I define freedom differently from most people. This is why the celebration of Juneteenth is difficult for me. It is also similar to why chanting “Black Lives Matter” has always been a hard thing for me to do. I understand that there is a lot to unpack so let me start there.
This past year there were uprisings across the country in response to police violence on unarmed Black people. This is the United States of America, so violence perpetrated by people who represent the state, governance, or leadership is nothing new. And in the tail end of this, the school where my children go held a beginning of school “march” where we walked around the Upper West Side, culminating in Central Park, chanting the slogans of the time. But it all felt very silly for me. If I, as a Black man and as a descendant of slaves in this country, have to chant that my life matters – who is listening? I can understand it better when a white person who may have never considered that Black lives mattered spoke this obvious truth in a march to other white people – but to whom am I speaking to?
Similarly, I find discomfort celebrating Juneteenth which is the honoring of the day/s that the formerly enslaved found out that they were no longer owned by someone else. Chattel slavery was one of the pillars of the founding of this nation and the current world economic and social pecking order. The others were genocide – of the indigenous people who inhabited lands that the Europeans visited, and colonization – the systematic domination of the land, culture, and resources of those places. I find it extremely shameful that my ancestors were taken into slavery but there is a myth of the slavery experience that we often get caught up in. Most of us think that West African peoples were just minding their own business and then one day, out of the blue, some dirty, smelly, bad-breathed white slave trader snatched our ancestors from the forest.
It is true that may have happened but what is also likely truer is that we are descendants of people who were engaged in a war with a neighboring community and the loser sold their captives to the white slave trader. Many times, the slave trader would whisper into the ears of both sides of a conflict and push them towards war knowing that whoever lost would reap the benefits of the humans that would be captured. In many cases, a leader might start a war just to get slaves to sell to trade with the slave traders and then lose the war and be put into captivity themselves. Muslim and Traditional African religion adherents did this all the same – bottom line is that our ancestors played a significant part in this terrible story. They had no idea what they were selling us into, but the fact remains – we were lulled by greed and lust and pride and foolishness and ultimately, we allowed ourselves to be divided and conquered. This process took place for centuries. Not years or decades. Centuries.
Afterward, the Europeans then divided up our lands, then sapped emotional and spiritual energy and power, and then proceeded to colonize and further extract wealth from the continent to this day. Juneteenth represents when the people who were captured into this chattel slavery were then physically free from said institution. Sorry, that is less of a day of celebration for me and should be more of a somber ceremony. We still have a long way to go to be free. This brings me to my understanding of “freedom”.
Not all are fighting for freedom that will really free them!
Most of the freedom fighting we are doing is a “freedom to do whatever I want” type of freedom. This is essentially the same freedom expressed by the colonizers who divided up Turtle Island and carved up the land and did whatever they wanted with people, animals, and plants. That is not the type of freedom that in my spiritual tradition (and in most spiritual traditions) will lead to a higher state of being and consciousness. What does it mean to live in a society that has defined freedom from purely the perspectives of one’s desires and overconsumption and simply from the notion of what a person can imagine is good for them? We see this reality as we speak. We are stuck as slaves to “pleasure” and feeling good. These become obsessions that we cannot control. Show me a person that has discipline, that has mastery over what they internalize — food and ideas — then you show me a truly free person.
For almost a millennia white slave traders and colonizers and now liberal and conservative “activists” have told us what to think and created the boundaries of what is possible. We need to stop listening to the crowd and listen to our hearts and, frankly, using our spiritual traditions, the wisdom of our sacred texts, and the examples of our elders and ancestors to remind us – that we have been free before. Free from our desires, free from being controlled by our appetites – but this freedom is hard to attain and easy to lose because it requires steadfastness and a consistent approach. When Black people have this level of freedom, then we will be immune to the traps of the whispers of those that would divide and conquer us, we will be able to affirm that our lives matter not by demonstrations but rather simply by our unassailable unity – that will be a day worth celebrating.