The Cost of Freedom: Debt and Slavery

An interdisciplinary conference in the Fredric Ewen Series on Civil Liberties and Academic Freedom, 19-20 May 2017

Brooklyn College, City University of New York

The rhetorics of freedom and liberty permeate contemporary and historical political discourse. This language and its associated symbols is invariably positively connoted from the perspective of the speaker and the presumed audience. However, the associated values and defining principles shift dramatically in each social context. In short we can all agree freedom is good, but we cannot agree what it means to be free. One of the key sites of contention in such discourse is what needs to be sacrificed in order to achieve liberty and what costs are associated with the preservation of freedom. The valuation of liberty is directly linked to whose freedom is prioritized and who is seen as bearing the associated costs. All of this is especially true in any discussion of slavery.

The aim of this conference is to bring scholars from numerous disciplines into conversation across the historical timeline. Just as freedom and liberty are slippery concepts, so are ideas of debt, value, and payment. But rather than simply viewing these terms as rhetorical devices that make freedom seem worthwhile, we deploy debt, value,and payment as analytical tools for understanding how freedom works – while also keeping in mind that these are concepts that themselves demand investigation. These ideas unite the discourses of freedom and liberty, from ethical and economic discourses, which describe freedom as either physical labor or a mental activity, as well as the language of religion and science. Often our innumerable ways of assessing value bleed one into another, especially in conversations regarding individual and shared liberties.

By explicitly juxtaposing the different methodologies used in asking “what does freedom cost?” from Greco-Roman antiquity to the present, we hope to explore overlapping areas of research and help expand the existing conversations in each discipline. In addition to providing vocabularies, practices and theories of freedom that we still use today, Ancient Greece and Rome provide many examples of peoples who lacked freedom but strove to obtain it, including slaves, women and conquered peoples. By simultaneously examining the Greco-Roman antiquity and modernity, we bring to light recurrent historical patterns of the costs that people have and continue pay for freedom.

Our ultimate goal is to produce a rigorous edited volume of the most substantial and unified conference contributions for publication by a major university press.

Our confirmed keynote speakers include, Orlando Patterson (John Cowles Professor of Sociology, Harvard University), Saidiya Hartman (Professor, English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University) and Deborah Kamen (Associate Professor, Classics, University of Washington).

Past Information

Undergraduate researchers and recent graduates seeking to re-enter higher education are encouraged to submit abstracts for a poster session to be held Saturday, 20 May 2017.

300 word abstracts accompanied by a list of at least five sources should be submitted as a MSWord document attachment or as a link to to a Google doc to

queries [at] debtandslavery [dot] com

no later than midnight, 5 May 2017.

Please include in your email your full name, major(s) and, if applicable, minor(s), college and/or university and expected date of graduation.

OR

If you have a poster from a previous conference, you may send a digital copy of the poster itself for consideration.

We are seeking contributions for at least four panels of 3-4 participants each.  We hope to attract participation from a wide range of academic disciplines and from scholars at all levels, and will try to reflect this diversity in our creation of each broad panel.  Examples of possible panel titles might be: “Themes of Freedom and Payment in the Novel”, “The Economics of Emancipation”, “Cross-Cultural Political Theories of Sacrifices and Liberty”, “Comparative Histories of Debt-Bondage”, or “The Shifting Demographics of Civil Liberties”.

We will be offering a minimum of six bursaries of up to 500 dollars to be awarded on the basis of greatest need, taking into account access to institutional funding and the distance of the conference from the participant’s home institution.

31 October 2016 is the deadline for the submission of abstracts. Please include the following as separate files:  (1) title, abstract of 300-500 words, a one page bibliography (no self identifying information please!); (2) your name, title of your proposed talk, institutional affiliation, short academic bio, and an indication of whether you’d like to be consider for a bursary, a budget for the amount requested, and any information we should take into consideration when making our bursary allocations.

These two files (PDF or MSWord preferred) should be sent to: c-f-p [at] debtandslavery [dot] com

General questions on this conference should be sent to: queries [at] debtandslavery [dot] com

We hope to notify successful applicants by December 1.

31 March 2017 will be the deadline for submission of draft papers for pre-circulation among fellow panelists and organizers.

We will also invite poster submissions from undergraduates conducting research on related themes; the deadline for poster proposals will be 31 March 2017.