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  • Helanius J. Wilkins

Let Freedom Ring

“I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.” – Tupac Shakur

Barely a whisper remains in my mind of the boisterous explosions, sparkling colors lighting up the night sky in arresting designs, and celebratory gatherings marking the 4th of July. Let freedom ring for the 4th of July is the party that reminds us of that special day in 1776, that vote for independence, and a Declaration with an eloquent assertion that all Men are [not] created equal. Let freedom ring. I am reminded of how I was raised to believe, and how I still fully embrace, that America is an aggregation of cultures; and that my heritage and others are the essence of this country’s vibrancy. However, against the garish, thumping backdrop of today’s social and political divisiveness matched with new rules of law that tugs at the heartstrings of lady liberty, my view of freedom once again renders as disenfranchisement. Available for some, but not for all. Let freedom ring. I cannot help but continue to ask the question: was it ever available for all? And as a southerner who grew up catholic, with memories of a childhood with a rosary in hand, hoping and actioning for redemption, I now ask how can freedom ever be available for all in a society that is challenged by the entanglements of pro-life, death penalty, and guns? How can it ever be available when slavery is perceived as a dirty word – a word that dictates how accurately history is to be taught? Let freedom ring?

The notion of freedom is hard to fathom when holding in my heart her body but not her choice and a school attack in Texas. The notion of freedom is broken by the ongoing reality that Black men are still being treated less than suspected mass killers. Black motorist, Jayland Walker, in Akron Ohio was shot more than 60 times over a traffic violation. This cannot be true…can it? Aren’t all men created equal? Don’t we all get a chance to determine our own destiny – our future? Or is that for someone else to decide? The weight of it all is more than one can bear alone. With an eye sharply focused on a different future, I choose not to let it break my soul as Beyoncé sings in her summer dance anthem taking the nation by storm. (For the record, Black gay men created House Music.)

Invoking a prompt from one of the activities that is part of Ryder Turner’s Illuminating Your Voice workshop, if you knew me, you would know that one of my greatest inspirations is Martin L. King Jr. When faced with adversity, I meet it with action – more specifically action through artmaking. I am reminded of the part of Martin L. King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech where he says: “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence…We cannot walk alone.”

So many of King’s tenets are anchors that contribute to the shaping of the work and practices that give me a sense of purpose. For me, The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-Body Belonging is my vehicle for non-violent action. It is my wildest dream to heal and unite, to become a better ancestor, to create a portal for individuals with diverse perspectives to sit together and share a conversation, and to have my actions level up to my words to do the demanding work of contributing toward the change that I dream of. It is my call to action to engage in sit-ins and peaceful protests.

The goals of The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-Body Belonging are mobilized through a menu of community-engagements, Systems for Care & Repair, co-created and co-facilitated with co-conspirator/duet-partner A. Ryder Turner. They create multiple access points consisting of varied ways for individuals and communities to become active participants and collaborators in creating a different, more inclusive future. Through physical contact and improvisation with one’s environment, cultivating one’s imagination, mapping one’s own history as part of the fabric of one’s location, and blueprinting a path toward positive change, the Systems for Care & Repair are my sit-ins.

The walking and/or driving tours with community members invoke deep listening – listening toward understanding – to build trust, and to orient to the places and communities visited through lesser known, erased, or histories outright excluded from the more popular narratives. These tours are my peaceful protests. I wake up each day firmly planted in the audacity to hope against a backdrop that rejects what I was raised to believe in as an American identity, an identity shaped by hybridity, resilience, and co-existence. But the moment is now to work more intensely toward a different landscape of potentiality. If not now, when?

To be “guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I share that dream with Dr. King. To assist me along the path, I am also boosted by the words of Dr. Maya Angelou “and still I rise.” The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-Body Belonging is my way of rising to the challenges that we face today and creating opportunities to do so with others across differences. Influenced by Black theorists’ research (Fred Moten on study and speculative performance; Resmaa Menakem on mending racialized bodies and somatic abolitionism), I hold space for community members’ stories to be shared—illuminating the stories as the land’s history. I have gathered and interacted with community members at informal sites to access and generate intellectual, somatic, emotional, and intuitive knowledge. A practice that continues. I fully engage in the doing of all this while not forgetting that there are many other shoulders that I am standing on from James Baldwin to Alvin Ailey to John Lewis to Tupac Shakur. I intentionally name Black men representing a wide range of backgrounds. It matters to me to continue to dismantle the notion that all Black men are the same and to remember that it takes folks in multiple lanes to achieve a more inclusive future. It takes embracing difference as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. It takes upcoming generations seeing reflections of themselves.

Accompanying this blogpost is a short excerpt from the choreographic ritual Ryder and I offered as the culmination for our Lafayette LA residency for The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-Body Belonging. For the ritual - which is a movement meditation response to the community and an offering created out of immediate shared experiences - I spoke of the community-members who journeyed with us as spirit walkers who are spirit walking. May we all find our way to strength, vulnerability, courage, bravery, truth-telling, generosity, compassion, and empathy on purpose. We must continue to “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” (MLK) No matter how long it may take, I will never stop holding onto hope…because I care that much. Let freedom ring.

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