healing-justice-freedom-blmShare on Pinterest
Illustration by Maya Chastain

There is an Afrocentric concept called “nommo.” As Africa is not a monolith, “nommo” has more than one meaning, but the many definitions boil down to the power of the spoken word. For me, it always meant to be careful of what you say. You never know what you may speak into existence.

As a writer, and especially as a poet, I’ve always found it important to measure my words carefully. Words are powerful. They shape the world around us. They shape our perception. And as a Black woman, I’ve often felt my words crushed and overshadowed — but Black Lives Matter, created by three Black women, has given a voice to my people.

Since 2013 they, along with the Movement for Black Lives, have spearheaded a new wave of anti-racist activism. Seven years later, we’ve seen these movements grow into a mass challenging of the American status quo: white supremacy, racism, and xenophobia. Hashtags have become chants in the streets. Black Lives Matter. I can’t breathe. Say Her Name. Now, these cries are coming to fruition.

I’m seeing white folk attempt to actively unlearn racism, taking the responsibility upon themselves as opposed to expecting Black folk to teach them. I’m seeing white allies march alongside Black and Brown bodies, using their privilege to further the movement. It’s now time to look forward. I’m seeing folks acclimating to the ideas that are closer to the goals of the movement, like defunding the police or ending qualified immunity.

As we attempt to reach these goals, though, they also get distorted by those who would like a softer landing. The conversation around defunding the police is a prime example, in which op-eds have argued that defunding means “reform” or adding social workers to the police force.

So I’ve been thinking: What will it take for folks to listen to each word we say? How do we speak into existence a Black community that will thrive?

We need to be on the same page for healing, justice, and freedom.

Black people are predisposed to a litany of health issues, both physical and mental. To heal, we have to begin to piece together our communities and ourselves.

We can look at spaces like Ethel’s Club in Brooklyn for community healing. Prior to the pandemic, Ethel’s Club served as a community and coworking space for people of color. Now, its digital membership offers wellness and workout sessions, connection to a community of creatives, and a ton of PoC-focused events.

Healing also looks like mutual aid. Mutual aid doesn’t simply consist of monetary donations — it is doing grocery runs for elderly or immunocompromised folk during COVID-19. It is stocking community fridges, offering/exchanging services, or picking up your neighbor’s kids from school.

Healing is found in caretaking. It’s found in radical Black joy or reconnecting with our roots. Healing is also having difficult conversations, ones that can break the cycles we exert in order to oppress each other. Doing this allows us to unite in unapologetic Blackness.

“We cannot forget that this country was born with three major birth defects,” says Dr. Ama Mazama, director of graduate programs in the African American Studies department at Temple University, “the annihilation of the Native people, the enslavement of African people, and the grabbing of two-thirds of Mexican land.”

To wrangle justice from the hands of a society born with these “birth defects” has proven difficult. The protests in Minneapolis were referred to by multiple media outlets as riots. Public officials have called protesters animals as they were shot with tear gas. Yet white people often get let off the hook when they destroy cities for the sake of sports.

Vanessa Belleau, the founder of Highfifteen, specializes in unconscious bias training within the workplace. She defines justice as “the idea that finally our point of view and experience gets acknowledged by the oppressor. Or that there is a reparation of some sort, a sentence even for the oppressor.”

This concept, surprisingly, already exists and has been played out in the Western world before. Germany has addressed its Nazi past through the steps Belleau mentions. It’s called vergangenheitsbewältigung. This term, which has no direct translation, describes the series of steps Germany took to atone for its sins. After World War II, the country sought to reunite families, paid reparations, memorialized the dead, and punished those who committed crimes.

The United States could step up in a similar way to aim for justice in the long haul. It could first acknowledge the deep-seated issues this country has. Another start would be the sentencing of those who murder Black folk in cold blood and a removal of qualified immunity. There would be no grand jury. There would be no pension waiting for police who murder.

“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” —Fannie Lou Hamer

Freedom is sacred to Black folk, as we’ve so frequently seen it taken away from us — from the enslavement of Africans to the Jim Crow era caste system to today’s prison industrial system. In the past 50 years, the number of people in U.S. prisons has increased 700 percent. One-fourth of Black men and one-sixth of Latino men can expect to know what the inside of a prison cell looks like. These two groups comprise about one-third of the U.S. population, yet they account for 59 percent of the state prison population.

The Thirteenth Amendment didn’t end slavery wholesale, as it allowed for the enslavement of those who have committed crimes.

Freedom looks like equality. Freedom looks like harmony. Freedom is the combination of healing and justice. For all of us. Not just Black men. Not just Black people. Freedom is equal protection for all races, the LGBTQ+ community, the disabled, the unhoused, and on and on…

When we can return to our traditional ways of being and invoke community once more, we will be free. As an Afrocentrist, Mazama easily draws her conclusions to the past. She references the Kemetic principles of Maat, “truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice.” Maat itself refers to the balance of the universe, and these principles guide us toward peace.

“The challenge that we face is the restoration on Maat,” says Mazama, “in a world permeated with injustice and abuse.”

The movement has been clear in its demands of “no justice, no peace.” As we teeter between the two, the future, surprisingly, looks more bright.

Gabrielle Smith is a Brooklyn-based poet and writer. She writes about love/sex, mental illness, and intersectionality. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram.