What is Freedom?

Grace Gámez is a Pan Left member and recently received her doctorate in Justice Studies.  Her research focuses on formerly incarcerated mothers. She attended the Incite! Color of Violence Conference this year where radical ideas about transformative justice were shared.  Here are some of her ideas she came away with about freedom.

At the end of March 2015 I was fortunate to have my attendance at the “Incite! Color of Violence Conference” (COV4) in Chicago, IL., sponsored by Pan Left Productions. At the time I was writing through the final sections of my dissertation, which focuses on formerly incarcerated and convicted women who are mothers.  COV4 asked questions which are fundamental to transformative possibilities; such as, “What is justice?” “What is freedom?” “What does it mean to be human?”  Because these three questions animate my own research, the conference helped me to think and write through my last dissertation chapters, which focused on transformative justice projects.  Ultimately I argued that freedom is not granted, freedom is claimed.

In Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in the 19th Century (1997), Saidiya Hartman argues that our american conceptualization/understanding of freedom carries the opaque residue of slavery. If we consider Hartman’s argument deeply, we see that freedom is not condition every person has equal access to, freedom can only be understood within the confines of state inflicted terror and subjection.  So, how do people living under conditions of unfreedom resist their shackles? Hartman offers insight here: by re-examining documented tactics such as “work slowdowns, feigned illness, unlicensed travel, the destruction of property, theft, self-mutilation, dissimulation, physical confrontations with owners and overseers” Hartman makes an argument for everyday practices of resistance (p. 51).  We see then, that every day acts of resistance are examples of expressing individual agency when one is without individual rights or written outside of humanity.

For the women who participated in my own research surviving the punishment system was an act of resistance. Every breath they take, every smile, every head-thrown-back- deep-belly laugh, is an act of resistance- an act of claiming freedom, instead of waiting for it to be conferred upon them. Audaciously sharing their stories of mothering alongside the punishment system was a beautiful example of the ways in which people who have been excluded from civil society,  actively resist conditions that work to zombify them.  Through their counter-narratives they reanimate themselves; their self-stories exist in juxtaposition to, and in spite of the construct of “good/bad mothers”. They claim freedom.

My research takes up what “life post-punishment,” is like.  It is an issue that has largely been invisible in mainstream society.  People with conviction histories serve life-time sentences, they are in essence extra-legally punished; they face discrimination in employment, housing, they are excluded from political participation, and educational opportunities.  As a result, they live with constant instability. Despite the fact that people with conviction histories comprise a significant segment of society, they and their families are easily erased.  The COV4 conference affirmed my belief that it is those issues that have been invisibilized that produce the most meaningful insights, which are applicable across diverse struggles for justice and freedom.

I thought a lot about what freedom means to me while at COV4.  My definition of freedom is bound up with how I understand what it means to be human and how the state intervenes in that regard.  The state zombifies people by stripping them of the right to hope. I asked other folks in attendance to define what freedom means to them and I found that at the nexus of their definitions was an active rejection of frameworks that dehumanize, exclude and oppress.  As Ayanna Banks-Harris said, freedom is more complex than being outside of a prison cell because there are a range of ways, perhaps less visible, that a person can be bound and oppressed. Freedom is hope and faith manifested, it is the ability to realize one’s full potential. Freedom is the ability to move ones dreams into the realm of reality- unencumbered by racism, discrimination, homophobia, transphobia.  Freedom means being able to truly choose the life you want to live- as diverse, broad, wild, and creative you can imagine it to be.

Thank you Pan Left Productions for sending me into a space that was pulsating with wild freedom dreamers to complete my dissertation.

Conference attendee Ayanna Banks-Harris gives her thoughts about freedom

Leave a Reply