On June 13th, 2021, we welcomed NYC Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson as a guest speaker at our Juneteenth platform titled “Celebrating Juneteenth: Where is the Joy in Freedom?” Below is a transcript of his talk:
Where is the Joy in Freedom?
By NYC Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson
June 13th, 2021
Thank you for inviting me to speak today in commemoration of Juneteenth. This is the first time I’ve been asked to speak before an audience on the significance of Juneteenth, and I welcome the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of freedom from slavery.
This topic is deeply personal for me, as it is for most people of African descent in the Americas. I will tell you why. My father was raised from age 4 by his grandmother in Virginia. My great-grandmother, whom we called Ma Bessie, lived with us for a while when I was very young. Ma Bassie kept a bible that belonged to her mother, my great-great-grandmother. In that bible, my great-great-grandmother recorded the day that Ma Bessie’s sister was born. She wrote in big bold letters, “BORN FREE.”
My Dad died when I was 7, and my Mom became very ill when I was 9, so I lived with my mother’s parents from age 10. We lived in a small town in Pennsylvania, just a few miles north of the Mason-Dixon line—meaning just north of Maryland and the line that separated the North from the slave South during the 1800s. My grandmother’s family had escaped from slavery in Maryland around 1800. My grandmother’s most prized possession was a small cloth sack with some silver dollars in it from the early 1800s. These were the first dollars her ancestors had earned after their escape from slavery—her ancestors had saved those dollars to pass down through the generations—as a reminder. That dollar symbolized freedom for them.
My mother’s father was originally from North Carolina. His mother’s brother, his Uncle Jerry, had been a slave. I once asked my grandfather to tell me what he knew about slavery. He said that Uncle Jerry told him that the worst thing about slavery was the daily humiliation. He said women in the family would be pulled out of the shack at night and raped within earshot of the entire family—and there wasn’t anything they could do about it. I only saw my grandfather cry twice in my life. Once when my grandmother died, and the second time was when he told me this story. Uncle Jerry said that their economic life didn’t change much after slavery, they were as poor as they had been during slavery—they ate plenty of wild game just to survive. The humiliation didn’t end either. My grandfather told me that one day in the early 1920s a ferris wheel came to North Carolina. This was a big deal. He bought a white suit and a white hat and invited his sweetheart to ride with him on the ferris wheel. In the seat behind them a drunk white man got on board. When the ferris wheel had them on the way down, the white man was in top of them. The white man leaned over and threw up all over my grandfather’s white hat and suit—deliberately. My grandfather said there was nothing he could do about it—this was during Jim Crow.
My grandfather didn’t believe black people had ever been truly free, only somewhat less humiliated. My grandfather didn’t believe that poor whites were really free either, only somewhat less humiliated than black people.
I wanted you to know a little about my family’s history so that you might understand why the Juneteenth event and the topic of freedom from slavery is complicated for me—as I’m sure it is for many black people.
First of all, while ending slavery helped us have more dignity and control over our lives, it did not free us economically. Most black people, like my family, ended up working for the same white people they had been enslaved to—for what amounted to the same provision of goods. We never got an opportunity to come close to equal property ownership, or to accumulate wealth. We are still a poor people; many of us are vagabonds in a country we spent hundreds of years building, with no payment at all.
Second, the humiliation never stopped. This is what underlies a lot of the protest we’ve seen in the Movement for Black Lives. Police murders like that of George Floyd and Eric Garner are the most visceral examples, but the humiliation is daily and constant. I was once stopped by a white police officer at the Triboro Bridge. My mother, who was 70 at the time, was in the car, and she asked the policeman why we were stopped. He called my mother all kinds of foul names for simply asking him the question. My mother was a church lady. I never heard her say a curse word in my entire life. She didn’t deserve that humiliation. I have a lot more stories like this. We live in a country that diverted poor white people from dealing with inequality and their own poverty by giving them a false enemy, black people. And, then we give them guns and uniforms to take out their frustrations by stomping all over us.
Third, and this is the worst thing, why are we still gripped by racial conflict 156 years after slavery? I was listening to the Velshi show on MSNBC yesterday morning. He had a journalist on the show who had written a book about the danger of fascism in the US growing out of the Trump movement. Velshi asked if there are any examples of democracy being overthrown in an advanced industrialized democracy. The author said she had consulted with many scholars, and not one could think of an example. This really stunned me. The answer is so obvious. What was Jim Crow, if not a successful rebellion against democracy? Jim Crow lasted until I was in junior high school, this isn’t ancient history. Why were the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th mostly white nationalists? Why can’t the United States look itself in the face?; why can’t white Americans see the race hatred that has undermined true freedom in this country?
