The Privilege of Freedom
As I reflect on what it means to be free in our world today, it’s impossible not to think about the relationship between freedom and privilege. It’s often when freedom is taken away that we begin to really think about what it means.
This brought me back to the summer of 95’. I was driving with my college boyfriend from the bay area where we lived to my home community in Tennessee where I would spend some time apprenticing with the midwives. Just a couple months earlier I had the incredible privilege and blessing of attending my first birth as a doula. I knew I had found my calling in birthwork and that first birth, which happened to fall on my 21st birthday, confirmed it.
My boyfriend and I had some plans along the way, the first being to spend some time in the deserts of Utah, enjoying the quiet, expansive beauty of places like Zion and Arches national park. Apparently the universe had other plans.
As we made our way thru Nevada we passed some farmlands and G, who was a percussionist, saw a big barn and said to me,
“We have to play drums in there, the acoustics will be amazing!”
We had a couple of congas packed in the back of his covered pickup truck, Fibi, and within moments we were pulling into the barn. The ground began to get wetter and wetter and I worried we would get stuck.
“I think we should back out,” I told him.
Instead he floored it and Fibi’s wheels spun until we were stuck in the muck, which we thought was cowshit, but turned out to be rotting potatoes. The smell was awful.
Since it was his fabulous idea to accelerate I made him go out into the nastiness and look for help. He went out to the road and the first person he flagged down happened to be the farm owner’s daughter. They got a good laugh out of us “city slickers” before they pulled Fibi out of the barn with a tractor.
About an hour later we were on the road again but the stench was so bad, even after we hosed her down. So we stopped on the side of the road and picked a bunch of wild sage to burn. As we made our way east a majestic rainbow appeared in the sky and I thought to myself mistakenly, what a good omen.
Several hours later we were speeding along Hwy 50, America’s loneliest road, as they call it, and we got pulled over by state troopers. G was going 80 in a 55 mph zone.
The cop gets suspicious when he sees the sage on the dashboard and the lighter in the console between us. He asks G if he smokes and when he is unable to produce any cigarettes they ask us to get out of the car. They begin searching the car, which has several contraband items in it, but thankfully nothing in the front cab. At this point I try to stop the search since there’s really no reason they should be searching the car anyway. But I am dismissed and they head toward the back.
They find a couple of medicinal plants that are considered unlawful and put us under arrest. As I sit handcuffed on the side of the road at 2 am under a starry desert sky, I begin chanting to calm myself. It’s not that I never thought I’d be arrested but I had always imagined it being for some act of civil disobedience, not this.
I was terrified.
And so so naive. As they drove us to the station and impounded the car, I imagined us huddled together in our jail cell, not realizing that we would be separated.
After the booking process, which took hours, during which I was forced to undress and answer all sorts of ridiculous questions, like what my sexual orientation was, I was put in a cell alone.
It was there in that lonely jail cell in southern Utah that I really began to reflect on what freedom was and it was then that I decided that freedom was in the mind. That even though I locked up, no one could control my thoughts except me. This was comforting but still my mind and heart raced. The only thing that was able to calm me was practicing the rhythmic frameworks from the W. African drumming class I was taking at UC Berkeley.
Twelve hours later or so we both got bailed out by our parents. His were furious and blamed me, the hippie, for corrupting their son. Being traditional Armenians, I was never accepted by his parents, who expected him to marry Armenian. But now they really didn’t like me.
What I learned about our experience firsthand was how corrupt the prison system is and how one’s fate is dependent upon one’s financial resources. Not only were our parents able to put up funds for bail, but his father (a diamond dealer) had enough money and connections to pay off the lab so that some of our plants tested negative. Since it was our first offense, we ended up with basically a slap on the wrist and a moderate fine. I chalked it up to luck at that time.
But what I understood years later was that it was not simply our economic privilege at play but also our white privilege. My life could have been so different had I been black or brown. I could have spent months or years in jail. Or my life could have ended that night on the side of road, quietly, with no witnesses.
But instead, I am here to tell the story. And as I read Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, I understand why chanting and playing rhythms with my hands in the jail cell was able to calm me. It has to do with the physiology of trauma and the nervous system. Resmaa, who is a healer, author and trauma specialist, discusses how racialized trauma, including black body trauma, white body trauma, and police body trauma, is carried in the body and the soul throughout generations.
The approach to healing it, he says, must also be rooted in the body. This long standing historical trauma will not be healed by cognitive discussions or trainings on social justice. It runs too deep. It courses through our veins and hijacks our nervous system, leading all sorts of DISease.
Instead, we must change the physiology through such embodiment practices as breath, movement, music. That’s why practicing my frameworks in my little jail cell over 20 years ago was the only thing that calmed me.
In a world where safety is not guaranteed, especially for black and brown bodies, and freedom is a privilege, we must remember to breathe deeply--even as the breath of others has been taken away--simply because we can.
We are still here, and as long as we are, we have the opportunity to breathe, and through our breath change our own generational trauma.
As mothers, we are privilege with carrying and nurturing life. Our breath has the capacity to teach our nervous system and our children’s nervous systems, how to feel free in this world. Masked or unmasked, white or brown or black, unraveling racialized trauma at the level of physiology is the most powerful healing we can offer ourselves and our children.
No matter what kind of body you have, to dive deeper into this healing I highly recommend his book, which can be found here.