On Jan. 6, rioters broke into the U.S. Capitol building and disrupted democracy in action — in the name of saving the United States of America, so-called land of the free, from an election that was not stolen, as they claimed, but free and fair.
In one video taken at the scene, one rioter was heard to say “No breaking or stealing!” and another “We respect our house!” as dozens of people milled through the corridors. “The real invisible enemy is COMMUNISM” read a sign held aloft by yet another rushing up the stairs, numerous “Don’t tread on me” flags were in evidence, and at least one Trump flag emblazoned with guns, a quote from the Second Amendment, and the words “law and order,” ironically, at its center.
I had started reading White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea the day before. On the day of the riot, I was put to sleep by a surgeon just after the Georgia election runoffs were officially called, and woke up to one push alert after another noting the attack on the Capitol, calling it a domestic terror event, a coup: The language seemed to keep changing — but the meaning was the same. As I devoured White Freedom over the coming days, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the Capitol riot was directly linked to one of the book’s central ideas and, even more specifically, to its opening anecdote about the official recognition that the U.S. Capitol building was built by enslaved people. The book’s author, Tyler Stovall, a history professor at U.C. Santa Cruz, could not have foreseen his book’s release coming on the heels of such a terrifyingly and precisely relevant event.
White Freedom‘s central focus is the relationship between the concepts of freedom and race as they have come to be understood in the modern world. He argues the concepts developed in tandem, especially since the Enlightenment. Freedom and racism are often seen as opposites in contemporary conversations, and as Stovall writes, “the relationship between them [posit them] as paradoxical and ironic, one due more to human inconsistencies and frailties than to any underlying logics.” However, as the trajectory of history that he follows shows, “at its most extreme freedom can be and historically has been a racist ideology.”
Parts 2 and 3 of the book are chronological. Part 2 looks at, first, the history of the United States and its development of a concept of liberty that purposefully excluded and was, in fact, defined in opposition of the conditions of enslaved people. Second, it examines the history of European empires and their development of strong, liberty-loving democracies that went hand in hand with their subjugation of citizens of their variously sized empires in other lands, especially on the African continent, in India and in the Caribbean. Part 3 moves into the 20th century, focusing on the effects surrounding WWI, WWII and the Cold War.
But Part 1 of White Freedom is a little more whimsical than the rest of the book, with its first chapter perhaps the most surprising, opening as it does with J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Here Stovall focuses on freedom as idealized in the innocence of children, on the one hand, and in the chaos of piracy on the other. Our contemporary associations with both are constructed notions of freedom that come from much more complex realities. Children, as he points out, only began being treated — in Europe and the U.S. — as beings to be protected from the brutal realities of life during the 17th and 18th centuries, and this attitude was most prevailing among the white middle and upper classes. It also coincided with increased regulation of children via schooling and adult supervision, more generally.
The freedom of piracy, meanwhile, is a beloved Disneyfied concept, if the seemingly endless Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is anything to go by. Even during its golden age, piracy symbolized a kind of freedom, which arose from European colonization of Caribbean islands and the Americas: “many pirates were Europeans adrift in the Americas, shipwrecked sailors, debtors, or escaped servants in search of a new life; others were escaped African slaves or native Americans fleeing the destruction of their communities.” Yet pirates’ freedom did not go unchallenged at the time, especially as European nations developed stronger navies. And while pirate ships were often ruled in surprisingly democratic fashions with one-man-one-vote principles, they also participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, for after all, as Stovall writes, “piracy was above all a crime against property” and “[s]laves constituted a significant share of property in the Atlantic world” at the time.
The U.S. Capitol, as I noted above, was built by people who were considered property — and part of the visitors’ center was named Emancipation Hall in order to honor those people. Stovall, in his opening anecdote, is puzzled by this: “Why would one name a building constructed by slaves Emancipation Hall as a way of honoring their legacy and history? They certainly weren’t emancipated when they worked there.” Nor have their descendants been as free from police violence as the largely white crowd that broke into the selfsame building. The events of Jan. 6 were, if nothing else, a monumental example of the workings of white freedom.
Stovall defines white freedom — which, he demonstrates, has been the foundation of liberty beloved by especially European and North American nations, regardless of how progressive their contemporary policies — as “the belief (and practice) that freedom is central to white racial identity, and that only white people can or should be free.” His arguments are extremely convincing, at least to me, and for anyone doubting his sources, there are some 70 pages of notes at the end of the book that detail his extensive research material (he also names plenty of the historians whose work he draws from in the main body of the text). “Many populists,” he writes in his conclusion, “see themselves as engaged in a movement for freedom, in particular a movement to defend their nations against oppression by an alliance of global elites and the racial minorities and immigrants they exploit for their own ends.”
Freedom is a word that belongs, in fact, to a vast number of movements, and most of them proclaim it as their goal with some kind of deep sincerity. But there are different kinds of liberty, and it is important, especially as we see continued violence threatened by white-supremacist, nationalist, and power movements, to discuss what kind of freedom is being evoked, and to ask ourselves what vision of freedom we really wish to work toward.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel is All My Mother’s Lovers.