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Freedom vs. Liberty: A Fourth of July Meditation

by J. Kameron Carter on July 2, 2011

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This is the weekend leading into the 4th of July, the holiday of liberty in this, our beloved country. It is a time of celebration of the ole’ red, white, and blue. Flags will be hoisted and raised high; kids will be eating apple pie. There will be festivals at the Eno (for all of you Durhamites out there). Songs of patriotism will be sung. Some will get a little extra R & R in this weekend. Some will perhaps take in a movie (my daughter really wants to see “The Green Lantern”—OK, OK, and so do I!). Others will fire up the grill (“Green Lantern” or not, this is definitely in the weekend plans!). And what would fourth of July weekend be if it didn’t involve lighting a firecracker or a sparkler or two or maybe even going to a local fireworks display, all in commemoration of what this nation stands for, right—in a word, liberty?

Well, I recently came across a poem that is quite fitting for this national holiday and helps us reframe its meaning. The poem is in the tradition of Frederick Douglass’s famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, which about a year ago I blogged about. This poem has been rolling around in my mind for weeks now, since I first read it.

In fact, I had just read it and then found myself in a Durham bookstore when I bumped into one of my favorite grad students—they’re all my favorites! I hadn’t seen her in a few weeks. We spoke for a while. Did a little catching up. I asked her what she had been reading and how her work was coming along. She in turn asked the same of me. “How’s the book you’re working on going, Dr. Carter? And that essay on theological anthropology?” Etc. Etc. I said a little about these projects, but then couldn’t help myself. I immediately unleashed this poem on her and started to comment on its significance for our current social and political and religious and theological moment.

The poet who has seized my attention is none other than Langston Hughes, often called the poet laureate of African American verse. The poem? A pithy but socially perceptive though deceptively incisive little work called Words Like Freedom. It was written in the 1940s. Here it is:

There are words like Freedom
Sweet and wonderful to say
On my hearstrings freedom sings
All day everyday.

There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry
If you had known what I know
You would know why.

Zeroing in on two crucial keywords of our times, Hughes’ verse points to a phenomenon well worth of meditating on this weekend as songs and elations of freedom and liberty ring out across this land. His verse distinguishes between freedom and liberty.

Liberty, Hughes suggests, is pseudo-freedom, freedom in the form of domination. Having become virtually synonymous with “free enterprise” or the “free markets” today, one might say that liberty is the new imperialism. Indeed, it was Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and author of the famous Notes on Virginia, who described America as an “empire of liberty.”

For Jefferson, America is a place where “freedom” in the (ideological) form of liberty would be the inner logic of America as empire. For him, liberty as a specific brand of freedom is what would distinguish American empire from the empires of Old World Europe. Liberty would define American exceptionalism, its being a “state of exception,” as Carl Schmitt might put it. Liberty would be the sine qua non of American sovereignty, the inner logic of its political theology. Under the banner of liberty, America would have its singular symbolic truth. Liberty would be the truth (and power) under which, to invoke Cicero, there would be a “joint community of gods and men.” Here is pax Americana as the peace of the world—all under the banner of liberty.

Langston Hughes at the typewriter

Langston Hughes, however, understood (as have so many African Americans before and after him from Harriet Jacobs and W. E. B. Du Bois to Angela Davis and so many others) that this vision of liberty is always pressed into the flesh, it’s always embodied so as to incarnate a way of life. Moreover, he understood that from the beginning with the founding fathers—contrary to the recent revisionist history of Tea Party/Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann regarding the founding fathers—America’s empire of liberty has pressed its logic negatively into dark bodies, the body of the slave. Liberty, the slave plantation, and the lynching tree are inseparable. This is what Hughes knows: “if you had known what I know, you would know why I’m almost ready to cry.” You would know that the rhetorical and social performance of liberty is a rhetorical and social performance of the human. Liberty is a hierarchical form of freedom—what I call psedo- or faux-freedom. It is a freedom that splits the human between those who are the bearers of liberty (those symbolically aligned with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) and those who are not and therefore who need to be “saved”—saved into liberty. This latter group, those who need salvation, are those caught within the clutches of social death. Understood in this way, liberty is a religious project—indeed a theological and soteriological project—at the same time that it is a project of “the secular age.” It’s a project of salvation (and damnation), of redemption (and reprobation). It is a project operative between the wretched of the earth (the massa damnata) and the earth’s citizen-saints. For this reason, Hughes laments, liberty is a “word that almost makes me cry.”

But that Hughes understands that freedom is not limited to liberty indicates that Words Like Freedom is a poem that dares to imagine what can be. It’s a poem of possibility, a poem of the imagination. In it, he dares to re-dream freedom and indirectly to re-dream the human and (to take a phrase from theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer) to re-dream “life together.” In short, Hughes engages in what the historian Robin D. G. Kelley calls “freedom dreams.” Hughes does this by distinguishing liberty and freedom. The two are not the same.

