Conversations with Eboo: Valarie Kaur
I’ve known and admired Valarie Kaur for nearly twenty years, since her early work as a filmmaker documenting the hateful violence against Sikh Americans in the aftermath of 9/11. There aren’t too many people with her resume – Stanford undergrad, Harvard Divinity School, Yale Law School, award-winning filmmaker, speaker extraordinaire, incisive educator, founder of interfaith social justice campaigns, and, most recently, author. Her book See No Stranger is achingly beautiful - dangerously beautiful. I clearly missed a couple of appointments the morning that I sat down with it because I simply could not stop reading. It’s a book that weaves an intimate coming-of-age narrative with an activist story and a spiritual journey, all somehow perfectly framed in a research-backed manifesto for social change.
I caught up with Valarie on the day of George Floyd’s funeral, a moment that happened to be both three months into the Covid pandemic and two weeks into a racial justice protest movement. As we said our hellos, I could hear her getting her two children, a one year old and a five year old, settled. “My parents and my husband’s parents take turns living with us, and they do a lot of child care, but we asked them to shelter in place because of concerns around Covid,” she explained. “And then last week, during the first wave of protests, the National Guard set up shop down the road, and our windows face the street, so anytime I heard a noise I just jumped, afraid that something bad was going down.”
It was a comment that bridged the moment that we’re in now with a central theme of her book, what Valarie calls “The connection between state violence and hate violence.” See No Stranger is full of examples of both. The murders of Sikh Americans after 9/11 and at the Oak Creek Gurudwara. The protests against the Republican National Convention in 2004 where Valarie tried to serve as a legal observer, and wound up experiencing ugly violence at the hands of the police.
The Revolutionary Love ethic that is at the heart of the book is about bearing witness to the horrors that happen, accompanying people through those horrors, and then doing the work to transform and reimagine. That transformation, Valarie insists, even involves your opponents. In Valarie’s view, it is perfectly legitimate to rage against the wrongs of the world, even to direct your rage, for a time, at those who perpetrate such wrongs. But then, if you are safe enough, you have to be ready to listen, and finally to reimagine. That’s revolutionary love. Valarie envisions it as a compass, a tool that can guide one’s engagements at home and in the civic/activist realm.
The seeds of See No Stranger were planted around 2014. Valarie was already a mainstay on the activist circuit, speaking at conferences nationwide. But state crimes and hate crimes were both rising, and she had a deep fear that her Sikh children would grow up around more hatred than Sikhs experienced around 9/11, more even than Sikhs experienced a century ago, when her beloved grandfather moved to the United States. The thirty minutes she got on a stage, or the sixty seconds she was allotted on a cable news show, didn’t seem near enough space for the world of things she wanted to say.
The Trump movement and election just supercharged that feeling. Valarie told me, “I wrote the book proposal for See No Stranger between November 2016 and January 2017 - the election and the inauguration - like it was an act of survival.”
There were two metaphors guiding her hand as she wrote: warrior metaphors from her Sikh faith, and birthing metaphors from her experience of motherhood.
The book is full of powerful stories and images of Sikh warriors and their battles for justice. It’s not your standard fare for a peace activist. Here’s how Valarie squared the circle for me: “I’m reclaiming the Sikh warrior spirit for nonviolent revolution. If I see you through the eyes of wonder, I must be brave enough to let your pain into my heart, and I must be willing to fight for you.”
She continued: “The conversation about race and justice in America has never had Sikh perspectives. So I’m drawing from my own religion to think about faith and justice and love in this country in new ways. Guru Nanak’s call to ‘see no stranger’ was always meant for all people. I feel like my offering here is to take his call to love, reclaim it, and to offer it for a new time."
She does this in honor of her beloved grandfather, Papa Ji, who would guide Valarie with Sikh wisdom and comfort her with Sikh devotional songs, as she was growing up. She includes both in the book.
Also included is a deep dive into the meaning of Valarie’s most famous line: we are in the darkness of the womb, not the darkness of the tomb. It’s at the center of the birthing metaphor that guides Valarie’s work. She spoke to me about the power of viewing activist work as being like a midwife - birthing a new being by breathing and pushing and then pushing again.
She closed by observing: “I’m feeling this soaring sense of possibility as I see this uprising for Black lives. Our nation is in transition, a demographic transition that will take place over the next twenty five years as we become a majority people of color country. I want to be part of that. I want to last. In the idea of revolutionary love, I feel as if I’ve found my song, and I’ll be singing it until I’m an old woman.”