Round Table India
You Are Reading
An excerpt from What must we do to be free? On the building of Liberated Zones

An excerpt from What must we do to be free? On the building of Liberated Zones

ed whitfield

Ed Whitfield 

ed whitfieldIn an increasingly complex world, that cannot be fully comprehended, there is a need to seek out and develop clear explanations that go to the roots of our problems and propose realistic solutions.  This stands opposed to simplistic, uninformed, and highly subjective views that are popular in casual discourse and social media. And it also stands in opposition to academic discourse that is often disconnected from an organic connection to the way people feel and struggle. This essay speaks to the possibility of freedom now — not off in the distant future. We can build freedom a little bit at a time, rather than waiting for a time to get it all at once. The essay describes the work required to keep sight of the guiding north star and never be satisfied with oppression and exploitation as if it is the best we can do, and as long as we, personally and perhaps additionally our family and friends are relatively privileged. The importance of freedom dreams is addressed along with an analysis of privilege among us. It takes up three views of power and expanding on tools derived from the work of Lloyd Hogan and it talks about the nature and possibilities of building liberated zones. 

The world that we live in is extremely complex. While the misery, exploitation, alienation and confusion experienced by many people that I care about moves me to want to engage with them in changing the offending systems, there remains the acute need to understand deeply the current situation and how it got this way, to have any hopes of engaging effectively in the process of making change. As Charlene Carruthers, the founder of the youth-centered organization, Black Youth Project (BYP100) and author of the recent book, Unapologetic, has said many times, “Power concedes nothing without an organized demand.” The organizing of that demand requires an accurate analysis of the essentials, the roots of the situation.  We can’t succeed or be satisfied with simplistic/uninformed, ignorant, subjective views. Sometimes, the magnitude of the problems we face seems to imply that we need to resign ourselves to a long-protracted process that can only generate change in the far distant future. After “the revolution” comes. We might be left thinking, “It would be nice to be really free, but that is a long time off. We won’t see it in our lifetime.

We just need to make do with the best we can do.” I have come to think very differently. Freedom is not a single event. It is a process of being free. We can have some freedom now. It is not just something far in the future. We don’t have to wait until we know how to have it completely and overthrow all oppression. We can start freedom now and build on it more and more, never losing sight of the guiding vision, our “north star”. We don’t have to be satisfied with continued oppression and exploitation as the best we can do and somehow acceptable as long as we, personally and perhaps additionally, our family and friends are relatively privileged. No, for me, there is an uncompromising need to look hard at the way things are, understanding the recent historical roots of the existing system, and the current relationships of power and privilege that characterize the times. I can say unequivocally, in answer to that question chanted in the 60s “What do we want?” “FREEDOM!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!”

Freedom Dreams

But what do we even mean by “freedom”? Can we articulate it? Are we able to envision it in the contemporary world? Do we dare dream about something that far removed from our current reality? Let me use past and current observations to help us see the world of freedom possibilities.

On Thursday, the 12th day of January 1865, 20 negro ministers met in Savannah, Georgia with Major General William Tecumseh Sherman and Edwin M Stanton, the Secretary of War for the Union, to talk about what they understood about what slavery had been and what they wanted to see as their freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation had recently gone into effect. Notes from that meeting, taken by a military secretary, were published in February in the New-York Daily Tribune.[1]

Officials asked the following: “State what you understand by slavery and the freedom that was to be given by the President’s proclamation.”

The representative of the group stated, “Slavery is, receiving by irresistible power the work of another [person], and not by [their] consent. The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.” The spokesperson was Garrison Frazier, 67 years old. He had been born in Granville County, North Carolina and was enslaved until eight years before, when he paid $1,000 in gold and silver to buy himself and his wife’s freedom. He was an ordained minister for 35 years, in failing health who at that point had no congregation. He had been chosen to speak for the delegation.

I was moved when I first read this account and will stand by this answer. It was given by a representative of former chattel slaves who had just seen that form of slavery ended through their own efforts in conjunction with the war fought by the army of the United States. It is a clear recognition that the essence of bondage is the use of power to take from a person the product of their own labor and that the nature of freedom would be the control of one’s own labor. This might seem narrow to some. Many of us no longer think in terms of the essential exploitative nature of chattel slavery and think instead of the restrictions of movement and association, but we should be clear: that restriction served to facilitate the separation of men, women and children from the product of their labor that they were forced to supply by the system in place to their owners whose right to them as property was enforced by law and custom. It also serves as a reminder that most of us are still not free. We are currently, through the mechanism of the market place and the fear of starvation, still separated from the product of our own labor.

