On the Other Side of Freedom (review and reflection)
I heard DeRay McKesson at the Anti-Racism Book Festival in 2019. McKesson radiates the kind of charisma that comes when one is fully comfortable in their own skin. He was charming and witty and passionate and committed. I knew his name from his work as a part of the Movement for Black Lives, and as a one-time candidate for Mayor of Baltimore, but that brief session in Washington DC last year was the first time I’d heard him speak.
His gift with language and metaphor was clear in that brief encounter. At one point the moderator for the session asked about the utility of preaching to the choir, as they felt they might be doing at that festival. I don’t remember McKesson’s precise words, but I remember the analogy well—he said we shouldn’t discount preaching to the choir, because choir directors teach people to use their voices in ways they never thought possible. When I say it gave me goosebumps, it may be an understatement. After hearing him at the festival, I purchased On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope from my favorite, local independent bookseller. Thirteen months later, it surfaced on the top of the TBR pile.
On the Other Side of Freedom is a collection of essays. It’s part memoir, part sociological analysis, part activist handbook. My initial sense of McKesson’s mastery of the language was validated almost as soon as I began reading it. In the first few pages, I realized I was not reading with enough attention for his writing and started over in a quieter spot. My underlining and margin-note-taking similarly started within the first few pages. It’s sometimes tough for me to know how to review a book of essays. I’ll start with my overall impressions and then drill down to some key insights.
On finishing McKesson’s book, I was left with the picture of a talented man who is thoughtful, driven, and courageous. His courage was evident from the second essay featuring stories of his first days in Ferguson, when, without a plan or even a companion, he set out to answer a call he felt in his soul to show up after Michael Brown was killed. But courage is not only braving the possibility of physical harm. As Brené Brown has convincingly proven, courage is the willingness to embrace vulnerability. As she puts it, “courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor - the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.’” McKesson shows an abundance of “speaking one’s mind by telling all one’s heart” throughout On the Other Side of Freedom, and especially in one of the later essays, “Out of the Quiet,” that explores his intersectional identity as a black, gay man.
My takeaways from On the Other Side of Freedom fall into three categories: 1) insight (especially through reframing) 2) calls to action and 3) modeling vulnerability. For the third, I think I’ll leave with just my invocation of Brene Brown above (and an invitation to the reader to experience the modeling for yourself). For the first and second, however, I’d like to dig in a bit and share more of what I learned and what I felt.
In the very first essay in the collection, “Hope,” McKesson distinguishes the fundamental difference between “faith…the belief that certain outcomes will happen and hope the belief that certain outcomes can happen.” He goes on to state, “faith is rooted in certainty; hope is rooted in possibility—and they both require their own different kinds of work.” This distinction didn’t feel deeply insightful initially, but McKesson skillfully weaves it into insights for me, personally. He describes the way faith and hope work in tandem to keep him in the work, and in the midst of their working together, he writes, “Protest is the work of hope. Protest, at its core, is telling the truth in public. It is confrontation and disruption rooted in the acknowledgement of a future that has not yet come, but that is possible. The work at hand is hope-work.” Maybe because I read this essay in the midst of the worldwide protests that followed George Floyd’s death, or maybe because I need for this assessment to be true, I found this insight into the psychological / spiritual comportment of protest as “hope-work,” to be deeply moving.
Other insights in this collection include more quantitative work that comes out of McKesson’s work with partners in the Mapping Police Violence project (mappingpoliceviolence.org). When McKesson and other Ferguson protest leaders realized how haphazard and inconsistent data tracking of police violence was in this country, they sought to create a unified database to bolster the stories and lived experiences of people of color. What they found is harrowing: “police kill twelve hundred people each year in America, meaning one in every three people killed by a stranger in this country is killed by a police officer. An additional fifty thousand people are hospitalized each year after being injured by police…Police violence is so prevalent in black communities that the majority of black youth have either personally experienced or witnessed police violence in their lives, And there was no accountability for this violence: in 97 percent of all police killings, the criminal justice system does not charge officers with any crime, and in 99 percent of cases, the officer is not convicted,” (all statistics have footnotes for sources in the original, p. 53). McKesson goes on to note, “In Baltimore, we found that every person killed by a police officer for as far back as our database went, to 2014, was a black man….Black men in St. Louis are killed by police at a rate twice as high as the US murder rate.” (p. 54).
These numbers are stark, even as they are not necessarily surprising, especially given the data such as the DOJ report on the Baltimore City Police Department. Still, McKesson knows and anticipates objections to the assertion that black people, especially black men, are disproportionately killed by the police. He sets up the expected defense from Fraternal Orders of Police and other defenders of the status quo who blame black communities for this state of affairs: “We just respond to the issues. We just go where the crime is, they’ll say as they rattle off statistics about crime in black communities. The police have harped on this line of thinking so relentlessly that now most everyone in America has hear it.
“But the data shows it isn’t true.” (p 59)
McKesson’s statistics and analysis provide a quantitative picture of inequity and anti-black bias in policing to back up the qualitative stories from his own and others’ lives. Once again, perhaps because of the context in which I read this essay, “The Problem of the Police,” I felt the resonance almost as a somatic reaction as I read. As if my muscle fibers tingled with the truth I was consuming.
Calls to Action.
McKesson’s calls to action in this text appeared as literal, explicit calls to ‘roll up my sleeves’: “We need allies to make the transition to accomplices. An ally is someone who has unpacked her personal privilege but hasn’t yet made the link to institutional issues and is not willing to risk anything besides her mental comfort. An accomplice rolls up her sleeves and engages in the work that is beyond her. She’ll march in the streets, yes. But an accomplice also faces her own participation in whiteness, acknowledges it, and then looks beyond that personal acknowledgement to identify how her awareness can be applied to changing the systems and mind-sets that prop up the system.” (p 101).
But there were other moments that I felt as a call, that may or may not have been intended that way: “When it comes to establishing the truth, we often rush toward the simplified version at the expense of the more complicated, more nuanced narrative. It is one thing to have a more accessible narrative that is a derivative of a more nuanced narrative. It is another thing entirely to replace a nuanced narrative with a more accessible one.” (168). In context in the essay, “The Friend that’s Always Awake,” this paragraph is reacting to the story of the Civil Rights movement that allowed “respectability” to determine whose stories were included, thereby erasing the contributions of women like Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger before Rosa Parks, and gay men like Bayard Rustin, the architect of the nonviolent resistance strategy of the civil rights movement. In the context of my life and my antiracist path, however, this paragraph gave voice to the trap I have been known to fall into of minimizing the lived experiences of friends of color when those experiences don’t match the “simplified version” I had taken as truth. With that echo, this became another call for me to deepen my listening to nuance and truth.
The final moment in On the Other Side of Freedom I want to raise up for you is McKesson’s restatement of the central tenant of organizing: “the only constants in organizing are relationships. Everything else is fluid. It is impossible to organize people with whom you have no relationship—impossible to organize people when you have no proximity to the challenges, to the work being addressed” (203). This truth appears in the penultimate essay of the book, “On Organizing.” For me, it landed first as a reminder: I must remember to prioritize relationship over task. I believe in the fundamental wisdom of this priority, but following it is not always my instinct. Tasks sometimes feel cleaner, easier than relationship, but I know we will never reach the goal through task alone. I also read this passage as a validation: sharing my reading, my writing, with you, is essential. I have both hope and faith that the relationship between us, writer and reader (and commenter, if you choose), is one of my constants.