What is “Freedom” in the Black Freedom Struggle?

2020 Protest in Washington, DC (Johnny Silvercloud/Shutterstock)

Freedom is at the center of the Black freedom struggle. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North, and The New Jim Crow examine the diversity of ways that Black people in the United States have had their freedom denied. There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, Freedom Dreams, and Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Struggle examine Black peoples diverse efforts in the continued struggle from freedom. To be sure, the objective of the Black freedom struggle is freedom. Angela Davis states, “Black history, whether here in North America, or in Africa, or in Europe, has always been infused with a spirit of resistance, an activist spirit of protest and transformation.” The resistance and protest of which Davis speaks is a response to a lack of freedom. James Cone adds,

Liberation is not a theoretical proposition to be debated in a philosophy or theology seminar. It is a historical reality, born in the struggle for freedom in which an oppressed people recognize that they were not created to be seized, bartered, deeded, and auctioned. To understand the question of liberation, we need only hear the words, experience the mood, and encounter the passion of those who have to deal with the dialectic of freedom and oppression in the concreteness of their everyday existence. 

The struggle for freedom is a rejection of oppression. In the experience of African people and people of African descent, the struggle waged against enslavement, colonization, settler colonialism, neo-colonization, apartheid, segregation, internal colonization, and more were struggles for freedom. The struggle for freedom is a reaction to having freedom denied. But what is freedom? A clear answer to this question lets people know what is at stake and challenges them to contribute to the individual and collective struggle for freedom. 

As a concept, freedom is an abstract idea, notion, or thought where one’s individual and collective existence and humanity is respected. Enslavement, Jim Crow, redlining, and other race-based forms of oppression deny human respect and dignity. In fact, they could not occur if the humanity of African people and their descendants were respected and treated with dignity. Individually and collectively, people have freedom when they have the capacity for growth, reproduction, purposeful activity, and constant change preceding their death. Human beings are free when the lives and cultures of all human beings are respected, valuing their feelings, wishes, rights, and traditions. Conceptually, when this occurs, people have freedom.

Although contextualized in its appropriate socio-historical, political, and economic milieus, what African people and their descendants have struggled for conceptually is increased human respect, and dignity. Freedom must, however, move beyond concepts and ideas. It must be operationalized. Operationally, policies, curriculum, legislation, and systems of operation reaffirm and protect freedom. Furthermore, Black people have struggled for an improved quality of life, and increased material conditions, such as housing, employment, assets, income, and opportunities in their quest for freedom in the fullest sense.

Quality of life reflects the degree of freedom that Black people experience. The operationally, then, freedom connects to quality of life which is defined by The World Health Organization (WHO) as,

an individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns. It is a broad ranging concept affected in a complex way by the person’s physical health, psychological state, personal beliefs, social relationships and their relationship to salient features of their environment. 

African people and their descendants’ multi-generational freedom struggle reveals that Black people, individually and collectively, perceive their racialized position in life as unacceptable. Struggling against a culture and value system that justifies their racialized oppression exposes Black peoples limited quality of life in the United States.  Here, quality of life is concerned with the individual and collective health of Black people. The WHO’s constitution defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Health includes mental and physical well-being while also paying attention to one’s social well-being, which includes good relationships, social stability, and peace. Racist interactions and institutional racism and discrimination threaten peace and freedom. Ultimately, they decrease one’s individual and collective quality of life. Quality of life is concerned with health in the broadest sense. That is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Enslavement, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and other race-based forms of oppression threaten the possibilities for better quality of life for the masses of people of African descent in the United States. Ultimately, Black people need an enhanced quality of life to fully operationalize their freedom. Once this is achieved, Black people will need their increased quality of life secured and protected through legislation. 

Second, equitable access and opportunity to civil rights and voting rights link the operational definition of freedom with tangible and measurable governmental and societal systems such as civil rights legislation. Civil rights are another avenue to operationalize, measure, and secure freedom. To be clear, civil rights and freedom are not synonymous. Civil rights speak to “the individual right of personal liberty guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and by the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments, as well as by legislation such as the Voting Rights Act.” The term ‘personal’ highlights and reinforces individuality, while “liberty” is understood as rights, which in its most basic form are privileges granted by the nation-state. Thus, “personal liberty” encompasses advantages, benefits, and favor granted to individuals by the government and protected by laws and legislation. 

