Historian Tyler Stovall Discusses His New Book: 'White Freedom'

Jan 20, 2021
Originally published on January 20, 2021 1:01 pm

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The White House's 1776 Commission released a report this week aimed at, quote, "restoring patriotic education." Historians went to town - a hack job designed to stoke culture wars, said the head of the American Historical Association to The Washington Post. Parts of it appear to have been plagiarized. It equates the civil rights movement with identity politics, and it mentions the word freedom 27 times in about 45 pages. No surprise there - freedom is at the center of this country's identity. Freedom for who, though? In a new book, the historian Tyler Stovall argues that from America's inception, being free has meant being white. The book's called "White Freedom: The Racial History Of An Idea," and it begins in the Enlightenment period.

So at this period in history, you have a group of male intellectuals who say freedom is a human right at the same time that the economies of some of these countries are based around slavery. How did these thinkers square those two ideas? All people have the right to be free, and at the same time, some of us own slaves.

TYLER STOVALL: That's right. That's right. Many Enlightenment thinkers and many thinkers after the Enlightenment saw peoples of color in particular as not mature enough for freedom. Now, there was a debate about whether or not they could ever become mature enough for freedom. Somebody like Thomas Jefferson, for example, felt that Blacks simply did not have the ability to mature into free peoples. Others on the more liberal spectrum said that this could happen, but it would probably take a long time. And so the overarching perspective of the Enlightenment was pessimistic - that there were peoples that simply did not have the capability to have the intellectual maturity to be free.

KING: You call them paradoxical. I'm tempted to call them hypocrites. Am I being unfair?

STOVALL: OK. No, not at all - not at all. I don't think they saw themselves that way. I think they were searching for an underlying rationale. And in many ways, that's what I've tried to argue. And I guess is if there was an underlining logic - that if you felt that freedom had to be white, then there was no paradox.

KING: You're a scholar. You are also a Black man in America. There must be some part of you, as you study this - I would think - that just gets frustrated with this sometimes.

STOVALL: Absolutely (laughter), absolutely. You know, I grew up in the heart of the civil rights movement. And in many ways, my own childhood was shaped with this really optimistic ideal that racism was something that was going to disappear, that represented a new day for African Americans. And in my more mature years, I have lived to see, in many ways, the decline of that hope, the fact that in many ways racism is still alive and well in America as this past two weeks' events have clearly demonstrated. It is very frustrating. But, you know, at the same time, when you write a history like this, you also become inspired by all the people that have struggled to make a better day, a difference in fighting against this kind of racism. And that, I think, is probably more than anything else the thing that keeps me going.

KING: Well, let's talk more about what happened at the Capitol on January 6. The rioters who staged an insurrection at the Capitol, many of them called themselves defenders of freedom. This was an overwhelmingly white crowd. What were you thinking as you watched the storming of the U.S. Capitol, a building, as you point out in your book, that was built by enslaved people?

STOVALL: I think first, like most Americans, I was absolutely horrified to see that happen. I mean, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that something like that would happen in the United States. I also noticed the real whiteness of the crowd, the real emphasis on freedom, on restoring people's freedom. And one of the things I noticed was that the emphasis on freedom really seemed to focus on the idea that people's votes had been denied...

KING: Yes.

STOVALL: ...That people's ability to exercise their voting rights had been denied. And one of the paradoxes of that that struck me was that here are people that are being egged on by a Republican Party that has led voter suppression efforts for years now. But the difference, of course, is that those voter suppression efforts have targeted people of color. Right? So it's perfectly fine to deny people of color the right to vote, but not to deny white people the right to vote or the right to choose their own leaders. And the events of January 6 in some ways represented a reaffirmation of that history that freedom should be white.

KING: You looked in this book at 400 years of freedom being a human right - except if you are a Black person, except if you are a woman, except if you are an immigrant from a non-European country. So - man, we have 400 years of doing this. And I'm just wondering, when do you think it ends? When does freedom, the Enlightenment version of freedom, start to apply to all of us?

STOVALL: Interesting question - I hope I live to see it. Let me just point out that my last chapter, I talk about the period from - roughly from the end of the Second World War to the fall of the Soviet Union and see it as a period where there was a tremendous mobilization, both in the United States and abroad, for freedom for everybody - the civil rights movement, the struggles for decolonization and founding new nations. All of those really create a vision of freedom that is truly universal.

But then there's also a backlash to that starting in the 1970s, things like the retreat of the civil rights movement starting with the imposition of neocolonialism in places like Asia and especially Africa, starting with - for example, one of the issues that's close to my heart was the issue of school desegregation in America because, in many ways, the civil rights movement began with Brown v. the Board of Education. And the struggle for integrated schools was central to the movement. And yet after the 1970s - and in particular, the defeat of the movement for school busing, you have a result that now America's schools are in many ways segregated as ever. Right?

So there have been some major defeats along the way. And yet I still - I mean, I end the book on an optimistic note. I still do think that the forces pursuing this universal vision of freedom are going to triumph. When, I can't say, but I think they will.

KING: Tyler Stovall, author of the new book "White Freedom: The Racial History Of An Idea." He's also a professor and dean at Fordham University and at UC Santa Cruz.

Thank you so much for being with us.

STOVALL: Thank you, Noel. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.