Indicators of freedom from “12 Years a Slave”

I went to see “12 Years a Slave” the other night, but was a little apprehensive about going, given what I’d heard.  To keep it together I decided to take notes as your faithful scribe of “just philanthropy,” on  those indicators of enslavement or loss of freedom that I noticed.

It’s a long list because the film, exploring the enslavement of Africans in this country, is so thorough.  In it, enslavement is marked by the loss of those freedoms below, noted in the order I saw them.  The film makes clear that to not have these freedoms is to be dominated and oppressed.  To not have these freedoms is to be in prison.  To not have these freedoms is to be enslaved.

One can argue that many of these deprivations are ordinary or garden variety offenses inherent in the human condition, relatively petty actions that maybe most of us have experienced at least a little, and don’t really rise to the standard of “official slavery.”  But when any of these is part of a persistent and insistent pattern of not just one but several of these deprivations, then that approaches the condition of slavery.  And it rises even more to the condition of slavery when this pattern is enforced by legal, customary, or institutionalized authority.

At the very least, these “indicators of freedom” are aspirational, goals for the future, being about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that we as Americans care so much about:

To be permitted to make a home where one wants, and to eat where one wants

To be permitted to work where one is able, and to be rewarded

To be permitted to learn, and to express oneself

To be permitted to love whom one wants, and be loved back

To be permitted prospects for advancement, for improvement, for living a better life

To not be denied knowledge of where one comes from, or be forced to pretend otherwise

To not be hurt by another’s hand, and be free of beatings and worse

To not be denied fair treatment in any or all dealings

To not be denied the opportunity to friend, or to be befriended; to care for, and be cared for

To not be denied the freedom to go where one wants, unafraid and unfettered

To be free of risk of kidnap and being held for ransom or sold into slavery

To be permitted to live, not just survive

To live without fear of death by another’s hand

To not be brutalized or demeaned, and not be required to brutalize or demean others to save oneself

To be known for who one really is

To not be separated forcibly from one’s family

To not be required to forget one’s children, or one’s parents

To not be lorded over by anyone thinking himself superior

To be able to use one’s talents, and to profit from one’s honest labor

To feel the satisfaction of work done well

To share in the bonhomie of one’s colleagues

To be permitted to escape the depths of despair

To not be made to vanish from the sight of one’s loved ones

To not be hanged within an inch of one’s life, by anyone for any reason

To live as an exceptional free man rather than an exceptional nigga

To understand the Lord’s will in a way that incorporates love rather than the dominating ambitions of another

To not be required to be a party to another’s merriment if you don’t feel like it

To make a break for freedom – and make it!  — to escape the curse of the Pharaohs

To be comforted in this life

To not have the sanctity of one’s own dignity be violated

To be able to write a letter, and to send it without fear of interception or theft

To not be required to destroy one’s own means of salvation

To know God’s blessings, even as one’s life is ending

To understand that what is true and right in the eyes of God, is true and right for all

To not be required to suffer the moralizing of ignorant fools

To be united, or re-united, with what is rightfully yours

To have the world recognize that what you built, you built, and to receive fair compensation

To know one’s own children, and grandchildren

To have those who have transgressed against you know the meaning of their actions

To believe in justice and rescue as if it is possible

These are all knowable and observable indicators of freedom.  People can agree on how much they do or do not prevail  in their circles and communities.  They inform a framework of social indicators useful to advancing a more just philanthropy, and a more free society.

Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / December 16, 2013