Nelson Mandela. Rosa Parks. William Wilberforce. Rosa Luxemburg. Malcolm X. Sophie Scholl. William Blake. Kate Tempest.
These are some of the people who spring to mind when I think of freedom.
What is freedom, anyway?
A state of mind? Cycling downhill at breakneck speed with the wind rushing past your face? The ocean? The universe?
I prefer to think of it as a state of being free from oppression. Oppression can take many forms and some might be thought of as more extreme than others.
Until 2008, Nelson Mandela was on U.S. terror watch lists, so despite having been freed from jail in 1990 after spending twenty seven years in prison, was he truly free if he was still under surveillance? It is clear that after release, his daily routine was not controlled by that of a prison and bars did not greet his morning face, but it seems true that the U.S. still considered him of enough threat to exert this power over him. It is also true that he would probably never be free of the memory of the years he spent in prison. As a black activist in anti-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela was all too aware of the powers that imposed inferior status and disadvantage due to racial segregation. Black Africans were not free.
Even though slavery was officially abolished in the first half of the nineteenth century, we are all aware that racism permeates many layers of western society. Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were murdered for taking a stand and fighting for equality in the civil rights movement. Who was King to dream? Also, who would have thought that on the quest to be free to take a seat anywhere on a bus. Rosa Parks would refuse to move from a ‘white man’s’ seat? I applaud the courage and free-thinking from iconic figures like this, who strove for a better, more equal world. As we have seen a remmergence of racist chanting at football matches and it appears that a higher percentage of BAME people are being admitted to hospital with COVID-19, the journey towards equal freedoms continues.
Many people during this time of lockdown are talking about how lucky we are usually and will be more grateful to spend our time as we wish and move about freely when lockdown is released. Of course, we have had our movements restricted but at the same time this has, for some people, freed up time to spend with family.
Conversely, the request from government to work from home wherever possible and to self-isolate if we begin to show signs of Coronavirus, as well as the closure of schools and many businesses, has created other issues that limit freedom. To begin with, working from home can be difficult if you are also a parent because time has to be split and shared in a restrictive way. However, reopening schools prematurely could put both children and teaching adults at risk and hinder their freedoms. Even if children are missing out on social interaction and teaching from their teachers, instead of completing lessons online, government could have taken the decision to repeat at least half the year for all year groups, with a staggered start in Early Years. Why not exert the freedom of powers awarded by election and pause time?
Can we afford that freedom? The former Bank of England governor, Lord King wants schools to reopen as soon as possible and GDP is taking a major hit. With less money circulating, this could bode negatively for our future freedoms. Indeed, even now, many people are unable to work and have no money as a result of this. Two days ago, according to the Food Foundation, 1.5 million British people have said they have gone a day without eating because they have no money and Rishi Sunak is said to be ‘shocked’ that three times the expected amount of claimants to his job retention scheme – nine million. The welfare bill is increasing and with more widespread poverty, such economic devastation definitely will affect people on an individual level and their freedoms will be massively affected.
It begs the question, how sound are our usual freedoms, if being able to hear the birds sing once more and see the Himalayas from India for the first time in thirty years has created such problems?
It is not only in the UK, as we hear that many impoverished ‘common people’ in India are falling ill and dying at this time. We live in a world where there is so much wonder and greatness, but sadly also so much injustice: when a baby is born, it is innocent and knows not hierarchy, patriarchy or wealth inequalities. Freedom from all oppression would be in my utopia.
Despite all of this, freedom could be said to be in the mind. In his poem, ‘London’, Blake writes of the ‘manacles’ that oppress the people on his walk through London in the early eighteenth century. The people of London seem impoverished and not looked after by those institutions who are supposed to look after them: the government, monarchy and church. We feel a sensory overload of pain, misery and anguish as we read of the ‘cries’, ‘blood running down palace walls’ and the ‘harlot’s curse’. Blake evokes sympathy for the person on the street. This poem is wonderfully and defiantly angry because of the implied conflicts he sees. One of the conflicts appearing in the poem appear in the ‘chartered’ streets: on the one hand, it might be a reference to imply the freedoms given by King John to some rebel barons in the Magna Carta, but Blake also criticises ownership of land and of buildings by business, which restricts the freedoms of people, whilst some of them depend upon such business to provide work and sustenance. Similarly, ‘manacles’ conjures up ideas of a slave owner’s tools in keeping their slaves ensnared. Blake is definitely critical of those in power, but we can also infer that what hold the people of London trapped is in the mind. Written at a time when revolution was brewing across the Channel in France, we could read ‘London’ as being written by a frustrated Mandela, attempting to call the people to rise up in rebellion against their oppressors, but also fearing that revolutionary ideas will be ignored by those who blindly accept the status quo.
As Blake wandered, was he free? Or, was he consumed by frustration and anger that was channelled into his writing?
What do you see and feel when you wander? Irrespective of lockdown, are any of us truly free?
I would like to believe that I am free to be me.