Give Me “Liberty” Not “Freedom”


late 14c., “free choice, freedom to do as one chooses,” from Old French liberté “freedom, liberty, free will” (14c.), from Latin libertatem (nominative libertas) “freedom, condition of a free man; absence of restraint; permission,” from liber “free” (see liberal)


Old English freodom “power of self-determination, state of free will; emancipation from slavery, deliverance;”… Similar formation in Old Frisian fridom, Dutch vrijdom, Middle Low German vridom.

I am pointing out these etymological breakdowns of the words “Liberty” and “Freedom” because I think they are indicative of an essential difference between perspectives on whiteness and blackness in western culture. I think as well, they take on an entirely different nuance when considering the Haitian rebellion and where Haiti sits in the scope of the study of whiteness and black oppression.

Take note above; each definition includes a reference to “will.” I believe this is where we tend to stop in modern usage of the words. We make the assumption that freedom and liberty are completely synonymous because of how they refer to “will.” But when we look closer at these definitions, we see how the word “freedom” is linked to structures and histories of power. In short, it seems clear that “liberty” is a state of being where “freedom” is an action of being.

In Hegel, Haiti and Universal History Susan Buck-Morss offers an interesting exploration of how Europeans have attempted to “create” history. In the creation of history, there has been a favoring of European and Euro/American perspectives that has left much of the world of people of color in the shadows or completely out of the picture. In particular, she is concerned with the work of Hegel and his “silence” and simultaneous influence from Haiti living contemporaneously with the revolution. In the book, she describes the Haitian Revolution and it’s important impact on world history. Certainly, this revolution is the most successful revolution of African slaves against white Europeans and resulted in the first independent republic in the West under non-white rule. Yet, Hegel, who’s work The Phenomonology of Spirit richly discovers the “master-slave dialectic” seems in some ways ignorant of the basic elements of greed and oppression that drove slavery in Haiti and became the catalyst for revolution.

But I can’t get past the word “liberty”…

The Haitian Revolution is not part of standard history curriculum in the United States. In fact, most of what we learn about Haiti today is expressly in the framework of poverty and disease and immigration and disaster. I believe this is indicative of a much more dangerous “universal history” that is perpetuated. When looking at the success of the Haitian rebellion in both ending slavery in the colony (1792) and then securing independence (1803) and the fact that this was accomplished by slaves and free people of color, this becomes a moment of failure for the European/Euro-American project. White was defeated by black. Black in this case is not so much successful in securing “freedom” as they are successful in defending “liberty.” The revolutionary black Haitian establishes their full humanity, so much so that Napoleon abandoned his efforts to retain the island and also abandoned his claim on the land of the Louisiana Purchase.

In contrast, the African American identity is shaped and defined by the word “freedom.” Whether it is freedom from slavery, freedom from lynching, freedom from segregation, freedom from discrimination, the act of gaining freedom is part of the lived African American experience.

But what does it do to the African American identity when this struggle for freedom has not left room to accept the “state of being” that is “liberty”? Have African Americans been so focused on gaining freedom that we have lost sight of liberty?

The answer to this is in the current Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter is significantly less concerned with being given anything or winning a position. Although there are very real policy asks to change the policing of black bodies, the foundational premise of Black Lives Matter is a statement of the inalienable right to “matter” or for this purpose, the right to “liberty.” What becomes clear in this light is that the resistance people have to Black Lives Matter (either by claiming that All Lives Matter or mocking it with other “lives”) may largely be because they are unaccustomed to and fearful of blacks affirming their “liberty”; they want to hear blacks wail and moan in spirituals about “freedom” and “deliverance.” These are safe narratives that have been endorsed by a Christianity that has always wanted to keep blacks subjugated to whites.  The “freedom” narrative is asking permission and asking for something to be given.  The Liberty principle does not ask, it asserts.

The Haitian Revolution was the Black Lives Matter movement of its day. Under the leadership of Toussaint L’Overture, the African slaves of Haiti rebelled based on the French Liberty principle…that all people have liberty. The Black Lives Matter revolution needs to be fought in this same spirit. If we do not emphasize the primacy of “liberty” over “freedom” the universal history will continue to erase African Americans and Hegel’s master-slave dialectic will continue to play out without a single mention of who it is actually based upon.

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