12 October 2007

When All the Slaves are Free

One of my last activities before bed last night was a Google Image search on Marion Jones. I was driving to New Orleans in blinding rain on the morning she met the press and made her confession. I've been thinking about her on and off since that morning.

Today, I woke up luxuriating in the warmth of my bed. The weather turned overnight and there was a definite chill in the room. Resisting the nagging voice in my head that insisted I get up and get busy, I snuggled deeper into the blankets and remembered "I'm free and grown and I'll get up when I want to."

As I lay there, "free" kept echoing in my head. I started thinking about American slavery. I tried to imagine myself waking up on a crisp October morning, 200 years ago, abducted, transported, indentured, on a plantation perhaps somewhere near where I live today as a "free" woman. In the imagined scene there were the sounds and smells and heat of other bodies around me and there was comfort in that, for this 21st century sojourner who wakes up alone and lonely most mornings.

But there was also the mind-boggling, soul-crushing reality of No Choice in the scene. No pantry or refrigerator offering choice of breakfast foods. No rack of colorful clothes from which to choose a costume/disguise for the day. No option to sleep in. No option to find a wi-fi cafe and sit with a laptop and blog. No choice about how many hours to spend working, how many to spend playing.

Sojourner didn't do well as a slave. I suspect I'd have had even less success. With my penchant for speaking my mind and "giving looks", there's every likelihood I'd have ended up sold and sold again, each new owner trying to beat me into submission, probably sustaining numerous physical injuries before expiring in one final brutal beating. Or maybe I'd have attempted to escape.

Isn't that what I've been doing for the last 10 years...maybe longer? Trying to escape? Trying to find Freedom?

Quality education. A good job here and there. Some amount of celebrity--in spurts. Relative affluence (ref. my sisters in Uganda, Iraq, Afghanistan...) and freedom of movement. Good health. Family and friends who love me.

Still not satisfied. Still the feeling of enslavement. Still searching, still running, still wanting... What?

At 27, Marion had a baby boy. She and the father did not marry but she gave the boy his father's name...and went on with her life. Kept pushing, searching, the old burning questions still driving her, coupled now with the ineffable love and sense of responsibility that come with motherhood and the complicated connection to a man with whom she has a child. In private moments, she must have looked back and remembered the simplicity of childhood compared to the tangled intricacies of adulthood. A multiplicity of decisions to make and less and less often a calm, clear space to stand in to make them. A dwindling circle of trusted others to support her as she made them.

And so she finally finds herself caught in a web of illegal activities with the baby's father and his friends and their friends and the white-hot glare of celebrity and fans and sycophants and her own ambition and immaturity and compromises that were almost always immediately recognized as wrong ... Ensnared. Everything whirling fast and overlapping. She is caught. She is no longer free. She is a slave.

Sojourner walked away and found some measure of freedom. Marion has made a public admission of guilt, forfeited her medals and prizes and awaits judgment. I hope her confession brings her some peace and freedom. I hope she feels released from the too-fast treadmill of the last 8 years of her life.

It is not easy to make a life. Attempting to make one as a hugely celebrated woman of color in the rapacious snake pit of American popular culture must surely be an especially daunting endeavor. It must require finesse to avoid the spiritual destitution that often accompanies "having everything."

"If" from Shine keeps playing in my head as I write this blog...

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken...
Or watch your life's work torn apart and broken down
And still stoop to build again with worn out tools.
If you can draw a crowd and keep your virtue...
Then the Earth is yours and Everything that's in it...
You'll be alright, you'll be alright.
'Cause you've got the fight
you've got the insight
You've got the fight, you've got the insight...

My prayer: that what's left in me of the desire to escape be transformed into Fight and Insight.


  1. Thank you for the reflection, Alex ...
    From a child, I wanted what fame seemed to offer: the attention, the affirmation, the love, the support. Then, as an adult, I got a little taste of what fame is like, and I mostly didn't like it.

    ** It's nice to be recognized, until you don't want to be bothered and people still recognize you.
    ** Fame is based on what you've done in the past, not on what you might do in the future. That in itself becomes a prison, i.e., the child-tv-star who can get rolls as an adult.
    ** Noteriety brings haters and enemies, as well as lovers and fans.
    ** It's hard to know when you're famous enough to be happy. :-)
    ** The ultimate destination of the famous is the trash can of memory, or dusty bookshelves and computer files.

    I enjoy the appreciation I receive from others, and I hope to keep it in perspective. It becomes problematic when instead of living boldly and in the moment (how I generally choose to be), I live from the place of "What will they think?" or "I can't let anybody know that I ... (fill in the blank)."

    Which brings us to Ms. Jones. I'm sad for her, but this is not the end of the world. She gambled she would be able to get away and she "lost", at least in the eyes of the world. My hope for her is that she can take this experience and all the money she's earned and reinvent herself. Vanessa Williams did it with great success, and Donna Rice went from being Gary Hart's mistress to being a advocate for children's rights.

    And for myself, the mindfulness to return to serenity when life seems more that I can handle.

  2. Oh my. SO many things this post brings up. *Tears for me, then for us all. Saving that last picture of MJ to my desktop. *The foolish decisions I've made through life- and esp the last several yrs- that've washed me up on the current shore; dreams & visions intact but sodden....
    *Maybe MJ is free-er now than ever before. I think of "identity" along with "fame".... you, Alex, seem to me to move easily through those rapids; fame becomes bereft, solitude becomes Out There with it, yr own expressed iedntity struggles never leading you to suppposedly secure positions....I think of my "identity" transition from Artist to Nurse.... the unexpected ego struggle ego struggle; I work as a nurse, I AM an artist..... and isn't that just another calling card identity? meaningless in terms of the Making, the Living....
    *The extraordinary work of Kara Walker....slavery, slavers, enslaved, all in delicate old-time genteel sillhouette... hoping to get to her new show in person when it's in LA.
    *And JONI. I've not heard "If" before, but will look it up..... the words are so deeply moving, deeply felt! If we can bear to hear what we say, INDEED!
    *and Alex. Tough, mighty tensile strength of mind/spirit, seeking, seeking.... Living It.... anyway, Thankyou.


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