Liberty is part of the construct of empire. As theorist Anthony Bogues puts it: “What American liberty wants to achieve is to become the regular and thus normalized political field on which human polity occurs. . . . Such an attempt to do this means that liberty becomes a code for domination, not a metaphor for freedom.” By contrast, freedom disrupts normalized imperial liberty and its demands to foreclose and contain. Freedom is the space of humanity-in-intimacy.

Hughes’ poem, Words like Freedom, is a poetic cry for a different understanding or philosophy, therefore, of freedom. It gestures towards a new invention of freedom and thus a reinvention of the human. It yearns for freedom as life for all beyond liberty, which has functioned and continues to function as a movement back and forth, a dialectic, of life or liberty for some and death for others unless they receive the saving work of the missionaries or bringers of liberty.

In another poem (Freedom’s Plow), Hughes, sounding like Frantz Fanon, says that to this pseudo-freedom, which goes under the name “liberty,” “we say, No.”


To all of the enemies of these great words:
We say, NO!

A long time ago,
An enslaved people heading toward freedom
Made up a song:

Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!

That plow plowed a new furrow
Across the field of history.
Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped.
From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow.
That tree is for everybody.
For all America, for all the world.
May its branches spread and its shelter grow
Until all races and all peoples know its shade.


Or in the words of Fanon himself, a contemporary of Hughes, in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), freedom is the space of the human, the space of humanity’s fullness, flourishing, intimacy, and love. Freedom (and here we feel the contrast once again with liberty) is a form of living in the world in which we may “touch each other, feel each other, explain the other to myself.” If liberty creates hierarchies of life and death within the human, if it stratifies the human, for Fanon freedom, as a living into what it means to be human, flattens all hierarchies so that the other is no longer Other but rather the one with whom I share the common ground of being human and with whom I construct humane ways of living in the world. Freedom is both the space for me to be and for me to be “more than.” In freedom, the Other has a name, a name that summons me, that calls me, that announces my own name to me. This is the announcement that I am “more than.” I am a part of being and yet can go beyond it in mutual response-ability to an other. This complete dynamic is the name of the human, a name that in the Christian and Jewish traditions is a faint echo of the unpronounceable name of God. In short, the human is a project of response-ability, of venturing into what it means to be human, a responding to the call that summons each of us and that therefore names us.

The radical Christian theologian Karl Barth, once known as the “Red Pastor,” calls this living into the riddle of human existence, the riddle of existence with the neighbor or living into cohumanity as children of God. Martin Luther King Jr. called it living in “Beloved Community” and having “strength to love,” notions he develops, from among other sources, in light of the theme of the Kingdom of God in Christian thought.

Frantz Fanon, 1925–1961

To return to Fanon, this is all called love. To love is to be human is to be free. For him, freedom beyond liberty means that we no longer see the other as Other, but rather in freedom we build the world, neither of the I nor even of the Other, but of the You. It means loving you in a world of “reciprocal relations.” This is freedom—love as freedom’s witness. Fanon asks, “Was my freedom not given to me in order then to build the world of the You?” To set afoot this new freedom of love is, according to the Fanon of The Wretched of the Earth, “to try and set afoot a new man,” a new instantiation and meaning of the human.

As a philosopher of freedom (I’m working on a project that makes the case that he’s also to be understood as a kind of religious thinker and theologian of freedom), Fanon, the French Caribbean intellectual who cries for freedom, helps us here in the United States—both non-Christians but especially Christians, most especially Christians, who’ve become inebriated on the Cool-Aid of American-qua-global liberty—to rethink the 4th of July and the meaning of freedom. And as freedom’s poet, the African American Langston Hughes with his lamentations and odes of freedom, does the same.

As he neared death in 1967, Hughes asked, “What is poetry?” He answered, “It is the human soul entire, squeezed like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop, into atomic words.” Hughes’ art communicated that those drops squeezed from a soul or a life that would be an entire and a complete and a full life are in fact the lemon drops of freedom.

At the end of this meditation on freedom versus liberty and as a Christian theologian I ask, Were these not the very drops that dripped from Jesus’ brow as he hung crucified between two thieves, persons whose freedom was taken in the name of liberty? To be sure, the drops of sweat from Jesus’ brow and the outpouring of blood from his side accomplished so much more, but surely they were these too, drops of freedom re-watering the earth in an affirmation of creation. Were they not drops dripped within the space of death, drops germinating the seeds of the earth to bring life and freedom in the here and now and in concrete ways beyond death, liberty, and the grave? Were they not drops of freedom that would be vindicated in his resurrection?

Have a great 4th of July!

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Holla at me in the comments!

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