On Three Decades of Freeing Myself


Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.

––James Baldwin

As I ring in another year on Earth, I’m contemplating this quote, and all the unlearning I did to become freer over the years. I said recently in a talk that learning to love myself was really just de-conditioning the belief that there was ever anything wrong with me to begin with.

As Baldwin also once said, “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.”

Sometimes the most radical thing you can do is believe you are enough.

Of course, along the way, there might be resistance. Many folk have attempted to shut down my freedom, mainly because it made them aware of the cages they put themselves in, or acquiesced to being put in. And many others misconstrued my self-respect as something other than what it is — a threat, even — because they’d never witnessed someone like me dare to stand in the fullness of who they are with an unbothered sense of security.

“Folk don’t like nobody too proud, or too free,” in the words of Alice Walker.

But after three decades of unearthing my own liberatory path, I can assure you that reclaiming every bit of freedom to which you’re entitled, and protecting it fiercely, is worth it. Once you dust yourself off, and stand up to whomever or whatever is crushing your dignity or freedom? Oh, love, there’s no going back. Everything that ever controlled you becomes irrelevant, because you finally experience what it feels like to truly live and move through the would unashamed and uninhibited. Your will becomes indomitable to the grip of oppression and self-repression.

Audre Lorde so eloquently told us, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

If that’s not a word on self-ownership, I don’t know what is. So, to anyone out there struggling right now with who they are, or who they’re becoming: remember that it took many decades for the folks who seem so free to get that free. But when you turn that corner — and you will — every bit of the wait will have been worth it.

I’ll leave you with one my favorite poems, by Lucille Clifton, which captures the spirit of victory I’m overcome with today, after defying who knows how many obstacles to reclaim my own power, for the third decade now:

won’t you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.



Araya Baker is a counselor educator, suicidologist, and policy analyst.

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