The American ideal of freedom lies at the core of this country's value system. Yet through the country's history, the idea and attainability of freedom has not been equally experienced among all Americans, according to Manning Marable, professor of history and political science as well as founder of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies.
In his new anthology "Freedom on My Mind: The Columbia Documentary History of the African American Experience" (Columbia University Press), Marable depicts the diverse but collective voice of African Americans over our country's history.
"The basic idea behind 'Freedom on My Mind' is to chart what I call the political culture of African American people," explains Marable. "The guiding theme in the evolution of black life has been the pursuit and the definition of freedom."
According to Marable, there are at least two different definitions of freedom that have fueled the American experience.
Marable argues that freedom can in part be personified by the contradiction between liberty and equality. "For white Americans, when they usually think about freedom, they actually mean liberty -- that is freedom from the state. It speaks to a libertarian notion of what it means to be free -- that you're free from things."
Marable finds that, for historically subaltern communities, the notion of freedom has much more to do with equality. For African Americans, this ideal dwells within the context of collectivity.
"Slaves couldn't free themselves by themselves so it had to be a movement. It comes from a group of people deciding 'we will sacrifice individual choice for the benefit of the group.' That's the logic of trade unions, the women's rights movement and the lesbian and gay movement. In other words, emancipatory freedom is group freedom. Freedom is not found through multiple choices, but goals for all. Everyone should be able to eat, everyone should be able to vote and have decent schools." Manning stresses group rights as a prerequisite to the idea freedom.
The anthology is organized into three sections that thematically echo this unified notion: Gender Kinship and Community, Political, Economic and Social Justice and Culture Faith and Celebration.
The selections in each section are organized in chronological order. They encompass a broad array of historical voices -- from the famous musings of James Baldwin's formative years during the time leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, to little known Nimrod Rowley's letter to Abraham Lincoln describing the hardships of black soldiers in the Civil War.
"We wanted selections that reflected imagination, possibility, soul, spirituality, all of the kinds of elements that are usually relegated by sober historians to the rear sections of discourse regarding politics and power," says Marable. "We think about politics as something that happens on the 1st Tuesday of November in a very narrow kind of way."
Marable considers all African American writing to be in part political. He was heavily influenced in this regard by C.L.R. James, a West Indian intellectual who advocated a broad view of how politics make up a significant amount of everyday life. James discussed with Marable his regret for not having expressed his beliefs in his earlier works in more approachable, overarching themes. Looking back, James believed his earlier work should have spoken to more of what men and women live by as opposed to a single set of argued beliefs in the text. Marable too wanted his selections to be accessible and to resonate with daily life.
"He really helped me to think through a different way of constructing political life in the most broad sense of the term. And that's what the book tries to speak to."
For Marable, this dichotomy in the way Americans envision freedom embodies just that. "The book is the architecture of the imagination and how blacks have imagined freedom," he explains.
"That's really the message and that's what I wanted to come through -- that all these selections, as different as are, speak to that fundamental issue -- that there are these two points of view that have dominated the construction of the country."
For Marable these two points of view, however different, are not incongruous or irreconcilable. "What is truly remarkable about the black critique of the master narrative is that through it all, African Americans usually, in our best moments, believe in the possibility of redemption and not throwing out the American experiment," Marable explains. "What we fought for is not just something for ourselves as blacks but rather for the totality of the society, which is what King and Malcolm, at the end of his life, dreamed of. It wasn't, as Malcolm said, about civil rights, it's about human rights. It's about the rights of all human beings and transcending all these hierarchies. You have the voices of the oppressed that speak to a very different reality but try to do so and change things for the benefit of all -- even the people who have been at the top. People don't want to become new oppressors but to democratize the structure. And that's the logic of the Black freedom movement: a struggle for freedom to overturn hierarchies of all types and challenge the master narrative, which is rooted in very ridged processes of domination. That's the radical imagination, the logic of freedom that has been on the minds of black people since 1619."
The Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) and Marable's Center for Contemporary Black History (CCBH) are anticipating a busy year. The Institute is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and on October 2-3 a homecoming celebration for former students will honor all those who helped build the Institute. As part of the celebration, "Rethinking Black Studies," a two-day conference will take place.
During the celebration, Marable plans to announce a major new initiative at Columbia. The University's administration has approved the creation of an enhanced center in a new or renovated facility in the next four to six years. According to Marable, the center will reflect black leadership in the 20th century through an extensive collection of archives, papers, documents, films and multi media sources.
CCBH's Africana Criminal Justice Program, Marable is collaborating with Myrlie Evers-Williams (widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers) on efforts to recognize the 40th anniversary of Mississippi's Freedom Summer. The event will be similar to the original 1964 voting initiative, which drew a diverse group of young people from around the country to promote suffrage rights in the time of segregation. The goal of Freedom Summer 2004 will be similar to the original but extends its focus to advocate for the voting rights of another disenfranchised group.
The project will highlight a major civil rights issue, according to Marable, that has gone unexplored or unexamined by most universities: the fact that nearly five million Americans have lost the right to vote permanently due to their ex-felon status.
"In ten states if you are convicted of a felony you lose the right to vote for your natural life. In the state of Mississippi 30 percent of all black men cannot vote. We are seeking a change in the law to re-enfranchise, to give back the right to vote, people who have served time but successfully completed parole."
Marable plans to bring approximately 250 young people to Mississippi for an intense educational and public awareness campaign around the issue. Marable and Evers-Williams are working to raise a half-million dollars to support the project.
The Center is also hard at work on their Malcolm X project -- an online interactive window into the complex history of this seminal figure. "There's really never been anything like this," explains Marable. "It's a web-based version of the autobiography with 1,500 icons and thousands of hyperlinks to movie clips, F.B.I. documents, incredible stuff, and we're reconstructing the assassination of Malcolm X."
"An external review ranked us first in the U.S. for a program that focuses on black urbanism -- the study of the African American experience in the city and on contemporary issues," Marable says. "I think we're arguably the strongest African American studies program in the country with an emphasis on the social sciences."