that I have never seen before. We are showing America what it looks like to dedicate your life to love. I think that if we can model it and share it and inspire it and embolden it we won’t only be birthing the nation that longs to be born, we will also be liberating the Sikh community.
SG: What do we do today, here and now, to go forward and improve this country as Sikh Americans or as all Americans?
VK: We show up. We show up no matter how tired we are, how restless we are, how overwhelming it feels, how hopeless we may feel. Take time to rest and sleep and drink water. You have to take care and stay healthy and find a way to show up for all the people who are suffering right now.
They need us to show up for them and our Gurus also gave us the tools for how. We have a kirpan (sword). My modern day kirpan is my pen. What is my dhal (shield)? My shield is my camera, my shield is my law degree. Who is your sangat? We don’t go into battle alone. You, my brothers, are my sangat. I battle alongside my Sikh sisters and brothers and siblings and other advocates who help me breathe and push and stay in the labor and turn back like Mai Bhago did when I want to desert. What is your dilruba? One of my favorite stories is a legend about Guru Gobind Singh designing the dilruba, a Sikh instrument, small enough for his soldiers to wear on their backs so that they could play and sing the shabads before they went into battle. What returns you to Chardi Kala?
Those four things: what is your kirpan(sword)? What is your dhal(shield)? Who is your sangat(community)? What is your dilruba that can help you stay in the labor?
Every single one of us has a role in the labor of revolutionary love. When guru called us to a path of love and justice it was not just something to hold up here as a belief. Sikhi, it is not Sikhism it is Sikhi. It is not a belief to hold, it is a way of being in the world. It is spontaneous and it is organic and it is an orientation to life that is political and its personal. It is everything. It is a way of moving through the world and so we as sikhs, I think, are poised to live even more deeply into those teachings because right now the world needs us to.
GA: What is your advice to young sikhs who want to become the next Valarie Kaur?
VK: Don’t become the next Valarie Kaur. Become the bravest version of you. Because that is what the world needs. You have an unmistakable magic that only you can offer the world and no one else can.
I think my life has been a struggle in my mind between two voices and I want to call one of them the "little critic" which is the ego that is scared. It is that voice that was in me since I was a kid, that would tell me that I was not good enough to do all the things that I wanted to do so I had better get small. That voice has been in my head since the first racial slur I ever heard when I was a kid.
It has been a power struggle between that voice and the voice that came when Papaji said, “don’t abandon you post.” I was a little girl with two long braids, but he saw me as a warrior and that power that he projected into me gave rise to what I think was the wise woman; the warrior woman in me.
I want to tell every young person, every Sikh out there who feels that struggle inside of them, Oh, my love, you are brave enough to do this. You are brave enough to show up, and all you have to be is brave enough.
SG: After this book tour is done what is next for you? What is next for the revolutionary love project?
VK: Now that I have found Revolutionary Love it is the song I will be singing for the rest of my life. There is so much work to do to equip artists, activists, faith leaders, educators, people of faith, and a new generation to practice these tools. Our vision is to seed pockets of revolutionary love across the country and around the world where people are coming together to practice love together.
You can learn more about revolutionary love and order your own copy of See No Stranger by visiting valariekaur.com/see-no-stranger