It happened one day during my first year of college at Rutgers University, in my home state of New Jersey. The anti-apartheid movement was raging on my college campus, there was still a massive buzz about Jesse Jackson’s first run for president and I had instantly become woke, as we say, because of names such as Winnie and Nelson Mandela, because of the Aids and crack epidemics, and because of my adopted big sister on campus, an older student named Lisa Williamson, who would later become the famed activist and bestselling author Sister Souljah.
For sure, Lisa was one of the most incredible speakers I had ever heard. She was a fearless leader, and I became so instantly fond of her, I even called her “Ma” just like I did my own mother. And she adored me, taught me and shared with me everything that she knew and was learning, in real time.
On one of those many occasions we were together, as we were about to part ways, Lisa did something she had not done before: she leaned in to hug me goodbye and I recoiled with unimaginable terror, my body trembling. Lisa was stunned, asked me what was wrong, and I was profoundly embarrassed by my reaction. I said nothing.
“You have never been hugged before, have you?”
My 18-year-old eyes tumbled to the ground, along with my self-esteem. I felt weak, exposed and shook my head “no” so slightly that it could barely be seen.
“Well, I am going to keep hugging you until you get used to it. You cannot live like that, Kev, afraid of people hugging or touching you.”
And with that Lisa was gone, as I stood there still staring at the asphalt, my sweaty palms shoved deeply into my pockets.
It was the first time I had been confronted about my fear of physical touch. I was raised by a single mother in brutal poverty, no father and no father-figure those first 18 years of my life, and my ma did the best she could with what she had. But there were no hugs, no kisses, no I love yous – never. The only touching I ever received from my mother were the severe beatings whenever I was “bad”, sometimes when I was awake, sometimes when I was asleep.
This went on from birth until I was about 11 or 12 and finally taller than my mother. But the emotional and verbal assaults never ended. So somewhere in my mind I had come to associate touching with violence, with someone trying to hurt me, and it would take several years of therapy, and mighty and consistent spiritual work, for me to forgive my mother, to understand that she was simply doing to me what had been done to her by her father, by our society.
Touching, hugging was a privilege reserved for those who had lives that were not traumatic like ours. Touching, hugging was for people who were “weird”, different, like the Puerto Rican kids I would observe from a distance at my Jersey City grammar school openly offering love and affection to each other. As a youth, I was stunned by their behaviour; it was foreign to me, and I could not imagine someone, anyone, touching me.
Yet little did I know that, in time, because of that singular act by Sister Souljah when I was 18, that I would fall in love with hugs, with touch.
It would happen slowly, through my 20s and 30s, and into my 40s, this love of touch, of hugs. It would come as I would get over my dread of holding a girlfriend’s hand in public. It would come as I would learn, from a woman, from women, the difference between having sex and making love. It would come as I cried my eyes out in therapy session after therapy session over the course of three decades about the many traumas of my childhood. It would come to me as an activist, as a public speaker, when complete strangers would touch my shoulder, my elbow, my back, grab me, hug me, as a sign of appreciation. It comes when I try to touch my mother, on her shoulder, on her elbow, on her back, when I try to hug her as a sign of forgiveness and she recoils, as I had done long ago, with Sister Souljah; but I keep trying, hoping, praying that my mother, in her late 70s now, will finally allow herself to be touched or hugged, with love.
So here I am, sitting in my Brooklyn apartment, alone, during this pandemic, craving the presence and energy of human beings so intensely that it has left me in a flood of tears pretty much every single week.
Touching is magic for the soul, it is healing. I ache badly now, as I did during the first 18 years of my life, because I do not have it, because I am just newly divorced from my wife after 12 painful months of separation and loneliness. I will have touch again, this I know, but I wonder, daily, when?