If there is one word that defines the spirit of Susan L. Taylor, it is love. It’s how she branded a magazine: first as editor-in-chief of ESSENCE for 19 years and then as its editorial director, making the publication you hold in your hands not only a must-read for Black women but also a guiding light for a people still too often stumbling in the dark. She instinctively understands love’s transforming power-that love affirms and motivates; it heals and is redemptive. In the Spirit, Susan’s monthly column, is filled with this power. In this space, Susan has never been afraid to tell us her own stories-of struggle, of uncertainty, of tripping before she found her way to higher ground. True love, Susan has said repeatedly, begins with the love of self. This is the God love, the supreme love from which all other love will flow, natural and healthy. Love marks her personal style of humility.
In her fourth book, All About Love: Favorite Selections From In the Spirit on Living Fearlessly (Urban Books, $19.95), being released this month, Susan continues the love lessons she began imparting to us nearly 30 years ago. Wise and warm, honest and provocative, this collection of essays explores spiritually empowering subjects ranging from finding harmony to building wealth, committing to social and political change, staying in good health, shedding anger, and finding real love in all our relationships.
We caught up with the fearless warrior woman at three o’clock one recent morning. In this interview she tells why, after all these years, she continues to run on love.
ESSENCE: You have already published three books: In the Spirit, Lessons in Living and Confirmation, with your husband, Khephra Burns. So why now, when many people would rest on their laurels, have you decided to write this fourth book?
Susan L. Taylor: The overarching focus, and why I expanded or revisited some of these ideas, is to offer a deeper understanding of our power and completeness and our responsibility during this most critical stage in our history. We don’t have time to waste. Our communities are crumbling; our children are under siege. Failing schools and a for-profit prison industrial complex are sucking the life out of Black homes and communities. We are not going down like this!
ESSENCE: What do you think still keeps Black women from living our best lives –from activating the supreme God love from within?
S.L.T.: We haven’t healed from the residuals of slavery. We don’t trust one another or work as well together as we must. We need potent messages addressing these issues to be spoken within our churches and mosques. We need a new order of ministers to stand in pulpits. It’s not enough to sing and praise God in worship services. Any religion that doesn’t encourage us to work together to end the needless suffering all around us is godless. God is Goodness, the energy or force that’s holding everything together in this amazing universe.
ESSENCE: How have the messages you impart through In the Spirit changed over these past two decades, and what does the column mean to you now?
S.L.T.: The column has always been something of a public diary. My second column, “Coming to Faith,” published in July 1981, set the tone for the intimacy and honesty my writing would take. At that time, no popular mass-market magazine had spiritual content. I wanted to say why I was writing about God, so I looked back at the time my first marriage fell to pieces, devastating me. I wrote about going to a New York City hospital emergency room at age 24 as a single mother, thinking I was having a heart attack. The doctor said it was an anxiety attack. Walking back home to the Bronx because I had no money for public transportation, I passed Reverend Ike’s church and felt pulled by a force to go inside. I heard a sermon that would change my life. “God is alive in you,” said the visiting minister, Reverend Alfred Miller. This was new to me, and it transformed my thinking.
Ten years later I realized all the circumstances surrounding that frightening and then enlightening day had saved my life. But I had never spoken about or even really looked at this before I took the time to be introspective and then write about it. So the column became a place where I could look in the mirror and encourage others to do the same. Over the years it has evolved into writings about the transformative power of love. And recent writings, still often personal, extend to talking about the collective commitment to our community that we able, stable Black folks must make.
ESSENCE: What do you feel are the issues that Black women should be concerned about right now? And what can we do to move ourselves and community forward?
S.L.T.: I know that to be saved, the earth needs our feminine sensibility and regenerative love. I know we must believe in the power of love, and not just talk about self-love and self-worth or loving God and having faith. We must learn how to live in the space of inner peace in our everyday lives. This takes consistent, conscious effort because I know so many Black women are hurting and sad, and we don’t easily express our heartache or show our wounds. I know we must stop hurting one another and declare peace as fervently as this nation has declared war.
I know that we must make healthy choices in everything from food to lovers, and must take care of ourselves rather than always being anxious about the response of others. I know we must feel comfortable in our skin, no matter what shade it is, and teach our sons and daughters to revere our ancestral beauty-our pure unadulterated Blackness-because anything less is holding on to the self-hatred we have internalized over the centuries.
ESSENCE: You seem to come as close as any modern, progressive leader to being truly self-actualized, yet you say you still have struggles. What are your greatest, continuing challenges? Who is the Susan L. Taylor readers don’t know?
S.L.T.: I still have to work hard at fighting feelings of fear-and I don’t win every day. Fear that I’m not enough. Not good enough, not smart enough. I’m my own worst critic. My challenge is extending love and generosity to myself all the time, even when I don’t hit the mark or mess up. As for the Susan L. Taylor readers don’t know, there is so much of me that I don’t yet know either. Self-discovery is thrilling. My goal is to keep hitting a higher and higher octave, to keep learning and sharing.
ESSENCE: In branding a magazine, you’ve also branded yourself. As a result, many people have now come to equate you with ESSENCE. How do you define who you are separately from what ESSENCE is?
S.L.T.: ESSENCE is the vehicle I work through. It’s where I give love to our people and community. It’s where I have rank and title. It has given me resources and popularity, but I am none of those things. I’m a doer, a worker. What’s important to me is my integrity, contributing to the larger good and my family and to moving our people forward. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see ESSENCE. ESSENCE: What’s great about being a Black woman at this point in our history?
S.L.T.: We are living at a time when the most difficult work and the cruelest aspects of our history are behind us. Historically, Black women have suffered tremendously, but today’s Black women are the triumph. We have choices, and that’s what freedom is all about: having the power to choose.
ESSENCE: You have raised a loving daughter, have a lovely granddaughter, and have been in a successful marriage to Khephra for almost 20 years. What do you think is the key to happy, long-lasting relationships?
S.L.T.: Tenderness, humility and respect for personal differences. Without these a union suffers and dies. The spiritual purpose of partnership is self-revelation and sharing soul to soul. This is how we come to know who we are fully. We have to learn to love goodness, not good looks, good sex or what someone can give us. And we have to make time for our relationships. We schedule time for everything else, from food shopping to salon appointments. We need to schedule time for love. Beyond procreation, the main purpose of coming together in a love relationship is to learn how to give, trust, forgive, live in harmony with another person and deepen our relationship with God. As my beloved Khephra always says, “Love isn’t passive. It’s active.” We both love our young people and dedicate our lives to nurturing them. There’s nothing more nurturing and binding to a relationship than partners working together for a purpose greater than one that just benefits them.
Audrey Edwards, an ESSENCE contributing writer, lives in Paris, where she is fulfilling her dream to reside in the City of Lights.
Credit: Mark Liddell