A Juneteenth Tribute to Kalief Browder
Last year, I was invited to posthumously honor Kalief Browder at Riverside Church during the Juneteenth Spirit Alive Awards. It was, and is, the hardest speech I ever wrote. Today, a year later, on this same day of celebration and reflection, I find myself calling up these reminders for what to do when freedom seems impossible. In times like these, when families are being separated at borders and jails alike, I have to dig deep in the well of hope. In the spirit of Juneteenth, and of all who fought for a freedom they would never see, I offer you these words today.
To watch a video of the speech: https://youtu.be/bGUV4UXzMyg
To read, read on:
In my mind, Kalief Browder stands as the most significant and consequential activist of my lifetime. I often find it hard to discuss him, because in his eyes I see too many men I know, too many of the men I love, too many of my former students with whom I’ve lost touch. I did not know him, nor did he know me, but for me, he is and will always be the giant among giants of modern day freedom fighting.
You see, some of us activists chose this life because we were raised in protest, or because we worship a God who loves justice and commands we do the same here on earth.
Some of us chose activism because we recognize the victims of the most heinous crimes of supremacy could have been our brothers, our daughters, our family.
Some of us chose this because it could have been us. Kalief Browder chose this because it was him. He knew the depths of human depravity not because he read it or watched it or even because he had cried over it.
He chose a path of unapologetic activism because he lived it. Because his spirit couldn’t be denied. Because his truth was too powerful to be harnessed.
To choose this life after enduring the ugliest of humanity is, by every calculation, the very bravest of acts. In my view, Kalief’s choice everyday to get up and speak the truth out loud, in public, against every odd, very real danger and risk makes him more consequential, more important, more courageous than any of the rest of us.
In the face of such bravery I moved toward today feeling inadequate to speak to his life. I am in awe of Kalief, and though I’ve spoken all over the world, I know my words don’t suffice.
On today, my speechlessness is compounded. by a deep grief. As I thought of Kalief this week, Philando Castile’s killer was set free.
A 17 year old Muslim girl wearing her hijab was taunted, beaten, abducted, and murdered.
And a 30 year old pregnant, mentally ill mother of 3 was shot in front of her children by police.
On this Juneteenth, on this day to celebrate freedom, I don’t even know what freedom means.
I come to you weary, feeling small and inconsequential. Recollecting what happened to Kalief. Grieving Nabra Hussein and Charleena Lyles and Philando Castile. In the face of this, I struggle to envision what real freedom, immovable freedom, unrestricted freedom, true freedom really is. What it looks like. What it feels like. What it tastes like.
How do you fight for freedom when you can’t define it? How to keep pressing toward the mark when the destination keeps being pushed further away? How do you push forward when the freedom you sought still too-often ends with our demise and no accountability?
I can’t imagine that a continued denial of justice was Kalief’s vision of freedom. I know that being gassed on the streets of Ferguson just for assembling like my constitution allows isn’t what Juneteenth was for. My ancestors died for this word I can no longer grasp. Our great, great, great grandparents toiled for this amorphous, unknown thing called Freedom that they might never ever live to see. They died for us. They bled for me. They struggled for Kalief.
But even without knowing exactly what freedom was, I know, beyond any doubt, they knew what it wasn’t. The modern day enslavement of their descendants for the benefit of the state and the continued profit of industry is not what my ancestors had in mind. The atrocities Kalief faced and the grief his mother’s heart beat with is not the freedom they envisioned.
It couldn’t have been.
Because Rikers Island, mass incarceration, and the continued separation of our families are far too similar to what they fought to get free from. They are nothing but modernized replicas of the terror our ancestors faced before -and long after- their Juneteenth.
I may struggle to know what freedom is- but I know this ain’t it.
But I realized: Kalief? Kalief was our ancestor’s wildest dreams, even if what happened to him wasn’t. Our spirits are bigger than the systems we face, our purpose greater than the oppression that grabs us. Those systems stole Kalief’s childhood, but never his voice. Oppression may have taken his life- but never his legacy.
The upright black man inside him straightened his spine for long enough to take on an entire system and shake the rest of the world out of our dry place-and that’s what our ancestors fought for. That’s how they made us. That’s how Kalief’s mother raised him.
Just like our ancestors before him, Kalief gave us the bravest modern example of fighting as hard as you can for as long as you can, even when you can’t quite see freedom yet. Even when you don’t know when or what the win is going to be. Even when you can’t define freedom, but you know you deserve it. “Justice failed him, but he believed in justice,” his mother said. Kalief chose us, even when his country didn’t choose him.
I’m not going to spin my wheels defining every contour of freedom. Instead, I commit to the bravery of Kalief and the courage of our ancestors to press forward in the dark, to keep searching for the light. To proclaim that if I know nothing else, freedom is the ability to be happy, safe, and black all at the same time- and that we’ll figure out the rest on the way. To keep going even when there’s another hashtag. Because there’s another hashtag.
Kalief was strong enough to fight for a world that didn’t fight for him- and sometimes that super-human strength can make you tired. But even the people responsible for his absence here on earth can not kill his heart. We fight on, for Kalief, because he taught us how to straighten our backs, look the world in the face, and tell the truth.
Thank you for your truth, Kalief. Thank you for your life. Thank you for bringing us ever closer to freedom. We press on, even in the dark, for you.
-June 19, 2017