Love Letter on Freedom


What does freedom mean to me? Nina Simone was asked this question on camera and stalled in response. If you listen to her music, you often hear a whale-like mourning in her voice, Nina yearning for that blissful thing swimming in the ocean and floating above high over open seas—freedom. 

Freedom is romantic. When I was a kid, we were in love with Freedom Fighters. They were revolutionaries who took on the youthful plight of changing the world, whatever that means; they were the influencers of our time. They were on banned T-shirts and burned books. Their names were scrawled in hurried graffiti on random walls throughout Soweto. In defiance. Free Mandela! The letters shouted.Long Live Steve Biko! Amandla—the powerless declared—the power is ours. 

It’s hard to think of what freedom means without this youth. Without the glaring absence of real freedoms scratching my childhood soundtrack, like Nina Simone stuck answering the question, what is freedom to me? Reaching her hand out toward an unknown promised land. In this absence, America’s Independence feels like unfinished business. Sure, there is the letter of the thing. A day in 1776 when blotty ink was committed to paper and a ballsy dream was pitched.All Men Created Equal. Life & Liberty.And then there is the lived experience of this grand experiment. 

We know about the hypocrisy. That native people were enslaved by European traders long before Plymouth Rock. That the first 20 Africans arrived in Jamestown, VA in chains and foreshadowed a crime against humanity that makes white-washing July 4 narratives vile. We know all this. But what I want to know is what did freedom mean to the very few who lived within its tenuous margins? 

I’m not talking about white America—that history is well documented, even if in distortion. I mean the “free”men and “free”women who have always been part of America. The ones who successfully petitioned the courts of New Amsterdam or Virginia Colony and won. The ones who dared to run—like Oney Judge, George Washington’s enslaved runaway—and prevailed. What did freedom mean to someone who had to carry papers to prove it? Someone who lived her entire life surrounded by prescriptions and perversions of freedom? Someone who might give birth to a baby and later see that child stolen and bartered in a cage? 

Asking this isn’t just intellectual curiosity. I’m asking because maybe we can learn something about how to be free in 2019. How do you celebrate your relative freedom when you know there are children caged at the border, their lives bartered in stale policies that defile the land of the free and home of the brave? I want to ask those first quasi-free people, how do I get in a car and drive through the majesty of the Hudson Valley, when the road cuts through human warehouses—prisons that out-compete chain-gangs and plantation holds? 

What does freedom mean when not all of us are free? 

I’m past pretending July 4 doesn’t hold joy. The freedom I want and believe in will not be gained through postures of activism. Nor do I pretend there is nothing sacred in America’s highest covenant with itself. I believe in a good cookout. And trust me please. Nobody throws down like someone whose freedom is hardwon, someone who faces a fresh fight defending their basic freedoms every day that they breathe. I can get down with that person’s fireworks and pride for the small park patch they’ve snatched. 

But I’m also not blind. There’s no glory in bullshit. We have to know our freedom is not for free. It is also not without copious footnotes detailing the many who are deliberately uncounted amongst the free.These and these are the living truthsof America: Land ofsomefree. Home offuturebraves—the few strong and truthful enough to make this project finally equal to everyone seeking the deepest promise of America. Freedom. Happy 4th of July, freedom fighter. Please pass me the taco dip and save me a plate.