The First Meditation: Finding What Freedom Means to Me

Ayobami Adereti
9 min readJun 20, 2021

“We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world then he has little chance to relate to anything else.” — The Black Panther Party Ten-Point Program (1966)”

As the Yoruba say, when a baby is given a name, their gods accept it.

My fate was sealed on September 16, 2002 — Ayobami, “joy has come to me” — in a tag that proudly announced itself through an affinity for the arts and an inborn itch to be of service.

As the Yoruba say, if the right hand washes the left and the left hand washes the right, the hands will be clean.

The rigidity of school made efforts to restrain my own helping hand. At the mid-year mark of fourth grade, I was placed on trial by an all-adult jury, a parent-teacher conference turned student liberties case, found guilty on multiple counts of abandoning my work to assist others. The following year, I was sentenced by a different instructor to frequent stays in “the hub” — a separate room with a single desk, from which I could no longer drift undetected to help my peers.

Frustrating as they were, these measures did little to harden my heart for helping. Rather, an innocent tendency to tend to those around me soon gave way to an incessant questioning of the status quo, an unconscious quest to derive a formula ensuring everyone could be okay. My desires thus found their resting place in the world of theory, as radical thought met me at my love for language and literature, and advocacy at my love for oratory.

Black Panthers outside of the Panthers 21 trial

Photographed by Jack Manning

Image taken from @throwbak.blak on Instagram

“It was a rhythm. It was a rhythm to how we spoke. It was a rhythm to how we walked, and the people recognized it. We stood out.” — Akua Njeri

I don’t remember when exactly I first heard of the Black Panther Party, but I’ll never recover from the odd mix of emotions I felt upon my discovery. It came with the wonder of being let in on a long-kept secret, though the awareness of my suppressed knowledge of history quickly robbed the humor of it all. I knew from the day I sighted it nonetheless, Huey P. Newton’s image would never leave my head — gun in one hand, spear in another, dressed in Black and an air of solemnity, steadfast and seated tall.

Movers and shakers had long served as my role models, but I’d never seen anything like the Party — a force of united Black youth, dedicated to the struggle for Black liberation, mobilizing to create a new meaning for Black life through revolutionary love for the community.

“We know that the people are in jeopardy of genocide, and that if they do not survive then it won’t be possible to bring about revolution.” — Huey Newton

I’ve been thinking of the ways systems are designed to ensure liability, to entangle enjoyment almost inseparably with inaction, support even, and apathy.

As a Nigerian in the Diaspora, defining and dissecting Black identity sits on my head like a crown as I struggle to make sense of the world and find me. Brown skin has allowed me to blend into both African and Black American spaces alike, making me privy, through experience and observation, to some of the struggles woven into various shades of Black reality. Especially from my vantage point of privilege, analyzing these situations to then aid systematically underserved parts of my community is the crown jewel of my agenda, sitting center stage as an ingrained and unshakable priority.

An extra-credit assignment towards the end of the Spring semester came with the pleasant surprise of bringing this group back to the front of my mind. Annotating Stanley Nelson Jr.’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution for HIST 2381: African-American History thus became a much-needed meditation on an all-time favorite movement of mine.

Originally formed in response to Oakland, California’s rampant police brutality, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense took an armed, communal approach to police accountability and Black solidarity; mobilizing en masse initially to monitor interactions between Black people and law enforcement. The philosophy of co-founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale stemmed from the intentional disarmament of Black people despite blatantly escalating aggression towards the community, which they consequently combated by capitalizing on the right to open carry.

I’ve been thinking of the persistence of this problem in American history; the country’s greatest magic trick being the ability to disguise criminalization and brutality as a necessity, under the guise of upholding safety.

“The answer is vigorous law enforcement…That’s the only answer… Justice is merely incidental to law and order.” — J. Edgar Hoover

I think of how mistrust of law enforcement is a given survival skill for many, how their reign of terror is a well-known fact socially, and the ways people have expressed their grievances and transmuted pain for the sake of sanity.

With time, however, and pointed legislation, the Panther’s platform of armed self-defense would shift to center crucial social services instead, orchestrating a nationwide network of “survival programs” to cater to the needs the American government had long neglected. Free Breakfast for Children countered the stigma and stagnation of food insecurity, supplying over 20,000 poor school children — more than the State of California — nutritious meals in their first year. Peoples’ Free Medical Clinics connected Black people to high-quality community healthcare, providing Free Ambulance services, pioneering Sickle Cell education and screening, and integrating the fight against medical discrimination in their advocacy for Black and oppressed people. Initiatives centering the incarcerated instituted Free Busing to Prisons, reconnecting loved ones separated by an insidious arm of legal slavery, and pooled resources to provide incarcerated folks with Free Commissary.

As the Yoruba say, as long as there is lice on the head, there will be blood on the tip of the fingernail.

These efforts represented the tangible practice of theory articulated in the Party’s Ten-Point Program. Poised equally in opposition to capitalism as to white supremacy, the Party argued that capitalism intentionally and inherently created a perpetually-impoverished working class, hence equality under this system was an unattainable possibility. Freedom, thus, could only be achieved by dismantling the system altogether and working towards self-determination in Black and oppressed communities.

