Spotlight on research: Neil Roberts examines politics of freedom


How does one define “freedom” in the United States and the Americas? Over the past several years, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Faculty Affiliate in Political Science Neil Roberts has been trying to answer this complicated question, drawing expertise from both Caribbean and African American thought along with 20th and 21st century French and German philosophy. Roberts believes that we should decide whether “freedom should be thought of only as a specific society or specific time, or whether freedom is a universal ideal that might be manifested in different societies in its own way.”

In his 2015 book, Freedom as Marronage (marronage is French for “flight”), Roberts refutes the argument that all humans are born free; rather, he claims, “we are born enslaved, and freedom is the actual process of flight, of actually trying to extricate ourselves from the different notions of enslavement.”

Roberts’ newest book, A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass, focuses on abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ influence on Afro-modern and American political thought. Slated for release in July, the book looks into the notion of freedom through Douglass’ emphasis on thinking about liberation and the free individual in the context of slavery. The book, written along with 14 collaborators – including Angela Y. Davis, Paul Guillory, Robert Gooding Williams and Jack Turner – is the first volume of a collection of classic and new essays on Frederick Douglass.

“This research is not just about Douglass as an American thinker,” Roberts said. “It is a book that is trying to not only understand Douglass’ observations on the U.S., but also trying to frame him as a hemispheric thinker. Someone who … was talking about questions of race and racism in America, which was at the very fabric of the American republic at its founding, but also was abreast of dynamics that were occurring in the hemisphere.”

Douglass is best known for two works, a speech and his autobiography. On July 5, 1852, he delivered the speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” addressing a day on which the “nation tends to reflect upon what freedom and liberty mean.” Roberts explained that Douglass addressed a predominately white, liberal population in Rochester, N.Y. when the nation was moving toward what would “ultimately culminate in the Civil War and the struggle for the future of slavery and democracy in America.”

Though Douglass was African American, the audience thought he would speak on common ideals. However, “when he delivered the speech, he used pronouns such as ‘your Fourth of July’ and ‘our black America,’” Roberts said. “He used these pronouns to push against those who thought that, at the experiential level, we experienced the world in the same way.”

The second most important work by Douglass was his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. “The first autobiography and the speech are usually what analysts talk about,” Roberts said. “My book is looking at a broader set of texts in addition to those first autobiographies.” For example, Roberts explores Douglass’ time the Caribbean and Latin America, when Douglass was the U.S. ambassador to post-revolutionary Haiti. A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass also considers the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and asks, “To what degree can we look at the afterlives of Frederick Douglass?”

Roberts emphasized that this book does not deify Douglass but rather explores Douglass’ thoughts whether he was profoundly incorrect about an ideal or whether he had problematic responses to questions.

Having just completed A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass, Roberts is currently working on a monograph and a collaborative piece. The monograph, provisionally titled Radicalizing Black Radical Tradition, took inspiration from Freedom as Marronage and seeks to explore what black radical tradition means. “Is ‘radical’ progressive? Left of center? Can’t there be radicals who are right of center or who have centrist politics?” Roberts questioned. “The book is looking at specifically Afro-modern actors in the modern period who have tried to explore what black politics actually means and how we think about black politics, [both] nationally and transnationally.”

The collaborative work, currently entitled Creolizing Arendt, discusses the meanings of freedom, revolutions and race thinking. In the book, Roberts is interested in applying political theorist Hannah Arendt’s approach to analyzing politics and society. Arendt, who is known for works such as The Origins of Totalitarianism, was similar to the figures Roberts writes about in many regards. “From Douglass to Afro-Caribbean political thought, Arendt is someone who could be considered as a heretical thinker,” he said. Roberts hopes to use this method to think about creolization, which, according to him, means “putting two things together without losing them in the mixture.” Thus, Creolizing Arendt will also explore how creolizing thinking can influence everyday politics.

Roberts said that Douglass and Arendt – two sources of inspiration for him – both believed that ways of thinking could change. “Unless we [adopt this perspective], then a lot of fraught issues about the status of race [will not be solved],” he said. “We need to break the perpetual cycle of issues. It is not that people are not addressing them, but we are not asking the right questions, which will then mean … we are not going to make the right policies.”

Roberts’ teaching and research are mutually reinforcing, and if students are interested in his work, he is offering two courses in the fall: “Contemporary Africana Social and Political Philosophy” and “The Political Thought of Frantz Fanon.” His courses in the upcoming academic year will include discussions about Douglass, tying in many of the issues explored in A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass.

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