Convergence / Health / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 1

Down Freedom Road

Down Freedom Road

Image Credit: Deana Lawson, Funereal Wallpaper, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Last Thanksgiving, my mother sat in her open family room staring before and behind her as she told an animated story to me and my eldest sister. Her attention was distracted by the television she sat in front of while we stood, and the visage of Donald J. Trump that now held the screen. Although the volume was down, she broke off her narrative, snatched her whole body around, and declared how much she despised the latent hatred and arrogance activated by the then president-elect’s peculiar ascendency. This so-called immigrant woman of barely five feet, demure yet imperious like Pilate in her absolute clarity about her place in the world, slapped the space above her heart three times and exclaimed: “You see me? You think anybody is going to tell me to sit in the back of the bus? I would be a martyr.”

We should be clear that the “questions” posed in the first half of her uttering are nowhere near the interrogative. A principled assertion of bodily and psychic sovereignty, the queries extend a steely invitation to sight and knowing expressed in a rhetorical sleight of hand local to the vernacular of the misnamed throughout the African diaspora. You feel me? The final part of her missive conjures, in one historical instance, the life-determining actions of antebellum Ohio’s own, Margaret Garner, the impetus of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Beloved. Garner’s decision to attempt to kill her children rather than have them inherit a life of bondage, terror, and toil is represented, at least by turns in Morrison’s retelling, as a love too thick to be indulged in the unsettled and actively hostile climate of nineteenth-century America. Garner’s deadly insistence that she endured the indignities of slavery, but her children will not, is, finally, a fatal example of the terrible effort required to make a claim on the very subjectivity that can soften the mind when one finds oneself in what my dear colleague Hortense Spillers might call, “a genocidal circumstance.” The murderous hand caught red, as it were, in the death act is simultaneously an excessive, if reasonable gesture of personification and self-fashioning. And while I share Morrison’s embrace of her friend’s reconciliation of the ethical conundrum at the center of both dramas (that Garner’s cum Sethe’s impossible determination was “the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it”), I wonder if martyrdom and infanticide are not themselves profound expressions of love and internal autonomy in conditions of captivity and routinized terror (Moyers 272).

And if it is true, as James Baldwin maintained, that “the world is held together, really it is held together by the love and the passion of very few people,” what do we make of his contention, made in the same context at the top of the 1970s, in the aftermath of all those shameful American assassinations, that “love has never been a popular movement and no one’s ever wanted, really, to be free?” (Dixon 1971). I isolate Baldwin’s statement, and invert the sequence of his exposition, to amplify the correspondence between the presence of love as action and a self-regard sufficiently thick to be uttered in the mortal language of life and death—if you really want to be free.

Ten years later he would illustrate this more pointedly in the opening narration of his cinematic collaboration with Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, which chronicles his return to cities of civil rights struggle in the American South: “Medgar, Martin, Malcolm. Dead…But there is another roll call of unknown, invisible people who did not die, but whose lives were smashed on Freedom Road. And what does this say concerning the morality of this country, or the morality of this Age?” (Hartley and Fontaine 1982). Released five years before his premature death, Grapevine reveals a sober Baldwin in the early years of the Reagan era wondering aloud what has happened to the nation twenty-five years after he interrupted his somewhat self-imposed exile to join the struggle for freedom on this side of the Atlantic.

My return to Morrison’s consideration of a scene in the brutal calculus of enslavement, as well as my invocation of Baldwin’s deep and sustained engagement with the incalculable human damage exacted by our most recent organized struggle for liberation, is an attempt to reconcile the initial shock my sister and I both felt at my middle-class mother’s explicit claim on martyrdom—expressed as it was in her incipient refusal of a return to the order of Jim Crow America. Born in Jamaica and heir to the colonial logics of color and class location in this predominantly black country, my mother nevertheless regarded the daily obscenity and humiliation of black life in the mid-twentieth century US as a bridge too far, for her and for all of us.

My mother died three months ago after an incredibly short battle with cancer. A twenty-plus year veteran, making tube feedings for cancer patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York, Jean Blint knew what the disease could do to the body and the spirit. And I suspect she was vaguely, if not acutely aware, especially close to the end, that something wasn’t quite right. The proud subject of a living will for more than a decade, my mother made clear that she didn’t want to be kept around in case something should happen to her. As my father tells it, she was feeling weak for a couple of weeks, didn’t tell him how bad it was, and would kick him under the table when he tried to raise the issue or respond honestly to our questions. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he took her to the doctor where she was diagnosed over the course of a few days. Securing a one-way ticket, I flew to be with her, not yet knowing the seriousness of the illness. I remember being annoyed that she would risk her well-monitored health in this way. But when I saw her, I could tell from the look in her eyes that this was serious, and it all melted away. She would be the architect of her own demise, after all. I witnessed a particular kind of martyrdom over those last ten days I spent with her. Knowing the limits of modern medicine, she refused any intervention until the last hour, so to speak, electing instead to live her life fully.

In a time when freedom has lost all sensible meaning, it appears, when the “rights” of white supremacists to spew hate are increasingly being protected by institutions at all levels of society (including our universities!), and when our understanding of what counts as the truth is as illusive and brittle as liberal good intentions, my mother’s definitive example resonates powerfully. The “love and the passion” of this singular human being has gone from the world, but she leaves a mark, a model of how to hold the world together, as Baldwin would have it. It is one suffused by a radical interiority, a pervasive possession of the self that is animated by an abiding belief in justice and the will to be free. As the world endures a protracted moral contraction with the impulse toward fear and repression, we do well to remember this illustration of how to live and die with dignity, and love as our battle cry—down here below.

Works Cited
Dixon, Terence. Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris UK/France, (1971, 31m)

Hartley, Pat, and Dick Fontaine. I Heard It Through the Grapevine, US/UK, (1982, 95m)

Moyers, Bill. “A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” In Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danielle Taylor-Guthrie, 262, 284, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1994.

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