This is how we can envision Black freedom

For the U.S. to untangle itself from its legacy of white supremacism, we must live like we understand what our true history teaches us, from Emmett Till to George Floyd.

Before an integrated crowd of 75,000, Marian Anderson sings on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. Though a renowned classical singer, Anderson wasn’t allowed to perform at Constitution Hall, a venue the Daughters of the American Revolution owns, because she was Black.
Photograph by THOMAS D. MCAVOY, THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION VIA GETTY IMAGES

I.

On June 27, 2015, Black artist and activist Bree Newsome Bass climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina statehouse and took down the Confederate flag that had flown above the people of that state for over 50 years. This act came 10 days after a white supremacist murdered eight Black parishioners and their pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Grown from a congregation first organized by enslaved and free Blacks in the late 18th century, Emanuel is the oldest African
Methodist Episcopal church in the American South. It is a church where Black freedom has been envisioned and practiced throughout the entirety of its existence, from the 19th-century congregant Denmark Vesey—who bought his own freedom and helped plan a revolt of his fellow human beings who were still enslaved—to the 20th-century civil rights marchers and leaders who regularly gathered within its sacred space.

As she expected, Newsome Bass was arrested as soon as she rappelled down the statehouse flagpole, Confederate flag in hand. Her act memorialized Emanuel’s pastor and parishioners. It also made an ephemeral but indelible monument to Black freedom. 

When asked why she did what she did, Newsome Bass answered, “I did it because I am free.”

What does it mean to be Black and free in a country that rejects Black freedom?

II.

I am an educator who teaches students about submerged histories, revelatory art, and the critical thinking that sharpens questions that move us toward truth. I am a poet, and my poet’s tool is the word. The word is holy and bears the heft of human experience; the poet must wield it as precisely as possible. I have found that writing poems brings me closer to understanding my fellow human beings—individually and in community—in our many contradictions and complex histories. Poems give form to truths and understandings that might otherwise be lost.

As leader of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I am privileged to help support artists, thinkers, researchers, and other kinds of builders who illuminate stories and experiences that have often been hidden, overwritten, or mistold.

In a year darkened by loss, their light shone with particular power through the work we are supporting with the largest initiative in our history, the Monuments Project. 

We have found inspiration in monuments like artist Judith Baca’s “Great Wall of Los Angeles,” a vibrant mural more than half a mile long that has brought together dozens of community members over 40 years to paint a richer, more inclusive history of California. 

We supported a new memorial to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who, when visiting family in Mississippi in the summer of 1955, was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His mother brought his body back to Chicago for an open-casket funeral to “let the people see what they did to my boy,” and Jet magazine published photographs that would widely spread the word of a terrifying story that was not isolated.

Till became an emblem of the racist violence that Blacks were still subject to and helped to catalyze the civil rights movement. The site sign that marks where his body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi had to be replaced many times because it was riddled with bullet holes. 

As an educator and fieldbuilder in African American studies, I believe that the knowledge from this field sits at the center of any genuine understanding of the United States, holding the legacy and ongoing existence of anti-Black enmity in its unflinching gaze alongside the knowledge, philosophy, and creativity that emerges from this American history of struggle and endurance. 

The lynching of Emmett Till and the mass murder of the Emanuel parishioners—among countless other acts of anti-Black terrorism down through the generations—underscore this truth about our country: It was built in part, and is still being built, on anti-Black hatred and violence. How do we move forward with this contemptible knowledge and its antidotes as our guides?

III.

On January 6, 2021, domestic terrorists carried out a violent insurrection at the United States Capitol. Incited by the president and some in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, this armed and organized mob brutalized law enforcement; killed a police officer; terrorized democratically elected representatives, their staffs, and some of their family members; assaulted journalists; erected a gallows; looted offices; stole documents and laptops, including that of the speaker of the House, which the thief allegedly planned to sell to Russian agents; smeared human feces through the building; and extensively defaced commemorative displays and works of art, including a memorial placard to Congressman John Lewis, the recently deceased civil rights icon. 

Also on that day: A Confederate flag, which had never before breached the heart of Congress, was waved in its halls by one of the terrorists. This flag memorializes white supremacy, commemorates the lost cause of those who fought a war to keep Black Americans enslaved, and instructs race-based hatred. 

After hours spreading savagery and chaos through the halls, the terrorists were largely allowed to depart the Capitol unfettered. Photographs showed Black and brown custodial workers cleaning up the wreckage the mob left behind. 

IV.

Years ago, I wrote a series of sonnets in the voices of young Black women who studied at Quaker educator Prudence Crandall’s school in Canterbury, Connecticut, in the 1830s. White parents pulled their daughters from the school because they did not want them educated alongside Black students, but Miss Crandall continued educating those young Black women and girls despite the violent opposition of Canterbury’s white residents. Those residents ultimately burned the school to the ground. Miss Crandall’s unwavering courage could not keep the schoolhouse safe. But in the sonnets’ vision, the rare quest for education for Black women was “the one perfect religion” that the townspeople could not destroy.

