June 9, 2016
Freedom has been a hotly debated topic in the Lott/ Haws household recently, particularly since our nephew Mark is learning to drive and awaiting eagerly his 16th birthday, coming up in just two months, when he will be free from the constraints of waiting for others to take him to soccer practice, band practice, and various teenage social occasions. He has his learner’s permit now, and is proud to show off his skills when, with the radio blaring, he cheerfully drives everyone to the mall, the grocery store, and the movies. It doesn’t matter where we go as long as he gets to experience the freedom of the road. Our son, John David, rides along somewhat nervously, but he has found another kind of freedom through his interest in the theatre, which gives him an escape from the good-kid identity that others have ascribed to him. When he acts, he sheds the constraints of being a stereotypical “good student” with perfect grades, good manners, and admiring friends and teachers. On the stage, he can become a comedian, an orator, a politician, or a con artist (often the same thing).
As immediate as these needs (or demands) might seem to Mark and JD, their needs were temporarily eclipsed when Christopher announced that he would not go to school any more because his personal freedom was violated by teachers who made him sit in one place, listen to boring lectures, and, worse still, take tests on material that didn’t interest him in the first place! We have been working with his teachers and counselors to help him to understand that no one is completely free and that one person’s freedom comes with the price of other people’s worry, pain, or at least inconvenience.
While listening to and participating in these sometimes turbulent discussions, I find myself thinking about a philosophy class that I took one summer at the University of Montevallo, while I was still in high school. The class was actually organized around the topic of “freedom” through the lenses of Ancient Greek philosophers and poets such as Sappho, Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. I remember that the professor began the class by asking us to consider freedom in our own 20th century American lives, and to imagine having a child who was a piano prodigy, but didn’t like to practice. Forcing the child to practice would inhibit her freedom to play games with her friends, but the parent would know that practicing piano would have long-term benefit to the child and to her potential audiences. So the professor asked us to consider the price of freedom for this child and to weigh that price against the price of captivity, in this case sitting at the piano for a few hours a day.
When the conversation turned to other ways that people are imprisoned, we learned that Socrates, at age 65 was unjustly imprisoned and executed by Athenian authorities for his teachings that blatantly attacked these authorities. Of course, Socrates well knew the price of captivity, but he also knew that freedom would have its own price. Some of this rich friends offered to bribe the guards to allow his escape, but he felt ethically bound (ethics being another kind of prison) to remain in prison and to follow the laws of his nation, even though his argument against these laws was exactly what had led to his imprisonment in the first place.
From more contemporary times, I have always loved Maya Angelou’s writings about freedom and captivity, including her iconic poem (and novel of the same name), “I know why the caged bird sings.” In the autobiographical novel, Angelou describes her early years in Stamps, Arkansas and St. Louis, Missouri, where she and her brother Bailey are trapped in a racist culture, and later, an abusive household. The compelling novel has been banned from many public schools ostensibly because of its portrayal of rape and homosexuality, but I argue that the act of banning the book is a kind of prison not unlike the one that caged and finally killed Socrates.
I hope that Angelou experienced a kind of freedom (albeit belated) when she received multiple accolades for her written work and social activism and formed friendships with others who had experienced similar traumas and imprisonments. For me, her many honors and awards seemed to culminate when she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. I will conclude this essay with a few lines from Angelou’s poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” In the poem, Angelou describes a household with a bird in a cage that experiences freedom only in memories and dreams: ‘The caged bird sings with / a fearful trill of a thing unknown/but longed for still and his/Tune is heard on the distant hill/For the caged bird sings of freedom.”
– Anna Lott, PhD
Anna grew up in Alabama, spending her entire childhood in the same house where her parents still live today. Anna is a retired Professor of English and Women’s Studies from the University of North Alabama, where she charmed her loyal and adoring students for almost twenty years until a bad MS exacerbation convinced her that she should start spending her days playing games on her iPad, reading and writing whatever and whenever she feels like it, and watching the birds feed outside her window.