Chattel slavery has largely ended (except for our brothers and sisters languishing in prisons and those people caught up in nominally illegal human trafficking), but wage slavery continues widely, with little recognition that it too separates people from the product of their own labor and should be replaced with a system where we can enjoy the product of our labor and make its accumulation available to our families and communities as we desire.

Malcolm X on privilege among us

Unfortunately, many of us take the relative privilege we have over some of the more oppressed and exploited folks as a sign of our own freedom. Some of us with slight privilege even engage in protecting and the architects and major beneficiaries of our exploitation in the hopes that we can maintain our privilege rather than boldly asserting our desire for real freedom. Malcolm X, in his 1963 speech “Message to the Grassroots,” was instructive in pointing out the distinction between the house negro and the field negro.

The house negro identified with his owner. If the master didn’t feel well, he might say, “Massa, we sick.” If the big house was to catch on fire, he would get buckets of water to try to put it out. The house negro attached his own wellbeing to the wellbeing of his owner. While shortsighted, this is not altogether irrational since the limited privilege enjoyed by the house negro — pine boards on his floor or sleeping and eating in the big house — was at the whim of the slave owner. The house negro never contemplated freedom. It might have seemed too far out of reach. Instead, he sought to preserve his privilege and that was contingent on the master who conferred that privilege being kept safe and secure.

The field negro, on the other hand, did not enjoy such benefits. The floor of their hut was dirt. When it was cold outside, it was cold inside. Their meals were not altogether unlike the cattle that were fed purely for the economic purpose that they served. The field negros were worked, and they were beaten when they did not work fast enough to maximize the profits of the owner. When they knew the master was sick, they wished he would die. When they saw the big house on fire, they would pray for a strong wind to help intensify the flames. Without being privileged, they had no reason to hope for the safety of their oppressor.

It is in the Black Radical Tradition that we appreciate Malcolm’s analysis as a way of understanding some of the divergent views in the Black community on social change. There are some of us who link our fate to the existing system. Those of us who enjoy some relative privilege and don’t fully identify with those who don’t are likely to find ourselves torn between fighting the system and fighting those who oppose it. They are left thinking that some activist efforts are too radical and might endanger the security that they feel from going along to get along with the systems of oppression that we face. Audrey Lorde once famously said that “. . .the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” (Lorde 1979)[2] This has often been misinterpreted to mean that tools that are of use to oppressive systems cannot be used to build liberating systems. What she clearly explained in the same paragraph of the same essay was that “. . .this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” I would make her point differently.  I think that you can tear down the master’s house using some of the master’s tools. Tools are just tools. They amplify, or multiply human effort and they don’t have to be used the way they were intended or for the purpose they were created. I think that the real problem is that it is difficult to tear down the master’s house while you live in it. And that, for many of us, represents the challenge. Our presence in the big house leads many of us to feel the need to defend it, rather than pray for the strong wind when it begins to catch fire.

But in order to hope for the master’s house to burn, as a field Negro would, one would have to have a view – a vision of an alternative, some place to go so that we don’t simply perish in the flames. We would have to have an image of freedom that is clear enough in our minds to guide our thinking and dreaming. Robin D G Kelley, in his book Freedom Dreams outlines the importance of such a vision. He points out that the black freedom struggle has always had freedom dreams.[3] I heard my friend, the poet and educator Haki Madhabuti say in a speech once, that we are good at expressing our oppression narrative, but what is our freedom narrative? We spend so much time talking about what we can’t do, and what is hurting and what “the man” won’t let us do, that many of us have stopped even dreaming about what we want, what we can do, what we can and must build, what we are able to provide. We are often suckered into thinking only of what we want the government at some level, or some foundation, or some organization to do for us, rather than thinking about what we can do for ourselves. We spend our time resisting the power that might crush us or advocating to the external power that might help us, rather than organizing ourselves to be the power that we need to do what has to be done to express our full humanity.

[1]              13 Feb. 1865, “Negroes of Savannah,” Consolidated Correspondence File, series 225, Central Records, Quartermaster General, Record Group 92, National Archives.

[2]           Lorde, Audre. (1984). “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister outsider: essays and speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press. P 110-114

[3]            Kelley, Robin D. G. (2002). Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press. 


To Cite: Collier, N. (2018). White Eminence and the Case for Responsible Freedom. Prabuddha: Journal Of Social Equality, 2(1), 34-39. Retrieved from 

Please read the full article here: Prabuddha: Journal of Social Equality

Image courtesy: