White Freedom. The Racial History of an Idea

Stovall, Tyler
436 S.
£ 25.00; $ 29.95
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ruth Ennis, Leipzig University

Tyler Stoval, a US born and based historian of modern France, has written a compelling global history of an idea which shows that the modern concept of freedom has in fact only ever been intended for whites. Until now, the relationship between white enlightenment ideals of freedom and the historical reality of Black slavery has typically been understood as a paradox or contradiction of history by scholars. Reevaluating this assumption, Stoval shows us that since its birth in the late eighteenth-century, the idea of liberty has in fact never actually stood in opposition to racism in the modern western world (p. 5). Drawing upon the historians' wisdom that convictions are never universal or unchanging, Stoval brings his readers on a journey of explanation; shedding light on the positivist and normative nature of the widely held belief that freedom is good, and that racism is bad (p. 7).

Structured somewhere between a global and a comparative history, White Freedom outlines the relationship between two seminal concepts of the modern western world, namely “white” and “freedom”. Stoval’s focus is predominantly on France and the US, where, he argues, freedom formed a central part of the national identity. His research and findings, however, also take us into a detailed and historically grounded examination of other entangled geographies. Aside from the introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into three sections, each containing two chapters. Part one examines theories and practices of white freedom – firstly, by taking a look at alternative notions of freedom such as those designated to children and pirates, then by examining one of the world’s most prominent symbols of freedom, namely the Statue of Liberty. Part two focuses on “freedom” and “race” within the contexts of revolution, struggles for democracy and empire in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. While part three moves into the twentieth-century, examining the wars fought in the name of “freedom” and how the concept became mixed up in both western and anti-colonial struggles for a homeland or nation.

While in both symbolic terms and practice, piracy has historically represented a rejection of the modern nation state, we at the same time come to understand how the historical birth of the concept of childhood innocence and freedom in fact coincided with the state regulation of childhood in the modern world (p. 25). 1 Carefully paying attention to aspects of gender throughout the book, Stoval embeds the Statue of Liberty in the modern western history of using women as a symbol for liberty. Laying bare the contradictions and myths which surround the statue, we then come to understand Liberty’s history in terms of its racialization and exclusion of African Americans and other peoples of color. The subsequent chapters then move on and offer broader support for this case-based observation, by demonstrating how these patterns are in fact the general tendency of the modern world.

Reflecting on the relationship between democracy in Europe and Empire elsewhere, Stoval outlines how contentions for white freedom and Black slavery intersected with the rise of the modern and industrial bourgeois. When European enlightenment writers talked about slavery, he argues, they did so in a metaphorical rather than a literal sense (p.107). As soon as the racial dimensions of freedom and slavery in the age of revolutions are taken into consideration it would appear, that the apparent paradox is in fact no paradox after all - freedom as either utterance, concept or goal finds its original intentions limited to white only; so that they have the freedom to think, and to be (p. 113).

The American revolution had established a precedent for a war for liberty and slavery, but the big difference to the French Revolution was that the events in Saint Domingue forced France to abolish slavery (p. 122). As Stoval points out, the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) had, for a brief movement, contradicted history and the idea of white freedom. Slaves and peoples of color had successfully claimed the white concept of liberty for themselves. The poverty and embargoes which followed, however, were quick to reverse any historical exception that had been made (p. 125).

The nineteenth-century history witnessed a shift from empires to independent states, simultaneous to the greatest period of colonial expansion. Here again, Stoval argues, that the move toward liberal democracies was an exclusive club, whose membership was intended for property-owning white males only.2 With the twentieth-century the concept of freedom became increasingly understood as enjoying citizenship in a free nation, be it either democratic with civil liberties or independent one under post-colonial authority, white freedom was both contested and reaffirmed by the global wars that ensued. Following two world wars and the resulting shifting ideologies around gender and racial equality, politics continued to be ever the more racialized. Both the western supported dictatorships in the aftermath of decolonial violence, as well as the Soviet Union’s challenge to white freedom and the subsequent Cold War, all served the affirmation of the notion that white people should be free, while non-whites should not.

While it is established knowledge that race has been an important way to categorize people ever since the seventeenth-century, White Freedom puts forth the argument that the very idea of liberty is built upon this foundation of racial difference. (pp. 26-27) In this historically grounded work which nevertheless weaves forth eloquently into the present, Stoval has not only made a brilliant and incredibly important contribution to the historiography on freedom and race, but also to our scholarly knowledge on the modern western world more broadly, and to the field of whiteness studies more specifically.3 The book is a must-read for any historian of the modern period; scholars of other humanities disciplines would nevertheless undoubtedly benefit from learning that the values of freedom and anti-racism indeed have a history; and that history is not how we might have until now thought. Freedom has not always been seen as something positive, while historically racial discrimination has certainly not always been viewed as bad. Stoval shows us that liberty and racism are, and have always been, intrinsically and necessarily contradictory - thus there is no conceptual paradox.

1 Stoval is of course not the first to make this observation, see for example: Deborah Gorham, The “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” Re-Examined. Child Prostitution and the Idea of Childhood in Late-Victorian England’, in: Victorian Studies 21 (1978) 3, pp. 353-79.
2 Stoval’s argument is not as simplistic as my summary of his claim might sound. He has taken great care to outline the complex process behind varying groups demands for inclusion, detailing how the movements of the mid-nineteenth centuries saw pushes which gradually allowed women and working class men to fit into the liberal framework and gain access to voting rights, see pp.138-54.
3 In a nutshell, Stoval perfectly summarizes the field of whiteness studies as being built upon the argument that whiteness “is a social and political category rather than a biological one” (p. 177).

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