Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Broken Chains

For every historical period, there is a person, place or thing that represents that moment above all others. It's the icon. And, when you say the name, everyone knows what you mean. In a nano-second, words and pictures are formed in our minds that instantly recall what it means.

Rosa Parks was an icon.


What has always inspired me the most about the Rosa Parks story is that she was no great politician, no activist; she did not spend a lifetime trying to change her situation. She was a woman in a moment in time where the physical shackles had been removed, but mental and social shackles remained. Still, she simply got up every day and went to work, doing what she had always done, until the day that she said, "No." That was it. No grand speech about freedom or rights or expensive rubber chicken dinners listening to the latest and greatest social change guru. Just the word "no" and it changed the world.

Social activists will search their entire lives looking for their own Rosa Parks moment, hoping to change the world. In general, one must admit that social activism can help move the world in a different direction, but it is a slow change. That sort of activism does not create iconic moments. Iconic moments require spontaneity, a deep fire that erupts from a common unexpected source.

Throughout the history of the United States, there are people, phrases, images and moments in time that expresses the penultimate moment when the next phase of freedom is recognized. They stir us to greater deeds and remind us to keep looking forward, never going back.

Give me liberty or give me death. We might not always remember who said it (Patrick Henry), but we remember his words and we know what he meant. Four score and seven years ago...every child learns that speech even if they don't know what "four score" meant (a score is 20 years; 4x20=80); they know that it was written in a war that freed the slaves. A day that will live in infamy, we know that day by the time we are adults we have internalized what day that was, who said it, what it meant to the future we live in and we know the images. Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. JFK's inaugural speech. Mr. Gorbechav, tear down this wall. We know what wall Ronald Reagan meant. It was a physical wall that represented the figurative wall that imprisoned people.

These things, along with many others, we remember, we internalize, we digest and they have become the program by which we learn what it means to be free and to live in America. Always believing that this freedom is the greatest, not because we simply are born into and live it, but because we are reminded constantly and consistently of the struggle that it took to arrive here. These also remind us that the struggle for freedom is never done. There is always another step we can climb and there are always people living in slavery. We recognize the eternal struggle of the human race that there is always a person struggling to be free and there is always another who will struggle to keep him, or her, a slave, whether that is physically, mentally, economically or politically. This struggle continues because we are not, by our higher mental power, immune to Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest. We choose to struggle against it.

In his inaugural address in 2005, President Bush used a phrase: Freedom is the fire burning in the minds of men. I don't know yet if that will become the iconic phrase of our generation, but I know that it struck me as very important and very deep. From our American history, we know that this is true. We're raised to believe it. People from all nations look to this nation; come to this nation, sometimes at a great personal cost, in order to experience this freedom. That is even knowing that we were never perfect. They recognize that it is better to struggle in imperfect freedom than to be bound by chains.

It is a difficult concept for people to understand. We have been raised to look upon other cultures as new and wonderful places to experience. They are, but too often, this exploration is at best superficial. We are told that when we look upon these places and these cultures that we, having not grown up in these cultures, cannot apply our own experiences and judge whether that culture and that way of life is better or worse. It is only different.

Yet, people routinely leave these cultures to come here. Why?

I believe that there is something wrong with the idea that we cannot judge a social structure or culture because it is not our own. I believe that the failure in this concept is the failure to recognize, even in a culture where class, servitude and even slavery has existed for generations, a man cannot be chained to the side of the road watching another man walk down it freely and not recognize the difference in their condition, regardless of how long he may have been chained there or who has told him that is his position.

Conversely, a man walking down the road freely, seeing his fellow man in chains, must also be able to recognize the difference in their condition and consciously makes a choice whether he will act on the man's behalf or go on, enjoying his own freedom. I'd say that the man who walks by his chained brother finds his own enjoyment of freedom diminished because he may pretend otherwise, but he saw that man's condition and it is always a picture in the back of his mind, a reminder that, but for the grace of God, go I and he must, from that moment on, always fear that his condition may change and he will be the man chained on the side of the road.

