Fleeting Feelings of Freedom
Originally published on Feb. 17, 2016.
At work one day, my supervisor commented on the history interpretation program at another historic site in the country. The staff and literature at the site seemed to exclude the African Diaspora in their interpretation of slavery. “You can’t do that!” my supervisor said incredulously. I responded that people manage to do that quite regularly and efficiently. Exclude, rewrite, forget history. Everyone in the room laughed and he agreed as well, stating, “You’re right. It just can’t be done with any accuracy.”
I am constantly aware of my Blackness. I am constantly thinking that others are thinking about my Blackness. At work. In the world. My mama told me I am a walking contradiction to the false perceptions many have. Especially in such context. I am a free Black woman. I am free. Free to be. Free to write. Free to read. Free to sing at the top of my lungs and gather with my homegirls in a big ol’ group.
Free to tell honest, humanizing stories about my ancestors. Free to walk in and out of ANY door of the big house and STOMP up and down the stairs if I choose. Free to drive a car and obtain a college degree and love whom I please. Free to inspire others and be inspired.
And yet, after viewing the resource officer throw a young, Black girl who could’ve been me across a classroom I did not feel free. Feelings of freedom weren’t invoked when I saw the flashing blue lights and heard screaming sirens only to learn hours later that nine people who could have been my mother, father, sister, brother, auntie, cousin, uncle, lover, friend were executed in a church seven minutes from my house. No liberation when the governor said she would never understand why Dylann Roof did what he did–despite him explicitly stating why he did what he did. Not when she boasted that racism in South Carolina ended with her election.
When the glutton for punishment emerges from the trunk I try to keep him in and leads me to the hellacious Comment Section. Mt. Pleasant residents penning their rage at protestors who blocked the Cooper River Bridge in response and to bring awareness to the murder of Walter Scott, the man gunned down in North Charleston as he ran for his life. Those Twitter/FB fingers claimed, “This is stupid. People living in Mt. Pleasant have nothing to do with what happens in North Charleston!” A friend who protested on the bridge that day told me someone called her a nigger bitch to her face. I felt no freedom–something more like red, hot rage–when some of those same online commentators high fived, took selfies and held hands as they walked across the SAME BRIDGE because we’re #onecharleston and #CharlestonStrong…or something. That onecharlestonstrong seems pretty feeble as Eastside is gentrified with a vengeance and several Black-owned businesses close quickly and quietly like it’s in style.
Black Lives Matter march at the Charleston Market in remembrance of the 9 people murdered in Mother Emmanuel AME and in solidarity with the 3 people who survived.
No feelings of freedom when “Michael Brown was a thug who deserved to die.” When a 12-yr-old child is shot down in seconds because we’re all seen as dangerous, intimidating, superhuman monsters. When the families of Aiyana Jones and Renisha McBride are told by the state that their daughters/sisters didn’t matter. When the state told Marissa Alexander she should have let her ex-husband kill her because they certainly didn’t deem her life worth saving. When South Carolina ranks #1 in deadly violence against women. When women can’t/won’t call the police on the men abusing them because the police might shoot first and lie later. No freedom when George Zimmerman is found not guilty, allowed to roam and be as violent and ignorant as he pleases. Shackled when 21+ transgender women of color are murdered in cold blood and the hashtags become more and more frequent and familiar. When arguments and decisions about women’s agency occurr in rooms with no women present. When over 200 girls are snatched from their homes and loved ones. When armed white men take over a federal government building to protest the government, vocal in their preparation to use violence against law enforcement if “necessary”–and law enforcement “waits them out”. When we still don’t know what happened to Sandra Bland. When citizens in the “greatest nation in the world” are drinking poisoned water. When Donald Trump says disgusting, dangerous things about brown people and the racism, violence and ignorance of others is validated. When Black and brown people across the ocean and around the globe and up the block spend every day trying to escape violence, rape, poverty and oppression.
And all these thoughts and feelings and more like them swirl around in a wispy spiral of smoke, weaving themselves around the words of slave narratives, oral histories, Freedmen’s Bureau records and the questions and statements I hear at work:
“No. I haven’t met any other GullahGeechee people, but my daughter teaches Special Ed.”
“Now, how much do you know about the slave owner? Was he good to his slaves? Was he nice? Did he treat them well?”
“Well, I think a plantation could have been operated better this way. The perfect mix of niceness and meanness—then there would be less running away.”
“People actually ran away? I’m just not understanding why they would run if they had food and shelter here.”
“Yea, the master could have had any woman he wanted so it was still probably better to work in the house, right?”
“That is NOT why the Civil War was fought! I don’t care what the signers of Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession said. My granddaddy fought in that war!”
“I’m Irish. WE were slaves!”
“You are so ARTICULATE.”
“You’d go through the back door, right? Ha. Ha. I couldn’t resist.”
“It’s pretty ironic that you’re working here, huh? They should make it so only Black people can work here and are paid by the government, of course.” (Cue sparkly eyes and sneaky grin.)
Freedom means he doesn’t have to learn how to say what he meant any better. Freedom means I have to learn to know how to take it. Freedom means practicing African dance movements in the parlor room mirror of the big house or across the floor of the White House.
The big house. The same big house where, one month after being open to the public, a white man walked in, so intent on letting me know he would not/could not see me, he ignored both of my greetings and promptly turned his back to me, choosing to only acknowledge my white colleague. Freedom is restraint and control so I can pay my bills. Freedom is remembering.
Nina Simone said in an interview featured on her documentary, “I know what freedom means to me. No Fear.” So rarely do I feel this way. Fearless. I am free, though. I suppose…
…Free to think. Free to wonder. Free to write it out.