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What is the colour of love?

Donna P
Hope

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Even as I think through the various activities that are jam-packed inside of this February, the line from Billy Ocean's popular song — What is the colour of love? — keeps coming back to me.

February in Jamaica (or should I say Kingston?) has become an exceedingly robust month, packed with activities oriented around Reggae Month, the USA's version of Black History Month, and the celebration of love on Valentine's Day. My take on this the 13th renewal of Reggae Month will come in a later column, however, do ensure that you download the very innovative Reggae Month Jamaica app and attend some of the various activities that are taking place throughout February.

Today I am more intrigued with a discussion that often swirls across various forms of popular music and which will be foregrounded in Valentine's Day this thing called love. What is the colour of love? While other forms of love exist for Valentine's Day, the focus is mainly on romantic love and many who celebrate will be caught up with one of the four forms of love eros (romantic love) that comes from the Greek/Christian tradition; storge (familial love); philia (friendship as love); and agape (selfless love or charity).

The word erotic is derived from this word eros, and there is often an erotic connection to romantic love. Philosophers have also identified this eros as a type of life energy or passion. Yet, others have also seen this form of love as a type of madness, with an elaborate discussion about love's arrows or love's darts that are often energised in the mythology of Cupid, whose bow and arrow still play an important role in contemporary images of Valentine's Day.

The origin of Valentine's Day is coloured with several stories about its patron saint, St Valentine, and his life and death in Rome, including one with him being imprisoned and penning a letter to his jailer's daughter just before he died. The letter was signed “from your Valentine”, which is a term used by many on the various cards, gifts and tokens that are connected to contemporary celebrations of this day.

Here, the day in February is said to celebrate either the life or death of St Valentine sometime in AD 270. Another origin story connects Valentine's Day to the move by the Christian church to replace or “Christianise” the celebration of the feast of Lupercalia, which took place on the Ides (15th) of February. Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

Whatever its origin, many Jamaicans will turn up at work or elsewhere dressed in their signature red and white to acknowledge their celebration of this day and to signal their connection (real or imagined) to their loved one or love interest. Many expectations are oriented around this single day, often resulting in dashed hopes and/or heartbreak for some, and unparalleled joy for many.

For as long as I can remember, Valentine's Day comes pre-packaged with chocolates, especially the ones in that heart-shaped package; red roses, gift baskets, and teddy bears with red hearts attached to them somewhere. In all of it the heart-shaped motif is usually present and the colour red is used to impute the notion of the heart, which is connected to love.

I used to enjoy wandering around downtown and in Half-Way-Tree during this time of year as the vendors came out in full force with red and white Valentine's gifts for sale just in case you forgot or were working with a tight budget, you have very little excuse for not making a token, however small, available to your romantic love. Other expectations are usually for jewellery, perfumes and colognes and similar personal items, some of which can be more costly.

But, beyond the notions of red hearts, chocolates, roses and expectations of gifts that signal a connection to the heart, once you are not in a long-distance relationship there is also the expectation of quality time together. Spending time with your romantic love on Valentine's Day is a signal that many (especially women) use to gauge the temperature of a relationship. If you are not already cohabiting in a long-term, settled relationship, where the ease of regular contact means that time together is fully assured, occasions like Valentine's Day take on far more meaning.

And so there are expectations of breakfasts, lunches, dinners or special outings to a movie, signature event or otherwise as a couple. Tradition often dictated that in heterosexual couples, men should initiate these gifts or activities, but, as times change and more women take the initiative, the shoe is on the other gendered foot, or both share equally in sending gifts or making arrangements to go out to dinner, lunch, or an event.

Yet, for those who are single and without a romantic love interest, this day is one that can be heavy, if you are still searching like Google. Many single individuals are quite content being single, especially if you have already hit several important milestones. Some people are divorced, widowed, have children, grandchildren, careers, etc and are happy just being and living their lives. But it can be different for others who are either at an earlier stage in their lives, or who yearn for a return to a romantic connection.

The deluge of Valentine's Day advertisements all over, the red and white visuals, gifts, people making plans, love songs being played on radio, public transportation or from personal devices, and the general aura of events that connect to this specific day can be overwhelming. Stories abound of that one person (usually female) whose yearning to fit in on Valentine's Day resulted in her arranging the delivery of a gift basket addressed to herself at her workplace. But, if you choose to gift yourself or take yourself out somewhere, self-love is just as important as romantic love, so do your thing!

Even as I ruminate on this celebration of love, I cannot help but reflect on the still-trending surge of domestic murder/suicides or murders without suicides and the strong emotional tides that are obviously associated with these fatal ruptures in Jamaican relationships. What is the colour of love? Romantic love moves way beyond red and white colours and expectations of hearts as gifts on Valentine's Day to connect with the caring and sharing that two people decide to embark upon together along their life journey.

Though romantic love is often packaged and sold, much like the chocolate-coated candies in that heart-shaped box on Valentine's Day, it also operates as the gateway to a long and lasting love that is based on being together on the journey of life and deciding to build relationship and familial bonds, hold strain and keep sharing with and caring about each other, against all odds.

But, if these bonds do break, then the emotional fallout cannot result in the colour red being so prevalent at the exit. Someway, somehow, we must also use this day, to remind ourselves that love also sometimes means letting go, walking away and subsuming eros beneath agape. Love is many things, and its expressions are multiple. What is the colour of your love? However you celebrate, do have a wonderful Valentine's Day, practising love in all its forms and being as caring as you can, to yourself and your special persons and those who fill out the spaces in your life portrait.

I pause to give thanks for the life, works, and writings of the late poet, literary activist, academic and consummate Caribbean intellectual Edward Kamau Brathwaite. In particular, I render my thanks, Kamau, for your calm kindness and words of encouragement and support back then to a young, black woman from Jamaica's working classes, on the first leg of a very long journey. It is well.

— Donna P Hope, PhD is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. She is the author of six books and numerous articles. E-mail your comments to the Observer or to dqueen13@hotmail.com