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 write down all the indicators of freedom, or the absence of it, that I noticed.
The list grew long. The film explores the enslavement of Africans in this country, and is quite thorough. 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 offenses inherent in the human condition. Some seem like petty limitations that maybe most of us have experienced at least a little. If you look at them one at a time it might not rise to the standard of “official slavery.” But when bundled as part of a persistent pattern deprivation, then the picture adds up. And it’s more recognizable as real slavery when this pattern is enforced by legal authority.
I turned my list of indicators of enslavement into their more positive form. Call them “indicators of freedom.” We all want to know these. Consider them aspirational, pursuits of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that we as Americans care so much about:
Indicators of freedom
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
You can use these indicators
These indicators of freedom are all personal but at the same time, observable. People can judge how much these indicators of freedom do or do not prevail in their circles and communities. It is certain and well-documented that disparities exist between White and non-White demographic groups in America, even though official slavery has passed.
Philanthropic organizations can use these indicators to create a more effective philanthropy. Community activists can use them to support stronger community development. They Nonprofit managers can use them to create stronger program designs. Program evaluators can use them as part of a framework to advance a more equitable and free society.
And people who know their own history with chains can use them to chart their progress and inform more effective advocacy for a program of reparations.