Wring: the act of squeezing or twisting something; the art of wrestling, and reckoning, and teasing something out.
What is freedom? An illusion? A glass of water? A table of spilled milk? A statue in the middle of a river and a passport, a birth certificate, the ability to walk outside a home – or have a home at all – without the fear of being discriminated against, oppressed, or shot?
Or is it speaking truth on the steps of a national memorial, the “Birthplace of American Government,” in front of a statue of a country’s praised reverend of alleged freedom, under a ceiling of tattered American flags, aside the steps of a building that lives sandwiched between the New York Stock Exchange and The Trump Building on Wall Street, the birth of classism for all?
I don’t know what freedom is. I know I am an American citizen, fifth-generation, fourth-generation-born. I know my ancestors came to this country for freedom, to escape late 19th century anti-Jewish oppression in Lithuania. For a new life. For a new home. Free.
On September 25 and 26, I joined Poets in Unexpected Places at Federal Hall National Memorial in downtown Manhattan, as part of “Freedom Forums,” a “multi-regional, multi-disciplinary series of events in New York City, the Adirondacks, Western New York and Long Island that uses literature as a prompt to explore the ideas, ideals, flaws and contradictions of democracy.” A co-sponsored collaboration amongst several city, arts, and nonprofit organizations, PUP kicked off a month-long residency, and opened an evening program of poet activist Alexis De Veaux in conversation with poets Jericho Brown, Tina Chang and Aja Monet. Federal Hall, a site historically reserved for public debate, became the vortex for us to consider that which is free.
As the PUP poets (Samantha Thornhill, Jon Sands, Darian Dauchan, Ngoma Hill, Oveous, and myself) stood and performed across the street from Federal Hall on a hot September weekday evening, joined by the acapella trio Saheli (Elana Bell, Abena Koomsom-Davis, and Dara Lazar), crowds began to ebb and flow, stopping to watch, photograph, and even videotape our performance, our dialogue with freedom, our outcry for change. For me, this was an opportunity to interrogate freedom. To question democracy. To urgently use my voice.
And so in the alleged birthplace of American government, I stepped on to our makeshift sidewalk stage and shared my newly written poem, “When I ask my friend: What happens if I Tweet: Our President is a terrorist. And she says: You may experience repercussions…people get their hackles all up when you say the word terrorist and you do things with the Jews,” about anti-Semitism, White Supremacy, assimilation, and the President of the United States.
I think often how my great-great-grandparents came to America as only Jews, and how now – 130 years later – I am also White. How amidst the current political climate in America, I wonder if I will be White for much longer. How little it takes for me to be only a Jew again.
Over the course of our two nights together, over a handful of poetry sets both inside and immediately outside of Federal Hall, we poets shared our voices, a delicate, vital tool in the larger ocean that is an un-free country and world. And still, in all too many contexts of body ability and access, is an actual, physical voice not also a luxury? An opulent freedom itself?
It means something prolific to be a body that has experienced oppression – un-freeness – speaking up and out in a space that promotes a commodified fairy-tale narrative of a country built on slavery, sexual terrorism, genocide, and so many things that are the opposite of free. And what’s to say that every space that is part of this country’s physical fabric is no better than Federal Hall, no better than a monument of George Washington on the steps of a building sandwiched in between the New York Stock Exchange and The Trump Building on Wall Street?
I think it means something that we were there – we, the PUP poets – sharing our stories, speaking our tongues, and interrogating a narrative that has all too often silenced the truth.
And so we that’s we did at Federal Hall, at the Freedom Forums, we let freedom wring.
Caroline Rothstein is a New York City-based internationally touring and award-winning writer, poet, and performer.