Today we are free, but the mental chains remain

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A canon points out from a 15th century slave castle in the village of Elmina, Ghana. | AP Photo/David Guttenfelder

Hmm, how do I say this plainly? The chains remain.

And some of the chains that shackle us, in these times, after all these years, are, as Brother Kanye said recently, by choice — our own.


It is a painful truth that some of us black folks will honestly admit. A truth we sometimes wrestle with among ourselves during “family discussion,” far from earshot of whites who we rightly fear might use such an admission to try and excuse centuries of continued systemic hate, institutionalized racism and discrimination, and that cruel institution called American Slavery.

Except the truth — this truth — may help set us free: The chains remain.

I hear them rattling every time the wind blows with news of Chicago’s gunfire and homicide toll, the rising body count of black men slain by black men. Every time I witness black folks collectively slipping deeper into society’s statistical abyss, and our distrust of one another. Or when I observe our unwillingness and inability as black folks to unite for our collective good, I am reminded that the chains remain.

I would prefer physical chains to mental chains. For when the body is shackled, the mind can still be free — free to believe, free to dream, free to escape, to sing.

When the mind is bound, the body is chained. It proceeds through life with a prisoner’s gait. Acts, performs, responds like a slave. Ultimately it assimilates the master’s cruel hate.

The chains remain.

I see them as clearly as the vast blue Atlantic Ocean I stared into years ago while standing at a haunting slave castle in Cape Coast, Ghana, from which human cargo once was shipped into the Middle Passage. In feces-laden, disease-infested slave ships, we voyaged to a chained American hell.

Upon the auction block, naked and bound like animals in irons and chains, we were sold as property. Stripped of culture, language, life. Terrorized.

And yet, 400 years since the first Africans set foot in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, the shackles are no longer physical but mental.

These mental chains — invisible to the not-yet-awakened eye, though more insidious than the iron bit — inhibit our lives as African Americans. They dictate our present dilemma of self-destruction. Threaten our posterity and existence.

These chains weigh heavy. We arrived at the plantation in our minds by our adoption of the slave masters’ hate. By imitating our enemies who historically have conspired to destroy us because of the color of our skin — whether by murder, mass incarceration, poverty by design, or police brutality.

Except none of these external devices of hate could ever consume a “free” people. Our ancestors could bear witness. For they were enslaved but acted free. Today we are free but act like slaves.

Today young black men — having become slaves to hate — lynch young black men by the hundreds, wound each other by the thousands each year in the city of Chicago alone. Today black “educators,” miseducate our children, defraud already broken public school systems.

Today we don’t vote.

Today too many fathers abandon our children, abdicate our responsibility. Too many black churches pillage our communities, erecting so-called worship centers and filling their coffers on prosperity preaching.

Today we denigrate our sisters with vulgar lyrics. We seek to whiten or lighten our skin, and are chained to hair weaves and hair straighteners, seeking to conform to a Eurocentric standard of beauty. Some of us want to be anything but black.

Some of us want to do bodily harm to another brother for simply reminding us that we no longer have to be enslaved.

And why? Because the chains remain.


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