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Revisiting Saidiya Hartman on the Meaning of Freedom

In the United States, we like to discuss the distortions of the nation’s history as amnesia, when it is more appropriate to understand our affliction as selective memory clotted with omissions intended to obscure the raw truth about our society. From the local to the national, our history of slavery has been recast as part of our narrative of forward progress. Where slavery is depicted as our founding “national sin,” it is as quickly dispatched as having been exorcized through the carnage of the Civil War, setting the United States upon its essential course toward a more perfect union. Slavery’s essential role in building the most powerful nation on earth has been minimized, if not wholly ignored—as have been the roots of slavery to the nation’s enduring crisis of racism and its attendant impacts within the lives of Black people thereafter.

Saidiya Hartman’s powerful exploration of slavery and freedom in the United States, “Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America,” first appeared in print in 1997, during the last period of spoiled “race relations” in the twentieth century. Just a few years prior to its publication, the United States had experienced the Los Angeles rebellion, one of the largest urban insurrections in American history. In response to the uprising, the American state rallied its political forces around crime legislation and a prison-building bonanza. The draconian response provoked the unprecedented outpouring mobilized in the form of the Million Man March, organized by Louis Farrakhan and led by the Nation of Islam. The march was not conceived of as a protest, but became a massive gathering of Black men dejected and marginalized within an increasingly repressive United States. The mounting instability of racial politics in the late nineteen-nineties precipitated the then President Bill Clinton’s poorly conceived “conversation on race,” to be facilitated by a new commission to study “race relations” in the United States.

Shortly after its formation, that commission produced a dubiously titled report called, the One America Initiative. The remedies that emerged for healing the “racial divide” in the United States included a heated debate over whether the President should apologize for slavery. In 1998, when Bill Clinton travelled to Africa, the intensifying debate over the apology continued, even as his spokesperson assured the American public, “He certainly is going to talk about the legacy of slavery and the scar that it represents on America,” but an apology would be “extraneous and off the point.” In lieu of an apology, he eventually conceded the painfully obvious: “Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade, and we were wrong in that.”

Twenty-five years later, the United States is embroiled in new turmoil in its latest iteration of a national reckoning about the continuing role of racism in American society. The latest national awakening about the continued power of racism within American society has returned us to old and unresolved discussions about the role of slavery in American history and the longevity of racism in the United States. This has included a renewed discussion about reparations for African Americans as compensation for a history of unpaid labor. To that end, the main federal legislation to emerge from the rebellions and protests of the summer of 2020 has not been for police reform or in the establishment of comprehensive new programs intended to improve the life chances of Black people; it has been the establishment of Juneteenth, a new national holiday to commemorate when federal troops arrived in Texas and freed the enslaved.

This kind of national celebration of the symbolic, while leaving undisturbed the architecture of oppression that has made African Americans disproportionately vulnerable to premature death and a “travestied” freedom, has been a hallmark of the Black experience since the abolition of slavery. This is not to say that the national recognition of the end of slavery is unimportant, but it does serve to reinforce what formally concluded, while paying almost no attention to what carried on after slavery. Instead, the celebrations of the abolition of slavery and the misassumption that it inaugurated Black people into personhood and then citizenship have served to mute other conversations about the ways that one form of bondage gave way to new coercive relationships. This is less about cynicism concerning the immutability of racism or even anti-Blackness than it is an expression of extraordinary pessimism about American liberalism and all of its haughty conceits about its universalism, autonomy, and justice.

“Scenes of Subjection” does not retell the history of slavery and emancipation; instead, Hartman is asking us to think differently about these events. Not as part of the narrative arc of justice and progress in American history but as affirmation of a kind of deeply constrained and compromised conception of democracy and liberty in the first place, which inevitably then gave way to constrained and compromised visions of freedom in slavery’s aftermath. 

Hartman is challenging the assumption that the continued forms of subjugation endured by ordinary Black people after slavery’s end are only the result of ongoing patterns of exclusion from the governing and financial institutions of the country, leaving inclusion as the solution. Instead, Hartman has asked us to consider different questions, namely, what is meant by freedom? If freedom is simply the opposite of bondage, while affording nothing other than the right to compete with other free people in a human scrum for income, food, clothing, and housing, then it is an exceedingly thin and narrow conception of liberty. If, however, we think of freedom as a right to move through life with genuine self-possession that can only be rooted in the satisfaction of basic human needs and desires, then Black emancipation in the United States was something altogether different. 

Read entire article at The New Yorker