How Do We Really Get Free?
A very personal essay; thoughts on masculinity; and creepy AI
I’m writing to you from Freeport, Maine. Officially, I’m here because we’ve commenced shooting Season 2 of my America Outdoors PBS series. Unofficially, I’m here to give all my money to L.L. Bean. The company’s flagship store—sorry, flagship campus—is utterly astounding. I might technically live there now. If you haven’t seen it, check out my TikTok or IG Reel on the topic.
In other news, we launched the fourth season of my podcast, How To Citizen, last week. The premise of the show is that we interpret the word “citizen” as a verb and focus on stories of people showing us ways to live together better. This season is all about how we create a dope culture of democracy. It would mean a lot to me if you checked out our first two episodes, which feature writer and activist adrienne maree brown and ad man-turned-citizen-activist Jon Alexander.
Last week I was a guest on Scott Galloway’s Prof G Show, and we had an unexpectedly nuanced and beautiful conversation about masculinity. In another audio tour moment, I had tea with Australian comedian Alice Fraser in a decidedly different vibe for podcast conversation on Tea With Alice. Alice asked me, “What are you wrestling with,” and we were off to the races.
Meanwhile, I can’t get enough of the ChatGPT Chronicles. Microsoft has integrated the A.I. chatbot into its Bing search engine, and it seems as if the entire tech industry is adding “A.I.” to its pitch decks and press releases to try to keep up. Alas, if you give the bot attitude, it gives it right back and has a shadow side it can reveal. I feel like I’ve read this story before, literally. My friend Rob Reid released a novel in 2017, After On, which tells the story of an A.I. that achieves sentience. The A.I. was built at a social media company so its training material was basically Facebook and Twitter data. Effectively, the A.I. had the personality of a moody teenager. I’m definitely staying tuned to this creepy story.
But today my focus is elsewhere. Today I’m sharing a piece I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s an exploration of ideas and frustrations I’ve been wrestling with for years, mostly to myself, and I am finally ready to share some of it with you. If you read my recent piece about Tyre Nichols, you may have picked up the thread of what I’ve been unable to fully express. Now, I’m going to give it a shot.
Below is an excerpt. The full piece is in Puck, which you can subscribe to for $79 per year and get the full version of my big badass ideas plus the work of my colleagues like Julia Ioffe, Bill Cohan, and more.
The Black Liberation Paradox
Modern emancipation needs to be more than a function of liberating white minds. Black people also need to find joy on our own terms. What’s the point of saying “Black Lives Matter” if that life is defined solely by struggle?
In May 2022, a racist traveled several hours to kill 10 people at the Tops Friendly Market in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo. Last week, he was sentenced to life in prison. What I remember most about the event is that I could barely process it at the time. I was exhausted by this temporarily-latest instance of America’s oldest story: crush Black resources, Black community, Black bodies, and Black life.
I couldn’t wade into the details at the time. I wrote recently of my decision not to watch the video of Memphis police beating to death Tyre Nichols. I believe my determination there was hardened after Buffalo. Instead of reliving that massacre, I sought out a counter-narrative. Within weeks of the incident, I found myself in my hometown of Washington, D.C., and the closest place I could go to process the tragedy was the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
I reached out to a friend, a curator at the museum, texting that I needed to see “anything healing, joyful, inspiring. The opposite of Buffalo.” I had been to the museum once before and was floored by the intensity of the experience. It should be mandatory for all Americans or would-be Americans. I would personally pay for every presidential candidate to spend a day in that building. It’s beyond a collection of artifacts. It’s a physical, informational, and emotional journey chronicling the story of America through the story of the people still treated as un-American despite building and defining so much of this country and its culture.
That story begins several floors underground, with the birth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As you wind your way up the exhibit, you climb through epochs of Black history in the United States: enslavement, the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Black Codes, the Civil Rights Movement. Emmett Till’s family donated the casket he was buried in to the museum. (His body was exhumed and reburied in a new casket in order to re-open the case into his murder.) By the time you reach ground level, even the apparent triumph of the Obama presidency isn’t enough to balance the weight of the previous horrors. So the designers kept building up, several floors above ground, with exhibits on arts, music, and culture. These upper floors showcase much of the creativity that Black folks have built atop our trauma. I needed to remember that there’s more to the Black experience than struggle, pain, murder, rejection, and death.
