Freedom is a relation
What if freedom is not a thing we have, but a thing we do?
The other day on Twitter I read a post by Mariame Kaba in which she said that freedom is a relation, not a right, and that USians are deeply confused about this and this is a source of a lot of problems. And that stopped me in my tracks. I’m still trying to figure that out.
On the surface it makes sense and seems simple, but things that appear simple rarely are and they are even less simple when you try to put it into practice or even just into the context of your own life. Western thought, descended from Rome and matured in the Enlightenment, is individualized (all about me) and transactional (what’s in it for me). Freedom is a thing to be fought for, a right enshrined in whatever constitution guides your country.
But what if it is a verb? What if it isn’t a thing we have, but rather a thing we do? A thing we do together.
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
Lilla Watson, Gangulu
Kaba is very concerned with relation, with imagination, with trying different strategies and collaboration because of what is built - the relationships and communities - along the way. Her book, We Do This Til We Free Us, is a collection of essays that I have written about before. She asks us to imagine a world without policing, to imagine beyond “who will I call if my house gets broken into” and towards “what kind of community can we build where my house won’t be broken into.” Freedom is something we build together. She writes “it’s not that Black lives will matter within this country when we win that ordinance. Rather, it’s that we who struggle together will have defined (in part) the vision of what we mean by Black lives mattering.” The ordinance that is won on Monday can be overturned on Friday. What is built in the struggle will persist.
Sandy Grande said something very similar in a keynote I heard her give several years ago. She spoke about capitalism being a logic of ownership and dispossession, about the need for us to shift our language and perspective in order to build something different. She said that people have asked “what do we replace capitalism with” and like Kaba says in her work on policing, it’s the wrong question. The shifts we make away from capitalism, away from policing, and towards collectivity and reciprocity and mutuality will result in something else emerging and we won’t know what that is until we get there.
This is freedom as relation rather than freedom as right. Freedom as a right lies with the ordinances we win and the boundaries we set around us and the things we own. Freedom as relation is what happens when we work collectively towards something better for everyone, not just better for me and those like me.
Which brings me to a lovely novel that Daniel Heath Justice talks about: Waterlily. It was written in the 1940s, but not published until 1988, eighteen years after she died. Deloria is Dakota and was born in the late 19th century. Her novel offers a glimpse into the Dakota life of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations. A time before coloniziation, although it does mention white traders and military actions so not completely untouched. The book is primarily about kinship relations, the complex connections they form, and the various responsibilities and social roles that go with different kinship relations.
One set of relations that was particularly interesting to me were the avoidance kin: her husband's relatives required social distance. I suppose the idea of inlaws being part of a kin group that requires avoidance makes for a momentary chuckle, but in Waterlily’s case this made life difficult because she had no other relatives in the camp. She was eventually adopted by a woman who remembered her from another social group and they provided her with the family connections she was lacking. Part of the problem was one of scarcity, she had to leave her own camp and had no extended family to mitigate the avoidance kin.
Scarcity, both real and imagined, is also something facing our attempts at freedom. There are limited resources, hoarded as they are by billionaires and the combined might of the military and prison industrial complexes, and so my freedom-as-a-right comes to mean somebody else’s loss. We say things like “your right to swing your arms ends at my face” but the fact is that everything I have been conditioned to think of as my freedom requires others to be unfree either in terms of their labour, their ability to cross borders, and even their imprisonment and death. The western world, of which we are all part, is swingin’ it’s arms all over the place.
Kaba reminds us that in our society we are frequently reminded that law and order protects our safety and freedom: systems that make people unfree are required so that I can be free. Our entire society rests on the existence of a different kind of avoidance kin. An entire class of people who are marginalized by race, religion, gender, and ability. Marginalized by all the ways that they are “not normal” while the definition of normal is a set of constantly shifting goalposts placed and replaced according to the needs of the few and at the expense of the many. Even those who are not avoidance kin find themselves isolated and without anyone but systems to adopt them.
So what does it mean then, this idea that freedom is a relation and not a right. When we think about the way that kinship and organizing networks work to keep community groups ordered in a horizonal way vs the way that western society organizes itself in vertical ways we can find some possibility. Freedom is not something to be fought for on behalf of or sought from a higher power, it is something that happens between us, something we build along the way.
Freedom as a right necessarily leaves some people unfree. At best it will extend its umbrella to others but it cannot and will not include everyone. Freedom as relation constantly looks beyond itself to see who is being left behind. It looks for those who are isolated through their position as avoidance kin and adopts them. I don’t know what it will look like when we get there. But I look around some of the small circles I have been part of and I like what we are building.