“Everything can be taken from a man,” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his timeless treatise on the human search for meaning, “but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Fourteen years later, at the apogee of the civil rights movement, James Baldwin observed: “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given, freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.” It is a sentiment of piercing insight in Baldwin’s original context and one which Kanye West would echo in a completely different, completely inappropriate context half a century later — a difference both subtle and unsubtle, assaulting the meaning of freedom.
Four decades after Frankl, and midway in time between Baldwin and West, Toni Morrison examined the question of what freedom means for a human being in her 1987 novel Beloved (public library) — the book that became the cornerstone of Morrison’s Nobel Prize, making her the first African American woman to win the accolade — inspired by the true story of a woman’s escape from slavery and the unfathomable cost she had to pay for her freedom.
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