On Freedom

“No fear.” – Nina Simone

New Romantix

I love the way Nina Simone scowls. What if you cried so much your smile looked like the sun? She sings in “Blues for Mama” that “ain’t nobody perfect 'cause ain't nobody free” and I don’t have to be in love, but I, too, have equated freedom to perfection, have used it as a crutch. Still don’t have the balance right. Kanye popped up in Thanksgiving conversation because he canceled his 21 shows and got hospitalized for acting up. The consensus was that he was immature, but I can’t deny the prettiness of his imperfections, which is his cage. You don’t get poetry like “Slightly scratch your Corolla/Okay I smashed your Corolla” by being a nice guy. I’m not trying to be nice either. I’m just trying to be perfect.

Director Bernardo Bertolucci stated in a 2013 interview that resurfaced last Saturday that a scene depicting rape in his acclaimed 1972 film “The Last Tango in Paris” was not consensual. He was attempting to get actress Maria Schneider’s “reaction as a girl, not as an actress,” which sounds a lot like artistic bullshit, so after, in framing his guilt, he said, “to obtain something, I think that you have to be completely free.” During the film’s premiere, critic Pauline Kael described it as “the most liberating movie ever made,” and though the words “free” or “liberation” may have been nonchalant choices, they still remain political, read holy and coveted to my modern and problematized sensibilities.

I know how fragile and fleeting feelings of liberation can be, but I also know that what you escape defines who you are and feelings can be changed with new music, new weather, new boys. But in the end, we’re all stuck with our demons no matter what kind of rich, color, pretty, young, and dumb we get to be. If you’re living a good life how long and bad are you going to suffer for your ten minutes to feel fresh again? Though “The Last Tango in Paris” might represent some old-school, outdated misogyny, it asks a good question about the bounds of our freedom, due to the incongruousness of their reactions. Bertolucci and Kael still went home upset by the things they had been upset about, and Schneider went home with something different. As Bertolucci and Kael used the words “free” and “liberation” to describe the situation’s product and Schneider used the word “rape.”

A defining moment of my semester was attending Cornel West’s lecture in early October, where a white man, during the question and answer session, asked West if he, as a black person, would have preferred if slavery had not existed. West’s answer was inconclusive, because history is unchangeable and without it our culture would not have the context it has now but instead another one, equally compelling and equally American. It was a polarizing question among my friends who had also attended the lecture, as we questioned the asker’s intentionality, who in the direct and rehearsed manner in which he asked the question may have wanted to hear about the glorious productions of struggle without having experienced the aftermath himself. But I had wanted to know the answer too, and my philosophizing was not as conclusively inconclusive as West’s, perhaps also due to the privilege of my race, my position as a consumer. I was thinking about James Baldwin’s framework when listening to jazz, which is to listen to what’s not there, which is when Kanye raps “we ain’t married but tonight I need some consummation” I’m going to hear the weight of the week. Is there ever a point where the products of your definition outlast the thing that defined you, where the moments you’ve felt free after trying so hard to feel free outmatch the thing that enslaved you? It’s unfair to compare those two periods because of their cross-generational nature, because one is dependent on the other. It’s wrong to think of oppression’s narrative in a separable versus sequential framework, but I digress, since even on a personal rather than collective level, this is always the trade-off, suffering—internally or externally imposed—versus art, versus joy.

But let’s talk about freedom, because freedom, despite its holiness, is not always right or perfect or beautiful. The way that freedom in our country can never mean liberation, because my will runs directly against your will. The powerful, dangerous, and inevitable decision to mobilize an emotional attachment to freedom, to equate freedom to ecstasy and perfection and art and visceral excitement, when it should have been simply the dull right to negotiate. So what is freedom? Is it the joyous loss of control of the visceral or the cool complete command of the body? Is it the right to exist unoffended or the right to exist inoffensively, the impulse to make noise or the desire for quiet? Freedom, economically and justly, should have been the right to compromise, and its reality should have been to be both comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time, but the poets ask a good question, which is, is that all, to live a mediocre life with a mediocre amount of happiness for a little bit of peace?

The negotiating process for the perfect medium of collective, comfortably uncomfortable freedom is painful, but it must exist. And in some ways, liberal identity politics and the election of Trump, articles on loving yourself and the discrimination still present in society, safe-spaces and political parties, are all a large portion of this negotiation process, an exchange of information between two parties. Because being free is a little more than being perfect. It’s the cost to take to defend it.


Christina M. Qiu, 19 lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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