On the blog Ask A Manager, author Alison Green offers job-seekers and employees advice on interacting with their supervisors, managing relationships with colleagues, and developing their careers.
A few weeks ago, Green responded to a question from someone who had forbidden an employee from taking time off to attend their graduation. The letter-writer had granted other employees time to attend concerts, and accommodated substitutions that workers had arranged on their own, but refused their “go-to-person” the chance to celebrate their own achievement. The employee resigned.
Of course Green and the Ask A Manager community had a field day with this scenario: The letter-writer had failed to honor the employee’s loyalty and reliability, and had set aside their rules to accommodate others with much less significant commitments. The manager had no basis for denying the employee a release, and the employee was not the problem.
That employee, a first-generation college student and someone clearly committed to their job, had spent years working in a hostile system. But their environment only becomes completely intolerable when they need a few hours to celebrate their hard work and receive punishment instead of reasonable accommodation.
On my recent reading book list is M. Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. In the first few chapters, Copeland explains why we have to ground philosophy and theology right where we are, acknowledging our particularly embodied experiences and how bodies like ours have been framed through history.
She combs through first-person accounts of the United States’ system of enslavement to highlight not only the conditions of enslavement that Black people faced here, but also their resistance strategies: exercising faith, prayer, and hope independently of White people; educating themselves, often in secret; physically resisting assault attempts, even at the risk of retaliatory beatings, torture, and murder; undermining plantation work schedules or deploying sass; and obscuring or outright denying their desire for freedom.
Incarnate spirit refuses to be bound. Escaping to freedom, purchasing one’s own freedom or that of a loved one, fighting for freedom, offering up one’s own body for the life and freedom of another, and dying for freedom were acts of redemption that aimed to restore black bodily and psychic integrity. Living within a ‘system built on violence, disenfranchisement, and white supremacy’ surely pushed some enslaved people to respond…’with self-hatred, anger, and identification with the aggressor.’ Still, many other enslaved women stocked their arsenal with wit, cunning, verbal warfare, daring, physical strength, and so-called uppity behavior. Freedom was the prize; they put their hands to its plow, and held on.” —M. Shawn Copeland
The celebration of Juneteenth reminds us of the resilience of Black people who endured two extra years of enslavement because the good news of emancipation didn’t reach them. Copeland notes how one plantation owner deliberately resisted sharing that good news, and then abandoned the people he’d claimed to own without any of the resources they’d need to live independent lives as legally free people.
“Meeting the practical demands of freedom could be daunting,” Copeland writes. The practical demands of freedom include finding food to feed both oneself and dependents, maintaining shelter and regular work. An individual can enjoy none of the elements of a “free life” without money or the material support of the society around them. We aren’t really free if the system doesn’t allow for the conditions of freedom.
And this is why individual experiences, personal advantages, and private successes don’t change the nature of the system in which they occur. My ability to secure residency and create work over the last three years doesn’t change the fact that the U.S. immigration process is a nightmare. My education history wouldn’t especially protect me in an encounter with police or other armed state officers. My anecdotes don’t overrule the system’s logic or trends.
So much of the story of Black people in the West is the tale of people hustling up ways to be free, spinning the tricky webs of Anansi to carve out alternatives to the dominant storyline, and using wit, cunning, persistence, and pluck so our descendants can have a more whole, less harmful experience on Earth than we’ve had.
Whether we’re loyal or reliable or not, at some point we learn that we can’t depend on the rules or rule-enforcers, but that we still need to make lives in societies not designed for us. And some of us add to the righteous work of making our individual lives the more complex work of challenging the wider society in order to change it.
The logic of the wider society frames and often contracts our individual experiences. The newly freed people of the Adams plantation needed material resources to make good on the legal status Lincoln’s proclamation had given them. They didn’t get them because the White supremacist logic that had made them targets of enslavement and abuse hadn’t vanished with either the war or the 1863 executive order.
Today, Black people need work and wages that can support their health and households, freedom from fear, and freedom from violence. But the system’s logic, the logic that long ago pronounced Black people inferior and indolent still persists. It has changed form, as all systems do, but it still persists.
It can be hard to remember that the micro’s answers aren’t an adequate response to the system’s questions, but that’s the reminder that the ancestors’ stories give me. Unless we can change the system that frames our lives, we’d have to agree with them that “Freedom ain’t nothin, less you got somethin to live on and a place to call home. Dis livin on liberty is lak… livin on love. It just don’t work” (in Copeland, p. 47).