A phrase that many Americans can never seem to let go of is “the land of the free and the home of the brave”, a quote directly from our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key describing our nation at the end of the War of 1812. The idea of freedom is something that has been present in our country since the beginning. Our country was founded on the concept of freedom and it is reflected in our national anthem—we wanted freedom from the British reign over what was, at the start, colonies, and we reached freedom by whatever means we felt necessary.
Today, the concept of freedom has far from faded from the American public eye as a symbol for our country. We hear people talk about the military by saying “they fight for our freedom” and individuals are constantly bringing up how unique America’s freedom is (in the way that “the land of the free” keeps reappearing as a portion of our nation’s go-to phrases), but what does freedom mean?
It would not be fair for me to just give the dictionary definition of a word like freedom and say, “that’s what it means!” Freedom means something different for everyone. For me to list a singular definition for it would be making an unfair assumption that everyone feels a connection to that way of defining a word that can be so broad. Instead, I would like to take you through a couple of journeys of what I have perceived to be journeys of freedom.
The first journey of freedom takes place in Percival Everett’s novel Zulus. The main character in Zulus is named Alice Achitophel. Alice is the only remaining non-sterilized woman living under an incredibly restrictive government. Through the course of the novel, she is able to escape the conditions of the government upon getting pregnant, but she finds herself still in an oppressive situation in her contact with the rebels where, although she was free from the government, she was not free from many of the actions that she felt were restricting her.
After giving birth to a different version of herself, Alice leaves the rebels and visits the man that helped her escape the oppressive government at the start, Kevin Peters. When she reunites with Kevin, she talks to him about what she had been feeling since leaving behind her old life, telling him, “I want to free people…I want to break open the fat camps. I want to destroy the diary (dairy) warehouses and free the city people of cheese. I want to free the race of sterility. I want to do something, Kevin” (Everett, 126). At this stage, from my outlook, Alice finally feels like she has reached a point of freedom, and now she wants to take that opportunity (or some may even call it an advantage) to help others who were stuck in a similar situation to her.
The novel ends in a state of total destruction, leaving nothing to be saved. To some, this extreme destruction could be viewed as freedom. In a previous blog post of mine titled “The History of Zombies”, I discuss how people who were enslaved in Haiti viewed death as the only opportunity they would ever have to be free. I think this connects to the end of Zulus in a very interesting way. Alice talks to Kevin about wanting to free people, and in the end, it is the two of them that ultimately make the decision to pull the lever to kill themselves and so many others—leading to a freedom of sorts.
The plot of Zulus was generally centered on the idea of freedom, but as previously mentioned, it appears in America and has appeared in American history since the beginning. After the national anthem was written during the War of 1812 in 1813, it was another fifty years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. During those fifty years, and all of the years before, America was not the “land of the free” it had claimed to be.
Harriet Washington discusses the era in which slavery was present in the alleged “land of the free” in her book Medical Apartheid. Chapter 6 of this book is called “Diagnosis: Freedom”, and in it, Washington brings up how being free during a time when slavery was still present in America could, medically speaking, be dangerous for African Americans: “Census data consistently documented how free blacks died sooner and suffered dramatically higher rates from every known disease…” (Washington, 146). In pointing this out, Washington acknowledges the struggle and the journey of a different kind of freedom that African Americans went through even after being “free”—although they were free from being slaves, they were not free from being neglected in white society and in fair medical practice. For the “free” African Americans living during the era of slavery, despite not being enslaved, they still were not truly free to exist—they were forced to endure racist attitudes such as “…freely roaming sick blacks were perceived as vectors of infectious disease”, which Washington points out as being an excuse used by some white people as to why slavery was necessary (Washington, 147).
It is stories like these, both in works of fiction, like Zulus, that may seem hard to grasp at first, and non-fiction, like in Medical Apartheid, which, despite being very real, is also very hard to grasp, that prove how our different interpretations of the word “freedom” can impact us. Instead of making assumptions based on a dictionary definition, it is important that we all take a look at how flexible our language can be and how what we say can mean so much more than what we may initially think it would.