So on that visit, I focused on liberation. I spent time with Public Enemy’s early hip-hop. I mentally boarded George Clinton’s “Mothership” through the art of Jefferson Pinder, who celebrated Parliament-Funkadelic’s music, NASA’s boldness, and Black people’s ability to transform all in a single sculpture. I stood between Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor, murdered in 2020 by the Louisville Metro Police, and Bisa Butler’s quilted texture portrait of a young Harriet Tubman. I thought about the fact that Breonna and Harriet both worked to save lives, and here they were staring into each other’s eyes from a place beyond death. I cried tears of gratitude.
“Long Live the Jefferson 10”
That museum visit was on my mind months later when I traveled to Buffalo to speak at Daemen University. At the airport, I was greeted by a Black man who runs a local non-profit and has lived in Buffalo for 30 years. I asked my liaison if he would take me straight to the Tops supermarket where the massacre happened, so long as it wouldn’t be too painful for him. He agreed and let me out in the parking lot to have whatever moment I was seeking.
I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I didn’t really have a plan, either. But after months of avoiding the pain of this tragedy, I felt I had to see and feel the energy of the space myself. I needed to be present and honor the lives taken. I walked to the corner where the largest memorial sat and took in the view of the ground covered with wreaths, flowers, candles, and signs with messages like, “Long Live The Jefferson 10.” I lifted my eyes slightly and saw larger-than-life-sized portraits of the 10 victims. They looked like people I know, people I’m related to, or people I had seen on the walls of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture a few months earlier. This time, I cried tears of rage.
It’s not the first time I’ve been to such a memorial. When I visited Charlottesville, in 2018, I went to the site of Heather Heyer’s murder at the hands of a white supremacist who used his car as a weapon. When I visited Minneapolis-St. Paul, in 2021, I walked to George Floyd Square where I mourned and meditated on the unnecessary killing and wholly necessary affirmation of life that followed in that space. I wondered, what is it about my travel schedule that puts me in such close proximity to the sites of racist murders and massacres? The answer has nothing to do with the uniqueness of my itinerary and everything to do with the ubiquity of such occurrences across space and time. I am not the common denominator in these sets of tragic fractures; America is. We are just the kind of country where a memorial to victims of racialized violence can be literally anywhere.
That Buffalo visit opened new wounds even as it brought mournful closure. So here I am, still hurting and tired, believing less in the promise of America than usual but refusing to cede all hope or action for a better future. I remain committed to helping create a future that is not defined by racism while I simultaneously tire of constantly traversing terrain defined by considerations of racism. I’m in an emotional and logical Möbius strip, trapped in an infinite loop, searching for what it means to be free.
In the rest of the piece I go on to reflect on The Black Art of Escape, an essay my friend Casey Gerald wrote some years ago, and which I heavily promoted then in this newsletter. I describe the challenge of defining freedom that depends on others changing first. And I outline a parallel path to liberation focused on more of an internal shift. I’ll definitely be doing a live streamed reading of the full piece in the next week or so and will be sure to let you know. That will make the full piece accessible if you don’t have the funds to subscribe, or if you just like the idea of me reading you a story.
Thanks for being on this journey with me.
Until next time.
Hello, Baratunde. I'm a little white lady. I started public school the year schools were integrated in our small town in Kentucky. To the credit of my parents and our teachers, I didn't know this for years afterward. Nobody made a big deal out of it, to my knowledge. I became aware of racism as I got older, but I was able to maintain friendships with my black classmates. One of my two best friends was black, and was the valedictorian of our class. Still a lifetime friend. I loved this last piece you wrote because you spoke of the possibility of the oppressed finding their own joy, independent of the actions of others. I'm also glad you spoke of the weariness associated with tragedy after tragedy. Even from a place of relative privilege, I'm beginning to feel shell-shocked and to lose optimism about the promise of America. I also feel less hopeful about my ability to become part of the solution. But you, Baratunde, bring me hope. You're the kind of person I'd love to have to dinner. Please keep on speaking your truth with love, and finding your own joy, and sharing it with all of us. Know that people of all colors and stations in life have hospitality for you in our hearts.
Amazing piece. Thank you.
The idea of freedom on one’s own terms and not waiting on others to change. That’s it. That is everything for all people who have been oppressed. Thank you.