I have not forgotten Bree Newsome. I will never forget her. She climbed up the flagpole at the South Carolina Statehouse in June and took down the Confederate flag. Following the murder of nine people in a Charleston church, I was unable to write anything that wasn’t full of bitterness and despair.
But Newsome refused to allow the body of one of the dead, State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, to lie in state under the flag his murderer used as an emblem of hate-filled values. Across the country, her actions set hearts and imaginations on fire. Months later, we can still learn a lot from that day.
Asking for freedom is not the same as taking action as a free people.
In the days after her action, Newsome was depicted as a heroine, a black Superwoman, a symbol of how we can act when Black Lives Matter. But it’s important to remember that Newsome is not a superhero. Her actions remind us that the change we want to see in the world will not come from some super power; it will come from people power. And if we can figure out how to grow our own vegetables and make our own bread, we have enough power to make ourselves some homemade freedom. We already have everything that we need.
From left: Bree Newsome, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou and Cornel West speak with reporters during a gathering of activists and others at an event commemorating the first anniversary of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, August 9, 2015. (Photo: Whitney Curtis / The New York Times)
Here are a few elements I can identify in Newsome’s recipe for homemade freedom:
1. Stay woke.
Newsome’s actions were a response to Gov. Nikki Haley’s unfulfilled promise to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House. Instead of shutting down in her grief and rage, Newsome stayed awake to Haley’s inaction, and she stayed present to her own feelings. Anger is the appropriate feeling to have when our boundaries have been violated. Newsome reminds us that the purpose of anger is to generate the energy we need for self-protective action.
2. Get up early.
The sunrise behind Newsome’s descent down the flagpole was not simply photogenic. It also reminds us to take action for change at the earliest opportunity. This prevents us from feeling powerless and shamed as we watch injustice pile upon injustice over time. It also doesn’t hurt to spread our message in time for the morning news cycle!
3. Deeds, not pleas, bring change.
It is important that we advocate for policy, sign petitions, and take part in protests that put our bodies on the line. But asking for freedom is not the same as taking action as a free people. Frederick Douglass reminds us not only that “power concedes nothing without a demand,” but also that “if we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by [our] labor.”
4. Use what you have.
Newsome did not have wealth or a communications team or a political platform. She did have a helmet, a pair of boots, and enough climbing knowledge to scale a 30-foot pole. With these three things, Newsome brought down the Confederate flag at the State House. Her action also brought that flag down from the shelves of stores and removed it from products and television shows.
5. Speak the language you know.
Sometimes we think our acts of conscience will not matter if we don’t know what to say or lack the gift of oration that moves people. Our own words are good enough. Before her arrest, Newsome made a statement that was simple and clear: “We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day.”
6. To go far, go together.
A South African proverb says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Newsome was arrested with a support partner on the ground, a white man named James Tyson. Working together across identities of privilege invites in many resources, including the strength that comes from the reminder that we are dreaming and longing and working together for all of us to be free.
The Confederate flag was up again within an hour of Newsome and Tyson’s arrest. But their action has had lasting impact. We should never forget that we can claim some homemade freedom whenever we remember that we are enough, and we already have enough. Like all homemade things, freedom requires creativity, a little skill, and a daily dose of courage. Most of all, it requires us to share our stories of homemade freedom with each other.