This brings me to the main thing I want to discuss this morning, which is the meaning of freedom. If freedom is what distinguishes democracy from every other system, and makes us superior, then what does this freedom consist of? How did we convince ourselves that we are a democracy, a free country, with liberty and justice for all, while practicing slavery and Jim Crow? How do we say we’re a free country today when 1% of the population owns 40% of the nation’s wealth? What kind of freedom are we talking about here?
Indeed, we have a peculiar notion of freedom in this country. We talk about freedom as ‘free will’: the ability to do what you want to do, without government getting in your way. So, freedom in this way can be individualized: “I’m doing what I want to do. I’m free, even if you aren’t.” Or, “My freedom is so valuable, it’s worth sacrificing yours.” My question is, is this really freedom? Of course, it isn’t freedom for the oppressed person. But, is a willing participant in a system that oppresses Others truly free? Is freedom something that can be divided, between haves and have nots? You can live in a gated community, surrounded by security guards and NYPD patrols. You can avoid riding in the subway or going to low-income parts of the City. But is this freedom, or is it a golden jailhouse? You can go around the world and stay in fancy hotels and eat in the best restaurants, but will you ever know the joy of having someone genuinely happy to see you, as opposed to someone who just wants your money? Can any of us imagine a world where we didn’t need nuclear weapons, armies, and police at every corner? A city where we could walk anywhere without fear, and get welcoming smiles wherever we went? Wouldn’t this be a deeper freedom than what we have now; wouldn’t it create more joy?
What prevents us from getting to such a world? I believe the obstacle is the hubris that underlies our popular liberal conception of freedom. The liberal concept of freedom is that, ‘I can do what I want, so long as I don’t impede on the ability of others to do what they want.’ But, in society, we are constantly linked together economically, politically, and socially in towns and cities. The truth is that the more powerful among us have always impeded the ability of the poor, or of minorities, to do what they want. The powerful marginalize the voices of the impeded people so we don’t hear much about oppression until there’s a disruption—like a protest movement. The hubris is when the powerful people declare that this is indeed freedom; that we have figured out the best possible way to live—no more exploration necessary. But if this is the best society can hope for, why are there mass shootings every week? Why are so many Americans depressed and drugged up? Why is there not more joy?
Freedom, I suggest, is not something that individuals can possess by themselves. We must share freedom broadly or none of us can have it. None of us can expect to be free by ourselves, or truly happy, in a world full of hunger, militarism, and disease—as the pandemic has shown us once again. Even a hermit, living alone in the woods, cannot answer the question of ‘who am I’ without confronting the prior question of ‘who and what made me.’ Answering the question of who made me invariably involves family and society. The ability to think for oneself, and to question things, which is an essential part of freedom, begins with understanding thoughts already implanted in your head by society. A hermit that doesn’t understand society can’t really distance him or herself from society, no matter how far in the woods they go. In the same way, a person in this country that doesn’t try to understand racism cannot distance themselves from racism implanted by society in their heads, no matter how much they claim it has nothing to do with them. Nobody thinks with words and concepts they’ve created entirely on their own.
I will go one step further to say that the question of who and what made me has an existential or spiritual side to it that we should not avoid. We speak in terms of science and causality, of regularities we find in nature. But, underlying those regularities is the great unknown. We do not know the origins of the universe, and we therefore don’t know our own origins. Nor do we know destiny. What we see as regularities and relationships, even that between space and time, may only be coincidences of our galaxy. In other words, God (or the spirit of the universe) is not bound by our will or understanding, far from it. God is free. So maybe freedom does not begin with the human will or ego, but in our appreciation of God’s will. I do not mean by ‘appreciating God’s will’ that we should follow the prescripts of some human saint who tells us what God says or what God means—I mean something quite the opposite of settled conclusions and dictates. I mean that perhaps we can attain freedom by beginning with an appreciation of the wonder of our being alive with other human beings, with animals, and with the earth itself. Maybe the questioning that underlies the human desire for freedom begins with the wonder of our existence. Maybe love, and the desire for justice, eminates not from our heads so much as from our hearts–our common fragility, suffering, and ignorance in the face of creation—rather than from our individual willfulness. Maybe we can find greater joy and fulfillment in protecting and caring for the earth and its beings—in appreciation of universe and creation–than in doing something for ourselves individually. Perhaps the domination we think our technology hs exerted over the earth is as false as our claims that we have mastered democracy. Maybe the most important thing we can take from Juneteenth is a spirit of humility: we have done great wrongs, we have a long way to go, and we must cultivate the freedom to question ourselves and each other along the way in the course of building a more caring and joyful world. Maybe this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17)