Memorial Day, 19-something. Flags, barbeques, sparklers, red-white-and-blue dresses. Smiles. I am a typical white American girl who grew up in a typical American household, sometimes lower and sometimes middle-class, in a typical southern-ish town. I didn’t understand the privilege I had. I didn’t understand how others were denied that same privilege. I didn’t understand hunger or abuse or society’s complex dynamics. I didn’t understand what freedom meant. I didn’t understand what it meant to have freedom deprived. Freedom was like air for me.
My eyes are closed in this picture. I have had my eyes closed most of my life.
I heard a lot of talk about freedom, celebration of duty, praise of forefathers and soldiers and presidents. Respect authority, follow directions, be a good girl. I never heard about protests or sit-ins or taking a stand. I collected pennies in a box for the underprivileged and left them at the altar. I never met the underprivileged. Never got engaged. Never leaned into complications or contradictions or dichotomies. The simple life was better. The American life.
How do I celebrate the freedom I enjoy and watch as that freedom is taken from others? How do I understand the ease my skin brings to my life while the darker skin of others is persecuted without reasoning? How do I wear pride and anger at the same time? A knee on a neck, a bullet in the back, a fatal chase down the street for jogging. How have protection and freedom become so tangled, so abused, so volatile? Why does parental advice have to be race specific? Seatbelts, no speeding, wear clean underwear vs. ten and two, hands in the air, give no sass-mouth. How has the choice become either/or, yours or mine?
I learned songs. American songs. I learned the pledge. The national pledge. I learned to be proud of my country. I also learned behavior. White behavior. Beware the man in the hoodie. Then, I learned values. Color-blind values. But I soon realized they were insufficient since we are not created, or at least treated, equally, after all. I learned great ideas, but the truth of those ideas is being tested.
It has been said that the worst thing a writer can be given is a happy childhood. My American childhood was a typical, happy one—with some significant exceptions. It was also a protected one, a shielded one, a blinded one, a proud one. Pride alone can yield neither truth nor freedom.
My pen is in hand and my eyes are closed no longer.