The following essay is the final entry in our Bearings Online series on identity, belonging, and the church. Participants in the 2018 Collegeville Institute writing workshop Exploring Identity and (Dis)belonging through the Personal Essay led by Enuma Okoro were invited to submit essays to this series, which were published every week in November. View other entries in this series »
In the months following my graduation from divinity school, I’ve thought a lot about freedom. I’ve contemplated what it means to be free in an America where so many are held captive by systemic racism.
At Duke Divinity School I had been challenged to rethink the very concept of freedom. I remember sitting in class one day as we processed how freedom is set up in direct contrast to slavery and captivity. The traditional understanding goes like this: if someone isn’t actively being enslaved, then they must possess freedom. Yet in America today, we can see that abolishing slavery did not mean that black and brown bodies stopped being controlled or, at the very least, viewed as a threat. My professors explained that, in order to break away from oppression, we have to instead focus on being free instead of an abstract idea of freedom. I want to be free, America. But what does it mean to be actually free?
On the 4th of July, a day set aside to celebrate America’s independence and freedom, I spent some time with friends in Charlotte, North Carolina. After eating some delicious burgers, potato salad, baked beans, chicken wings, and ribs, we decided to go to the pool at the apartment complex where another friend lived. No one can deny the pleasure of warm water in the summer night air and the beauty of fireworks. We talked, laughed, listened to a nice selection of music, and watched the night sky light up. When we first arrived at the pool it was just us and two other people that were wrapping up their time because the sky had darkened, and it seemed like it was going to rain. We got in the pool and the rain began to lightly fall. I was a little nervous because it looked like “a storm was a-brewin’” as the old folks would say back in the day. We stayed in hopes that the storm would pass. After a while, another black guy came to the pool, and he jumped in with all of his clothes on. I guess he felt free. I was not bothered at the young man’s decision to grab a quick swim; however, the moment shifted when some white people came to the pool to also admire the scene.
I could tell the mood had changed. We were all aware of how their presence made a difference. This was not the first time I have felt this sudden change of mood when white people show up. One of my friends suggested that we turn on the Childish Gambino song “This is America.” A lot of questions entered my thoughts: Should we leave? Do we belong here? Should we turn down our music? Is this music appropriate? All the questions explored ways that my friends and I should try to police our actions in this particular moment to make the environment safe for us. And it was for good reason — there were several recent incidents where black people had been criminalized by white people for occupying certain spaces. In Memphis, Tennessee, an apartment manager called the police on a black couple at the complex where they lived just because the boyfriend was wearing socks in the pool. It was an example of being punished for “living while black” and I wondered if this might become another of those situations. We were not doing anything wrong, but that doesn’t stop others from seeing our blackness as a threat in America.
Still, one of my friends continued to swim around us as the fireworks shot in the distance. He began to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” We laughed and I knew that there was going to be some type of foolishness associated with this moment. He then sang the last part of the song, “for the land of the whites and home of the browns.” He had switched the words. The whites were free, no question. That the browns had to be brave — well, that was not optional.
As the water hit my body and the air around me thickened with the summer heat, I thought about those words and my own journey toward being free. I am sure that being free does not mean having the opportunity to do whatever one desires, but it does mean living life fully without unnecessary restrictions from others or even oneself. It takes bravery to release yourself from the past and walk into what is now. Being free allows one to be fully human and see the brokenness that lies in all of humanity. But, you can’t be free just by declaring yourself free. Those who are free have to want others around them to be free. They have to want others to live their best life as well.
During my time in the pool, I pondered all the things I had heard the previous weeks since graduation and what the path toward becoming free looks like for me now. I think it looks like spending a week with strangers on a writing retreat, like I did at the Collegeville Institute earlier that summer. There, I had received advice about writing and how important it was to tell my story. Becoming free also looks like spending a week with a group of teenagers as they encounter God in new and profound ways, like I did at Duke Youth Academy where I journeyed alongside young people and thought deeply about the past, present, and future of the Church. I wondered what it meant to actually trust God’s plan without interference from my own ambitions and will. I wondered what it meant to try to conceptualize theology before divinity school and now as a graduate.
I believe in the words of Richard Wright so much that they have become a personal prayer. In his novel Black Boy, he writes: “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.” Wright refers to hurling out words, and listening for an echo, as a path toward all of humanity becoming free. He wants all Americans to work together to change the climate of this nation. The road toward becoming free from oppressive systems that tell people of color how to live is a journey, and a long one. Sometimes I wonder: Will I ever be fully free from systems that try to suck every ounce of life from black and brown bodies? Will I ever be free from wondering if my body is safe in white-dominated space? Will black people ever be free to live, to love, to thrive, to flourish, to prosper?
I have no answers. I am even unsure what it feels like to be truly free. However, I have given up on progress that does not include all of humanity, that depends upon the continuous oppression of those who look like me. If we are called to be completely free, then we must willing to carry on the work of Christ. The work that calls us to declare good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18).
I believe that, even in today’s America, there can be moments when strangers become friends and when students are able to reimagine and rethink their lives as followers of Christ. I have not given up on moments in a pool surrounded by friends that bravely sing about the realities of our world. One day I hope we are all able to say that “for the land of the free and the home of the brave” applies to all people in this country.
Until then, I will heed the words of my friend and sing “for the land of the whites and the home of the browns.” I will do my part to hurl words of truth into the void, then listen for the echo.