The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2019

All Issues
NOV 2019 Issue
Critics Page

Reflections on Free

It does not come so easily. Freedom is physical, political, and spiritual. This much is plain.

We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values...When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.1

It feels like a lifetime of work, to declare what is and is not free, within ourselves and for the sake of others. I began reflecting on a free act, one that feels both personal and private and yet symbolic and shared. Almost a year ago, I declared in the presence of a collective, loving body that I had chosen my forever boo and would be bound to her in spirit and ceremony. I stood arrested in vulnerability and elation, reverent with tenderness for the world we might create, in the present, imagined, and future. But this was the culmination of many free acts and many choices.

Many months prior, I expressed that I was pursuing freedom. I told my future, as I like to call her, that I was pushing against what I knew and had known and what others knew and had known. I wanted to tease intuition from knowledge from information from beliefs. In her presence, it was an attempt at unlearning and re-learning to love. One that felt dangerous and dangerously exhilarating. Not to be fooled, however, loving from this new, unmoored place of doubt and skepticism was hard and humbling.

I still think of this as the personal work of freedom, the choosing. Long before I announced it to my partner and others, I had chosen to rethink my freedom and rework my relationship to values of love, duty, and mutual respect. My future emerged from other choices made.

A few weeks ago, I became transfixed by a portion of the quote above, specifically the words that read “racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” It read as a triplet of physical, political, and spiritual death. I struggle with King’s warning of a threefold, existential prison, and even more so, as I work toward free, free acts, and freedom wrought together and bound in forever values.

Maybe it is a reflexive attempt, as “a black Westerner,”2 to disentangle the realities of inheritance and descent, to claim place within and distance from the misguided values of the day.

Still, I am confounded by King’s words. Maybe it is in my own working definitions of racism, materialism, and militarism—a viral, weaponized terror against our shared humanity, the separation from, and in consequence the death of, our collective spirit, and the violent amplification of self-interest in the name of [white] supremacy, respectively—that I am unable to disaggregate the myth-making of policy and propaganda from King’s prophetic critique. I find it hard to imagine a future where prejudice does not engender prejudice, where we are without war in action or rhetoric, and where our love of things is not in direct opposition to love of others and our environment. Fifty years removed, what institutions still, if ever, operationalize love, duty, or mutual respect? Where are the roots of a radical revolution of values? I have to confess my research is not broad enough to answer either question. (My discontent evokes a rebuttal of “few and far between!”) If I am to pursue this notion, beyond my own anxieties, then maybe the work of pursuing freedom is in institutionalizing value-making that embodies an “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism,”3 or by my own definition that which is hostile to our shared humanity, collective spirit, and disarmament of self-interest.

It is an unintended consequence of theorizing openly that I have magnified my own naively, free act as a case study for other free actions. As I am much closer to being an expert in my own actions than I am of history or sociology, I would be uncomfortable with the analysis of another. Maybe it is my hope to perform this free act here and now and inspire free agreement and free dissent. If it seems that I am not certain, it is likely because to declare what is and is not free feels like a lifetime of work that I am only beginning.

Free does not come easily; this much is plain.


  1. “Beyond Vietnam,” Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967 - Riverside Church, New York
  2. James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, "Princes and Powers," p.45, (1961).
  3. “Beyond Vietnam,” Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967 - Riverside Church, New York


Malik Lewis

MALIK LEWIS is a cis-male westerner who aspires to be good, free citizen, an ambition unlikely achievable if not for his African roots and love of a Black, queer woman.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2019

All Issues