Freedom and Connection: On Fannie Lou Hamer and The Handmaid’s Tale

Fannie Lou Hamer wanted us to see the ways in which we are connected and the degree to which the freedom of one of us is related to the freedom of all of us.

This issue of connectedness plays out in various aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale.  For example, Nick, who starts as a “Guardian” of Gilead and is later promoted to “Commander,” seems to never really buy the propaganda the regime is selling.  He seems uncomfortable in the roles he has been assigned, but is not free to choose another path.  Those seen as traitors of Gilead are quickly executed and hung on the wall.  Nick does not want that for himself.  So he goes along with the program – undermining the system in small ways – but ultimately, playing his role and living the life assigned to him, rather than the life he would prefer with June, the woman he loves, and their daughter.  Nick is not free.

In fact, none of the people of Gilead are free – not even the commanders and their wives.  The costs of failing to go along with the system are high, even for those at the top of the hierarchy.  Serena lost a finger when she stepped outside the place assigned to her, and her husband Fred, knows if he is returned from Canada to Gilead, he will be judged a traitor and quickly executed.  Fred and Serena are not free.

The show offers many examples of ways in which characters recognize and fail to see connections they have to each other based on status.  The wives share a connection with each other, as do handmaids, Marthas and aunts.  The strengths and weaknesses of these connections determine the access to freedom citizens of Gilead possess.

From her locked place in society, Fannie Lou Hamer saw these kinds of connections among Americans and Black people throughout the diaspora.  She urged us all to recognize these links and empower ourselves to grasp the freedom that should be the birthright of every living being.

Below are a few highlights of the Vox discussion on Hamer between Jamil Smith and Keisha Blain.  — LMO

JS:  “The human rights activist and former sharecropper once said that ‘you are not free whether you are white or black, until I am free.’ Historian Keisha Blain discusses how Hamer’s message resonates today.”

JS:  “We hear the term ‘freedom’ bandied about rather loosely in this country. It’s one of those things people say they love, but are we really free? In many instances, ‘freedom’ feels more like America’s consumer brand than one of its core principles — mostly because we see those principles violated with regularity…The late Fannie Lou Hamer understood this all too well…

JS:  “…Hamer gave what became a landmark speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention…This speech was one of the many reasons I wanted to talk with Hamer’s most recent biographer, Keisha Blain, PhD. A historian at the University of Pittsburgh, Blain is the author of Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.  In the book — which is partly a contemporary social commentary — Blain describes how Hamer was accustomed to seeing rights and freedoms technically guaranteed to her as an American discarded because she was a Black woman…Hamer urged those listening to understand that denying her rights was, in fact, a refutation of American ideals…

‘We have a long fight and this fight is not mine alone. But you are not free, whether you are white or black, until I am free.’

Fannie Lou Hamer

JS:  “That brings me to that quote that seems to have inspired your book title, which is, of course, ‘We have a long fight and this fight is not mine alone. But you are not free, whether you are white or black, until I am free.’ And that not just encapsulates the universality of justice and accountability here in the States but abroad…

KB:  “What Hamer did, and why it’s so powerful, even in the current moment to reflect on, is she said, ‘Listen. It’s not just about you. We have to think in the collective way. We’re all members of the American polity.’ That means that if someone is hurting, it does affect you. If someone is in chains, you are not free, even if you think you are. Right?…

KB:  “We may come from different backgrounds, you know, different socioeconomic status, or different races, ethnicities, and so on, but because we are all in this nation, we are connected. And the future of the nation depends on all of us. And she would emphasize that regardless of who you were you have to be concerned about the person next to you… not everyone will immediately embrace that notion, but she constantly tried to get people to see that they needed to be concerned about the next person. Because if the next person experiences liberation, you too can benefit. And if another person is in chains, you can’t truly enjoy freedom…”

Published by Loga Michelle Odom @Odomanian

Founder/Host, Reading Changes Lives; Senior Producer, OUR COMMON GROUND Media / TruthWorks Network / If America Fails?: The Coming Tyranny

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