Columns » Freedom's Daughter

Claiming freedom is worth it


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Full disclosure: I love North Carolina. I was born and raised in New York City, but I adore my life here and I can't imagine living anywhere else.

I love that there are more trees than people. I love my regular Saturday morning pilgrimage to my local organic farmers market, where the peaches, corn, tomatoes, greens and sweet potatoes will make you doubt everything you ever ate before. I love that my commute to work is always easy compared with New York City traffic. North Carolina is the hub of innovation and progress, and our potential continues to grow every day.

Lately, however, when people think of North Carolina, it's not because of our great story or potential. It's because of the outrageous and laughable politics and policies being proposed by our majority Republican General Assembly.

For example, there is an education bill eliminating the requirement that charter schools have certified teachers. Yes, according to some of our legislators, you can be an educator, but you don't have to have an education or be certified to teach.

The Healthy Marriage Act forces straight people to stay in broken marriages. I guess it's only fair that if the Legislature can stop gay couples from getting married, why not also force straight couples to stay in unhealthy marriages—for as long as possible.

And here's one that's close to my heart: Senate Bill 667, which will impose a tax penalty on parents of students who use their college address to register to vote. As a black woman and parent of a college-age woman who registers potential voters, I find this bill beyond absurd.

As I write this article, the Legislature just advanced the very contentious voter ID bill, taking additional steps to limit our freedoms and voices. I am so glad I learned at a very early age that freedom costs, silence won't protect us and that none of us is free or safe until we value everyone's humanity enough to stop telling people who they can love and marry, how to pray, or until we do all that we can to end poverty and senseless violence in our culture. Like millions of children in the United States, I am the child of an incarcerated parent.

My father, Robert Seth Hayes, is a former Black Panther Party member and a political prisoner in the United States who has been incarcerated for 41 years. I grew up inside prison visiting rooms, where I learned very important and powerful lessons about our collective responsibility and what it means to hold on to our humanity in the face of evil. Most of all, it has taught me that no matter what, when people are suffering, doing nothing is never an option.

All this makes me question if we're living in my grandmother's South. Republican lawmakers in North Carolina want to roll back many of this country's civil rights achievements with a political agenda that is anti-democracy and anti-justice. They attack poor people, women and the LGBTQ and immigrant communities. If you're not white, male, straight and Christian, you're not safe with our state Republican lawmakers.

Despite their actions, I am convinced that the good outweighs the bad. Every day I feel inspired by North Carolina's rich history and legacy of freedom struggles and movement building. You can't talk about the civil rights movement and freedom struggles in the United States without talking about North Carolina—the Greensboro sit-ins, SNCC, civil rights icon and pioneer Ella Baker and the Wilmington 10.

State lawmakers might want to govern like this is my grandmother's South, but they ought not forget how our grandmothers fought for freedom and taught us to fight for it too. Just like so many of our parents and their parents before them, who refused to be bullied, intimidated or run out of town by racists and segregationists, we will claim our freedom now too.

These lawmakers don't speak for anyone I know. They don't speak for the social work students whom I teach and study. They don't speak for us or our professional organization governed by a set of principles and values rooted in social justice and advocacy. They don't speak for my family of friends in North Carolina, who pay taxes here and who have raised children who are commited to building on what their parents and grandparents started.

At one time I worked directly across the street from the final resting place of Anna Julia Cooper, who was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1858 but went on to become a scholar, educator, human rights advocate and author of Voices From the South, a foundational text of black feminism.

She once said, "The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of human kind, the very birthright of humanity."

Claiming freedom is worth it.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Not my grandmother's South."


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