freedom: from, to, with

I might not love freedom at all
–Blanche Taylor Dickinson


I am not sure where to start. Or how. A part of me says the desire for freedom must be so self-evident, so beyond questioning, but then I am arrested by Blanche Taylor Dickinson. Thomas Holt teaches me that modern freedom acquires its meaning only because slavery exists—our modern notions of freedom mean, in a very particular sense—freedom from enslavement. Freedom from slavery. For this to make sense, we need the rich understandings of slavery created by many thinkers: slavery as thing-making; slavery as ungendering; slavery as mass entertainment; slavery as labor; slavery as sexual violence; slavery as producing profit; slaves as fungible; slavery as natal alienation; slavery as social death; slavery as the foundation of racial capitalism; slavery as foundational to modernity; slavery as foundational to the world we now inhabit, as practice and metaphor; slavery as foundational to the modern nation-state; slavery as foundational to modern governmentality.

Kenya’s solicitor general said freedom from enslavement was an absolute freedom that could not be questioned or taken away. We need more robust thinking about what freedom from enslavement is. We need more robust thinking about enslavement as practice, as world-making, as person-obliterating, as self-destroying, as community-destroying, as possibility-unmaking. We need more robust thinking about the worlds that slavery makes, about the lives that slavery destroys, about the afterlives of slavery, so we can understand the possibilities of claiming this “absolute freedom.”
Nina Simone sings, “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.” Audre Lorde writes, “If we win / there is no telling.” Adrienne Rich writes,

freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
remembering. Putting together, inch by inch
the starry worlds.

Shailja Patel writes, “Give this pain to no one else.”

Women pursuing freedom dreams.
Turning to Audre Lorde, I remember

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.


As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action.


we must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions that our dreams imply, and so many of our old ideas disparage


it is our dreams that point the way to freedom

Robin Kelley teaches me,

In the poetics of struggle and lived experience, in the utterances of ordinary folk, in the cultural products of social movements, in the reflections of activists, we discover the many different cognitive maps of the future, of the world not yet born.

Hata sielewi nianze wapi. (Kimya.) Unasikia Juma . . . . Hebu tuanze . . . . Ninahisi nini nataka kusema, lakini akili haiupi ulimi maneno yanayoeleza kuhisi kwangu au feelings zangu. Na akili vile vile pengine haifahamu tatizo hili, lakini ninahisi. Kwa mfano, toka tumepata uhuru, sisi Waafrika hapa, imekuwa kama tumeingia . . . ehe, mfano mzuri . . . imekuwa kama tumeingia katika . . . katika jahazi moja zuri sana, na jina letu limeandikwa. Lakini . . . nahodha . . . nahodha nani?—Ebrahim N. Hussein, Mashetani
Subha Wijesiriwardena writing on the recent Sri Lankan election:

So you see, democracy is not just a system, a structure; it is also a feeling. It is a feeling within each one of us; a desire to be led, a desire to be led by the things we believe in and the people we see those things in. It is a desire to stand up, to feel powerful in our own way, to wield that power in the face of despair and frustration. It is a feeling that inspires other feelings; it gives us courage, it gives us hope.

This resonates

I was tired of how terrible it felt to belong to Sri Lanka. I was devastated to find myself feeling like I wanted to leave, and never go back. I am angry at how they took that from me, from us all – the right to enjoy that feeling of citizenship, the ability to embrace the place to which you belong, to live in it freely, to love it freely. I am angry at how impossible it became to enjoy Sri Lanka – how, every time, I felt joy or experienced beauty, I was immediately overcome by the feeling that I was doing something terribly unjust. I was tired – as you should have been – of having become so deeply complicit in all the awfulness. I was tired that we found ourselves living in a nation where we had no choice but to be complicit. No matter what we did – every road we took, every time we shopped for groceries – we were complicit.

We feel unfreedom. No matter what state rhetorics might proclaim about the “freedoms we enjoy,” we feel unfreedom. It makes us whisper. It makes us swagger. It makes us laugh too loudly. It makes us cry hysterically. It makes us break out in hives. It makes us beat each other. It destroys households. It intensifies violence against the vulnerable. It makes us corporate. It makes us defend “brands” over freedom. It makes freedom unthinkable. It stifles dreams. It produces empty cultural gestures. It kills the courage to dream. It kills the courage to imagine differently. It produces empty aesthetics. It unsees the violence of neoliberalism.

We survive in a haze of lies and narcotics.

If we survive.
Kenya is in a state of unfreedom. Freedom has become impossible to say, to imagine, to think, to pursue.
Our most public minds fiddle with little nudges here and there. Refusing to name our unfreedom. Profiting from our unfreedom. Protecting class and kin affiliation—“I know that person, that person is a good person.” Protecting formal documents and institutions—we have “the most progressive constitution in Africa.” And still the violence continues and intensifies. And still the unfreedom intensifies.
We need dreams that point the way to freedom. We need to imagine that life can be lived differently, that Kenya can be a sharable space. Against the politics of patronage and sycophancy, the politics that make death and spread dying, against the politics of fear and intimidation, we need different visions, better visions.
Elizabeth Povinelli taught me to question the word “freedom.” She argues that we need to think about embedding before/as/instead of thinking of “freedom.”

A freedom-seeking imagination can envision a sharable world—a world where we are with each other in a range of configurations. Embedding can happen in and with freedom. We can share freely.

A sharable Kenya is possible.

Imagine it.

Dream it.

Pursue it.

2 thoughts on “freedom: from, to, with

  1. Great read, keep up the good work; I think freedom starts from the inside out; and not the other way round. I can not pretend to know what it is like living in some of the conditions in Kanya; and i know that it can take generations to change peoples attitudes; it has to come from the children of today to bring about these attitude changes. Good luck, LOL Murray

  2. The thing about freedom is that it doesn’t just happen, it has to be fought for, but I don’t mean in a violent way, I just mean that for the space of freedom to exist, that space has to be worked for and intentionally claimed. It’s the work of peace-building. Some of what you wrote reminds me of Gwendolyn Brooks “First Fight, Then Fiddle.” :

    First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string
    With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
    With hurting love; the music that they wrote
    Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
    Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
    For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
    The bow to silks and honey. Be remote
    A while from malice and from murdering.
    But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
    In front of you and harmony behind.
    Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
    Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
    For having first to civilize a space
    Wherein to play your violin with grace.

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