The UC Santa Barbara MultiCultural Center hosted poet Sonya Renee Taylor for her talk, “Resilient Love: Radical Self Love as Transformative Activism,” in collaboration with the Associated Students Black Women’s Health Collaborative on Feb. 15 over Zoom.
Taylor, founder of the digital media and education company The Body is Not An Apology and author of a poem of the same name, uses her platform to explore the intersection of bodies, identities and social justice through the lens of “radical self-love,” a phrase she helped pioneer.
Growing up, she aspired to enter the performing arts industry because of her love for musical theater, but she later on abandoned the idea in favor of becoming a journalist. While attending college, she changed her major three times, eventually graduating with a sociology degree with an emphasis in race, class and gender.
“That’s what I felt called to. I want to understand how society makes us and how we make society,” Taylor said during the event.
Upon her graduation, she first worked as a wilderness counselor for adjudicated youth in Florida, where she lived in “semi-permanent tents” that she built herself and dealt with “children who threatened [her] with axes,” Taylor said. She quit that position and became a case manager for adults with chronic mental illness, and she later became a peer education director for street-based sex workers in Washington D.C.
It was at a work-related benefit in Washington D.C. where she first spoke at an open mic show, an event form previously foreign to her, and found her calling as a performance poet.
“I read this poem on their little open mic stage, my hands shaking, and it’s the first time I’d ever read my poems in front of an audience … and it was this phenomenal clarity that came over to me, that I found a home,” Taylor said.
After that experience, she immersed herself in the Capital’s art community, which she reminisced as “massive” prior to the city’s gentrification and the displacement of its creatives. Following stints at various open mics, she forayed into the world of slam poetry, experiencing great success and going on to win the National Poetry Slam championship in less than 14 months.
Within six months, she quit her job to pursue being a poet.
In her early poetry career, she described struggling financially but feeling inspired by her work, new life experiences and being “beautifully held in community.”
“While I was broke in the pockets, I was rich in a multitude of ways,” she said. “And it was that work — which I spent doing for a decade and making my living as a performance poet and writer — it was that willingness to follow that thread that led to the creation of The Body Is Not An Apology.”
The impetus for The Body Is Not An Apology movement and digital media platform was a conversation between her and her friend Natasha, who at the time was having unprotected sex with a casual partner and feared an unintended pregrancy. Taylor said she, coming from a place of curiosity rather than judgment, asked Natasha why she had made this choice in her sexual life.
“There were three things present in this conversation that made it the transformative moment that it became. There was radical honesty, there was radical empathy and there was radical vulnerability,” Taylor said.
According to Taylor, Natasha said her cerebral palsy, a movement disorder, made sexual experiences difficult, and that she didn’t feel “entitled” to ask her partner to use a condom.
“I said to her in that moment, ‘Your body is not an apology. It’s not something you offer to say sorry for my disability,’” Taylor said.
“I, too, have offered my body as an apology. I too have said sorry for this Black, fat, queer, bald, neurodivergent body and something, something beyond me, wants both of us to know that we have no reason to apologize,” she continued.
That moment spurred a shift in her life’s trajectory, Taylor said, compelling her to stay up late in her hotel room in Tennessee drafting a poem, in which she coined the phrase “radical self love” — described as a model of transformative action calling for the investment in one’s self and one’s possibility.
Not only did the conversation motivate a body of work, but it reframed how she aimed to conduct herself in life.
“All of a sudden, your words become your edict on the planet. That poem you wrote is now your instruction manual for life,” she said.
Taylor said that following this new mantra of radical self love has been both a practice of liberation and incredibly taxing.
“It’s terrifying. It’s been harrowing at times. It is destabilizing and grief ridden, and it is also the most powerful, most glorious, most expansive experience of my existence. All of that is true,” Taylor said.
Taylor distinguished her brand of radical self love — which she formulated in response to oppressive power structures and the marginalization of “othered” bodies and identities — from the watered-down, commodified version visible in capitalistic and commercial spaces.
“You get something that’s really liberatory, and then the next thing you know, Ford is trying to sell you a car with it, Weight Watchers is trying to sell you a diet,” Taylor said.
“We have real thoroughgoing and extreme experiences of violence and degradation of hate and injustice, of marginalization and oppression. We live in a system that is thorough going and extreme against the bodies it deems aren’t worthy,” she continued. “I would offer that in order to counter such a system, we’re going to need to be as thoroughgoing and extreme in the ways in which we practice love.”
Taylor said that this liberatory model aims to radicalize societal organization and promote a more equitable, compassionate environment.
“The work of radical self love, as I understand, is about a transformative practice that changes society, that changes systems, that changes structures, but only in so much as it changes us,” Taylor said. “Because we are the system, and we are the structures, we build them as humans. And until we recognize and dismantle those oppressive and marginalizing systems and structures inside of ourselves, we’ll continue to replicate them out in the material world.”