Freedom Summer: What We Mean When We Say ‘Get Free’

By Chelcee Johns. Photography by Rikki Wright.

We have tasted, rummaged over what it feels like to not feel free in America today. Be it the police shooting of Charleena Lyles, no conviction for Philando Castile, rage-filled murder of Bianca Nikol Roberson. New studies that show Black girls are seen as less innocent than their counterparts starting at the age of five (five ya’ll). Number 45’s (we don’t really speak his name ‘round these parts) blatant sexism, racism, cowardice, childish twitter rants.  A country seemingly both ours and not our own. It is no wonder the sentiments of “Get Free” still blare loudly today.

It is easy to slip into the fold of overwhelm, to hypothesize what it really means to be free in this America. And so, it has been a minute since I really, deeply brewed over a word. I did this weekend, over the idea of getting and staying free with “Independence Day” upon us, with concepts of freedom that were never meant for Black and Brown folk threading our conversations. How is prioritizing wellness a part of that journey into freedom? And what if we’ve gotten love drunk on the arrival, that we’ve forgotten how to exist in freedom in the now. We’ve got so much necessary resistance, we become more defined by our fight than our flight. We’re ready to fight for freedom, but what would it look like to simply be free?

Right now, for me personally, freedom is the act of unapologetically taking up space. It is allowing my Black woman voice, body, beliefs to take up residency without apology.

What is the opposite of freedom? Captivity. Belonging to a thing you’d rather not. That thing could be unhealthy beliefs about yourself, a weathered relationship, a sinking self, a hostile country.

Freedom is to beg the question of belonging: Whose are you? How do I consistently belong to myself? When I do not feel like I am my master, then who or what is? It may sound a bit morbid, we’re quick to go ‘no one owns me’ but no one is left unscarred by the America we live in, by the systematic injustices. We are all inherently problematic, even at our best. And freedom can be found in making peace with our humanity.

“I had plans originally to tell the world how to make it a better place… (but) we gotta work on ourselves before we can work on the world,” said the gospel that is Chance the Rapper when receiving his Humanitarian Award at the recent BET Awards.

It is this idea, I’d like to purport as “Getting Free,”… the work on ourselves. And not just the work, but the daily celebrations of freedom we can bestow on ourselves when the world does not.

Our wellness journeys, our day parties, our protests, our twerks, our worship, our brown bodies moving and singing and swelling and smiling…this too is an act of BEING Free. What if we practiced the act of being free on a very rudimentary level in our lives every day?

“Being can be felt as the ever-present I am that is beyond name and form. To feel and thus know that you are and to abide in that deeply rooted state is enlightenment, is the truth that Jesus (or whatever you believe) says will make you free. Free from what?... Free from fear in its countless disguises…” writes The Power of Now author Eckhart Tolle.

Fear is a solemn poison to freedom. It is often fear that keeps us from moving into our most liberated selves. Often we’re asked to think of our ideal life, ideal day – How would you spend it? What would you do? I’d like to pose another question as we purport our ideal lives: How would they feel if they were truly free?

Mines would feel and center around: love, security, divinity, creativity, service, wellness (and too much to continue). Thinking about our desired feelings allows us to get at the heart of what makes us feel free and next we bring on what we’d be DOING, how we’d live to BE this way. As Danielle LaPorte notes in The Desire Map, too often we do the opposite; we make vision boards of things we desire first, but not how we’d like to feel (at our most free selves).

Our ancestral makeup has often rooted us in destination hypnosis, this concept of “I’ll be free once I’ve arrived.” We see it in the old Black Christian tradition and hymns “When we all get to heaven.”  Slave narratives whose only hope, at times, was the life that’d be met on the other side. What if today is our ‘other side?’ As we resist injustices, we must not also resist our daily freedoms in the now.  It can be hard, this I know all too well, but it is not impossible.

We exist in a state of perpetual weary because we are trying to free a country before settling into the land that is our body, our voice, our beliefs, our desires, our truest selves… before being free ourselves.

“The destination is illusory,” writes Claudia Rankine in Citizen.

What would it feel like if we were all walking around here free now – not awaiting the destination? (But like, really free ya’ll.) Because if we ourselves, our allies and our enemies were free we wouldn’t witness and/or perpetuate the violence we see. And, we can be free without wearing the cloak of “extraordinary negroes,” which is how Dr. Ibram Kendhi would call it in his National Book Award-winning title Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. We are free in our most “basic,” regular selves.

Black excellence is a worthy aspiration. Lord knows I desire the same. But, on the days I am not my “most excellent,” I must still be free. It is our humanity that makes us free, our imperfections make us free… not our ability to be extraordinary.

We see it in the narratives after a Black or Brown person is shot and killed by police, how quick the narrative goes to how “basic,” even violent, this person was or on the opposite “the star, awaiting college.” No. We are valid in every one of our narratives from light to dark. We are worthy of justice and freedom, no matter our stories – we must be free in them. It is hard to empathize with the agencies in our society suppressing us, sometimes for both moral and monetary gain. Number 45 isn’t free. These fear-induced cops are not free. They are more bound by their darkness, than their light.

But I’d like to turn the conversation back to the mirror. What would it look like if I was truly free? If I am not free, what is holding me captive? Does past hurt and frustrations consume me? Am I still frustrated my dream hasn’t come to pass (yet)? Am I fearful of the what if’s? Have I forgiven myself? Am I giving myself enough grace and self-compassion? What holds me captive?

I know, without a doubt, I do not have the answers that unlock freedom for you personally. What I have are trial-runs that have been successful in some seasons of my life. They may be a starting point to seeing what freedom may feel like for you; to then help craft a person and next a world that is more free than how we’ve found it.

1. Get really clear on what freedom feels like (and looks like) for you & retire what is not yours.

2. Find one activity you can do every day that activates this feeling.

3. Journey deeper inside. Self-care is, at times, the first act of creating inner freedom. But we have to dwell in our dark spaces and not just soak them away with bubble baths. Self-care is looking at the ways we may be personally holding ourselves hostage… and opening up to the light.

4. Remind yourself of your voice, when you can’t find the sound exit the noise.

5. Give and serve and give and serve with great regularity. This might seem opposite to freeing the self, however when you give and serve you create more tangible gratitude for the ways in which you are already free and put more high energy into the world.

6. Advocate for yourself and your autonomy.

7. Stop trying to attain freedom, Be Free.

This July here at Black Girl In Om, we’ll be furthering the conversation of freedom – what it looks like, how we are, how we advocate, how we heal and rest and self-care. We’re excited about a new monthly feature centering politics and wellness in one space, kicking off next week with the brilliant Randi Gloss.

See you soon, until then get into our July theme of “Freedom Summer,” send us your pitches about how you get and stay free and let’s be free ya’ll even in the fight.

Chelcee Johns is a digital nomad, Detroit native, editor/content strategist and word & world-loving soul. She is based between Harlem and Detroit, and recently called Bali home for a year. Her passion for the power of the written word & highlighting often policed narratives has led her to work in publishing for the past 7 years with organizations such as Moguldom Media Group, Serendipity Literary Agency, the New York Times and writing for the likes of Ebony. In a rupturing political climate and blooming social change, BGIO is the place Chelc is able to create a community of safe space in our collective stories as Publication Editor. She is empowered by the (inner)work! With that said, her self-care go to is journaling, prayer and meditation.