Without learning, without knowledge, without the voices and the experiences and the insights gained from a determined excavation of our country’s past, we will never eradicate racism and racial violence. If we are to stop weaving white supremacism into the fabric of our country, then we must learn our full histories. We must live like we understand what that history teaches us.

In a poem, I once portrayed the great poet Robert Hayden in the 1940s as he dedicated himself, “stoop-shouldered,” to sifting through the records of the slave ship Amistad, extracting history’s hidden insights and the story of resistance from that ship’s log. “Blood from a turnip,” I wrote of his daunting and exhausting process of deep research to tell the story of “this / protagonist-less / Middle Passage” from the perspective of the captives rather than solely that of the captors. 

Ultimately the “slavers’ meticulous records” revealed the determination of the Africans on board to resist being dehumanized as property. That gave Hayden, in turn, the knowledge he needed to tell us the story too few had contemplated: that there were many Black people who challenged slavery as their fate and fought back for their freedom, as well as white people who were their allies. 

To return to Miss Crandall: After her school was destroyed, in 1834, one of her students, a young Black woman named Julia Williams, moved to New Hampshire to study at an integrated school. There, as in Canterbury, the act of teaching Black and white children together drew a violent response from white people in the community. I researched the history and then described, in the conjured voice of Miss Williams, an unforgettable true scene: 

From the town and neighbors came 
three hundred armed men, ninety oxen teams. 

They dragged the school building utterly off 
its foundation. I have twice seen bloodlust 
and ignorance combust. I have seen it.

Bloodlust and ignorance combust. I continue to return to those words.

V.

New York City, where I was born, is a city that exists in the mind and in the matter-of-fact corporeality of day-to-day New Yorkers as one definition of freedom—freedom of expression, freedom of belief, and the power of a multicultural metropolis. 

The identity emerges from complexity. More enslaved Black people lived in New York City in the 1700s than in any city other than Charleston, South Carolina. Many free Black people lived in New York as well, in places such as Seneca Village, where residents were forced out by eminent domain in 1857 before the community was razed to build Central Park. Those enslaved and free Black people’s stories still speak to us through material clues such as the coins, beads, coffins, and shrouds left behind in subterranean sites like the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan.

In Brooklyn, in 2001, five corncobs laid out in a distinct shape were found in a crawl space of a house. Those corncobs formed a star, scholars determined, that suggested a West African cosmogram, one that conveys two worlds of the living and the dead, both eternally connected in a West African vision of the cosmos in diaspora.

When I read about that archaeological discovery, I envisioned the moment when the rumor of freedom was made real, in a poem called “Emancipation”:

Corncob constellation,
oyster shell, drawstring pouch, dry bones.

Gris gris in the rafters.
Hoodoo in the sleeping nook.
Mojo in Linda Brent’s crawlspace.

Nineteenth century corncob cosmogram
set on the dirt floor, beneath the slant roof,
left intact the afternoon
that someone came and told those slaves,

‘We’re free.’

Imagine, the revelation of freedom—two words, “We’re free.” We are still enacting and imagining the aftermath. 

VI.

In mid-century Los Angeles, in the Watts neighborhood, an Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia built an extraordinary structure by hand. The Watts Towers soar toward the sky in multiple forms, nearly a hundred feet tall at the highest. Rodia envisioned and built the towers day by day over three decades, from durable steel and delicate wire mesh, bottle glass, white seashells, pottery shards, mint chip and maraschino mosaic tiles, shades of lapis lazuli, cobalt, and the thick, bright yellow of a crayoned sun. Like the “corncob constellation” left behind in the crawl space of the house in Brooklyn, each seemingly mysterious object carries power and meaning.

“It shows that we are people too, that we have brains and we can make it too if we put our minds to it,” Carolyn Byers, a young woman from Watts, said of the towers. She was talking to a reporter in 1991, the year Rodia’s vision was designated a national landmark; six months before that, a Black man named Rodney King was brutally beaten by white police officers in the San Fernando Valley, and the officers’ subsequent acquittal sparked five days of riots across South Los Angeles. 

Rodia moved to Watts about a century and a half after the Spanish founded the pueblo that became Los Angeles. Many of the Gabrielino-Tongva peoples who were the first inhabitants of the Los Angeles Basin were forced into enslaved labor at the region’s Spanish missions. By 1848 the part of Tovaangar that would become Watts had passed from the Spanish Empire to the Republic of Mexico and then was taken, along with more than half of Mexico’s territory, by the aggressively expansionist United States at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. 

