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  • Liberty, This Beautiful and Terrible Thing
  • Forrest M. Hamer (bio)

James Baldwin’s essay (1963/1993) was written in anticipation of the Emancipation Proclamation’s centennial. It locates itself in a tradition of living letters one generation writes to and for another; and, in particular, the tradition of one generation of slave descendants speaking to a younger one on this important anniversary—most recently exemplified in 2013 when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote to his 15-year-old son fifty years after Baldwin wrote to his 15-year-old nephew. The existence of this tradition underscores the fact that the Emancipation was and is only the beginning of freedom for African slaves in America; and, that American freedom truly occurs over the course of several, if not many, generations.

This tradition brings to mind a poem that has often moved me, a poem I first encountered when I was a teenager: “Frederick Douglass” by Robert Hayden (1966). It is a poem that helps complicate what freedom is and how it is achieved, and its last incarnation—the first version was published in 1947—was completed during the period of the centennial, and serves as a contemporary to Baldwin’s essay:

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this  beautifuland terrible thing, needful to man as air,usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is morethan the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negrobeaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a worldwhere none is lonely, none hunted, alien,this man, superb in love and logic, this manshall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone, [End Page 301] but with the lives grown out of his life, the livesfleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

(p. 78)

Hayden’s poem is a sonnet, and like many modern American sonnets, loosens itself from the traditional formal conventions of rhyme, meter, and structural division. At the same time, it acknowledges those formal constraints with its 14 lines, divided roughly into two Petrarchan sections according to the Italian sonnet structure laid out centuries ago, and its general adherence to a five-beat-per-line rhythm. The first line (“When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful”) captures something about the poem’s efforts to speak something quite important about freedom—that freedom reaches beyond past and immediate limits, toward and perhaps even beyond body. The poem goes on to suggest that freedom becomes realized when it is literally embodied, moving from the abstract to the concrete, and moving from dream to life and in turn to many lives.

But what also moves me, and brings this poem back to mind as I reflect on Baldwin’s essay, is Hayden’s reference to freedom not only as beautiful but, in the next line, as “terrible”; and I think, what’s terrible about freedom?

One possible answer may be found in the poem itself, freedom presented as an unrealized but persistent longing that the poem’s original structure can barely contain; the poem also hints at the task of moving from the abstract to the real when we are talking about an ideal but elusive force that is “needful as air.” Moreover, in his own Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) wherein he discusses learning to read and write and his coming of age, Douglass wrote that in doing so he came into more awareness of the “wretchedness” of being a slave for life, indeed of the wretchedness of slavery itself. It became nearly unbearable. The more aware he became, the more terrible became the contrast between the freedom which seemed so elusive and the torment of knowing and thinking about his situation. Douglass writes:

It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate [End Page 302] or inanimate. The silver trump...