Freedom Is the Struggle: Nathalie Etoke on Her New Book, ‘Black Existential Freedom’
In her latest book, Professor Nathalie Etoke makes a forceful argument about Black culture and agency in the face of oppression.
Black Existential Freedom, the latest book by Professor Nathalie Etoke (French, Liberal Studies), poses the question: “Does the continuous destruction of Black life invalidate the possibility of freedom?” The book analyzes themes of being and freedom that go back to 19th- and early 20th-century Black intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, whose work preceded the European philosophers who gave existentialism its name, and explores the art, music, and writing created despite the “omnipresence of oppression.” Etoke is also the author of Shades of Black, which challenged ideas of race and identity, and the coordinator of the certificate program in Africana Studies. She recently spoke to the Graduate Center about her new book:
The Graduate Center: How would you define Black existential freedom?
Etoke: Usually, when we think about freedom, we think about human rights and citizenship and political freedom. What do we do with people who have been historically oppressed, meaning their political freedom was denied to them? Is there something else outside of political freedom and the rhetoric or the framework of human rights?
Black people, people of African descent in the diaspora and on the continent — we’re still fighting for political freedom. But there is a complex conversation that needs to be part of the discussion. I argue that when it comes to freedom, our freedom goes beyond political freedom. There’s something else there.
And that something else, I call it existential freedom, because I believe that, for instance, if you're an enslaved person, how can you create songs like the spirituals that are all about freedom in the context of spiritual experience and acknowledge your humanity as a child of God when you are not treated like a child of God? Then fast forward, when you think about the soul music of the ’60s, or the protest songs, let’s say, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” or “Keep on Pushing.” There was an existential dimension to that freedom, this ability to acknowledge your humanity, to center your humanity, your ability to create, because you are a human being confronting a situation, not surrendering to it. Even in the context of oppression, there is a unique voice that you’re expressing through your art.
GC: Why did you choose to write this book now?
Etoke: I started writing this book a while ago. I was finalizing it in the midst of the pandemic. When the murder of George Floyd occurred there was a global awareness about anti-Black racism. And I had to reflect on: Can you write about Black existential freedom, and talk about the possibility of freedom, when we are constantly bombarded with images that remind us that Black people are not actually “free”? But I think this work is meaningful, because, to me, Black freedom is never a given. The freedom is the struggle, and the struggle is not just political, it is also existential.
When you think about how Donald Trump was able to appeal to a certain kind of group, it’s because he was pushing a narrative that when people of color are fighting for their rights, it is because they want to take something away from white people. If we complicate the conversation — not to downplay the importance of political freedom and human rights — we can focus on the ways in which a lot of people still have no idea about what it means to live as a Black person in a racist society. So what is the existential component? What kind of consciousness is born out of that context?
At the end of the day, people are fighting to be human beings and be treated as such. When you think about segregation, about Jim Crow laws and all the racist laws, it is really about excluding you and not treating you as a human being. In the context of political rights and political freedom, we understand humanity through the lens of rights. But when we shift the conversation, we can learn something from Black people. There’s a certain level of agency even in the context of oppression; people are just not sitting there being oppressed. To love when you’re dealing with a loveless world — to me, that’s liberation, that’s existential freedom, even the fact that you can hope that the world can change and continuously fight to bring about that change in spite of the setbacks.
GC: Do you see any progress, at least in terms of increased awareness of racism, after George Floyd’s murder?
Etoke: I don’t know if it was because of the pandemic, and we were all in front of our screens, but George Floyd’s murder was a catalyst for a global awareness, and I think that’s what makes that moment very unique. But I’m always wary of the narrative of progress. Progress, but for whom? There are ways in which you have more conversations about inclusion, diversity, etc. But what people don’t realize is that inclusion and diversity can also be problematized. Because it’s about including certain groups of people, and usually, some of them are already highly educated. They’re already in those spaces. For instance, I am a Black female immigrant and a professor at the Graduate Center. George Floyd and I are both Black. Except race, what do we have in common? What does my life have to do with the life of George Floyd? If we bring class into the conversation, it’s more complicated. If we talk about Black men, Black women and queer people of color with no college education, who have been incarcerated, or in and out of jail or unemployed, which was the case for George Floyd, I’m not sure their lives have changed that much.
GC: When we spoke out about your previous book, you said that “identity is a living experience and an ever-evolving process.” Have your thoughts on identity changed since then?
Etoke: I don’t care about identity discourse, much. I don’t think about my identity, per se. Because I come from this sub-Saharan African framework that says: “I am, because we are,” I am part of a community, I’m responsible for my community and my community is also responsible for me. And the community is by definition extremely diverse. I don’t exist on my own, by myself, which is a neoliberal capitalist understanding of identity. And we fight each other because we want X, Y, and Z, instead of understanding that we can have disagreement, we can have differences, but all I have is you and all you have is me.
Everything that I write about has real concrete implications. I think the focus on a neoliberal individualistic understanding of identity can be misleading. It allows us to run away from real structural problems that have to do with systemic racism or systemic poverty. When we talk about, let’s say, Blackness, or even race, what would happen if we were to talk about how we go through this world as human? There’s something about the humanity of all of us that is being erased, when we only focus on race or identity. I am interested in a collective liberation project that centers on our common humanity.
In Haitian Creole, the word nèg doesn't mean black, it means human. And remember, Haiti is where the only Black revolution in the context of slavery occurred. I was always interested in the ways in which these Black people who were able to free themselves rejected the racializing of humanity. So everywhere else outside of Haiti, whether you're talking about a negro or nègre in French, or whatever language you speak, you’re referring to a Black person. And by doing that, you’re already tapping into the legacy of sub-humanity, meaning the stereotyping and the prejudices or whatever we all have internalized when it comes down to Black people in racial terms.
I think because of oppressive dynamics, and the situation of power/powerlessness, we do not really examine what is it that Black people’s experience can tell us about being human — about the ability to deal with disaster, the ability to still have joy and create beauty in the context of oppression and in the struggle for freedom. That’s what I'm really aiming at here.
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