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I just spoke to my friend Ryan Mack about our “Never Going Back” initiative to attack the problems of mass incarceration and recidivism in America. During the conversation, I had a revelation: Most of us are just a step away from being incarcerated, or have yet to understand what it truly means to be free. Sure, the U.S. incarcerates more of its citizens than any country in the world, but it might be deeper than you think.

The United States Constitution didn’t abolish slavery for everyone. Actually, if you’ve been convicted of a felony, the 13th Amendment actually says that it’s ok to force one into slave labor. Given that we are slapping felony convictions on individuals like Kelly Williams-Bolar, the otherwise law-abiding mother in Ohio who was sent to jail for sending her kids to the wrong school district, we can see just how easy it is for that arbitrary label to be applied.

Some think that exoneration from confinement is defined as being physically released from custody and never being arrested again. While this is certainly an important part of the process, freedom is a multi-layered continuum, and the truth is that many of us are actually in prison ourselves. If an allegedly free man is left in a situation where he has no options, then he isn’t much more liberated than a slave.

A man or woman can be physically free, but not mentally, spiritually or economically free. While a vast prison system threatens our liberty, the world presents a plethora of opportunities for people of color to keep our minds bound by ignorance perpetuated through media, unhealthy cultural influences, or an addiction to anti-intellectualism and financial irresponsibility. I understand these influences well because I’ve been affected by them myself.

So, as we all fight to protect and save brothers and sisters who’ve been kept behind by disproportionate systems of punishment, we must all be unified in understanding that all of us must find a way out of our own private prisons.

The first step toward finding your personal freedom is to accept the idea that struggle is typically the only path to growth. Nearly everything worth having is difficult to obtain, so if you do not embrace the struggle, then you are not truly committed to the progress you claim to seek; like a man planning to win an Olympic gold medal while eating chocolate doughnuts every day. Our actions must be consistent with our objectives, and we must realize that obtaining our liberty typically comes at a tremendous price.

A second step is to become committed to independent, courageous and creative thinking. Rather than doing things because everyone else is doing them, we should engage in actions and activities because they help us get what we want out of life. There are millions of African Americans who see nothing wrong with watching VH-1 and BET for eight hours a day, running to the club on Friday nights, sleeping with people they barely know and doing all kinds of things while never noticing that their choices are merely reflections of pre-defined influences that they’ve been unconsciously persuaded to emulate. This is not to judge or condemn the choices we make. It is to encourage all of us to take a second to question why we do what we do every day.

Third, there’s nothing wrong with hard work and sacrifice. I find it interesting that so many Black college students laugh when a kid thinks it’s ok to study on Friday and Saturday nights instead of wasting that time on gluttonous, counter-productive activity. I wonder why so many Black folks admire the smooth talking brother with the bottle of Cristal in his hand, but don’t work equally hard to exalt the man who burns the midnight oil to build a future for his children. We must no longer ridicule the child who studies as hard as he can, but must instead give him the praise he would receive if he were to score 30 points per game on the basketball team (the same is true for our girls, who are being taught that it’s cooler to become a basketball wife than a Neurosurgeon). We must embrace and encourage the idea of hard work and support those who push the limits of their capability.

The bottom line is that all of us are in a prison of our own making (I seek to identify and confront my own prisons every day). There’s always a dream we think we can’t fulfill, a habit we believe we’ll never break, or a choice we’re taught that we have to make. In many cases, we even lack the self-awareness to notice the shape of our prison or how to get out of it. But as Ryan and I work on ending mass incarceration and finding ways to seek true freedom, the first thing we must realize is that we are all prison inmates ourselves.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and the founder of the Your Black World Coalition.  To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.


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