What does freedom mean?
African American Intellectual History Society January 26, 2015
This week, I’ll start teaching a senior seminar titled Slavery, Freedom, and Citizenship, and I’ll open by posing that question to my students. It’s one of my not-yet-old standbys, in part because it invites response without requiring any specific preparation by the students. It’s a question that doesn’t need much help to get the ball rolling. And it (ideally) pulls students in to a conversation by having them grapple with one of the most important questions of black and American life, past and present.
The class calls on students to think about slavery, freedom, and citizenship as both real experiences and concepts that were continually made and remade by black and white Americans in the nineteenth century. I’ll have a chance to re-read some of my favorite things, like parts of Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul. In a chapter called “Making a World out of Slaves,” Johnson expands upon Ed Morgan’s “American paradox,” showing the ways that freedom was tied to whiteness and that those linked statuses were created not only through the enslavement, but also the blackness, of others. We’ll step through historiography to consider the ways enslavement was made and remade, reading John Blassingame on enslaved “personality types” and Stephanie Camp on communities, geographies, and the nature of resistance. And we’ll think about the creation of both freedom and citizenship in the work of fugitives, lawmakers, presidents, soldiers, Freedmen’s Bureau agents, night riders, and of course freed women and men.
A big reason why I’m so excited about the class is that I’ll have a chance to think through the complexities of these three statuses. Is freedom simply the absence of enslavement? What do various unfreedoms in our past and present tell us about the possibilities and limits of American freedom? What does it mean that citizenship imposes limits on freedom? Is freedom in the sense of liberty from all obligations a desirable goal?
Having students examine and discuss these and other difficult questions is part of my vision of an ideal classroom. I’ve told myself and others that my goal as a teacher is to have undergraduates do “practice history” – thinking critically and arguing both forcefully and carefully. But why? What do these students, all senior history majors, but most of whom will choose not to follow my career path, gain by thinking like historians? Caleb McDaniel recently tweeted responses to a survey in which he asked undergraduates about the value of history in the present. Most offered some version of the idea that history repeats itself, and that knowing the past will help us avoid mistakes in the future. Most scholars would say that the answer is far more complicated, but I’ve had a hard time figuring out what exactly I think the answer is.
The other day I mentioned to my eye doctor that I teach African American history. She volunteered that she had recently learned that Abraham Lincoln “didn’t particularly like” black people; emancipation was no more than a strategy to win the war. Leaving aside questions about why that was the first aspect of black history that came to mind, that sort of confident simplification stuck with me. It’s the impulse I want students to push against. Ultimately, many of us aim to instill empathy in students, but even that in itself isn’t the clearest way to explain the value of the past in the present. Understanding historical actors as they existed in their own worlds demands that we think—not only about what happened and how it happened, but also about how complicated life has been, and, by extension, remains. Lincoln did not “free the slaves,” but he is remembered as having done so. Further, the slaves were “freed,” and many of them credited Lincoln with that change. My hope is for students to be, or become, comfortable recognizing this complexity, dwelling in the contradictory truths that Lincoln had both much and little to do with emancipation.
I guess that in the end I want students to think, and to want to think, in and beyond my classroom. We all might have a lot to gain from a little thoughtfulness.