Freedom. It is the opening word of the last chapter of Assata Shakur’s autobiography. To learn something about the life of this former member of the Black Panther movement, one could start with one of two things: read the most lengthy wikipedia article I’ve ever read (the one about her), or read her own book. This will have a very different outcome. The writers of the article have gone out of their way to avoid taking sides on the facts of the life of this ‘controversial’ woman, now sixty-six, called a ‘most wanted terrorist’ by the FBI, and a political refugee by her sympathizers. Her own book provides a quite different read. My most important impression of it was: if she did not have a ghostwriter, she is an outstanding writer – telling her life in a manner that one wants to read on and on. I did so after I started, wanting to learn more on this period in history, and finished it in just a few days. Admiring how she found the right words to describe happy childhood days at the beach restaurant of her grandparents as well as her mood during her nearly two years of solitary confinement.
I will not discuss the events that led to her imprisonment in 1973, nor her later escape and asylum in Cuba. It has all been discussed extensively in other places by persons who are in a better position to have an opinion on this. What caught my attention though in reading was this one thing – her account of freedom. As a word it features there where she talks about the ending of her life in prison – as an experience it summarizes the entire book. She has described her life as a continuing search for freedom – not only politically, but also and perhaps more importantly, emotionally and spiritually. She describes those lessons of her educators, most importantly her grandparents, that learned her to have inner freedom over against others, a thing which is also called dignity. Later she mentions how revolutionaries from another party taught her to stop smoking weed, to be free for ‘the real high’ – that of facing your life and trying to change what is wrong. And how she gained more spiritual strength – also a form of freedom – over against the hardships of prison after a friend made her accept an islamic way of living.
Freedom would have been the subject for my subsidiary thesis when I was studying, but it never got written as I sped up finishing my studies when they threatened to drag on too long. Some years ago it featured in a research plan, with the working title ‘Freedom, Identity and Responsibility’, which I tried to get funding for, in vain. It has been a postponed subject for very long now. What interested me especially philosophically was freedom of the imagination as a possibility condition for moral agency – giving a person the chance to find an identity (‘this is who I am, these are the values I stand for’), and to experience responsibility (only when one can imagine consequences one can see that one’s choice makes a difference). I have read widely on the subject through the years, ranging from works in critical theory to those of phenomenologists and pragmatists, so why did I not yet find the focus to write my own study of it? I think because one thing was never clear to me – how to understand the changing face of the concept of freedom in so many different contexts and discourses. Politically it is used by conservatives as well as by revolutionaries. And then it is used in spiritual and moral discourses, in therapeutical discourses, in the discourse of the law.
Reading that book, Assata, I was reminded that freedom is not just about having rights, although they are of course of great importance. The freedom that Assata according to her book seemed to have found goes beyond that – one feels its presence in her descriptions of the joys of human relations – with her friends and family. Freedom is being free, being able to be oneself, to speak one’s mind without anxiety, or be silent in peace with others. This reminded me of the work of this other woman that was drawn to the revolutionary life, philosopher Simone Weil – in her work she criticized the focus in moral philosophy on rights, and argued that true humanity can only be found when we learn these two things: real attention to others, and awareness of our obligations to them. Rights of course cannot give you anything when the corresponding obligations are not respected. But more so, when all your rights are recognized, the most important thing might still be missing, according to Weil: attention. On that account freedom (to be oneself) can only be enjoyed in the space that is created by real relationships. I wonder if that aspect of the revolutionary spirit has been recognized enough. It is not primarily interested in alternative systems and regulations, but in something beyond them. It must feel constrained therefore in any system.
I discussed the autobiography of Assata Shakur (1947- ), simply called Assata, which was published in 1987 by Zed Books.
Simone Weil lived from 1909 untill 1943. Her writings were mostly only published after she died. I read L’enracinement (translated as The Need for Roots) and La personne et le sacré (of which I think no separate edition exists in English).