Freedom: Some Basic Notions
By: D’Weston Haywood, PhD
Movement. It’s a term that many of my students increasingly use to describe and participate in “Black Lives Matter” protests. It’s also a term that police, who have recently been responsible for killing unarmed Black people, use to explain their reasons for firing their weapon. I often challenge my students to answer broad, thematic questions like, “What is Freedom?” However, as an Assistant Professor of History, I strive to teach them the varied and historically contingent ways that Blacks have defined freedom in America. At different times, Black people have defined it in terms of equal protection under the law. At other points, it has meant ending lynching, having the ability to vote unencumbered, or gaining equal access to public accommodations like schools and restaurants. Sometimes Blacks have simply defined it in terms of movement.
The ability to move is part of Blacks’ conceptions of freedom. Mobile Black bodies in public space must be contained, for they will otherwise unleash untold damage—according to popular perception. This containment is through some form of arrest. My students have seen the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two Black men killed by police in July 2016. They saw police tackle Sterling to the ground to arrest his movement before they shot him. Jeronimo Yanez, the officer identified in Castile’s shooting, instructed him to get his wallet in a routine traffic stop, according to Castile’s fiancé, Diamond Reynolds. Yet, when he moved to reach for it, Yanez shot him.
In the most recent police killings, reports state that Officer Betty Shelby, who shot Terrence Crutcher, fired her weapon after allegedly seeing him move to reach through his car window. Details about the killing of Keith Scott are still forthcoming as I write. It seems that bullets have become the most immediate and effective form of arrest for police in stopping Black people’s movement. When death results, it is certain to immobilize that mobile Black body—forever.
When I ask my students what freedom is, they increasingly define it based on these incidents: “Freedom is the right to be protected by police and protected from them.” “It’s the right to be who you are without fear of losing your life for it.” “It is the right to walk down a street without being killed.” Their answers point to this longstanding current in Black people’s conceptions of freedom. On one hand, they have usually been located in a language of rights due from the state to citizens, while, on the other hand, fundamentally turning on some pretty basic notions. Still, no matter how basic, it seems to remain a rather tall order for the rest of America.
D’Weston Haywood is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His research and teaching centers on histories of Black protest, Black cultural politics, and Black masculinity. He is currently completing a historical monograph, Let Us Make Men: Black Newspapers and a Manly Vision of Racial Advancement.