I woke up thinking about this poem again.
Photo from The Oregonian, April 13, 2020 Beth Nakamura/Staff
Words Like Freedom
There are words like Freedom
Sweet and wonderful to say.
On my heart-strings freedom sings
All day everyday.
There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry.
If you had known what I knew
You would know why.
Just after his death in 1967, this poem was published in a collection of Hughes’ work entitled, The Panther & The Lash. The poem had a new title, but it was an older work. It had first appeared under its original title, Refugee in America, in the February 6th, 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.
Langston Hughes portrait by Winold Reiss from the National Portrait Gallery.
In 1967 it spoke directly to the moment; the Civil Rights Act had been signed into law, President Lyndon B. Johnson was launching the Great Society and MLK was still alive. There had been tremendous achievement, but everyone knew there was still much work to be done. Like all great poems it is timeless and resonates just as strongly today as it did in 1967, or in 1943.
Dark Side of Liberty
I first heard of this poem from Nancy MacLean, the author of National Book Award Finalist Democracy in Chains (our amazing discussion is featured in Episodes Four and Five of the Long Con Podcast). Since then I’ve read analysis of the poem by a number of teachers and scholars. Most home in on the juxtaposition of the words “freedom” and “liberty”. Black Americans may have won their freedom in 1865—or in 1965, depending on how one defines it— yet liberty remains as elusive as ever. Clearly this idea was something that Hughes intended to convey, but there’s a much more ominous aspect to the comparison, which is what made Nancy think of it during our long discussion.
Drawing a clear distinction between freedom and liberty may seem like an exercise in semantics, but it is not. In fact the distinction is crucial to our understanding of our rights as Americans.
1. The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.
2. The state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.
1. The state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behavior, or political views.
2. the power or scope to act as one pleases.
Who Grants us Liberty?
In a previous post I wrote about John Locke, and how profoundly his conception of the Social Compact influenced the Founding Fathers. His definition of liberty also had great impact:
“In the state of nature, liberty consists of being free from any superior power on Earth... In political society, liberty consists of being under no other lawmaking power except that established by consent in the commonwealth.”
This idea, central to representative democracy, has been used by many statesmen and scholars to draw a clear distinction between freedom and liberty: We have the freedom to rob, steal and murder, but we are not at liberty to do so.
In other words freedom is absolute, while liberty is the amount of freedom allowed by one’s society. What distinguishes the American Experiment from all previous forms of government is that authority derives from the consent of the governed. It’s not up to any monarch or ruling class to dictate our individual liberties. As Americans our liberties are granted by We the People.
Tyranny of the Majority
This means the threat to liberty in a democracy is the opposite of that in an autocratic society—the danger comes from what’s been called the “tyranny of the majority”. This was certainly at play throughout Hughes’ lifetime, where the minority of black citizens had to struggle and bleed for equal rights. But the original discussion of minority rights in America comes from a surprising quarter: slaveholders.
It was the liberty of plantation owners to keep other humans in bondage that was the great sticking point in the formation of America. Any flaws in the U.S. Constitution stem from this attempt to reconcile the requirements of universal, collective liberty with the protection of the liberties of a small but oppressive ruling class in the south.
John C. Calhoun being removed, June 24, 2020. The Post and Courier, Grace Beahm Alford
Our Original and Chronic Sin
Nor did this twisted notion of liberty end with ratification. It flared up again in the early 19th Century, when racist South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun used it to build his argument for Nullification. This ultimately led to South Carolina’s secession from the Union and the Civil War. (interestingly the removal of Calhoun’s state in SC occurred during the BLM protests, as described in this moving article.)
It was this racist interpretation of the “rights of the minority” that prompted Nancy to mention this poem to me. Because Calhoun’s premise was revived by the men who built the modern conservative philosophy of free market economics. Men like Milton Friedman, who argued against de-segregation and the Civil Rights Act on the basis that both were unfair impositions on the personal liberty of some Americans to maintain their preferred status quo.
State's Rights and White Wrongs
This argument became the bedrock for modern Republicanism. Not just in economic theory but in politics as well. Nixon and Reagan’s championing of “state’s rights” is based on the very same argument John C. Calhoun used to champion nullification. And “individual liberty” is the argument current Senators like Rand Paul still use to oppose the Civil Rights Act, more than fifty years after its passage.
This toxic & un-Constitutional notion of personal liberty has rotted out the GOP from within. The Supreme Court has never upheld that states have the ability to ignore or nullify federal laws—because the power of the Constitution isn’t granted by the states, or the federal government. It is granted by We The People.
Today we all celebrate the freedom won from Great Britain by our original colonies—even those of us who’ve been denied its full fruits for more than two centuries.
But all of us must reject and fight back against the notion that as Americans we can claim any individual liberty that flies in the face of our collective freedoms, whether it’s being at liberty to carry an assault rifle into a crowded public space or to shop at the grocery store without wearing a mask.
Freedom is a God-given right. Liberty is a gift given to the people, by the people, for the people. It’s time to choose what type of America we want our children to live in.