Freedom is complicated: finding hope in a day that isn’t fully yours
I woke up yesterday finding nothing spectacular about the day. I got to sleep in, which was nice so I woke up at 7. I got to lay (lie? I…
I woke up yesterday finding nothing spectacular about the day. I got to sleep in, which was nice so I woke up at 7. I got to lay (lie? I can never tell) in bed and think about where I was last year.
Last year, two men (Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling) were killed within a week of each other and their deaths could be watched and scrutinized. Last year, people were asking questions like, could it really be true that black and brown people in America have a very different — perhaps a much more fearful relationship with law enforcement than white people? People who may have been skeptical were beginning to see things differently. Even those who might still be blinded by the racial implications had questions about the use of deadly police force.
Then the Dallas police shooting happened. A black man with a troubled background killed five police officers at what was a peaceful demonstration. Somehow that incident threw water on the fire that seemed to be sparked yet again on the Black Lives Matter movement. It was ugly, confusing and overwhelmingly sad.
Last year, I realized July 4th was not my holiday and America was not my country. It didn’t seem to belong to black people and regardless of the fact that black hands built the white house, America’s founding fathers did not see the image of God in black skin while they were “holding truths to be self-evident.”
One Year Later
That week, a year ago, did not feel like progress. It did not feel like it was worth celebrating. I was alone for most of this weekend and most of the 4th. I read Langston Hughes, “I, Too Sing America” and I listened to James Baldwin deliver an essay debating “The American Dream.” I also listened to The Liturgist's podcast on Christian violence, when I thought through the idea of freedom established by war and death.
Then I went to see fireworks with some awesome friends in Boston. Something weird happened where the fireworks went off a few minutes before they were supposed to start. There was a loud noise, the feeling of sound pushing through my body and the sudden thought of death — then I saw streams of light fly up into the sky and I breathed a sigh of relief. Right along many people who communicated the same relief that follows unwarranted fear.
The fireworks were beautiful. I had never really understood or liked them before. But we had made about a four hour journey there, full of shared conversations and laughter. I felt like I had to get something out of it.
I’m not gonna lie — I wanted someone to address the tensions of this day — someone who wasn’t me. It was a sigh of relief that it was understood by those in my company that it was a “complicated day” to celebrate. Fireworks are loud and showy. If you’re not in a celebratory mood, they might even be annoying. But I watched, with a little sadness in my heart alongside the awe that comes with mentally trying understand how they design fireworks that say “USA.” I could hear the excitement of kids, shamelessly indulging in wonder — melting my heart. There’s a dream-like quality that comes with watching something that sounds like death and looks strangely alive.
Freedom is complicated.
My brain doesn’t take many vacations. I never quite know how to turn it off. I didn’t turn it off for a single day last year. And in that moment I thought about a lot of things.
Growing up, the story of the American Revolution was so simple and so inspiring. Hearing how the kids reacted to the fireworks reminded me of how much I longed for a simply story. An idea of freedom that can be celebrated by all Americans on one day.
There was a point where I closed my eyes and relived the feelings of the unexpected fireworks that went off earlier. I heard the sound of hurt, the sound of violence, the sound of war, the sound of freedom — a complicated freedom. I wondered what comfort could be found in that sound? It sounds only like chaos and confusion — like brothers, American and British on opposite sides of a line in accusation. Like brothers, on the north and south side of a line in a tug of war that seemed to sever about as much as it unified. I also couldn’t resist being aware of how my body felt, and I held back tears thinking about people who are alive today who know what it’s like to feel the vibration of gunshots nearby and wonder if you’re next.
It wasn’t celebration, not fully. It was mourning that allowed for a war won and a song that declares “in God we trust” to carry a little bit of shame, despite the fanfare that would suggest otherwise.
When my eyes were open there was something to wonder about, to see. I could see that freedom was complicated and beautiful. I could see that there was always a cost. I was not in a place to be happy, to celebrate and wish celebratory tidings unto others —
but once the fireworks died down, there was applause.
Then there was smoke obscuring the city skyline. There was a crowd of people just trying to get home, police officers just trying to keep everyone safe, park rangers just trying to keep things in order. It was messy and somehow we walked through the messiness together as if it’s part of the dance of humanity: Lightly looking out for our own interests as we shuffled our bodies to get on the subway, looking back — only for those we know to make sure we could stay together, trying not to make eye contact with strangers you are standing too close to as you are nearly packed like sardines into the subway car. We could all easily forget that we were all in the same place, reveling in the magical light show in the sky —
but for a moment, we all saw something.