As for the charitable soul that gives the chained man bread and water, a blanket to sleep upon and a book to while away his hours yet does not take the shackles from the man, what have they given that chained man but a moments relief and a reminder that he is not free? And that same charitable soul turns away and continues on, thinking he has done a good deed. Unless the book held the key to the shackles, the food, water and blanket only sustain the chained man longer in his prison. What greater deed could there have been had the free man simply reached out his hand and pulled his fellow man from his chains or, even if necessary, came back with a sledge hammer and broke the chains?

Some men have been chained so long in their condition that they do not recognize that the chains that hold them are rusted and weak. He does not realize that, today, he could get up and break the chains and walk with his fellow man down the road of freedom. But, as we have seen through out history, it only takes one man to stand up and lose his chains to inspire the people around him to do the same. Then, suddenly, whole peoples are free.

Rosa Parks, by refusing to leave her seat and go to the back of the bus, tested her chains and found them broken. She stood up and all around her men and women stood up and broke the mental chains that had held them there for so long on the side of the road.

We see that today, men and women all around the world are standing up, breaking their chains no matter how long they have lived in chains or who has told them that is their inherent condition. They defy this inherent condition. They defy the tyrant’s chains. They defy the free man that saw them chained and walked on doing nothing. They defy the charitable soul who only offered comfort, but left them in their chains.

Today, we have seen free men wield a sledgehammer and break the chains of their fellow man. All the while, other free men tell him that he should not do that. If they free all these men, the road of freedom will be clogged with people. They tell you that, because of their culture or because these men choose to live in chains that they do not want to be free or it is better that they learn how to free themselves, thus appreciating that freedom even more. From this perspective, it's a weak excuse to do nothing. It is an inability for the free man to recognize the difference in his and the chained man's condition. It is the inability of the free man to recognize that the chained man understands the difference in their respective conditions and would gladly trade places with such a noble culturalist. Or, it's simply an excuse to do nothing, conserving his energy for his own walk so that he can pretend that doing nothing is equal to the man who breaks the chains.

I am reminded, when I hear such culturalist speak, of the people from Rosa Parks' days who touted "separate, but equal". That there should be separation between the culture of the black and the culture of the white. Ostensibly so neither would be unduly affected by the other. However, we now know that their conditions were definitely "separate", yet they were never "equal". That is a lesson that we must learn over and over again as we pass by each chained man beside the road of freedom and decide whether we will walk on or give him our hand. We imperfect free have alternately chosen to do both at different times in history. Ultimately we have chosen to give a hand or wield a sledgehammer when we feel that the chains of tyranny have come to close, when we feel our own freedom is most threatened.

Is it not strange how free men have congratulated themselves for walking by and doing nothing? That's why we need icons like Rosa Parks, why we constantly need to be reminded of this lesson. There is nothing equal in a free man and a chained man's condition no matter where he lives in the world, what language he speaks, what God he worships, how he drinks his tea, wears his clothes or who tells us it is so.

Free is free; chains are chains and chains are meant to be broken.

On October 24, 2005, Rosa Parks broke her final chains. God's speed, dear lady. You will be remembered.


riceburner147 said...

Kat: the only response to this beautiful piece of writing i can think of is (Riceburner gets down on one knee) Will you marry me ?......(Riceburner then realizes that this is not the GREATEST fate for most women and reconsiders). Kat, will you maybe just send me some of your future royalties ?

:) No really, you are scary good.

Leap Frog said...

Certainly agree about Riceburners assessment of your writing Kat.

Thank you. Very inspiring read.

(How can one top such an appealing marriage proposal, as a tribute to your talent?)


Kat said...

Rice...aren't you already spoken for?

I appreciate your kind words, Rice and Leap.

riceburner147 said...

Seperated since 1989......I consider myself divorced and will make the deed final some day soon, so, NO!

Lyric Mezzo said...

You are incredibly articulate. Wow - I'll just link to you from my blog and humbly hang my head and ask for your blessing.

I'll definitely add your blog(s) to my link list.