Early in the Reconstruction Era, the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 reveals that white people were the standard and normative citizen against whom all others are compared when it states that rights, property, and privileges for all citizens should be enjoyed by all in the same way “as is enjoyed by white citizens.” In antebellum America, citizens were white people. Freedom from slavery for Black people did not result in operationalized freedom. Free Black people found themselves in an in-between status, meaning they were not white, not citizens, and had no personal liberties. Furthermore, the emphasis on personal rights negates the reality that African people and their descendants were enslaved and suffered racialized oppression not as individuals, but based on their membership in a disrespected, devalued, and racialized group. As a racialized group, African people and their descendants are in a racialized hierarchy that conceptually always values and privileges white people while simultaneously devaluing and limiting life chances for Black people. Framing the Black struggle in the context of civil rights assumes the Black struggle is about bringing Black people up to white racial status.

The conflation of civil rights and freedom centers white people. It makes whiteness the marker of civil rights and freedom. George Lipsitz argues that the history of race and racism in the United States values, normalizes, and idealizes whiteness and contributes to a possessive investment in whiteness. He asserts that acknowledging and understanding historical and contemporary whiteness is a precursor to addressing the legacy and contemporary realities of race and racism. An understanding of the history of race and racism in the United States reveals why freedom has remained central, both conceptually and operationally, for Black people. 

Reviewing the names of slogans, organizations, and actions reveals the centrality of “freedom” in the consciousness of Black people in the mid-twentieth century. For example, “Freedom songs,” “Freedom Summer,” “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, “Freedom, Inc.,” “Freedom Now Party,” “Radio Free Dixie,” and “Freedom Rally” at the Los Angeles Sports arena June 19, 1961 to raise money supporting the “Freedom Rides” reveals the centrality of the quest for freedom. The preponderance of the word “freedom” highlights the central ambition of the era. The legislative goal, civil rights and voting, were part of a broader movement for freedom; that is, human respect and dignity as well as increased quality of life and material conditions.       

Examining the Black experience in the context of resistance and protest is appropriate and important when highlighting the agency of Black folk. Framing Black history and experiences in the context of freedom centers the examination on what the struggle is for, not against. Understanding resistance and protest in the context of freedom centers Black people and their struggle. So, what is “freedom?” Understood individually and collectively, freedom is having and receiving human respect, being treated with and acting with dignity, as well as living with a quality of life and material conditions fit for humans. 

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M. Keith Claybrook, Jr.

M. Keith Claybrook, Jr., Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at CSU, Long Beach where he teaches classes on history and the social sciences. Claybrook serves on CSU, Long Beach’s Presidents Commission on Equity and Change Commission, and served two terms as VP of the Black Faculty and Staff Association and. He regularly attends conferences such as the National Conference of Black Studies National conference, the African Heritage Studies Association, Sixth Region Diaspora Caucus conference, and other conferences where he has presented on a diversity of topics including Black student activism, the Black Students Movement, Black Los Angeles, educational history, African Deep Thought and critical thinking, identity and consciousness, reparations, Hip Hop, and pedagogy. He has also published book reviews, journal articles, encyclopedia entries, and book chapters. His publications include, Building the Basics: A Handbook for Pursuing Academic Excellence in Africana Studies, “Putting Some Soul into Critical Thinking: Toward an African Centered Approach to Critical Thinking,” “Africana Studies, 21st Century Black Student Activism, and High Impact Educational Practices: A Biographical Sketch of David C. Turner, III,” “David L. Horne: A Living Example of a Pan African Leader Scholar- Activist,” and “Black Power, and Black Students, and the Institutionalizing of Change: Loyola Marymount University, 1968- 1978.” Claybrook has lent his expertise on “Today in L.A.” on NBC4, KJLH’s “Front Page with Dominque DePrima,” KPCC- NPR on “AirTalk with Larry Mantle,” and several other television, print, and internet media outlets.

Comments on “What is “Freedom” in the Black Freedom Struggle?

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    Enjoyed reading Dr. Claybrooks’ article about freedom. Hope to hear more about how Black people push the boundaries of everyday freedom in purposeful choices to not participate in abusive spaces where we work, where we spend our money, how we defend our families in the healthcare, education and welfare systems.

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