White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea, by Tyler StovallHistorians in the News
tags: racism, books, White Supremacy
“Give us liberty and give them death,” said David Duke at a rally for the Ku Klux Klan in Baton Rouge, La., in 1975. His thunderous words were a play on the famous quotation from Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Henry’s statement was intended to express his commitment to the well-known American ideal of freedom, which he and his peers took to be at stake in their forthcoming revolutionary struggle with the British Empire. But when Duke gave this speech as the Grand Dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, he had in mind another ideal with deep roots in American history: racial domination.
The two men could hardly have more different legacies. Henry is venerated as a “founding father,” while Duke is reviled as a disgraceful bigot. But any attempt to delegitimize Duke’s appropriation of Henry’s words and the ideal they represent must also contend with an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth: The freedom that Henry, a plantation and slave owner, and his fellow founders took to be worth defending was also linked to the racial domination that organized life and labor in the American colonies. The revolution was a struggle for self-rule, but it also sought this self-rule in order to control the land conquered from Native Americans and the labor extorted from abducted Africans. It was a politics of freedom entwined, from the outset, with a politics of enslavement and exploitation.
Tyler Stovall’s new book, White Freedom, attempts to answer the questions raised by this juxtaposition of Duke and Henry. How, he asks, can we square the “acme of Western civilization,” the ideal of liberty celebrated in the US and French republics, with its “nadir,” that of racial slavery, colonialism, and genocide? In plainer terms, “How is it,” as the English writer Samuel Johnson sardonically asked in 1775, the same year as Henry’s address, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of [enslaved] negroes?”
Through painstaking and comprehensive historical research, Stovall addresses these questions by means of the concept named in his book’s title: white freedom. For centuries, he argues, writers, intellectuals, and politicians have tried various strategies to reconcile the United States’ and France’s brutal histories of racial domination, settler conquest, and slavery with their stated commitments to freedom. Many of these strategies have hinged on an attempt to use one to explain away the other. Those who defend the historical legacies of both countries insist that liberty is their true moral foundation; racism, colonialism, and slavery were transitory imperfections that the march of “progress” eventually brought to an end. Those who view them as irredeemable often contend the reverse: that racism is, as Stovall puts it, the “true inescapable reality of Western culture and society.” But as he demonstrates, at the heart of the two nations were both a commitment to liberty and a vision of society in which this liberty was unequally distributed and deeply racialized. The result was freedom for those at the top of the racial hierarchy, supported by and premised upon the unfreedom of those at the bottom.
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