As we celebrate National Freedom Day and enter Black History Month at this most unsettled and troubling of times, it is worthwhile to take a moment and reflect upon what freedom means to the U.S., and to all of us, today.
Since the early 17th century, the North American colonies that would become the U.S. have claimed a particular relationship to freedom. The Puritans and other groups, religious and non-religious, left Europe for North America in order to obtain greater freedom than was possible for them in Europe. At the exact same time that European North Americans were celebrating the dawn of newfound freedom, however, African North Americans were entering the long night of slavery. Only a year apart in time, 1619 and 1620 represented diametrically opposed poles of human experience.
Freedom was at the center of both of these developments. Whether by its presence or its absence, freedom defined the American story from its beginning. Like a fulcrum, freedom was the single reference point both for the glorious “city upon a hill” enjoyed by European settlers on one side, and the degrading valley of enslavement suffered by African Americans on the other. The enjoyment of freedom has divided white and black Americans from the beginning, but the desire for freedom unites all Americans in a particular and unique way.
The final, culminating statement of the Constitution’s Preamble set the goal for the new U.S. government as that of securing “the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” While condemning the U.S. Constitution for failing to live up to this aim, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison began publishing The Liberator in 1831 to work for the achievement of freedom by other means. The Statue of Liberty is the recognized symbol of “the American Dream” to immigrants, signifying the freedom to succeed in accordance with work and ability. The white “Sons of Liberty” were succeeded by the black “Freedom Riders” of the Civil Rights Movement. The Freedom Train traveled throughout the U.S. in 1947 as an exhibition of documents and artifacts representing American history and identity. It was conceived as a way of celebrating and reinforcing the American attachment to freedom in the aftermath of the fight against Hitler’s tyranny in Europe. In this time of legal segregation, viewing the train was an intentionally desegregated event—the train skipped the cities of Birmingham, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee when local officials refused to allow white and black Americans to view the train’s collection at the same time. Homer Plessy’s train allowed for racial division, but the Freedom Train would not.
The lens of human freedom makes sense of the American story. It allows for the simultaneous expression of unity and diversity characteristic of American identity—e pluribus unum—as no other concept or perspective does. The exercise of freedom, and the intense desire to recover it when it is lost, unites all human beings and distinguishes humans as a species from all other beings on earth. The openness of American identity to anyone regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion is a function of this fact. If the American story is the story of human freedom, it is accessible to all human beings. At the same time that freedom accommodates diversity within this underlying unity, it also encourages the ongoing development of diversity. The exercise of freedom inevitably leads to a wide variety of different opinions, pursuits, life choices, and associations.
It is sometimes said that as Americans we can find unity in our diversity. On its face, this is pure nonsense. Unity and diversity are direct definitional opposites. We might as well try finding harmony in dissonance or love in hatred. What is really meant by this—or what should be meant if it is to make sense—is that we Americans can find unity in our commitment to human freedom, which is both compatible with and productive of diversity in other areas. Diversity is valuable and beautiful as the varied representation of humanity, and as the natural outgrowth of the freedom that makes humans so interesting and important. There is nothing inherently good or bad about difference itself. Difference is a brute fact. Diversity within humanity, on the other hand, is a shining symbol of the freedom that makes individuals unique while uniting us all.
The unity that Americans can find in freedom is on particular display in the case of white and Black Americans. The struggle by African Americans for the exercise of freedom throughout American history resonates directly with the motivation of the first white European settlers in North America, and with their subsequent experience up to and including the War for Independence from Great Britain. The early European settlers went to incredible lengths to obtain freedom from the oppressive religious, political, and economic structures of Europe. The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean was long and dangerous. What lay on the other end of the journey was largely unknown. Once arrived, survival was often precarious and dependent on the constant, laborious exercise of freedom both personal and political. The force of the desire for freedom that drove the early European colonists out of Europe and into North America was one of the most powerful examples of human exertion in history.
This force continued to motivate subsequent generations of European North Americans, who carried the momentum of westward migration from the ocean across the land. “Manifest Destiny” was continuous with European North American settlement; the same desire for freedom that animated settlement on the east coast also drove later immigrants and future generations across the continent. To say that a human desire for freedom drove early settlement and westward expansion is not by any means to deny the often morally reprehensible outgrowths of these movements. The desire to dominate and subjugate is a common pathology of the unregulated desire for freedom. When the drive to be free becomes unmoored from the moral respect due to the freedom of others, freedom for oneself quickly transforms into tyranny over others. This is what happened in the case of European-American tyranny over Native American peoples as well as enslaved African Americans. An extreme desire for freedom was transmogrified into an appetite for domination.
The trajectory of the white European North American freedom struggle reached its apex in the Revolutionary War. By 1787, the historian David Ramsay could already complain in his History of the American Revolution that American culture had deteriorated significantly, perhaps irrevocably. Early Americans had begun the inexorable process of becoming their erstwhile enemies. When the struggle for freedom effectively ended, the more difficult work of maintaining freedom began. Frequent renewal efforts would be needed to restore the appreciation for human freedom that drains from established societies like sand through a sieve.
This is precisely what the African American struggle for freedom has provided for all Americans from that time to our own. Black Americans have always fought, as Nikole Hannah-Jones has said, to make American ideals of freedom true. I interpret this statement to mean that since 1776 (or even earlier), Black Americans have picked up the standard of the very same idea of human freedom that inspired the early white European Americans to declare independence from Great Britain. For these white Americans, the ideal of human freedom had already begun to be tainted by the increasing institutionalization of slavery throughout the colonies and in the early U.S. The pure ideal of freedom had been thoroughly mixed with the poison of domination.
The cause of securing freedom for enslaved African Americans has carried the torch of the true American story ever since. The apex of the white European American struggle for freedom marked the launching point of the African American struggle for freedom. The work of refining American freedom and restoring it to its rightful place at the center of American life has been the joint work of white and Black Americans from that time to ours. The cause of racial justice is the cause of American freedom continued and purified.
Numerous other racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups have made vital contributions to the American story of human freedom. This story can’t be told only in black and white. But if the Human Freedom narrative of American history is true, its central drama lies in the conjoined historical arcs of the European American and African American freedom struggles.