Photographed by James S. Roberts

Image taken from photoseries @blackarchives.co on Instagram

“This brother here, myself, all of us were born with our hair like this, and we just wear it like this….The reason for it, you might say, is like a new awareness among Black people that their own natural appearance, physical appearance, is beautiful. Black people are aware now….Dig it? Isn’t it beautiful? Alright!” — Kathleen Cleaver

I’ve been thinking of the impact the Panthers left socially. I’m forever grateful for the campaign of insisting Black is beautiful in anticipation of young Black girls — impressionable Black minds generally — like me. I think of the consistency with which Blackness has been vilified across space and time, and how its features have historically been cast as the antithesis of beauty. I think of the internalized self-hatred vestigal to survival in the face of rampant white supremacy, and the scars it leaves on 77% of women in my home country, who consume products for skin-bleaching. I think of my own brother’s decision to grow out his hair against my father’s discretion, and the pride that pushes me through every set of twists for the sake of his claim to self-expression.

It all reminds me of the respected tradition of treating Blackness as a commodity. I think of how the construction of race in the United States served to solve the country’s labor shortage through subjugation and enforce social order through a racialized hierarchy. I think of how this reality robs anything from the right to life to the right to individuality even till today, and how resistance can ironically rob the ability to simply be.

I wince as American education attempts to wipe the slate clean through miseducation and censoring, hiding red hands by banning engagement with critical race theory, or any meaningful information really.

I’ve been thinking of the weight of denial as I see the country’s facade fall apart at the seams, knowing this campaign of erasure is neither incidental nor in its infancy. I cringe even harder as Juneteenth becomes a national holiday, as the government sashays and sways in, and all but accepts, its culpability.

“You are also cautioned that the nature of this new endeavor is such that under no circumstances should the existence of the program be made known outside the Bureau” — COINTELPRO, Black Extremist

Really, I’ve been thinking about the reality of the struggle for liberation, almost painfully suspended in its sobriety. I think about the geographies and genealogies across which this fight has been forged, its inherent intersectionality, and the individual consciences that have been surrendered for the sake of collective consciousness. When anger consumes me, seeing red sets the perfect stage for sensibility, tracing an endless trail of blood between present emotions and a power struggle cemented in history.

I often lose myself at the intersection of language and thought loops, desperate to find a suitable meaning for sacrifice, and determine whether the balance can be paid with lip service alone or only met with my body. The truth is, I know I’m not ready.

I’ve searched for solvency within existing frameworks, trying to tie up loose ends neatly, though I now see I’ve willfully neglected what’s long been spelled out clearly. In order for a revolution to take place, it must truly be revolutionary.

I cannot hold onto my own status while preaching that others die to theirs

I cannot simultaneously fight and frolic in exploitative playgrounds, empowering institutions then paying respect with my tears

I cannot press play one day, then another, tire and just so press pause

On a movement occurring at every second in support of a never-ending cause

It will not take place if I sit in wait, praying for the heavens to come here

It will not take place if I hide my talents or emulate another’s or surrender to conformity out of fear

It will not take root in the vacuum left by intense emotion and fleeting care

It will be built through collective action alone, and unrestrained imagination will carry us there

At the same time, I’ve been relishing in the various forms resistance can take as even the term itself is reclaimed, particularly the promise of freedom that isn’t self-sacrificing. Lately, I’ve been aching to see liberation as access to information. As a young Black girl, life long made me aware of the charges levied against womanhood; age, however, gave me the exposure and understanding, in tow with the empowerment of education, to begin grasping its gravity. As I forge my own path, I mourn the lives of women who have lived but never got to be, stunted not by domesticity or culture per se but by circumstance and the inability to have chosen differently.

Half Formed Things (2019) by Chidinma Nnoli

Picture taken from @chidinma.noli on Instagram

I’ve been imagining liberation as the opportunity for self-actualization. The first time I took a flight without my parents, I felt like I was flying first class to my destiny. In reality, I was en route to the 43rd Annual Harvard National Forensics Tournament, days away from my first major accomplishment as a competitor and a love affair with Congressional Debate that would catalyse unprecedented growth in me.

It would also unknowingly spark an understanding and fluency in the need for the revolutionary, acting as a microcosm of the same woes we as participants decried in society. Roleplaying Congress members came with the same conflict and corrupt politics as Capitol Hill, making the competition sphere elitist, performative, and equally discriminatory. I’ve thus also been thinking of liberation as thriving in spite of existent barriers, divesting in identity markers altogether to show up in the fullness of me.

I’ve been rethinking resistance as a commitment to rest as a sacred practice, beautifully articulated by Tricia Hershey through The Nap Ministry.

To be honest though, I’m ultimately still struggling to define what exactly freedom means to me. As the lies I’ve been told continue to unravel, I’m struggling to even get a firm grip on a sure reality. Like Descartes concluded, it seems to be that the only thing I know with certainty is that I’m here and I exist — cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I must be. And for now, that’s enough, so I persist through the web of pretense woven around me, taking this search in stride and continuing to run my own race diligently.

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Ayobami Adereti

Somewhere at the intersection of lending a hand and learning something new, on the aux curating the world’s greatest set through the spirit and “Add to Queue”