You are Free-

A Juneteenth Memoir

It’s not enough to be free. It’s more important to know you are free.

Something happens in captivity situations. Could be any place where your wings feel clipped, where your spirit hangs dark and low like a rain cloud that just can’t shed its load.

It took me years to see the damage a coveted school did to me. Listen, a place can be someone’s saving grace and it can be another’s undoing. Belonging to a fraternity or sorority can be a lifetime gift for someone and a horror memory for another. For me, that school came with a mixed bag of gifts and scars.

One of the scars was guilt. I rebelled many times against excessive punishments meted out by a tyrannical few prefects. The German nun who headed the institution had told me to my face that she will write me a bad testimonial. She just couldn’t get how I persistently challenged authority.

I saw it very differently. I was a good girl who asked questions that needed to be asked, and tested boundaries that needed to be tested, and refused to obey orders that were oppressive. The bad-girl feeling came years later.

It’s good the headmistress warned me because I never picked up that testimonial after graduation, heck, I never picked up my mediocre-grades high school certificate from that school either until I graduated college and needed it to leave the country. A college in NY where I’d applied for a graduate course wanted proof that I had completed high school, so I had to carry my rebellious behind back there after 10 years.

The nuns no longer ran the school. I found a new school principal. She’d been our Home Economics teacher when I was there. She’s the one that gave me a fat zero for making up my own decorative stitches on an apron. The test had been to make the stitched we had been taught. I just thought I’d make something new. Oh well. What’s that Fela Kuti song– \all you have to do is sing what I play.. kereke ji keke\

Mrs. Mungai (the new principal’s real name), gave me a motherly hug and burst out laughing at how things had turned out for me– a college graduate! Who wouda thunk! My dad had a lot to do with that.. story for another day.

Some other day, I’ll tell you about the gifts that school gave me– gifts of lasting friendships and an obsession with folding clothes to perfection. And the school library where I discovered books that never came in the exam.

As I left Mrs. Mungai’s office and exited the school gate, ten years later, I still dragged those shackles of guilt around my neck. Guilt over having been the girl with a “kasoro” — a moral deficiency, incapable of respecting authority, so what if it came with aspects of tyranny as a recipe for character development.

I cannot remember any day, not a single moment, when I felt guilty while I attended that school. While in that school, I was a ball of blazing confidence. I found my voice. I loved discovery. I hated abuse of power.

The guilt was an unexpected side-effect that built up after graduation. See that? I was free from those walls, but I did not know I was free. I was coming to maturity with shackles around my neck.

Decisions you make as a result of mental shackles like guilt will spice your life with emotional mutilation. You will keep leaving the free and sunny highway and exiting onto lanes with dark clouds. You will experience exhilarating love and spike it with thorns. You will submissively excuse others’ put-downs like an act of self-flagellation.

Guilt and shame are first cousins. I have seen it with friends, how shame has corroded their joyful selves. I see it in their posts. Our entire generation has dragged along these shackles like a legion of demons– we who were born to a generation of parents who had to hide their African identities in shame under shrouds of cleansing Whiteness. Oh I didn’t just go there!

These chains dwarf your massive confidence; make you settle for sitting on floors to wait your turn; make you seek out punitive gods who will wash away your “kasoro” with their blood and make you a good child; you carry the weight beliefs that make you meek and spiritually psychotic, waiting on godot, wishing upon a coach while riding a pumpkin.

My generation lives in a world run by systems of faith, governance and schools that must fuel us with guilt, shame, and just enough despondency to make us docile with a suicidal sense of humor. Can you imagine an entire generation praying to be good so they can get to heaven? These systems will break you so you can need them.

Even after leaving the walls of punitive authorities years later I still needed someone to tell me I was indeed free. When no one came, books saved me. Books I read furiously at Barnes and Noble and local libraries, and being far away from that world where mental shackles thrive.

I read philosophies, memoirs, mind-blowing ideas that gave me water. It’s all these people, whispering to me through printed pages, who told me I had been free all along. You are free.

Happy Juneteenth.

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