Convergence / International / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 1

Passport to Freedom

Passport to Freedom

Image Credit: Hortense J. Spillers, Copy of a Contemporary Passport, 2017. Courtesy of the author.

The signature page of my passport instructs the bearer—in all caps—to “See p. 27.” Reissued in 2014, my copy of this inestimable document, snugly fit in its leather case, edged at two corners in gold metal, rode my left hip for all of three years, when, one fine day, not too long ago, it occurred to me, strapped rather anxiously in an airplane seat going somewhere, that I really ought to “see p. 27,” just in case, and there, amazingly, emblazoned across the top margin of pp. 26-27, is this: “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.” And beneath the quotation in italics: “Anna Julia Cooper.” Quite startled, frankly, that some anonymous soul, burrowed in the lower frequencies of the U.S Department of State, had ferreted out these remarks from an author likely known only to academic specialists, I was curious to discover who else had made the cut; it will not puzzle the reader that several American presidents, beginning with the first one, are cited in the document, alongside the Preamble of the United States Constitution, inaugural sentences from the Declaration of Independence, and a Thanksgiving Prayer from the Mohawk people, as well as excerpts from MLK’s “I Have A Dream.” But none of the attributions surprised me so delightedly as Cooper’s, the only woman author, apparently, selected to appear among this visionary company; taken from Cooper’s 1892 Voice From the South, (Cooper 120-21) this passage may be found in the first part of a work partially devoted to a study of the status of African-American women, their prospects for Higher Education, and their crucial role in the “regeneration and progress” of newly-emancipated communities less than three decades after the peace at Appomattox and about a lustrum shy of Plessy v Ferguson, which drove a bulldozer right through the ventricles of the 13th-15th Amendments of the U.S Constitution. Furthermore, this landmark ruling would provide the juridical basis for the instauration of a systematic “Reign of Terror” that the Charlottesville marches of August, 2017 harkened back to; in short, Anna Julia Cooper in 1892 could only cautiously have hoped that that bloody war, with its grim statistics and massive fear and displacement, that slaughtered over a half-million combatants and reduced thousands of souls to homelessness and refugee status, had not been prosecuted in vain.

But as full of menace as the unfolding reality was—growing oligarchic wealth, the withdrawal of federal troops from Confederate ground, Republican compromise with the social and financial interests of the former master class and the young lions of an industrialized “new” South already on the horizon, and above all, ripening conditions for what we might regard as the first revanchist movement (that would last a century) on U.S soil and the consequent abandonment of the campaign to repair the breach where black humanity stood poised—the class of historical actors to which Anna Julia Haywood Cooper belonged was at least clear-eyed, I suspect, about a single overwhelming thing: the will to freedom. But have we ever known, and do we know now, what freedom entails?

Believing that we know, we rarely conceive—it is my hunch—the extent to which freedom is predicated “elsewhere.” That is to say that it seems to arise at the level of the person, but quite probably does not, although it is reflected back on, boomerangs on, the latter as a result; in other words, freedom, at least for black personality, appears to rest on the farther side of justice. It must, in short, be reached, be embarked upon, as if it inscribed a port-of-call, a coign-of-vantage, from which punctuality one looks back in wonder at a far less desirable moment of being; this is the case, even as a literary motive, in many of the great documents of critique, from David Walker’s, Frederick Douglass’, W.E.B Du Bois’s, and Anna Julia Cooper’s generations of the nineteenth century, through Martin Luther King’s in the twentieth, to our present era. It is, then, that freedom is thought on an interface, let’s say, “between the world and me,” constitutional papers that bring the concept into being as the representative evocation of juridical personality. Quite capable of piercing the veil of ego, for good or ill, freedom is, therefore, unthinkable as a human condition that tarries at last in my body feeling without the coming-into-sight of an authoritative “otherness” that flashes its name as the interpellated instance of an agreement—perhaps even violently—arrived at. It can be neither thought, nor attained, it seems to me (and I do not relish the idea, even as a figure-of-speech), without the implication of blood and antagonism. This conclusion is not romantic spouting alone, or even foremost, but in the continuous, ongoing struggle for freedom, never permanently achieved or finished, toward freedom, the pulse of the nerve declares that it is so, which means that freedom is our collective reward, only if we can keep it.

How many times since the November 2016 presidential election has one trembled in the mocking echo of that if? It has been reported by historians that Benjamin Franklin uttered it once, exiting Philadelphia’s Independence Hall at the conclusion of the Big Convention that gave the world the United States of America. A woman, no less, without representation in the Hall, but waiting in the wings, so to speak, to hear, second-hand, what the verdict of history would be—whether revolution had bred a monarchy or a republic– and approaching Franklin, was told by the delegate, they say: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Did Franklin know what he was talking about? Was he suspecting so soon after the compromises crafted to secure the blessings of liberty in a document that would engender and sanctify a democratic republic, except that it kept African humanity within its precincts bonded still, that this central vein of contradiction might embody the booby trap in all that glorious spate of prose? In other words, did Franklin espy November 2016, with its preceding waves of failure and abeyance, already coming toward him? For all its admirable qualities, the U.S Constitution in the moment of its appearance could never have offered other than a framework into which the moving parts of the future could be put. To my mind, thinking otherwise is to embrace specious reasoning, if not an outright intellectual fraud. The framers, I would dare say, were not practicing clairvoyance, but rather, an act of risk, as they might have hoped, that would earn credibility only by way of undiluted praxis so that immediately the young Republic was thrown into a crisis of legitimacy that would require a full century and three quarters of another one to resolve. (Well, sort of) But even in those days, this delicate minuet of forceful ideas that brought a nation to stand stumbled over other key nuances—among them, what to do in the event that both the Executive and Legislative branches of government, supposedly in check and balance, fall into such rot and disrepair that the Constitution cannot even name it? And the People, in too large number, straining at gnats and swallowing camels, are either complicit or snoozing in light of it? We are there now, and if we do not believe that our freedoms are at stake because of it, we need to think again. If, as Anna Julia cooper once wrote, freedom is our birthright, then is it not past time that we reclaim it?

Work Cited

Cooper, Anna Julia. A Voice From the South. Edited with an introduction by Mary Helen Washington. The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. Oxford, 1988, pp. 120-21.