Rodia lived in the community as it changed from one populated mostly by whites and Mexican Americans to a home for African Americans who had left the South in the Great Migration. By the time he completed the towers in 1954, the Watts community was predominantly Black; today, one full century after he first put his hands to steel at East 107th Street, it is majority Latinx, including large communities of Mexicans and Salvadorans. Throughout this time—throughout Los Angeles—descendants of the Gabrielino-Tongva peoples have continued to live in and honor their ancestral homeland. None of these complexities contradict; we must understand them together.

I have always been so moved by the inspirational power and seeming impossibility of the towers that I described them in the poem “Stravinsky in L.A.”: “The Watts Towers aim to split / the sky into chroma, spires tiled with rubble / nothing less than aspiration.” 

To aspire: from the root meaning, fundamentally, “to breathe.”

VII.

When my family moved to Washington, D.C., from Harlem in late 1963, many parts of the city were racially segregated. I grew up a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. My family and I would regularly stroll its meticulously tended grounds and sometimes picnic. Most years on the Fourth of July, we’d lay out blankets in the humid evening and listen to the U.S. Marine Band as fireworks exploded overhead in the summer deep darkness. 

The Library of Congress was my childhood library because the Library of Congress is a public library. In high school I would research and write my papers there. Sitting in the glorious rotunda, I would think with excitement how the very building in which I learned held almost every single book on Earth. Anyone who walked through the doors had access to them.

I knew that the Capitol was where the actual business of our country’s governance took place and that it stood gleaming as both a symbol and a site for working out the complexities of millions of different people, with all their beliefs and backgrounds and experiences, living alongside one another in an ever evolving democratic experiment. My parents taught me that the Capitol was built by enslaved Black people, and that reverence for a space that was ours did not erase understanding voter suppression and the three-fifths compromise. They showed me how to hold seeming contradiction with a comprehension of our full history.

At the Lincoln Memorial, the towering marble form of the 16th president might make a child feel dwarfed, just as it made me feel as a child. But I want the child of today to understand that this figure is not merely a shadowing stone statue. It is also a site of powerful community gathering and activation. As the central location of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech—and so many marches to follow—the Lincoln Memorial is one of the most significant sites of civic action in our history. When Marian Anderson sang “my country, ’tis of thee” on its steps in 1939, she rebuked the segregation that had barred her from singing in Constitution Hall before the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Monuments and memorials are places where people come together to remember, to collectively mark a moment, to be a “we,” to help identify a new direction, and to make a way forward. This is the case even when the way forward is shaped by grief and not by joyful determination. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by the artist and architect Maya Lin when she was just 21 years old, introduced into the D.C. of my young adulthood a memorial that had no precedent in the D.C. of my childhood. This slash into the earth bears no figuration. It holds instead the ephemeral reflections of those who walk down into the ground to mourn their dead, evoking the true cost of all wars. It does so even as it raises unarticulated questions about the millions of Southeast Asian people who also were killed in that particular war, and whose names are not recorded on the memorial’s black granite. 

What would it mean for us to have monuments and memorials that do not teach us to memorialize war or to commemorate fighting against others? What would it mean to enact the enduring spiritual’s words, “I ain’t gonna study war no more,” in our monuments?

VIII.

Tell the whole damn truth, in our history, our art, our words, and our memorials. 

Mighty civil rights and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s words are the simple truth: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Fighting for Black freedom means, in the words of Robert Hayden, “visioning a world where none is lonely, none hunted, alien.” It means understanding 19th-century Black enslavement alongside 21st-century Black mass incarceration; comprehending why Emmett Till’s casket is the most sacred object in the National Museum of African American History and Culture; acknowledging the horror of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s murders standing in seemingly never ending seriality with so many other murders. Fighting for Black freedom means centering the crucial questions raised by decades and decades of African American studies; they are still the right questions. And recognizing that the bravery of Bree Newsome Bass in June 2015 is more powerful than the violent desecration of the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.

Most days I play or hear in my head Nina Simone’s 1967 version of the Billy Taylor song, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” The song has light and delight; it is singable, and in one facet, joyful. But the “wish” is both a commanding action—wish it, make it happen—as well as a word that says we’re not there yet. The conditional tense, “would,” marks that freedom is not fully attained. 

The song’s bright music moves us ever forward. But Simone’s voice, in all its coloration and nuance, the dark side it carries in its light, reminds us that freedom—the right of every one of us—is a process. Freedom is work. Freedom doesn’t come by wishing. We must vision it. And we have survived by enacting those visions.

Elizabeth Alexander—poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and cultural advocate—is president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She is the author or editor of 14 books and twice was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; her book The Trayvon Generation is to be published this fall. She wrote the poem “Praise Song for the Day” for Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009 and delivered it there.

This story appears in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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