Shackled Freedom: Black Living in the Modern American South is the second instalment in Dasan Ahanu’s RVAE (Radical Voice and Artistic Expression) project. Ahanu’s work employs voice and art to inspire change and, in this collection, Ahanu is focused on pushing back against “a variety of rigid narratives about Black life, particularly in the South.” Beyond struggle, Ahanu wishes to depict the joy, dynamism and nuance of Black life.
Shackled Freedom begins with hope and joy being counterbalanced against the stark reality of what it means to be Black in America — in a society bent on denying your right to live.
“Ain’t you tired of what you’ll never be / black boy? / Blue collar families raising red bloodied teens / chasing a white washed illusion of the / “American Dream.”” [Black Boy Serenaded in 7]
Ahanu’s use of colloquialisms and rhythm give his work a lyrical quality. These pieces are made to be spoken but even when reading his work it is a joy to read as you can still hear the musicality in Ahanu’s poetic style. ‘Dreams of Where the Noose Called Home’ and ‘Conversation with God’ are perfect examples of this.
As the collection moves forward, ‘Down Home’ signals the move into depicting Black life in the South as celebration, as resilience, as survival, and as joy.
“Ain’t we magic? / Ain’t we here? / Ain’t we gon be here? / Ain’t we?” [Down Home]
Unfortunately, I personally found the middle of this collection loses its pace and power somewhat. The imagery became a little repetitive in places as well as cliché which detracted at times from the heart in Ahanu’s pieces about family and, in particular, his mother.
‘Black Holiness’, however, redeems this lull with a gorgeous intertwining of faith, food, family and religious parallels.
“If there is one truth we know / Ain’t no heaven like a Black woman’s dinner table / Ain’t no hallelujah better than redemption songs / All charcoal and shotgun / All magic and miracle / All Black” [Black Holiness]
The strength of style reignited in ‘Black Holiness’ continues with pieces like ‘An Antebellum Love’ and 'Last Time’ which are beautiful love poems showcasing the softness in Ahanu’s style.
Towards the end of Shackled Freedom, Ahanu reflects upon confrontations with white privilege, supremacy and silence alongside the media’s attempt to capture struggle and oppression, but it does so without nuance; ‘Free Association and Funerals’ is a superb example of how social media is used to catalyse change but never has the stamina to maintain it.
The final pieces are triumphant. ‘Metaphor for Delbert McClintocks’ is simply sublime in its use of a spider metaphor for white brutality against Black lives, while the collection closes with a list style poem which is a reminder of the inherent flaws whiteness carries, and the performance white people often make of protest. Ahanu’s words are a sharp and beautiful affirmation that Black truth and healing will come from centering Black people. Change does not lie in white people co-opting movements because “It is a gentrification we have seen before.”
Change will occur when we celebrate voices like Ahanu’s and the work he does to inspire others to live free.