What Passes for Freedom

Freedom, next stop! Harlem’s 125th street subway station in NYC is adorned by masterpieces on tile by #artist #FaithRinggold.

Freedom should always be our theme. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), I attended a ‘freedom’ panel at the Harlem Book Fair 2012 in the Langston Hughes Auditorium. Were you lucky enough to catch this panel discussion on C-Span Book TV? Here are highlights:

“What Passes for Freedom” featured moderator, Christopher Paul Moore, (Fighting for America: Black Soldiers -The Unsung Heroes of World War 11) with panelists: Nell Irvin Painter (The History of White People); Obrey Hendricks (The Universe Bends Towards Justice: Radical Reflections on the Bible, the Church, and the Body Politic); Farah Jasmin Griffin (Who Set You Flowin’?: The African-American Migration Narrative); and Tanner Colby (Some of My Best Friends Are Black).

Nell Irvin Painter spoke about freedom from “within and without.”  She said that this applies to definitions of who Black people are. In her prelude she said that such oversimplification as lumping all Black people together as one comes from ‘outside’ people. From inside of ourselves, we are infinitely varied individuals, all different, starting with where and when we live, how old we are, what gender, etc. To simplify into ‘Black people,”as one big lump means looking at us from “outside, from without.” Dr. Painter said that our freedom is still circumscribed in important ways, two of which are lack of freedom from bodily harm and freedom from stereotyping.  “We may have had out freedom from slavery, but we were not safe from night riders, burning, pillaging and rape. During slavery we were not free from personal violence– who owns you can hurt you. Today, Black people are not free from stereotyping. Black males are stereotyped as criminals, predators; Black women are sexualized. Even in the art world the use of nudes is rarely used in African American art.”

Obrey Hendricks focused on White Christian church’s role during slavery– tolerating and condoning the torture and terrorism of Black people. He also talked about Black churches. “How are Black churches helping to promote the American dream?” He said Black churches were always at the forefront of the freedom movement but that they were not always true to the cause. “There is a lot fun and entertainment, especially at mega and prosperity churches.”  What he called “churchianity” — exciting the crowds to get them ready for the next performance. “Churches have moved away from their pastoral role and are squandering their freedoms.” He also said that we might be better off talking about justice, equality and ethical and moral teachings.

Farah Jasmin Griffin spoke about freedom’s elusiveness. “Freedom is an ongoing goal or a process that gives birth to many more un-freedoms.” She spoke of the African American slavery experience– needing a pass from their owners to walk about, free Blacks had to carry free papers, after Emancipation thousands of newly freed slaves were said to be ‘wandering around’ the country when in fact they were searching for their families. This lead White Supremists to develop new laws such as Black Codes, Vagrancy laws and other ways to re-enslave. Dr. Griffin said that once we tried to “practice freedom” by exercising our right to mobility as we did in the Great Migration, we found efforts to further confine us like segregated neighborhoods, restrictive covenants and mass incarceration. ‘Stop and Frisk” is the latest effort to curtail our freedom of mobility.

Tanner Colby, the only White person and maybe the youngest on the panel, talked about the journey of writing his book “Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America” He said that young people take freedom for granted and that more youth should get involved in activism. “Segregation never really died but was simply transformed into strict legal barriers of Jim Crow-like social mores and economic policies that maintain a separate and unequal status quo that keeps the races apart, fueling suspicion between them,” said the native of Birmingham. Alabama, who also lived in Kansas, City, Missouri.

Have you ever attended the Harlem Book Fair? Please share your memories!