In Freedom’s Dominion (Basic, Nov.), historian Cowie examines the racist undertones of American freedom.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve been interested in race and anti-statism in the United States, especially among working-class people, for a long time. I’ve especially been interested in how those themes work within a long history of clashes between localism and federal power. Freedom is not something we can automatically take for granted as a good thing. I’d like to encourage readers to look over their shoulders a bit when they hear or invoke the word. It resonates deeply in the American idiom, but the kind of freedom-as-racialized-anti-statism that I explore here is a messy and oppressive element in a cluster of ideas that we call “freedom.”
Why focus on Barbour County, Alabama?
I was driving with my family from upstate New York to the Florida Panhandle, and we passed through the town of Eufaula. Seeing the contrast between an avenue of huge antebellum style mansions and the dirt-poor collapsing economy that surrounded it, my historian’s spider sense went off. George Wallace had figured powerfully in my previous book, Stayin’ Alive; when I found out that he was from Eufaula Barbour County, it seemed like fate that this was the place.
Has “freedom” long had an anti-statist meaning that liberal elites have only recently become aware of?
Liberals tend to see George Wallace’s brand of freedom as mere window dressing for segregation, but it’s more than that; as oxymoronic as it sounds, the capacity to oppress is an inescapable dimension of American freedom. Think “freedom to enslave” or “freedom to take land.” Intellectuals need to understand that, however shadowy, the freedom to oppress is part of the package of American freedom. It was in the past, and it still is now—even if the expressions and outlets have changed.
Do you see commonalities between Freedom’s Dominion and the 1619 Project?
Both projects are based on the idea that race has to be central to any serious study of American history, and that we need to think more critically about the nation’s history and challenge many themes that have been taken for granted for generations. I hope with this community study, I have brought empirical nuance and depth to questions that are too often discussed a bit simplistically.
How should people confront this resistance to the federal government’s attempts to ensure equality?
We need to insist that the federal government remain the guarantor of citizenship. The U.S. couldn’t claim to be a democracy until 1965, when Lyndon Johnson responded to the civil rights struggles by passing the Voting Rights Act. But that hardly ended the struggle, as we see so clearly today.