Am I free?
“The caged bird sings
With a fearful trill
Of things unknown
But longed for still
And his tune is heard
On the distant hill
For the caged bird
Sings of freedom” - Maya Angelou
I’ve heard of freedom in many ways and in many forms. Freedom is a song protesters sing at rallies, exclaiming visions seen in mind and heart. There’s freedom in law: freedom of choice, of speech, of religion, of the press, of assembly, and of petition.
Freedom is a story bound in Christianity, given to humanity only when they believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord. Freedom is defined as the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.
But as we know, freedom is not free.
Freedom is not always recognized as a human right. If you have it, it was fought for, blood was shed, a toll was paid. For most, freedom is a dream. It’s a destination, a long-lasting hope, a yearning for more assured by the fact that the current reality is certainly not it. We can say that freedom keeps the spirit alive. It feeds our mortal bodies, energizes our weak bones, giving us glimpses to latch onto when we feel weak. It’s dancing light in the dark times, heavenly vibratos in the heavy times, a bond of companionship and unity to everyone who joins in. It’s a form of storytelling that sits closer to truth-telling in a world filled with noise.
“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. I wish I could break all the chains holdin’ me. I wish I could say all the things that I should say...I wish I could live like I’m longing to live...I wish I knew how it feels, how it feels to be free.” - Nina Simone
For me, freedom always felt distant and out of reach. Especially as a member of the black diaspora, a child of African immigrants and an American-born black woman, freedom can truly feel like a fantasy. Code-switching on a daily basis, tweaking my identity to fit closer to the ideal in different social spaces. The line between who I felt I was supposed to be and who I actually am grew blurry over time, especially in my late teens and early 20’s.
It was easy to accept the truths others gave to me and to fall in line. I was good at being the most acceptable version of myself wherever I went and whoever I was with.
Instead of searching for my own truths, I learned how to neglect myself, as African women and black women are socialized to do. The older I got, the more I felt the discontentment rise. It became clear that to honor all of the elements that make up who I am, I must break out of all the shells I had been molded into.
In America’s freedom culture, there is a clear difference between what is stated to be free and what is actually experienced as freedom. Black people, in particular, learn that freedom exists on a spectrum and they lie at the furthest end. Black diaspora women face a distinct kind of marginalization; its multi-layered oppression meets inadequate access to tools for self-expression and healing. In a world of misrepresentation, vices, and power plays, black diaspora women feel the weight of it all yet still choose to show up every day.
For us, a belief in freedom is almost laughable. It’s a legitimate question to a limited opportunity existence. Over the last few years, I’ve come to realize that freedom has more to do with ownership than anything else. How do I choose to define myself? How am I taking responsibility for my actions? Have I aligned myself more closely to the truth of who I am or am I driving myself further away?
Audre Lorde described self-care as political when it comes to the black identity. For us, the act of caring for ourselves is a rebellion against a culture desperately trying to erase, claim, or mistell our stories. To say, “I am worthy, I am of great value, and I love myself,” is a powerful act of reclamation, especially when what I confess is aligned with what is in my heart.
So I practice saying it every day. Right before a job interview; while I’m walking in a particularly white neighborhood and feel either invisible or on display; when I don’t hear it from a family member when it matters most; when I’ve chosen to step out from the assumptions I feel while under my parent’s gaze; or right after a moment of realization that I just failed myself.
Tell yourself the truth.
Love yourself first.
Have you truly let go of the person you thought you were supposed to be?
Have you truly let go of her?
I have so much love for her, so much empathy for her. If I saw her on the street I would run, give her a big hug, squeeze her tight, whisper in her ear and say, “It will be more than alright.” I would kiss her on the cheek, wipe her tears away, look her dead in the eye, and smile like a mother smiles at her daughter.
At the same time, I’m working towards increasing self-ownership, self-love, self-belief, and self-worth. I’ve come to view freedom as a continuous process as well. It’s more about the “going” than where I’m going and more about the “being” than where I’m being sent.
“...this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.” - James Baldwin
Maya Angelou’s caged bird sang of freedom while being caged. James Baldwin described the pain that comes with realizing that who we actually are so greatly differs from the image we think ourselves to be. This identity ideal is a fantasy, he says, and it leads to death. Nina Simone wished she knew how it would feel to be free. A feeling can be a sensation the body experiences, and a conscious recognition of that, or an emotional state of mind and often unreasoned belief. But, as we all know, feelings are a powerful source of compulsion. The question is, do you need to be free to feel free?
For me, freedom is something I can call myself, somewhere to reel myself into when I’ve fallen offshore.
It’s every time I give myself the benefit of the doubt.
It’s every time I treat myself with kindness.
It’s every time I see beyond what lies in front of me.
It’s every time I wake up and get out of bed.
About the author: Damme Getachew is a global storyteller and a hardcore dreamer. She is currently working on self-publishing a book of poetry, which you can see the process of and learn more about on her website: www.dammegetachew.com. Damme utilizes her visual and literary brand MYHNY - pronounced "my honey" - to explore narratives around diasporic consciousness, vulnerability, mental health, and liberation. She is a first gen, coffee drinker, candle lighter, genre-defying music listener, rose water face sprayer, and NYC transplant.