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The Statue of Liberty
Credit: Courtesy of Ferdinand Stöhr on Unsplash

Liberty’s white roots and the racial history of that idea

We Americans value freedom. We point to the birth of our democratic republic — our “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere,” as Ronald Reagan put it — as the culmination of an age of enlightenment and a global triumph of liberty.

But any honest reflection on American freedom considers that we are also a country born of ruinous colonization and slavery.

free·dom /ˈfrēdəm/ 1: the quality or state of being free: such as a: the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action b: liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another: INDEPENDENCE

America’s founders and leaders have doled out freedom in fits and starts. The enjoyment of liberty has been undependable for many of us, to say the least, and never truly paired with equality.

“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there's shouting after you, keep going. Don't ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” -Harriet Tubman

Professor Tyler Stovall teaches history at Fordham University. His new book is White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea. In it, he defines white freedom as “the belief (and practice) that freedom is central to white racial identity, and that only white people can or should be free.”

White Freedom charts how the heralded Age of Enlightenment that inspired the United States—an age dedicated to the ideals of liberty, progress, scientific inquiry, constitutional government, and separation of church and state-- coincided with the Black slave trade that dug, planted, harvested, and built its foundation.

“I have observed this in my experience of slavery,--that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom.” -Frederick Douglass

The implied racism of the subtitle is real and central to the idea of American freedom, one created for white men. We endure that legacy, some more than others, to this day. Stovall’s work considers how we might create and realize actual, universal freedom.

“Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a White mother’s son—we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” -Ella Baker

In this conversation, Professor Stovall discusses White Freedom with ChrisTiana ObeySumner, a community organizer and activist, and the CEO of Epiphanies of Equity, a social equity consulting firm. Town Hall Seattle presented this event on January 19.